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Ricketts, Calvin and the charisma of an Alaska place

  • Author: John Straley
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published January 17, 2016

Editor's note: "Ricketts, Calvin and the Charisma of Place" by John Straley is an excerpt from the new book "Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska," edited by Janice Straley. It was published in November 2015 by Shorefast Editions, an independent press based in Juneau.

SITKA — If I understand the foundation of what Edward Ricketts, Jack Calvin, Sasha Calvin, and Joseph Campbell were contemplating as they were working their way up the coast on board the Grampus in 1932, simply put, it was this: place shapes life. If this is so, what clues do these words give us to the lives that must have been found in the bustling little community of Monterey, California, the place where it all started?

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen" and he would have meant the same thing."

— "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck

Clearly, this was, through the eyes of John Steinbeck at least, a culture of sensual beings, who valued freedom over status. This was a culture newly built full of flaws, mistakes and promise. This was the American West.

I first read "Cannery Row" in the summer of 1967. I was staying in my parent's home in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. I had mononucleosis and I could not go to my summer job packing mules in the Cascade Mountains, but stayed in bed most of the summer reading, and I took the bus into New York City once every two weeks to have my blood drawn. It was a hot, drowsy summer. I also read "The Great Gatsby" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Even though I was to go to a prep school in the fall, and I was trading my cowboy boots and hat for a coat and tie, I knew that after reading those books, particularly those opening lines of "Cannery Row," that I was a Westerner. What's more, that I was in love with the West, the place and culture of the West. The West was my natural range.

The West Coast — from Baja California to Sitka, Alaska — was Ed Ricketts' natural range. Ricketts was a man naturally suited to breaking the confines of conventions: he had wandered across the country and he was an adventurer. He had stood hip deep on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and he had meditated deeply on the taxonomic organization of animals and of his own place in the universe. Like Nick Carraway and Huck Finn, he had run west and he belonged there. He not only ran away from the east, he ran towards the wildness.

"Literature of Place," of course, can be written about anywhere. It requires only a collaboration of a mind and an environment. Steinbeck's opening was particularly evocative and it propelled many readers towards an interest in the place and in the characters. "The boys" and "Doc," the girls of Flora's whorehouse and Chong's Grocery, have now blurred into larger-than-life, semi-mythological characters who no longer are bound by their historical record. They belong more to Steinbeck's romantic imagination than they do to themselves anymore.

But the place itself, Monterey, between the wars and just after the Second World War…there was something magical about it, not just the smell of the trees and the salt sea but the people who gathered there. Just as there was, and is, something magical in the city at the northern end of the range that Ricketts' partner, Jack Calvin, settled in — Sitka, Alaska, where the rawness of the West was and still is captivating to the adventurous soul.

Jack Calvin, who was the skipper of the Grampus and the co-author of "Between Pacific Tides," homesteaded in Sitka in the late 1920s. He was at home in the northern quality of light, this habit, this nostalgia. What's more, he saw in abundance in southeastern Alaska what was quickly disappearing in northern California: wild country.

Many years after John Steinbeck died, I wrote in "The Curious Eat Themselves":

I love Sitka. There are eight thousand people, 12 miles of road, and two main streets. It had once been the capital of Russian America. To me it's a town full of mystery and wildness. It's so crowded by the wildernesses of steep mountains, thick woods, and ocean that a person can have the sensation, on the same afternoon, of either floating away or taking root. Great upwelling of ancient basalt and three-legged dogs are on the streets. There are gulls and murrelets. Cormorants lift their wings to dry their inky black feathers in the sunlight. Puffins with colored tufts like Gypsy scarves. Humpback whales feed on the herring that are feeding on the effluent from the pulp mill. Pickup trucks and Subarus. Everyone on their way to a meeting or softball practice. Four kids with canvas jackets and earrings, with their hats on backwards, standing in the doorways near the Russian cathedral, looking bored. An old man walking outside the Pioneers Home in the middle of town, wearing pistols holstered on the outside of his pants. Occasionally a brown bear in the cemetery or a deer swimming in the harbor. The cathedral and the jagged, ancient mountain like a background for all our arguments. Priests, tourists, loggers, bureaucrats, fishermen, even an amateur whore or two, and one full-time private investigator.

I am not John Steinbeck. But I like to think I walked in his footsteps. I like to think that reading his words imprinted on me, during that drowsy summer of reading, the first intense love of place that I have kept alive all my life. So that when I came to Sitka back in 1977, even though I hated the rain and even though I hated the fact there were no horses anywhere to be seen, I could tell there was adventure and beauty to be had if one were game enough. Some places have charisma to shape stories and draw storytellers to them. Sitka is such a place.

Jack Calvin recognized this. At first the temperate rain forest and Pacific Grove's semi-arid coast line with its eucalyptus and shore pine forest would seem to have little in common. Yet both have similar abundant intertidal life of the north Pacific Basin; kelp forests and sea otter populations, abalone (though different kinds) abound. Grey whales migrate past Pacific Grove and Sitka every year; humpbacks, orcas, fin whales, sperm whales and blue whales are found offshore. Little silvery fish hold down the basis of the food chain. In Monterey, traditionally, it was sardines; off Sitka, it is herring.

Monterey can be described as a largely Mediterranean climate, and it drew Italian, Mexican and Spanish fishermen; wine and vegetables were grown inland from the coast and to the north. Remarkable food and cultural mixing occurred with the Chinese and Filipino men and women who were brought in to work in the canneries. In southeastern Alaska, we have a more northern climate with cod, halibut and herring, which brought Scandinavian fishermen. The canneries recruited directly from Seattle and management often encouraged separate-language work crews, and separate dorms and dining facilities, to thwart mixing and labor organizing. So Chinese, Filipino, Native, white … while they did mix and intermarry, we didn't get the interesting widespread interweaving of cuisines you see in many border communities.

Remember, this was the late '20s and Calvin was an intellectual, the co-author along with Ed Ricketts of the seminal "Between Pacific Tides." To my mind, if Ricketts was the philosopher of the group, Calvin was the writer and the doer. He had paddled a canoe with his new wife from Seattle to Sitka and had written about it for National Geographic. When the art scene in Monterey grew too crowded and divisive, Jack needed more room. To my mind, Ricketts and Calvin were the forefathers of the nature philosophers to come: Gary Snyder with his intense scientific and philosophical interests, and now of course, all the scores of young people with backpacks and their degrees in environmental science, coming to Alaska to see the last of what's left.

And Alaska does have room for them all. Russell Banks, the American novelist and author of "Cloud Splitter," has said that the two currents of the American narrative are race and space. When looking at Steinbeck and "Cannery Row" you can see this. "The boys" are not white, and they are also not confined. They are if anything (and I have to admit in a modern context, condescendingly) children of nature. Their lives are free. They have room to wander and so too, Doc Ricketts. He travels along the edge of the great Pacific Ocean and wades out into it to collect its mysteries. He has room enough. He is not confined.

So too, Ed's daughter Nancy, who lives in Sitka to this day. I've asked her why and she tells me it's because Sitka reminds her of the Pacific Grove of her childhood. "The fish plants and the people working there, the music festival in the summertime. My father would have loved that. The gulls and eagles. Mostly though it's all the people here in their rubber boots who just want to get out on the water and out into it (the wild country). That's what reminds me of the old Monterey. Not now of course."

Sitka sits on the outside coast, in the middle of the Tongass National Forest — the largest national forest in the United States. Waves roll from thousands of miles across the ocean to crash on the beaches. There's a small boat, longline and troll fishery for salmon and black cod based in Sitka. About 9,000 people live here year round. Once a year there is a Chamber Music Festival where musicians come from all over the world to play here for a month. They accept no payment other than their living expenses. One has built a home on an island here. Writers come for retreat and musicians come to play. Writers, artists, musicians of national reputation call Sitka home.

They live here for the same reason that the Tlingit people settled here thousands of years ago and for the same reasons Jack Calvin did in the '20s. Standing on the beach fringe on a summer day in Sitka, one can smell the sunny tide flat and the clam squirt of a pristine beach, the fresh breeze of a cold ocean, blue-green water with waves cresting off the rocks, and only the smell of water, kelp and spruce trees on the air. The ocean for Ricketts and the great waves, like the prairie for Aldo Leopold, made him consider the infinite in the subset of his tiny study area. The fresh wind held the possibility of mortality. In Alaska, death and food are always at hand on the beach. Calvin knew all about the power of northern waterways and shorelines. He built or helped build several houses on the beach. He brought his friends Ricketts and Joseph Campbell up from Monterey to see and experience this place and this feeling, this stink and this nostalgia.

Of course, not all places are created equal. Sitka has almost a hundred inches of rain a year, about five times that of Monterey. So when it came time to go, Campbell and Ricketts went home. Calvin stayed. He became a noted conservationist and a leader in the community. Calvin stayed and ate the pickled herring, and baked halibut.

Monterey of course had and still has the stink and the nostalgia, the smell of pizza and the rush of the tourist bus now, coffee bars and the lines for the aquarium. Still the great tidepool gathers water and the animals slither in and out as they did when Edward Weston, another influence on the Grampus crew, roamed the beaches with his large format camera, making his iconic black and white images. The eucalyptus trees drip with fragrant morning mist as they did when the experimental composer John Cage lived with Jack Calvin's sister-in-law and re-imagined American music, and began his first thoughts leading him to incorporate Zen Buddhism into his philosophy of sound, nature and being.

In stories we all become larger than life. Even family anecdotes become untethered from history. So too places become sentimental in our retelling. But just as some places are natural settings for harbors or for battlefields, some places are natural settings for the gatherings of artists, storytellers and their characters: fishing ports almost always draw good food, young athletic people, and in such places there will always be parties, and there will be dancing and there will be good conversation and afterwards there will be sex. No matter how conservative the religious climate, there will be sex. This is what brings the fishermen home from sea, and what brought the artists to Monterey and Sitka, as well as the salt spray and the nostalgia.

Literature of place is about love in the end: love and passion. Steinbeck loved Pacific Grove and he loved Ed Ricketts — you can read that in every word he wrote about the man. Jack Calvin and Steinbeck didn't get along. There is no secret in this. Calvin was a doer and an adventurer. As a writer he was eclipsed by Steinbeck, but as an adventurer and conservationist he outstripped the Nobel laureate. Jack loved the Alaskan wilderness, and in it he saw the world and the wildness that his old partner Ricketts saw just beyond the tidepool.

In Alaska, Jack Calvin saw the world that was disappearing from Pacific Grove, and in Sitka, to this day, the poetry of the wild earth still lives on, its breath still blusters down the streets of salmonberry bushes and rusted iron roofing and yes, it stinks but never, ever has it lost its sweetness.

John Straley is the award-winning author of eight crime novels, including "The Woman Who Married a Bear" and "Cold Storage, Alaska." He has also published a book of poetry, "The Rising and The Rain." Winner of the Shamus and the Spotted Owl awards for his detective fiction, John's novels are published all over the world. He is the 2006 Alaska Writer Laureate. He lives in a bright green house by Old Sitka Rocks with his wife, Jan, a noted marine biologist.