Eva Saulitis in the Alaskan waters she knew so well. From NRDC.org
It was a wonderful holiday break–two weeks of relaxed days, of visits and calls and family time. I spent long evenings reading in front of the fireplace in the living room, my sock feet aimed at the fireplace, the snapping warmth of the flames toasting my soles. I had a small stack of books I’d been longing to read, and I charged right through them, savoring, enjoying. I worked my way down to a couple of copies of The Sun, a favorite magazine, and one that requires care and attention in the reading.
I opened The Sun, started the first article about a woman who talked to whales, and I met Eva Saulitis.
Eva Saulitis was a marine biologist and a creative writer. She started tracking orcas in 1988, the year before the Exxon Valdez spilled its load of oil into the Alaska seas; she started tracking a certain pod of transient whales in pristine waters and in environments brimming with wildlife. By the time she returned the following year, wildlife populations were devastated, coated with oil, unable to survive, and many of those that did, unable to propagate. Saulitis’s work became not the study of a thriving orca group, but the chronicling of their demise. Saulitis and her partner, Craig Matkin, watched the transient whales for thirty-five years. They watched them dwindle, they watched them die; they knew they were audience to a species becoming extinct.
And Saulitis, in her forties, learned that she had breast cancer. “I came to believe,” she writes in Into Great Silence, “that the place and the whales played a part in rescuing me. Not in some mystical sense, but simply by existing, with or without me. They saved me, though I can’t save them.”
She fought through that bout of cancer, but the disease lay in wait, and it returned with a vengeance. Last year, that cancer ended Saulitis’s life. She was 52 years old.
Reading The Sun, I discovered that Eva Saulitis grew up in a village six miles from mine. She was born in 1963, when I was eight years old, and it is quite possible that we played on the same beaches and ate ice cream cones from the same soft-serve stands. The Sun included an essay by Saulitis; I learned that she picked grapes as a child, earning what seemed like riches for each crate filled. And breathing in, she noted, whatever kind of noxious spray was considered the best for de-bugging fruit back in that day.
I picked grapes in those fields, too, eating them right off the vines, filling the plastic crates and toting them to the end of the row for the flirtatious boys to pick up on their way to the barn. Those were days of innocence and champagne air and crisp autumnal potential. Saulitis, a scientist at heart, speculates about the seeds of her cancer being sown in those halcyon times.
She went to the same undergrad school as I did before she transferred to Syracuse, and then, when she graduated, she headed to Alaska with her biology degree. She found work in a fish hatchery, and she found a home and a calling.
Saulitis would go on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; she would realize, as she came to know the orca troop she documented, that she could not be just an objective observer. She began to write about her feelings as well as her findings. She went back to the University and earned a second master’s, an MFA.
She and Craig settled in Homer, Alaska, and she became a teacher of composition and creative writing as well as a watcher of whales.
And she wrote. She chronicled her days by writing creative non-fiction and she dealt with her illness head-on in her poetry. Her words are crisp and bright and spare; they earned her the Alaska Governors’s Award in Humanities for Arts and Letters.
In her obituary, Saulitis is remembered as an outstanding person, a dedicated scientist…and as a woman who made everything she did, every place she visited, fun.
I needed to hear the voice of a woman who grew up so near to my own childhood place, who shared many of the experiences of being a part of that land, and who then chose an intrepid and unique path. I found a Barnes and Noble gift card nestled in the toe of my stocking; I found a 20 per cent off coupon in my email, and I got online and ordered Into Great Silence.
The book is a wonderful read, the story of a girl becoming a woman, the story of an environment being poisoned, the story of a person finding a voice. It is a story filled with sadness and joy and beauty and personal loss. And it is achingly well-told.
Thank goodness for those moments in time that let us discover new voices. I will track down Saulitis’s more recent memoir, Becoming Earth, when I finish Into Great Silence. I will collect her poetry. I will savor hearing the clear, true voice of a hero, an adventurer, a pioneer, and a prophet. Her words are music, and they are warning. She tells us a story; she shows us our misuse of this earth.
Her years were too few; thank goodness she left us the gift of her words.