ICE BREAKER – Sitka Fire Department crew members use the department's ladder truck to knock down a heavy ice dam from the roof of the Pioneers Home Tuesday evening. Temperatures are forecast to be well above freezing through the weekend. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Book Recalls Glory Days of Ricketts, Calvin

“One of brother Ed’s and my favorite treats was having Dad read to us and tell us stories in the evening before bedtime. He also let me sit on his lap and braid his hair, comb down over his face and other assorted goodies. Well, the reading – I can remember ONLY Homer’s Odyssey, from a very thin, small book translated into Middle English. It was lost in the lab fire in 1936 ...”

– Nancy Ricketts, from the book “Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska.”


Nancy Ricketts, front, and Jan Straley hold up printouts of the cover for the new book “Ed Ricketts From Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska,” at UAS Sitka Campus Tuesday. Nancy’s daughter, Chris Yarbrough is at left, and John Straley, who contributed an essay in the book, is at back. (Sentinel Photo) 


Sentinel Staff Writer

To many in the world, Ed Ricketts will always be “Doc,” the fictional character in “Cannery Row,” by John Steinbeck.

But a group of Sitkans and a number of Ricketts scholars know that he was much more than that: a scientist, an ecologist, an explorer of Southeast Alaska and – perhaps most interestingly – a dad.

The collaborators in the new book “Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska” hope they’ve captured at least some of that with a collection of essays, photos and artwork. 

The volume is hot off the presses, and a book release party is planned for 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Old Harbor Books.

The 130-page paperback book is edited by biologist Jan Straley, with photos, artwork by Norm Campbell, stories from Nancy Ricketts, and essays by a number contributors, including Sitka writer John Straley. 

The book also includes the never-before published “Wave Shock Essay” that became the basis for Ricketts’ best known work, “Between Pacific Tides,” which he wrote with Jack Calvin and was published by the Stanford University Press in 1939. The book is still in print, and is one of the best-selling books by the publisher.

“Ed Ricketts was an amazing man that a lot of people have an interest in, but he’s such a complex person that really one single take on him just would be incomplete,” John Straley said. “So this book includes art, oral history, science, and it really took this collaboration between all of us.”

Jan Straley said the essays in the book have connections to Sitka and to Pacific Grove, Calif., where Ricketts’ lab was located. Jack and Sasha Calvin were in Ricketts’ circle of friends there, and Jack collaborated with Ricketts in his marine research. They remained close even after the Calvins moved to Sitka, where Sasha had been born and raised.

“Together these essays tell the story of a group of people whose lives were intertwined with the ocean and with each other,” Jan says in her introduction. “The story details what they were thinking, feeling and observing about the natural world and how the animals living along this coast survived in a brutal, powerful and challenging seascape.”
The evolution of the new book starts with Jan Straley receiving a call from a man who heard she had a copy of Ed Ricketts’ “Wave Shock Essay.”

The caller wanted to retrace the journey Ricketts took with Jack Calvin on the Calvins’ boat, the Grampus. The essay, written in 1932, is actually titled “Notes and observations, mostly ecological, resulting from northern Pacific collecting trips chiefly in southeastern Alaska, with special reference to wave shock as a factor in littoral ecology.”

In the introduction of the new book Jan Straley says this essay “introduces much of the early thinking explored in ‘Between Pacific Tides,’” a work still used as a reference book in college classes today. The man who contacted Jan suggested that this essay should at least be published.

“The reason I had that essay is because we had done a comparative study with the Sitka Sound Science Center and the marine ecology team out of (University of California)-Santa Cruz, and we had re-established the sites that Ricketts and Calvin had surveyed in 1932, 80 years later in 2012,” Jan Straley said. “We were trying to see if there was any difference. Was it the same in 2012, 80 years later?”

Her reaction to the suggestion that the essay be published was, “OK, I’ll think about it.”

“And so I read the essay again and decided that a stand-alone essay would not be that interesting and that we should border it with some other pieces,” she said.

Enter a handful of others who had done work on Ricketts, or could otherwise enhance the story.

One of the pieces in the collection is “Ed Ricketts and the Ecology of a Science Writer,” by Katherine Rodger, a teacher at UC-Davis, who had done extensive work with Ed Ricketts Jr. Other essays are “The Grampus,” by Colleen Mondor; “The Legacy of a Naturalist: How Ricketts’ Wave Shock Idea Helped Shape a Century of Shoreline Research,” by a group of scholars; “Ricketts, Calvin and the Charisma of Place,” by John Straley; and “Some Memories of the Early Days of the EFR Ricketts Family,” by Nancy Ricketts.

John Straley said he was pleased to contribute to the book, not only because he’s a longtime fan of “Cannery Row” but mainly to bring to light Ricketts’ other contributions.

“If you go to Monterey it’s all about Steinbeck and Ricketts,” he said. “And really Ricketts was tied to the ocean and to the intertidal life. He wanted to go all the way up the coast. ... He had this wide-ranging imagination, and this plan that was cut short by his untimely death. Our book tried to capture this range that he was able to cover in his life from Monterey to Sitka.”

Having Nancy Ricketts on board was essential, Jan and John Straley said.

“Nancy was integral to it but also his partner, Jack Calvin, was integral to that,” John Straley said. “Jack was an important catalyst to Ed Ricketts.”

Nancy, who has lived in Sitka since 1974, has been collecting stories about her childhood and memories of her father for a long time. She said she’s glad for this opportunity to share them, dispel some mythologies and add to the base of knowledge about her dad. 

“I was pursuing this for many years and nobody was interested in hearing about that,” Nancy said. “What they wanted to hear about was John Steinbeck. And so nobody was interested and here I was dragging up these stories, and adding parts as I remembered them ... And then when this possibility came along I got out several of them and I created an amalgamation of the most important parts to me.”

The recollections are from her life up to age 12 or 13, and from the time since she moved to Sitka in the early 1970s as an adult, and was looking back.

“Nancy’s writing was very evocative and had lovely detail and emotions, and the focus was really good,” John said. “The world knew (her) dad through Steinbeck, mostly. And Steinbeck was a great storyteller, but he took liberties and he left out the things he didn’t know about her dad.”
“Or the things that didn’t fit his version,” Jan added.

“And the world didn’t really know that he was a good father,” said John.

“Untraditional, but good,” Nancy said this week.

Going on collecting trips with her dad and adventures along the coast and in Monterey, stories at bedtime and movies with the family were all part of Nancy’s and her siblings’ childhood, she said.

“At the time of the first tide, we would get up practically in the middle of the night and go out and collect and then when that was over dad would preserve the specimens and we would try and stay out of the way as much as possible because mother was cooking and we had no interest in that,” Nancy said in an interview this week.

The essays and stories in the book were written independently of each other, and the Straleys knew they would all have to be brought together in a way that made sense to make the book.

“Jan had the really smart idea: Ed Ricketts loved to bring people together. Ed loved parties,” John said. “He liked to get people together for conversation and he was a philosopher in that way. So Jan wanted to have all the essayists come together in one place and read their work and truly collaborate. ... Before we had the final draft done – we all came together, we read our work aloud and we discussed (the essays). And we were all on the same page about the goal of the book.”

John Straley’s essay is about Calvin and Ricketts, Sitka and Monterey, Calif. Calvin lived most of his life in Sitka, and was one of the founders of the Sitka Conservation Society.

“I talked about those two men as partners,” John Straley said. “I talked about how two beautiful places attract creative people, and how Monterey and Sitka are two seaport towns that invariably attract interesting people and creative people. Sitka has its own incredible beauty that shaped the people that created the book that is being published this month, and I’m really proud to have been part of it.”

Norm Campbell was brought on board to create illustrations, including depictions of marine life and an artistic rendering of a maps of the coastline from Monterey Bay to Sitka. He said it was surprising to him how well the process worked, working with the publisher, Jan Straley and the other collaborators.

“It was a lot of fun to be involved,” Campbell said. “Projects have a way of never turning out as successfully or easily as you think. But this did. Everybody I worked with liked what I did and was complimentary of what I did. It was fun.”

Campbell said it was particularly rewarding to be able to work with Nancy.

“I have the utmost respect for Nancy,” he said. “I’ve known her for a long time as a friend. You start talking about her experiences, what she’s done, how she’s approached her life. There’s something inspirational in all the things she’s done.”

The team members who spoke to the Sentinel also gave a lot of credit to the Juneau publishing house for agreeing to take on the project.

“It’s not your standard publishing project,” agreed Katrina Pearson, the publisher from Shorefast Editions, in Juneau. “It’s very eclectic. It’s a sort of story and a wonderful amalgamation of work. For a traditional publisher, it may be a project that would make some hesitate but it’s exactly the kind of project I’m interested in. The collaborative spirit between the essayists and Norm Campbell doing the illustrations. ...”

And it seems to have worked out well, she added. Pearson was to arrive today, with the colorful books in tow, in time for the party.

John and Jan Straley, and Nancy Ricketts plan to attend the book party, which will also include larger displays of Campbell’s work from the book.









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