Isherwood: Of Vaquitas and Men
by Justin Isherwood
English majors do not, normally, get caught up in the sciences. While we do know of Shakespeare, the comedies, the tragedies, John Steinbeck the socialist years, of Mark Twain who invested in the typewriter and published U.S. Grant’s memoir, English majors don’t do field study, we don’t do toxicology nor reproduction or habitat studies. Never mind Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a basic biological text on the reproductive habits of tribal Verona; their mating calls, display patterns, courtship, male dominance, reproductive failure, as any field study would attest.
I was charmed by John Steinbeck in high school, the epic he wrote was then a popular read the year I graduated; titled Travels with Charlie, copyright 1962. A relaxed first person narrative of Steinbeck and a standard poodle named Charlie. Of their travels in a pickup camper that was soon to become an American phenomenon of the self-contained motor travel. While Airstreams and Winnebagos had been around the road travel scene for a generation, the truck camper changed this to a smaller footprint, a condensed kitchen, table and bed. The early models were more of a sailboat’s accommodation than a cottage, and you pooped over the side.
A natural wanderlust infects the average high-school student, to suspect this is a later adolescent need, to get away from home, see the world, to hit the road. I lived at a time when we felt safe enough in America to ride our thumb at a whim. At this same juncture I had a motorcycle and the tent modified to fit that motorcycle, with a sleeve in the tent wall to accommodate the outside handlebar. So that on a cold night I could pitch camp, throw the tent over my bike and relish the heat coming off the cylinders. I have always been able to sleep with machinery, as may explain my predilection for naming my machines. After all, we slept together.
In Travels with Charlie Steinbeck toured what was America in the late ‘50s. Toured the potato county in upstate Maine called the Aroostook, where potatoes were picked into barrels and French was the language of choice. Without intending to do so Steinbeck defined what is now the meaning of “local food,” when he described the connection of the Maine potato to its methods, its barrels, the unique people involved. Where the equation of food and farming make for a humane difference, when factors of production intertwine the land and its people. As makes no difference in the food’s nutritional value but makes a difference in its cultural nutritional value. The land/life connection and its human narrative is the part of agriculture that the CAFO just doesn’t get.
As is the habit known to book readers, once inoculated by an author, repeated doses of the same author becomes necessary. As is the hope of every author. Soon after I read every known book by John Steinbeck. The great and not so great, Tortilla Flat to In Dubious Battle, to include a little known title The Sea of Cortez, a bio-narrative of a research trip the author took with oceanographer Ed Ricketts who figures as the character of “Doc” in Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. The Sea of Cortez was the account of a specimen collecting mission among the tide pools of the Gulf of California.
Ben Goldfarb, a science writer from New Haven Connecticut, recently highlighted an issue of these waters and the fate of the coastal porpoise called the vaquita, a teddy-bear size porpoise, that has been the victim of the by-catch. Routinely caught in the gill-nets of fishermen to the point it is now believed a mere 60 individuals remain alive in the Sea of Cortez.
The problem for science and this species survival is whether to sanctuary the remaining vaquitas for a captured breeding program or hope the current ban on gill-netting has a chance despite the reduced numbers of wild vaquitas. NOAA believes the sanctuary method is doable while the World Wildlife Fund believes capture risks killing too many to gain a breeding population. The plot complicated by continued illegal gill-netting for a fish of the Gulf called the totoaba whose bladder sells on the China black market for $20,000 each. The vaquita suffers like the African rhino to the favor of ardent Chinese herbalists whose new wealth have become a factor for the world’s rare wildlife, when seemingly every other creature has an herbal medicine value to the detriment of planetary ecology.
The scientists involved believe the extinction clock is ticking, and the risks of captive breeding are high because the vaquita is apparently the oceanic equivalent of the hummingbird, rapid heart rate, highly sensitive, not annealed to human contact. Against the chance that the poachers be held at bay. Or can the pricey Chinese herbal medicine market be detoured?
Perhaps what is needed is another John Steinbeck, to take up the cause of vaquitas and men.