Tonight at Kepler’s: Palumbi tells of the heroes of Monterey Bay — Ed Ricketts, too

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“I go all over the world giving talks about how much trouble the ocean is in,” Steve Palumbi told Lou Bergeron a few months ago in an article here.  “Then I find myself back here, going along the shore of Monterey Bay to my office, and the contrast between how stunningly beautiful this bay is and what I see going on in the rest of the world is stark,” he said.

Monterey now has one of the most celebrated shorelines in the world.  But Palumbi, now director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, knew that the Monterey bay was once “an industrial hellhole” and had suffered the same problems as other shorelines around the world. So how was this region able to recover? He began digging into the past and found the story so fascinating he ended up writing his new book (with co-author Carolyn Sotka), The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival.

He’ll tell the story tonight at 7 p.m. at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Palumbi on the bay (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Monterey began as a natural paradise, but became the poster child for industrial devastation in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  The cast of characters for Palumbi’s book includes an eccentric mayor who wasn’t afraid to use pistols, axes, or the force of law to protect her coast; fishermen who love their livelihood; scientists who are fascinated by the sea’s mysteries, and philanthropists and community leaders willing to invest in a world-class aquarium.

But one character in particular fascinates us.  Remember last June when we posted a few stories (here and here and here) about the crazy Steinbeck auction?  Ed Ricketts‘ briefcase was the most mysterious and contested item.  Ricketts figures into Palumbi’s narrative.  Bergeron writes:

No story about Monterey Bay in the era of the canneries would be complete without Ed “Doc” Ricketts, the eccentric, pioneering biologist immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.

“Ed Ricketts taught John Steinbeck enough ecology so that he could write the first great ecological novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath,” Palumbi said. But while Steinbeck went on to write about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Ricketts ended up living through what Palumbi called “the dust bowl of the sea” in Monterey Bay.

Kind of a cult figure (Photo: Ed Ricketts Jr.)

“Ricketts knew exactly what was going on decades before anybody else, but he could never really get anybody to pay attention to him,” Palumbi said.

Along with Steinbeck, Ricketts became friends with Joseph Campell, who would later become a well-known scholar of legend and storytelling, writing books such as The Power of Myth.

Although Ricketts, Steinbeck and Campbell often engaged in philosophical discussions, Palumbi said their get-togethers generally weren’t too dry. “They had some pretty amazing parties in the late 1920s in Pacific Grove,” he said.


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