Stranger than Science Fiction


Novelist John Steinbeck's best friend was Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and pioneering ecologist who published Between Pacific Tides. Ricketts' masterwork is a classic not only of marine biology but also of literature. The science in the book is mind-blowing; the writing is muscular. Ricketts provided the model for "Doc," the beer-guzzling philosopher-scientist of Steinbeck's classic Cannery Row. Ricketts also inspired other literary luminaries such as Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell. His lab in Monterey, Pacific Biological Laboratories, served as a meeting place for fertile minds that mixed science, art and philosophy in a stimulating brew.

The intersection of marine biology and human imagination is rich territory for writers. When I was a kid I devoured science fiction. Now I have little need for this speculative genre to stretch my mind. Landscapes along Oregon's Coast seem like scenes from other worlds. And there is nothing stranger in science fiction than the real creatures that inhabit the intertidal zone.

Today at the ocean's edge I witnessed a war taking place between two colonies of anemones battling for territorial supremacy on a boulder. The human mind could not conjure forms of life more bizarre than the organisms that evolved where land and sea collide. When the tide recedes, we glimpse psychedelic color and hallucinogenic form--a fever dream of unsettling savagery and startling beauty.

Flustrellidra corniculata, the branched-spine bryozoan, can easily be mistaken for kelp. But this mind-bending life-form is a colony of minute animals that extend tiny tentacles to feed. Under magnification, a bryozoan, or "moss animal," is as compelling as any creature conjured in the science fiction canon. Human inventiveness can seem feeble when compared to the creative force of evolution through natural selection.

How can an animal like a branched-spine bryozoan exist in the world? And why aren't people running through the streets screaming at the sheer strangeness of it all?

Ed Ricketts studied life in all its fascinating forms, from snails to cannery workers. As a pioneering scientist, he elucidated ecological principles before ecology was taught in college courses. But he was also an explorer of the strange borderland where science and creativity overlap at the ocean's edge. He understood that gazing into tidepools can blow minds wide open, allowing the howling weirdness of the universe to fill them.

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