Three Views of Edward Flanders Ricketts: at tidepools, in a beard, in a tie
Robert 'Roy' J. van de Hoek
December 21, 2000
In 1960, only ten years after the biographical essay, About Ed Ricketts, another printing of the essay occurred with a painting of Ricketts on the cover of the book. The painting showed 'Doc' Ricketts with bucket in hand, walking on a sand flat somewhere on the shore of Baja California. In addition to the bucket, there is pack on his back, a hand lens around his neck, a shovel in his other hand, a cool hat on his head, and he is leaning over looking at some of his "sane little animals," between the pacific tides.
In 2000, on the 60th anniversary of Steinbeck & Ricketts expedition to the Sea of Cortez, and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's biographical essay, About Ed Ricketts, I compiled this web page about Ed Ricketts. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, or so the sound-byte goes, so I hope the painting gives you those 1000 words, along with Steinbeck's few hundred words about Ed Ricketts, and my few words about Ed Ricketts. Presented below is that painting. The artist is unknown to me at this time, but when I learn who the artist was, I will present that information to you.
Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. After the first moment I knew him, and for the next eighteen years I knew him better than I knew anyone, and perhaps I did not know him at all. Maybe it was that way with all of his friends. He was different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed, and that might be one of the reasons his death had such an impact. It wasn't Ed who had died but a large and important part of oneself.
When I first knew him, his laboratory was an old house in Cannery Row which he had bought and transformed to his purposes. The entrance was a kind of showroom with mounted marine specimens in glass jars on shelves around the walls. Next to this room was a small office, where for some reason the rattlesnakes were kept in cages between the safe and the filing cabinets. The top of the safe was piled high with stationery and filing cards. Ed loved paper and cards. He never ordered small amounts but huge supplies of it.
On the side of the building toward the ocean were two more rooms, one with cages for white rats--hundreds of white rats, and reproducing furiously. This room used to get pretty smelly if it was not cleaned with great regularity--which it never was. The other rear room was set up with microscopes and slides and the equipment for making and mounting and baking the delicate microorganisms which were so much a part of the laboratory income. In the basement there was a big stockroom with jars and tanks for preserving the larger animals, and also the equipment for embalming and injecting the cats, dogfish, frogs, and other animals that were used by dissection classes.
This little house was called Pacific Biological Laboratories, Inc., as strange an operation that ever outraged the corporate laws of California. When, after Ed's death, the corporation had to be liquidated, it was impossible to find out who owned the stock, how much of it there was, or what it was worth. Ed kept the most careful collecting notes on record, but sometimes he would not open a business letter for weeks.
How the business ran for twenty years no one knows, but it did run even though it staggered a little sometimes. At times it would spurt ahead with system and efficiency and then wearily collapse for several months. Orders would pile up on the desk. Once during a weary period someone sent Ed a cheesecake by parcel post. he thought it was preserved material of some kind, and when he finally opened it three months later we could not have identified it had it not been that a note was enclosed which said, "Eat this cheesecake at once. It's very delicate."
Often the desk was piled so high with unopened letters that they slid tiredly to the floor. Ed believed completely in the theory that a letter unanswered for a week usually requires no answer, but he went even farther. A letter unopened for a month does not require opening.
Every time some definite statement like that above is set down I think of exceptions. Ed carried on a large and varied correspondence with a number of people. He answered letters quickly and at length, using a typewriter with elite type to save space. The purchase of a typewriter was a long process woth him, for much of the type had to be changed from business signs to biologic signs, and he also liked to have some foreign-language signs on his typewriter, tilde for Spanish, accents and cedilla for French, umlaut for German. He rarely used them but he liked to have them.
The days of the laboratory can be split into two periods. The era before the fire and that afterwards. The fire was interesting in many respects.
One night something went wrong with the electric current on the whole water front. Where 220 volts were expected and prepared for, something like two thousand volts suddenly came through. Since in the subsequent suits the electric company was found blameless by the courts, this must be set down to an act of God. What happened was that a large part of Cannery Row burst into flames in a moment. By the time Ed awakened, the laboratory was a sheet of fire. He grabbed his typewriter, rushed to the basement, and got his car out just in time, and just before the building was about ready to crash into its own basement. He had no pants but he had transportation and printing. He always admired his choice. The scientific library, accumulated with such patience and some of it irreplaceable, was gone. All the fine equipment, the microscopes, the museum jars, the stock--everything was gone. Besides typewriter and automobile, only one thing was saved.
Ed had a remarkably fine safe. It was so good that he worried for fear some misguided and romantic burglar might think there was something of value in it and, trying to open it, might abuse and injure its beautiful mechanism. Consequently he not only never locked the safe but contrived a wood block so that it could not be locked. Also, he pasted a note above the combination, assuring all persons that the safe was not locked. Then it developed that there was nothing to put in the safe anyway. Thus the safe became the repository of foods which might attract the flies of Cannery Row, and there were clouds of them drawn to the refuse of the fish canneries but willing to come to other foods. And it must be said that no fly was ever able to negotiate the safe.
But to get back to the fire. After the ashes had cooled, there was the safe lying on its side in the basement where it had fallen when the floor above gave way. It must have been an excellent safe, for when we opened it we found half a pineapple pie, a quarter of a pound of Gorgonzola cheese, and an open can of sardines--all of them except the sardines in good condition. The sardines were a little dry. Ed admired that safe and used to refer to it with affection. He would say that if there had been valuable things in the safe it would surely have protected them. "Think how delicate Gorgonzola is," he said. "It couldn't have been very hot inside that safe. The cheese is still delicious."
In spite of a great erudition, or perhaps because of it, Ed had some naive qualities. After the fire there were a number of suits against the electric company, based on the theory, later proved wrong, that if the fires were caused by error or negligence on the part of the company, the company should pay for the damage.
Pacific Biological Laboratories, Inc., was one of the plaintiffs in this suit. Ed went over to Superior Court in Salinas to testify. He told the truth as clearly and as fully as he could. He loved true things and believed in them. Then he became fascinated by the trial and the jury and he spent much time in court, inspecting the legal system with the same objective care he would have lavished on a new species of marine animal.
Afterwards he said calmly and with a certain wonder, "You see how easy it is to be completely wrong about a simple matter. It was always my conviction--or better, my impression--that the legal system was designed to arrive at the truth in matters of human and property relationships. You see, I had forgotten or never considered one thing. Each side wants to win, and that factor warps any original intent to the extent that the objective truth of the matter disappears in emphasis. Now you take the case of this fire," he went on. "Both sides wanted to win, and neither had any interest in, indeed both sides seemed to have a kind of abhorence for, the truth." It was an amazing discovery to him and one that required thinking out. Because he loved true things, he thought everyone did. The fact that it was otherwise did not sadden him. It simply interested him. And he set about rebuilding his laboratory and replacing his books with an antlike methodicalness.
Ed's use of words was unorthodox and, until you knew him, somewhat startling. Once, in getting a catalogue ready, he wanted to advise the trade that he had plenty of hagfish available. Now the hagfish is a most disgusting animal both in appearance and texture, and some of its habits are nauseating. It is a perfect animal horror. But Ed did not feel this, because the hagfish has certain functions which he found fascinating. In his catalogue he wrote, "Available in some quantities, delightful and beautiful hagfish."
He admired worms of all kinds and found them so desirable that, searching around for a pet name for a girl he loved, he called her "Wormy." She was a little huffy until she realized that he was using not the adjective but the diminutive of the noun. His use of this word meant that he found her pretty, interesting, and desirable. But still it always sounded to the girl like an adjective.
Ed loved food, and many of the words he used were eating words. I have heard him refer to a girl, a marine animal, and a plain song as "delicious."
His mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything. And there were very few things he did not like. Perhaps it would be well to set down the things he did not like. Maybe they would be some kind of key to his personality, although it is my conviction that there is no such key.
Chief among his hatreds was old age. He hated it in other people and di not even conceive of it in himself. He hated old women and would not stay in a room with them. He said he could smell them. He had a remarkable sense of smell. He could smell a mouse in a room, and I have seen him locate a rattlesnake in the brush by smell.
He hated women with thin lips. "If the lips are thin--where will there be any fullness?" he would say. His observation was certainly physical and open to verification, and he seemed to believe in its accuracy and so do I, but with less vehemence.
He loved women too much to take any nonsense from the thin-lipped ones. But if a girl with thin lips painted on fuller ones with lipstick, he was satisfied. "Her intentions are correct," he said. "There is a psychic fullness, and sometimes that can be very fine."
He hated hot soup and would pour cold water into the most beautifully prepared bisque.
He uneqivocally hated to get his head wet. Collecting animals in the tide pools, he would be soaked by the waves to his eyebrows, but his head was invariably covered and safe. In the shower he wore an oilskin sou'wester--a ridiculous sight.
He hated one professor whom he referred to as "old jingle ballicks." It never developed why he hated "old jingle ballicks."
He hated pain inflicted without good reason. Driving through the streets one night, he saw a man beating a red setter with a rake handle. Ed stopped the car and attacked the man with a monkey wrench and would have killed him if the man had not run away.
Although slight in build, when he was angry, Ed had no fear and could really be dangerous. On an occasion one of our cops was pistol-whipping a drunk in the middle of the night. Ed attacked the cop with his bare hands, and his fury was so great that the cop released the drunk.
This hatred was only for reasonless cruelty. When the infliction of pain was necessary, he had little feeling about it. Once during the depression we found we could buy a live sheep for three dollars. This may seem incredible now but it was so. It was a great deal of food and even for those days a great bargain. Then we had the sheep and none of us could kill it. But Ed cut its throat with no emotion whatever, and even explained to the rest of us who were upset that bleeding to death is quite painless if there is no fear involved. the pain of opening a vein is slight if the instrument is sharp, and he had opened the jugular with a scapel and had not frightened the animal, so that our secondary or empathic pain was probably much greater than that of the sheep.
His feeling for psychic pain in normal people was also philosophic. He would say that nearly everything that can happen to people not only does happen but has happened for a million years. "Therefore," he would say, "for everything that can happen there is a channel or mechanism in the human to take care of it--a channel worn down in prehistory and transmitted in the genes."
He disliked time intensely unless it was part of an observation or an experiment. He was invariably and consciously late for appointments. He said he had once worked for a railroad where his whole life had been regulated by a second hand and that he had then conceived his disgust, a disgust for exactness in time. To my knowledge, that is the only time he ever spoke of his railroad experience. If you asked him to dinner at seven, he might get there at nine. On the other hand, if a good low collecting time was at 6:53, he would be in the tide pool at 6:52.
The farther I get into this the more apparent it becomes to me that no rule was final. He himself was not conscious of any rules of behavior in himself, although he observed behavior patterns in other people with delight.
For many years he wore a beard, not large, and slightly pointed, which accentuated his half-goat, half-Christ appearance. He had started wearing the beard because some girl he wanted thought he had a weak chin. He didn't have a weak chin, but as long as she thought so he cultivated his beard. This was probably during the period of the prognathous Arrow Collar men in the advertising pages. Many girls later he was still wearing the beard because he was used to it. He kept it until the Army made him shave it off in the Second World War. His beard sometimes caused a disturbance. Small boys often followed Ed, baaing like sheep. He developed a perfect defense against this. He said he would turn and baa back at them, which invariably so embarrassed the boys that they slipped shyly away.
Ed had a strange and courteous relationship with dogs, although he never owned one or wanted to. Passing a dog on the street, he greeted it with dignity and, when driving, often tipped his hat and smiled and waved at dogs on the sidewalk. And damned if they didn't smile back at him. Cats, on the other hand, did not arouse any enthusiasm in him. However, he always remembered one cat with admiration. It was in the old days before the fire when Ed's father was still alive and doing odd jobs about the laboratory. The cat in question took a dislike to Ed's father and developed a spite tactic which charmed Ed. The cat would climb up on a shelf and pee on Ed's father when he went by--the cat did it not once but many times.
He regarded his father with affection. "He has one quality of genius," Ed would say. "He is always wrong. If a man makes a million decisions and judgments at random, it is perhaps mathematically tenable to suppose that he will be right half the time and wrong half the time. But you take my father--he is wrong all of the time about everything. That is a matter not of luck but of selection. That requires genius."