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The Great Tidepool


August 2017. Chapter VI of Cannery Row, John Steinbeck’s fond short novel about his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts, starts like this: “Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals.” Steinbeck proceeds to describe in colorful detail some of the hurrying, fighting, feeding, and breeding, and makes the Great Tide Pool into a microcosm and metaphor for all of the processes of life and evolution. Cannery Row was published in January of 1945, before the Third Reich was defeated in Europe, before the world learned of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, and it also reflects something of the human condition of the time.

Ed Ricketts collecting at low tide. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Ed Ricketts collecting at low tide. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Edward F. Ricketts was a polymath marine ecologist who wrote the first ecologically-oriented field guide to the Pacific intertidal zone, Between Pacific Tides. Ricketts took a new approach, describing ecological communities and their physical environments, rather than working taxonomically from flatworms to chordates as academic marine biologists had done previously. Stanford University Press finally published Between Pacific Tides in 1939, after some opposition from academic reviewers. But Ricketts’s approach provided a guide to the Pacific shore for curious, non-academic, lay naturalists, and the book eventually became one of the top-selling titles in the Stanford University Press catalogue.

Doc’s Great Tide Pool was one of the sites for my Ph.D. research on the ecology, behavior, and genetics of a common intertidal snail of the North American Pacific Coast, commonly known as the black turban snail, and scientifically asTegula funebralis. Getting permission to mess around in the Great Tide Pool, which I considered quite a coup, was aided and abetted by a faculty member at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station who had taught my undergraduate marine biology class. Thanks to Chuck Baxter, I had a key to a lab with running seawater aquaria where I could do experiments on the behavior of my snail subjects day or night. And some were at night, when I wanted to know where the snails were crawling at four-hour intervals, 24/7 as they say. I camped illegally for a week in the parking lot near the Hopkins Marine Station in the back of my little orange Datsun truck, and climbed back and forth over the chain-link fence into the marine station at night, but was never hassled by the Pacific Grove police.

Black Turban Snail, Tegula funebralis, August 2017.

Black Turban Snail, Tegula funebralis, August 2017.

But Doc’s Great Tide Pool turned out not to have all the “right stuff” for my research. The rocky shore dropped gradually into it, so the intertidal ecotone between sea and land was wide, and Tegula, though common, were not abundant. So my focus shifted 600 miles north to another tidepool on the central coast of Oregon, at Middle Cove, Cape Arago, near the fishing port of Charleston on Coos Bay. Over several summers of fieldwork it became my own Great Tidepool (I’m dropping the space between “tide” and “pool” to reflect the way I say it). My research tidepool at Middle Cove was a meter or so deep, and an angled slab of sandstone rose steeply landward from the pool, covered with bands of algae that reflected the dramatic ecological change here from sea to land. Black turban snails were abundant, both in the pool and up the sloping wall above it for a couple of meters. It was an ideal place to ask the snails a cosmic question: Do you care where you are, in the pool or above it? Do you choose your habitat?

The Great Tidepool for Tegula habitat-choice research, Middle Cove, Cape Arago, photographed in August 2017.

The Great Tidepool for Tegula habitat-choice research, Middle Cove, Cape Arago, photographed in August 2017.

In August I had the chance to revisit my Great Tidepool. The excuse was that the Ecological Society of America was meeting in Portland, and excuse upon excuse, my trip to Portland was the opportunity to organize a reunion of the staff of Camp Arago, a marine science camp in Charleston, Oregon, that I attended one summer during high school, and then taught at for many summers during my college undergraduate days.

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What led me to my own Great Tidepool? It was a journey and a quest, I think now, although that was not very clear to me at the time.

For as long as I can remember I have had a strongly-felt intuitive sense that the world is a wide and wondrous place, way beyond our grasp of it or influence on it, and that everything is connected to everything else. But I wonder how I came to have such an intuition in the first place. I think it started at around five years old with my grandfather, Harry Sweeney, who took me to the tidepools of Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach when we visited him in Oregon, as we did most summers as I was growing up. Those tidepools gave a glimpse into another world. It seemed to me a huge, beautiful, non-human world of scuttling hermit crabs, purple, orange, and brown sea stars, snails, camouflaged fish, and flower-like anemones. It was like a trip to another planet.

I was a land-locked kid growing up in northern New Mexico, and after visiting Oregon tidepools almost every summer, one summer of my high school years my relatives in Portland sent an announcement about a marine science camp called Camp Arago, sponsored by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, on the coast in Charleston, on Coos Bay. I applied, was accepted, and corresponded with the director, Bill Arbus, and asked him what I should do to get ready for camp. He suggested reading Between Pacific Tides. The librarian at the Los Alamos Library dutifully ordered it through interlibrary loan. I suspect she was perplexed about why I would want such an obscure title, although I don’t remember her treating me like I was crazy. The book arrived from somewhere, and I read it from cover to cover. The poetic, Latin scientific names of dozens of obscure intertidal creatures I’d never seen imbedded themselves in my brain: Diaulula sandiegensis, Hermissenda crassicornis, Pisaster ochraceus, Pollicipes polymerus, Acmaea digitalis, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, Henricia leviuscula, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. And I saw them all in the bright cold tidepools at Camp Arago the following summer!

Bill Arbus used the ecological approach of Ricketts’s Between Pacific Tides at Camp Arago. We visited a variety of intertidal habitats, from slippery mudflats to the most extremely-exposed outer shores. Bill had a knack for making our early morning tide trips into exciting adventures. We flipped rocks to find out who lived underneath them, waded through cold deep channels to cross to isolated intertidal islands, and licked anemones to experience their stinging cells. We got up at 5:30 or 6 AM day after day, following the progression of the spring tides until they advanced enough that we could finally get up at a reasonable hour for the huge high-calorie breakfast that Lois, the camp cook, was famous for. It was a formative and fun time in my life.

Camp Arago stationary circa 1970 (artwork by Mickie Arbus).

Camp Arago stationary circa 1970 (artwork by Mickie Arbus).

And there was Bump, one of my counsellors at Camp Arago in the summer of 1967. We all just called him Bump, his last name. He had red curly hair that grew into a puffy Afro, a red beard, and always wore a faded denim work shirt and sandals. The Summer of Love was happening in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco that summer, and to me then Bump seemed the epitome of a free-spirited hippie. Bump loved nudibranchs. Nudibranchs – pronounced “new-duh-branks” – are shell-less snails, many of which feed on hydroids – tree-like, branching creatures with stinging cells that are related to anemones. Nudibranchs are somehow immune to the stinging cells and store them in feathery appendages on their backs to use as their own borrowed defensive weapons, and they have developed psychedelic colors as warning coloration. Think underwater skunks, or monarch butterflies, whose patterns and colors also warn predators of their poisons, only far brighter.

Nudibranchs were one part of that wide and wondrous world that a kid from New Mexico had no idea even existed, but during lunchtimes with Bump my ecological provincialism expanded in neon colors. I helped him photograph them after early tide trips where we collected the best specimens, until we would finally rush into the dining hall five minutes before the end of lunch to get a sandwich. Hermissenda crassicornis was a favorite. The neon and electric blue warning coloration of Hermessinda was as psychedelic as life gets, no LSD needed. Bump was drawn by that, and I was drawn in too by the sheer, improbable wonder of it.

Hermissenda crassicornis. Photo courtesy of Garry McCarthy.

Hermissenda crassicornis. Photo courtesy of Garry McCarthy.

Steinbeck continues his description of the Great Tide Pool in Cannery Row: “A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again. Here a crab tears a leg from his brother. The anemones expand like soft and brilliant flowers, inviting any tired and perplexed animal to lie for a moment in their arms, and when some small crab or little tide-pool Johnnie accepts the green and purple invitation, the. petals whip in, the stinging cells shoot tiny narcotic needles into the prey and it grows weak and perhaps sleepy while the searing caustic digestive acids melt its body down.”

Anemones are members of the Phylum Cnidaria, to which jellyfish, corals, and hydroids also belong. These are simple organisms – one indication is that their one bodily opening serves as both mouth and anus. Cnidarians all have stinging cells that fire tiny harpoon-like structures to bind and poison their prey. If you touch an anemone it feels sticky or tacky – that sticky feeling is from all those tiny harpoons anchoring into the skin of your finger. But I didn’t really believe that when I first felt it, so Bill Arbus, the Camp Arago director, said: “OK, try this: lick it – touch it with your tongue.” I was a curious kid so I tried Bill’s suggestion. Wow! Or yow! If you really want a jolt, lick an anemone. On the thin skin of the tongue those nematocysts penetrate and give their full effect ­– it felt like a burn from extremely hot coffee. I must confess that I perpetuated this experiment on many more students at that marine science camp after I went on to teach there, in the name of biological education. Nowadays I probably would have been sued. I tried it again many years later, and found that the tip of my tongue was numb for a month. Well, it is a really powerful way to connect with another, non-human world, that of the Cnidarians. Sort of like a “Star Trek” adventure, only right here on Earth, in your own personal tidepool.

Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, August 2017.

Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, August 2017.

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So what, pray tell, does all of that ancient personal history have to do with now? With all of our lives now? That’s what I want to try to explain.

Steinbeck returns to the theme of the tidepool as a metaphor for something much, much bigger in a passage in Log from the Sea of Cortez, a little gem of a book describing a six-week marine intertidal collecting expedition with Ricketts from Monterey, California, around the Baja California Peninsula and into the Gulf of California in the spring of 1940. Literary research has now shown that Steinbeck was liberally quoting or paraphrasing Ed Ricketts journal from the voyage, although he is listed as the author of the Log: “It is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

In his biography of Ricketts, Beyond the Outer Shores, Eric Enno Tamm, says of Ricketts’s Great Tide Pool: “Here the marine biologist would try to describe, as he stated at the beginning of his outer shores notebook, ‘an unknown and probably unknowable matrix at the nature of things.’” This is a worldview in the ecophilosophical lineage of Alexander von Humboldt – a view of “kosmos,” the “everything is connected” view at the heart of ecology. Something similar underlay John Muir’s statement of his “religious” worldview when he wrote In My First Summer in the Sierra, published in 1911: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Muir must have been echoing the phrase “hitch your wagon to a star,” from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Tracing the origin of the word “religion” leads back to the Latin verb “ligare”: to link, bind, connect, tie – even to “hitch.” Religion is thus about “binding back” our species to our beginnings. Binding back to our ecological and evolutionary roots in deep time. To the “edge” of our existence as humans. To the tidepools and the stars. To the outer shores.

Pacific Blood Star, Henricia leviuscula. Cape Arago, August 2017.

Pacific Blood Star, Henricia leviuscula. Cape Arago, August 2017.

Ed Ricketts was interested in philosophy and very serious about it. In addition to his marine ecology research, he worked hard on three philosophical essays, drafts of which he shared with friends, and which he hoped someday would be published as a book. They were finally published posthumously in 1978 as The Outer Shores, edited by another marine biologist, Joel Hedgepeth. The titles of these essays give a sense of Ricketts’s wide interests: “Non-teleological Thinking,” “The Philosophy of Breaking Through,” and “A Spiritual Morphology of Poetry.” A common theme running through the long essays is “transcendence.” Ricketts was seeking a worldview that puts humans beyond the socio-political struggles of the day, into deeper time, into nature, into an ecological context.

On his way home from a long collecting expedition to the outer coast of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands in July 1945, just weeks before the first atomic bomb would obliterate Hiroshima, Ricketts wrote in a journal entry: “I got to thinking about the ecological method, the value of building, of trying to build, whole pictures. No one can controvert it. An ecologist has to consider the parts each in its place and as related to rather than as subsidiary to the whole. It would undoubtedly be good if political leaders, if there (were} such, would get to know that method. If they could realize no man is an island to himself, anymore than the animals are that make up a community, that make up a region, that make up a coastline, he’d be careful to look at more than his own narrow segment.”

Tamm, in his book Beyond the Outer Shores, describes this as an example of Ricketts’s interest in “the ecology of human relations.” Ricketts was searching for an ecological ethics to underpin politics and policy, derived from, or at least informed by, ecological principles. Maybe this would be an early example of what came to be called “deep ecology” beginning about three decades later. Aldo Leopold was certainly grappling with similar issues at the same time, as evidenced by his essays in A Sand County Almanac.

Ed Ricketts on the outer shores. Photo by Ed Ricketts Jr.

Ed Ricketts on the outer shores. Photo by Ed Ricketts Jr.

What was I looking for in my Great Tidepool? Looking back now, I think I was searching for the same thing Ed Ricketts was searching for. I wanted a conversation with another world. I wanted to ask a non-human species some questions that related to my own life, and to what was going on in the wider world around me. I wanted to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool of human society again. Is behavior adaptive? Does it matter, what we choose? Is my species likely to survive?

For me those questions seemed to have great importance. They were wound up with growing up in Los Alamos, coming of age during the Vietnam War and the social crisis it precipitated during my college years, and intertwined with poking in Oregon tidepools as a young child. They still seem to have the greatest importance. They are the cosmic questions, the deep, “religious” questions that bind us back to our ecological and evolutionary origins. The questions that take us to the outer shores, and beyond.

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It was a grey, misty Sunday morning in August when I picked my way carefully down the steep path into the Middle Cove of Cape Arago. I balanced and slipped across the bouldery shore toward my old Ph.D. research tidepool, my own personal Great Tidepool. A strange sense of familiarity rose up in me. I’d done this so many times, at dark early tides, forty years ago. Even the smell was familiar; smells stick with us, deep in our brains.

Steinbeck described the smell of the Great Tide Pool in Cannery Row: “The sharp smell of iodine from the algae, and the lime smell of calcareous bodies and- the smell of powerful protean, smell of sperm and ova fill the air. On the exposed rocks the starfish emit semen and eggs from between their rays. The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air. And salt spray blows in from the barrier where the ocean waits for its rising-tide strength to permit it back into the Great Tide Pool again.”

As I was about to leave, taking a last few photos to help jog my memory later, I thought I saw two people on the far side of the cove. Was one wearing an old-fashioned brimmed hat and hip waders? When I finally headed north, picking my way across the familiar rocks, I didn’t see them anymore. Maybe it was just my imagination…

Middle Cove, Cape Arago, August 2017.

Middle Cove, Cape Arago, August 2017.

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About Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers Bruce Byers Consulting provides technical assistance to government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector in the U.S. and over­seas. We carry out assessments, analyses, and applied research that provide the background information needed to design effective strategies and actions in complex ecological and social contexts.

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