A visit to Doc’s lab

A few weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to the Great Tidepool in Pacific Grove, where Ed Ricketts did much of his collecting in the 1920-40s. Ricketts is a legend among students of the intertidal here in California, but he is known to a much wider audience as the inspiration for the character Doc in John Steinbeck's novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck and Ricketts were good friends, and in the spring of 1940 the two of them hired a seiner out of Monterey and her captain and crew for a six-week trip to collect intertidal invertebrates from the Sea of Cortez. The journal from that trip, published in 1951 as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, is a classic work of biology, philosophy, and adventure--one of my all-time favorite books and a definite recommended read.

Pacific Biological Lab, the home and workspace of Ed Ricketts. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Pacific Biological Laboratories, the home and workspace of Ed Ricketts.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

For my birthday, I was treated to a tour of the Pacific Biological Laboratories on Cannery Row in Monterey. This is where Ricketts lived and worked. The original building on this site was completely destroyed in late 1936 by a fire that began at an adjacent cannery; Ricketts managed to escape with his typewriter but lost almost all of his collections, research notes, and scientific library. Fortunately for posterity, Ricketts' book on intertidal ecology, Between Pacific Tides, had already been sent to the publisher. Ricketts rebuilt his home and lab, which is the building that currently occupies the site. The city of Monterey provides free docent-led tours of the Lab on the second Saturday of every month.

I was primarily interested in Ricketts the scientist, although Ricketts the music-lover, poet, and philosopher was also discussed in the tour. We did get to see the building and back yard, including what the docent referred to as the "holy of holies," Doc's lab itself.

Bottles and jars at the Pacific Biological Laboratories. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Bottles and jars at the Pacific Biological Laboratories.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

I love this old stuff, even though I probably don't want to know what was in any of these jars. Nor do I really want to be able to read the label on this bottle (okay, yeah, I really do):

Bottle with unreadable label. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Bottle with unreadable label.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

I imagine that all the hazardous stuff was removed once the building became a museum, but the romantic in me wants to believe that these bottles still contain some essence of the work that went on in this room. Besides, I've encountered bottles that appear to be of not-much-younger vintage in old labs, and while they're undoubtedly scary they are also fascinating.

Ricketts' card catalog, which held his extensive collection records. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Ricketts' card catalog, which held his extensive collection records.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The most interesting artifact in the lab was this desk:

Steinbeck and Ricketts' desk. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Steinbeck and Ricketts' desk.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

This is the very desk that Steinbeck and Ricketts purchased to take on their voyage to the Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, they hadn't measured the berths on the boat they hired, and the desk didn't fit anywhere. It spent the entire voyage lashed down and covered with a tarp.

Ricketts' back yard holds a big rusted boiler that he used to render the livers of basking sharks (the smell must have been ungodly awful), as well as a series of concrete basins that he used as holding tanks for the animals he collected. The Pacific Ocean breaks literally against what would have been his garden wall if he'd had a garden.

Ricketts' back yard. 14 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Ricketts' back yard.
14 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Visiting this place made me aware that I hold a teensy bit of Ricketts' legacy in my hands whenever I teach about marine invertebrates or marine ecology. I certainly don't have Ricketts' poetic way of writing about these animals, but I hope that my students come away with a glimmer of what I love about them. And that I can be a conduit through which Ricketts' holistic view of the world he observed is transferred to another generation of naturalists. It's a big job, but somebody's gotta do it.

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