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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Monterey Bay 2: Writers and Whales

The opportunity to tour the infrequently-opened Cannery Row home of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s barely-disguised inspiration for “Doc” in Cannery Row, proved irresistible, joining as it did the life and writing of Steinbeck with that of Joseph Campbell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robinson Jeffers—with up-close humpback whales thrown in the next day to boot.

So much fun was had kayaking off Monterey Bay with my buddy Al last month, that I persuaded my wife Tammy to join me on this return visit. The tour of Ed Ricketts’ home, which also housed his Pacific Biological Supply operation, featured remarks by the 94-year-old Frank Wright, who had partied in the old wooden building with Steinbeck, Campbell, and Ricketts during the mid-1940’s.

Upon Ricketts’ untimely demise in a collision with a Southern Pacific train up the street from his lab/home—he was only 52, with grand plans to complement his still-famous Between Pacific Tides with studies of the intertidal creatures in Alaska—some of his pals (including Steinbeck) joined to purchase the structure. They converted it into a men’s club and continued to “party on” as the most appropriate tribute to their friend, installing a long bar and festive posters, but keeping Doc’s phonograph and record collection.

Today the City of Monterey owns the building, but the successor to the men’s club—including the venerable Frank Wright—opens it every couple of months to packed tours. On the hour-long tour we learned a ton about Ricketts’, his best buddy Steinbeck, and their circle of friends, which included the mythologist Joseph Campbell (whose affair with Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, estranged him from Steinbeck but not Ricketts, with whom he made a collecting trip to southeastern Alaska in 1932).

Robinson Jeffers? He lived not far south of Monterey, outside the village of Carmel, at the same time that Ricketts and Steinbeck were in Monterey, and was greatly admired (though never personally acquainted) by Ricketts. Jeffers exploded onto the literary scene with his epic poems in the 1920’s, just as Ricketts was starting his biological supply business and partying with the young, poor Steinbeck.

Tammy and I so admire Jeffers’ poems—his grand depiction of the power and mystery of the magical spot where land meets ocean—that we gave our son the middle name of “Jeffers.” Jeffers is not so admired today as he was in the middle of the 20th century, when he graced the cover of Time Magazine, but he has a large following in California, still, where crowds throng his stone Tor House in Carmel, and climb the steps up the sea-granite Hawk Tower he built with his own hands for his fiercely protective wife Una. He and Una would while away the nights there under the stars, as he recounts in verse penned during the dark years of the second world war:

“Tonight, dear,
Let’s forget all that, that and the war,
And enisle ourselves a little beyond time,
You with this Irish whiskey, I with red wine
While the stars go over the sleepless ocean,
And sometime after midnight I’ll pluck you a wreath
Of chosen ones; we’ll talk about love and death,
Rock-solid themes, old and deep as the sea,
Admit nothing more timely, nothing less real
While the stars go over the timeless ocean,
And when they vanish we’ll have spent the night well.”
(from For Una)

Of course, the literary gathering of Steinbeck, Campbell, and Jeffers around Monterey was not the first such stars in the area. Half a century earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed the city’s charms for some months in 1879 while waiting for his soon-to-be wife Fanny to obtain a divorce from her first husband in San Francisco. (Interestingly enough, Una was also married—at 17—when Jeffers first laid eyes on her, and her divorce likewise had to be wrangled before their marriage.)

On the same self-guided walk in historic downtown Monterey where Tammy and I visited the adobe that Steinbeck had lived in while he wrote The Pearl, we also visited the old adobe French Hotel where Stevenson had resided, now a city park with exhibits featuring Stevensoniana. Stevenson’s descriptions of his rambles prefigure Jeffers’ enchantment with the land and sea:

“Mount the hill among pine woods…you are on the top of Monterey Peninsula…The whole woodland is begirt with thundering surges…the seas break all round over ten or twelve miles of coast from near Carmel…out to Point Pinos…The one common note of all this country is the haunting presence of the ocean. A great faint sound of breakers follows you high up into the inland canons; the roar of water dwells in the clean, empty rooms of Monterey as in a shell upon the chimney; go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to the voice of the Pacific.”

These timeless observations are rudely pegged to the post-bellum period of their writing when Stevenson describes the bay: “The Bay of Monterey has been compared by no less a person than General Sherman to a bent fishing-hook; and the comparison, if less important than the march through Georgia, still shows the eye of a soldier for topography…” (from RLS letters and his essay “The Old Pacific Capital, Monterey”)

It is impossible, then, to separate the Monterey region and its writers through the centuries from the relentless sea on whose shoulder the area sits. Last month, Al and I explored an arm of the sea into Elkhorn Slough by kayak. This trip, Tammy and I signed on for a morning trip (beware the rough afternoon ones!) with the Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

Just exiting Fisherman’s Wharf on the trim Sea Wolf Two we passed hundreds of California sea lions and Harbor seals lounging on the jetty and nearby rocks, as the occasional sea otter floated by on its back. Soon dozens of Risso’s Dolphins were leaping beside the boat as we emerged into the Bay, new to me but distinctive with their blunt faces, unusual for the typically beaked dolphin family (Delphinidae). We saw merry fellows of this species throughout the morning. After churning into the middle of the bay, where the mile-deep Monterey Submarine Canyon stretches, the first sprays of whales surfacing were spotted: “Thar she blows!”

Soon the leviathans were breaching a couple of football fields away, and we got our first good view of the distinctive flukes of Humpbacks as they dove back into the deep waters. In all we saw nearly two dozen Humpbacks, the closest being but twenty yards from the boat when they surfaced, their smooth, black backs arcing out of the water, the explosive exhalation from their lungs an unforgettable dark, throaty “whoosh.”

Tammy is a whale admirer of considerable enthusiasm, and she was in paradise as we glided among the humpbacks. Indeed, as my oldest daughter said to us when we described the experience later, “Yes, it’s like the heavens are opening when the whales surface near you.” Indeed—a momentary glimpse of something so deep, so profound that you search for appropriate metaphors.

Tor House and Hawk Tower in Carmel, the Stevenson and Steinbeck adobes in historic Monterey, Doc Rickett’s home/lab on Cannery Row, the humpbacks, dolphins, and sea lions of Monterey Bay and Elkhorn Slough by boat and kayak—deep pleasures of a magical spot where sea and land meet so pleasantly.

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