Heeding nature's wisdom
Archived Articles 11 Aug 2006  EWR
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Eric Enno Tamm. Beyond the Outer Shores: The untold story of Ed Ricketts, pioneering ecologist who inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell. Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 2004. ISBN 1-55912-733-0

Here is a book - a chance discovery, much like a purple starfish on the seashore - which is at once a powerful reminder of the beauty of nature, and an urgent call to protect our natural world. That call is for a return to heeding our ecological instincts, of listening to the wisdom of nature. The excesses of humanity's material pursuit coupled with technological mania are careening out of control. Ecologists worldwide are having difficulty making their voices heard in the growing clamour of cellphones, noisy hunger for the latest gadgetry. A return to full environmental consciousness sadly can not be legislated, but must be taught. Today's consumers and their children need to understand that at this pace there will be no more. Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. The great challenge of this century is, — as Ronald Wright lucidly explained in his recommeded 2005 award-winning work A Short History of Progress — to understand the patterns of progress followed by disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age.

Humanity needs ecological pioneers, who are able to convince others of the frailty of the world that holds us in its bosom. That conviction is first gained by a true love of the natural world - a respect for all creatures great and small. And there have been many pioneers who have warned that mankind is recklessly racing to ecological oblivion.

One such pioneer was Ed Ricketts. A lone, marginalized scientist without academic degrees and the respect those convey, Ricketts was a man whose ecological approach and ethics inspired two iconic figures on the landscape of 20th century America, John Steinbeck, and Joseph Campbell. Today we need to heed especially his warnings of what untrammelled progress can wreak upon the ocean, truly mankind's last global frontier. Ricketts further inspired Eric Enno Tamm, once a commercial salmon fisherman on Vancouver Island to write this book. It is a tale of marine biology, ecology, and of finding the respect and love for natural systems. It is also a tale of great friendships, focussing mostly on Steinbeck's and Ricketts' relationship. Considering the book's subtitle, there should be more than only brief tantalizing references to the influence the scientist left on mythologist Campbell.

Steinbeck gained international fame, later a Nobel Prize in literature for his portrayals of hardship, relationship dynamics, and most of all keen comprehension of how the land bit back, how nature turned the tables on mankind during this time. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930's showed the ecological shortsightedness of American farming practices.

Steinbeck immortalized Ricketts as "Doc", the central character in Cannery Row, in Monterey, California. Monterey in the early 20th century was home not only to the sardine canning industry, but also to a lively intellectual community, whose lifeblood was Ricketts. Cannery Row warned of how overfishing shrimp and sardines might empty the oceans of life. Key to Steinbeck's comprehension of ocean ecology were the real-life intuitions, teachings of ecologist Ricketts.

It helps to have familiarity with Steinbeck's other works as well, but this is hardly necessary to enjoy Tamm's fascinating work. An interest in mythology, ecology or marine biology is also not required, as the author has written a wonderful, well researched, meticulously end-noted book, a portrait of a symbiotic friendship based on a joy of discovery. Tamm's tome serves, as a means for all of us - not just children on the beach - how to look for and find that purple starfish, how to find beautiful animals in worlds they may never have noticed.

Steinbeck and Ricketts participated in a number of specimen collecting expeditions, financed by the newfound wealth of the novelist. These expeditions resulted in two books. Ricketts saw a great deal of trouble getting his work Between Pacific Tides published. It is now considered to be a classic. The two men co-authored Sea of Cortez, and were in the process of completing a third book on coastal British Columbia at the time of Ricketts' early death in 1948. It is of interest to note that these specimen collecting expeditions saw the discovery of many new species of marine invertebrates - today some twenty marine organisms bear the species name rickettsi or steinbecki, in honour of the contributions of both men to marine biology.

Again, the reader need not be familiar with Vancouver Island and coastal BC, the lush flora, the incredible fauna in order to appreciate the book. But it sure adds to the colour, to have been there, for Tamm's book is much like the coastal tide pools explored by Ricketts: teeming with life, rich with imagery, humour, whimsy, scientific discovery, cosmic questions. In short, if you share an interest in these qualities, seemingly rare but actually ubiquitous, then this book is for you. It is worth the effort to track Eric Enno Tamm's book down. It is available at the World's Biggest Bookstore or it can be ordered through Chapters. Highly recommended.


Note: While the subject matter was what prompted me to pick this book up The author's name indicated that there was also the Estonian factor to consider. Further, there was the Ucluelet connection. Eric Enno Tamm was raised in Ucluelet, a place that left lasting impression on this reviewer two decades ago while discovering the wonders of Pacific Rim National Park, one of Canada's true super-natural public spaces.

Eric Enno Tamm was 32 years of age when the book was published in 2004, and what follows is an excerpt from the promotional material for Beyond The Outer Shores:

The son and grandson of commercial fishermen of Estonian descent, Tamm started investigating Ricketts' life as a result of his research into his own hometown. He published an article about Ricketts in the Georgia Straight in 1999, and continued his research into Ricketts' life while he spent several years living in Sweden. Whereas the relationship between Ricketts and Steinbeck was well-known, Beyond the Outer Shores provided fresh insights into the friendship between Ricketts and Campbell based on Tamm's interviews with Ricketts' son and daughter and his girlfriend in the 1940s, Toni Jackson.
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