Murderers, Cannibals and Spanish Dancers

By Kyle Gillespie

At the beginning of chapter 6 of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row he tells a story of murderers, cannibals, Spanish dancers, ferocious cats, frantic children and pulsing rage. Variations of the word “murderer” are used three times and we hear phrases like “leaps savagely,” “moving like a gray mist,” and my favourite: “The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air.”

This is not a story of seedy back alleys, Amazonian adventures, or fields of war. No. Here, he is describing a stretch of rocky intertidal on a sunny, summer day. A place that many of us would look at and say to ourselves: “How pleasant!”

In truth, octopuses are not murderers, hermit crabs are not frantic children, and sea slugs are not – to my knowledge – Spanish dancers waving their dresses. But the author has done something remarkable: in a few sentences he’s created a picture in our minds that is both vivid and relatable. We care about the characters and their fates. The dancers and thugs we meet are far closer to human experiences than the reality of sea animals going about their daily rituals of eating, surviving and finding mates. And I think it’s that quality that makes someone who would usually be indifferent to the ocean, become enthralled by the imagery that now fills their minds.

This is something that stuck with me last August when I attended COMPASS’s Scientific Storytelling Workshop in Glasgow, Scotland. When it came time tell my science story during the International Marine Conservation Congress, it was important that I create vivid imagery and make my study animals relatable.

Like Steinbeck, I’ve been enamoured by the ocean for many years and I’m now lucky enough to study it as a graduate student. It is an incredible, exciting place that is out of sight for many and out of mind for most. Until I have the problem of being overrun with requests for comment on sea cucumber feeding strategies or overfishing, I will be guilty of using vivid, relatable imagery – if even just to bridge the divide between our lives and life in the seas.