Writer and marine biologist Eva Saulitis spent decades recording whale songs, but before that, she almost became a professional oboist. She was born in upstate New York to Latvian immigrants whose peasant culture — brown bread and folk tunes — shaped Saulitis’s childhood. In 1981 she went to Northwestern University in Chicago on a music scholarship. Though she loved playing the oboe, she found the conservatory program “stifling, competitive, and brutal.” One day, in a practice room overlooking Lake Michigan’s winter shore, she had a revelation: You don’t have to follow this path. Craving a career that placed her outside, Saulitis transferred to the State University of New York at Fredonia to study ecology, then to Syracuse University, where she earned a degree in wildlife biology. Her mother fretted that Saulitis was ready for a life “spent playing in the dirt.” She took a fisheries job on Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where she first saw orcas — also known as “killer whales” — swim into the bay. That August, Saulitis volunteered with fisherman, zoologist, and orca researcher Craig Matkin, who would eventually become her husband. For twenty-eight seasons they studied a threatened species of orca called the Chugach transients. Then, in January 2016, at the age of fifty-two, Saulitis died of metastatic breast cancer.
Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family, though Saulitis preferred the common name orca, as they are “no more, no less killers than any other carnivore.” Chugach transients are unique, coming and going from the Sound while resident orcas stay year-round. (The two species also differ in diet: transients eat seals; residents, fish.) Saulitis’s work included tracking, photographing, and recording all known Chugach transients to catalog their distinct voices, identities, and lineages.
Early in Saulitis’s career, in 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef and emptied millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound — the largest spill in U.S. history at the time. The data Saulitis and Matkin had gathered prior to the spill aided with the assessment of environmental impacts on the Sound’s wildlife, particularly orcas. These top predators are vulnerable to toxins, which they absorb directly as well as by ingesting prey. The Chugach transients have not reproduced since the spill. They are slowly dying out.
Saulitis completed a master’s in zoology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993, and three years later she returned for an MFA in creative nonfiction and poetry. Her first book, Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist, is made up of essays combining science and personal narrative. After her breast-cancer diagnosis in 2010, Saulitis published a book of poems, Many Ways to Say It, closely followed by Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas, about the impending extinction of the Chugach transients. The reemergence of her cancer in 2013 prompted the poems that would become her second collection, Prayer in Wind. Her final book of essays, Becoming Earth, was published posthumously in 2016.
A year before her death I visited Saulitis in Hawaii, where she and Matkin spent winters on the Big Island’s northern coast. We sat on the lanai — a Hawaiian veranda — in the morning sun, the clear air damp from the ocean. Songbirds trilled from trees and eaves, and a couple of bleating goat kids romped. (“Let’s talk about cuteness,” Saulitis said, laughing.) I’d tested my new audio recorder, but it wouldn’t cooperate; I spent ten minutes fiddling and cussing. Unfazed, Saulitis confided her own woes recording whales — “I went through this with my audiophone all the time, swearing at it, jiggling things” — and a clumsy moment became a point of connection. She had recently finished one of the chemotherapy treatments holding her cancer (somewhat) at bay. A bright head-scarf accentuated her wide eyes and sharp features. She waved off my suggestions that we take a break, and we discussed the subjects that had shaped Saulitis’s life — orcas and science, writing and music, the spirit intrinsic to a place. She spoke with laughter and tears close to the surface. We talked again the next day, between a fierce game of Scrabble and a walk among island trees.
Byl: Your marine-biology work and your writing both arise from decades spent on Prince William Sound. Can you describe the place?
Saulitis: Prince William Sound is an archipelago cut off from the wildness of the Gulf of Alaska by two huge barrier islands. Portions of the Sound are filled with intricate passageways among hundreds of islands and islets and exposed rocks. In sheltered parts it’s intimate, but on open water it’s exposed. Rain forest characterizes the Sound: constant storms, clouds. The surrounding forests are drippy, with thick layers of moss that you walk over, and more hanging from trees.
The Chugach Mountains, with peaks over ten thousand feet, provide a dramatic, perpetually snowcapped backdrop to the islands, where smaller green mountains are covered with coniferous forests. There are so many microhabitats in the Sound. But all of them are wet!
It’s a place a lot of people would find intolerable. [Laughter.] My first field season, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to stay warm in a wall tent, but then I realized that it was entirely possible.
Byl: What led you to that place?
Saulitis: When I was about to graduate from Syracuse, a friend wrote me from Alaska about jobs at a fish hatchery on Prince William Sound. My boyfriend at the time and I got hired and drove to Alaska. It was basically grunt work. It wasn’t a biologist’s job; we were scrubbing screens and building incubators.
Byl: You were supporting science instead of doing it?
Saulitis: No, we were supporting fisheries management. The work was almost anti-biology, anti-ecology. Fishermen had started the hatchery as a cooperative to stabilize the fish population by releasing millions of pink-salmon fry [young fish] into the Sound. The fish would return as adult salmon, and fishermen would catch them. When we arrived, our bosses told us that the Sound had an “unlimited carrying capacity” for pink salmon. We’d just been taught that there’s no such thing as an unlimited carrying capacity for anything in the natural world.
Byl: But nobody was asking you what you thought about the science.
Saulitis: No, no, no. They were saying, “Put on a head-lamp, go into the incubation room, and scrub the screens when the eggs are hatching.” Only the manager of the hatchery and a few other people made any biological decisions. We were laborers.
I didn’t like the job, but I fell in love with the place the minute I flew into Prince William Sound. In the floatplane I had this overwhelming feeling of Oh, my God. I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to come back. Then the orcas came into the bay in the spring, and something about their ephemeral presence captured me, the way they came and went at unpredictable times. I wrote to Craig, who was already tracking the orcas, and offered to volunteer on his project.
What if you lose an entire pod of orcas in an oil spill? What does that mean? Not just that you’ve lost thirty-six animals; you’ve lost genetic diversity, a lifeway, a language, a whole culture.
Byl: You’ve spent almost thirty years studying those orcas. How did you realize this was your life’s work?
Saulitis: I have to say, what kept me there was not the science but the place. I wanted to be there in a way that had purpose. I didn’t want to visit or go on long kayak trips. I wanted to spend my life in Prince William Sound. For five years I lived at a field camp for three or four months at a time. The work gave me a purpose for being there: a part to play in protecting the ecosystem.
It’s different for Craig. He is extremely attached to the place, too, but he’s more practical. If we’re not seeing whales, he says we have to leave the Sound to go where they might be. I’m looking for every reason for us to stay — they could show up at any moment!
Byl: Observational fieldwork means a lot of waiting, doesn’t it?
Saulitis: A field scientist needs patience — or maybe an ability to deal creatively with impatience. I haven’t been involved with terrestrial-animal projects that watch, say, a troop of gorillas who are reliably there. My experience is with elusive ocean animals. Half the time we’re looking for them, or the weather’s too bad to be looking for them. One of my strengths as a field researcher is a tolerance for boredom. That intersects with writing: a lot of writing is waiting for insight or words, slogging through crap — your own bad writing and thinking — until something breaks open.
When you watch and follow predators, you absorb qualities of being a predator yourself: Noticing shifts in the environment. Seeing patterns. Recognizing when there’s something out of the ordinary, like a predator would. You learn to observe without zoning out. You might look at the whales and think nothing’s happening, but then you realize that the nothing is actually something; you just hadn’t honed your ability to pick up on a small cue.
It’s hard not to be lulled — by all the previous encounters you’ve had and all the previous data you’ve gathered — into assuming the animals are doing what they’ve done in the past. One of the big challenges of long-term research is keeping that quality of true attentiveness and curiosity.
Byl: What function does wonder serve in field science?
Saulitis: There’s a quote I love by Doug Chadwick, who started off as a field scientist and then began writing about other scientists’ work. He writes, “Science is an organized form of wonder.” Every scientific study comes out of a wondering. You see something happen in the field and ask, “What’s going on? Why is that happening?” Then you figure out how to answer that question, very rarely with 100 percent certainty but with the minimum amount of uncertainty that you can get. When you’re studying animals, every time you draw a conclusion, something’s going to overturn it or revise it in some way. Animals do not obey our conclusions about them. [Laughter.]
I also have a sense of wonder at how much we can’t know. Orcas are like extraterrestrials to us. Their world is as different from ours as another planet, and our senses aren’t adapted to it. I am in awe of their ability to navigate in an aquatic habitat that’s completely foreign to us, where we have limited ability to move or perceive anything.
I think every dedicated scientist feels awe. For some it’s at science itself and its methods. Those who study animals feel awe at the creatures themselves. It’s important for a scientist to have wonder — to have empathy for a creature, really. A scientist who has emotionally detached from an animal is frightening. Total detachment is the extreme of what science asks of us, and it leads to unethical behavior. I’ve seen it. It’s not what we want.
Field scientists do have different levels of tolerance for bothering animals, like tracking or biopsy darting [to obtain a tissue sample]. We argue about what is OK and what’s not OK. It happens with Craig and me a lot when we’re deciding when an animal has had enough and we need to back off. You have to show respect in the way you interact. Craig calls it courtesy toward the animal. It’s not anthropomorphizing; it’s respecting the animal’s boundaries. A certain amount of projection is healthy.
Byl: Orcas are the subjects of your scientific research, but they are also fellow creatures in a relationship with you. How do you balance that?
Saulitis: There are times when I try to stay objective — to collect, to watch what’s going on without interference from my assumptions or expectations. I’m not shutting off everything else, but I am striving to see as clearly as possible, which isn’t that different from what a writer does. I try to step out of the way.
Afterward comes the integration with the rest of myself and the other parts of life in the field: writing, talking with Craig or my colleagues about what we’ve observed, taking the data and transforming it into a story. That’s what a scientific paper does, in a way — tells a story. It just uses a special kind of language.
The life of a field researcher allows for an intimate relationship with a place and the animals in it. It allows you just to be. We’re in their habitat, living on a boat, not going in and out of town on a daily basis. The place and the flow of the animals through the place inhabit your whole being. Weather, too, and time — all those aspects of being in a place become completely integrated. Thinking about the animals doesn’t feel separate, like it did when I was younger. I struggled back then with the scientific mind-set, which limited me from being completely myself. It wasn’t until I wrote Into Great Silence that I realized a good scientist doesn’t have to be separate from the world to make sense of it.
Byl: Did that earlier discomfort come because of the way you were educated?
Saulitis: Absolutely. Universities encourage increasing specialization. Especially at the graduate level, you’re no longer expected to take courses outside of your field, and everything becomes focused on one way of knowing. When writing papers and having discussions in graduate school, I was conscious of this highly specialized language we were taught to use, which privileged detachment. It didn’t feel safe to talk about spirit or connection. It was like boot camp for the brain, training you to think in this particular groove.
But when my colleagues and I spend time together on a boat, a lot of those rules fall away. Even the most scientific among us can’t completely cut themselves off from their enthusiasm for the animals. These people have committed to studying a particular species for a lifetime. They’re deeply connected. That’s part of what makes them such incredible field scientists.
Byl: Funding for long-term field observation is waning, with drone data capture, theoretical modeling, and tracking collars replacing physical presence in the field. What do we lose when we’re not on the ground?
Saulitis: Technology separates you from direct observation of the animal. You’re not interpreting data through your senses. When I did a writing residency in Sitka, Alaska, several years ago, I would walk through Totem Bight State Park, where there are ancient totem poles depicting animals, and the expressions on the animals’ faces were powerful and otherworldly. The indigenous carvers lived among these animals and had an understanding of their natures that we have no access to anymore. I would stare at the images of the orcas and think about how those artists saw some essence of the animal’s whole being. The closest I can imagine coming to that awareness is either by being a hunter, like the orcas are, or else by watching them the way long-term observational field researchers do.
But it’s difficult to get funding for long-term monitoring of animal populations, even though we know how valuable it is. For example, with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, there was so little baseline data from before the spill that we had no idea of the impact on many animal or marine populations. We were looking at body counts without context. But we did have data on the orcas in the Sound, and that changed everything. We could directly see the impact of the spill on orcas.
After so many spills all over the United States — all over the world — you’d think there would be a value placed on basic monitoring, so we can assess the damage, but there isn’t. Let’s say you imagine yourself becoming a field biologist and doing the kind of work I had the good fortune to do as a graduate student, spending five summers in a field camp, living among whales. Well, the system for educating scientists is not set up to train you for that future. Instead it’s based on where the funding is at that particular moment, which often has to do with a resource problem, like the current population decline of Steller sea lions. You have to devise a project that fits that problem, or you’re not going to get money. So you adapt your work to crises or economic interests, and even then you’re trained to collect and analyze data using an ever-evolving set of technologies instead of dedicating yourself to a particular place and species.
Not many scientists that I came up with are still engaged in long-term field research. Some people in my husband’s generation, ten to fifteen years older, are still involved, but they’re in their sixties. Who’s going to take over from them? It’s rare to see long-term research projects and to feel like they’ll continue in the future.
Byl: How disheartening to think what we will have lost in a hundred years if we don’t have monitors on the ground now.
Saulitis: We’re just reacting to crises as they arise. When polar bears and ice seals were doing OK, there was no impetus to fund research on them. Things weren’t changing. Now that we’re losing walrus and polar-bear and ice-seal habitat, we’re in crisis mode, and we’re starting to make counts.
I have friends who have grown up in Alaska, true citizen scientists, who have volunteered with our research group. One of them, Cy St-Amand, talks about how if we take today’s population as a baseline, we’ll have a completely inaccurate concept of a functioning ecosystem. Say there’s a proposal for a massive logging project or a mine or a fish farm in Prince William Sound tomorrow, and you drop in there to monitor the effects. Wait a minute! Our baseline has already been impacted by an oil spill, by climate change, by boat traffic, by all kinds of things.
Byl: It’s akin to taking a census of a town during an evacuation.
Saulitis: Or an epidemic.
It’s strange to operate in crisis mode with respect to scientific funding. Fortunately some of the monetary damages extracted from Exxon after the oil spill were put into a fund to provide for long-term restoration and habitat protection and research in the Sound, which is one reason that our project has kept going. It’s also because of much citizen involvement and passion. The Sound engenders a huge amount of love and dedication, and the Exxon spill created human damage that will never completely heal: people are grieving to this day. And there’s skepticism and wariness on the part of people who lived through that disaster and other spills caused by oil development and tanker traffic. The trauma is especially high in Chenega, an Alaska Native community in the Exxon Valdez spill zone. Even before the spill, there was a long history of indigenous people feeling they’d been used by outside forces for gain and then abandoned. Some have an incredible distrust, even toward scientists — and rightly so, because of false promises in the past. One of the most tragic ironies of the spill was an Exxon spokesman saying to the people in Chenega, “We will make you whole.”
Byl: As if someone could be made whole again after a fracture like that.
Saulitis: And as if Exxon would be the one to do it.
Byl: I’m thinking of what you said earlier about the totems, the expressions on the animals’ faces. A drone is not going to capture the expression on an animal’s face. What do scientists learn about not just populations but individual creatures by seeing them up close?
Saulitis: Aerial data is so much more valuable when it’s analyzed in the context of observation. Field data is deeper; it tells us far more about what is going on.
Lately we’ve been putting satellite tags on some animals to watch where they’re going. A satellite tracker can give an overview of the habitat range, but what does it really mean when a whale stays in one place for twelve hours and then moves on? Advanced technology provides only crude information: lines and points on a map. Even with dive data — when transmitters give not only location but also the depth of the animals’ dives — without observation in the field, we can only speculate. The reason we can interpret the dots on the map is because we’ve watched the animals for twenty-five years: how they use the habitat and where they tend to feed at what time of year and how they behave when they’re feeding. Technology does give us information we didn’t have before, but it has limitations. Only when you put all these methods together do you start getting a deep story about the lives of these animals.
Whale-population estimates in the Gulf of Alaska used to be done by aerial assessment. That was before we recognized that each orca could be distinguished by natural markings and we could do an actual count of individual animals. Those old numbers were wild guesses: “We estimate there are a thousand whales, plus or minus two thousand.”
Byl: So there could be three thousand, or there could be negative one thousand?
Saulitis: Right — none! [Laughs.] It’s astounding that those numbers would be used for wildlife management. Once we started using photo identification, we realized, no, these populations are really in the hundreds.
Byl: How long into your fieldwork did that happen?
Saulitis: It was going on when I started. A biologist named Mike Bigg in British Columbia was the first to realize that you could distinguish individual orcas. Well, he was the first scientist to realize it; I’m sure that native people who lived among the orcas knew this. Bigg was also the first to say, “Wait a minute; there’s more than one kind of orca out here.” There are the transients, who slink along the shoreline hunting mammals, and there are resident fish-eating groups — and the two don’t interact. When I was a grad student, I knew scientists who said, “Bullshit! You don’t believe that! Orcas are opportunists who will feed on whatever’s available. Why would so-called transient orcas swim through a school of pink salmon and not eat one, only to go after a harbor seal that’s harder to get?” Well, they do! [Laughs.]
To me, the story the numbers tell is crude. Yes, you can base wildlife-management decisions on estimates, but until you see how these animals interact with each other, what their social lives are like, how long they live, how long their young are dependent on them, how long in life they reproduce, there’s no context.
When you observe orcas directly, you see, for instance, that the residents live in matrilineal family clans with distinct dialects, and they mate only outside their acoustic clan. So, what if you lose an entire pod of orcas in an oil spill? What does that mean? Not just that you’ve lost thirty-six animals; you’ve lost genetic diversity, a lifeway, a language, a whole culture. No satellite technology will tell you that — nothing will except your camera and your eye and your persistence in photographing until you’re sure that you’ve identified every single animal.
Byl: And then your count is accurate, not a theoretical estimate.
Saulitis: If you don’t see a whale from a group of resident orcas for one field season, you know that whale is not coming back. It’s dead. It took years of observing how their society works before we could say that with confidence. By the time of the oil spill, we were able to say with certainty that these missing whales had died.
Byl: You often use names for the orcas instead of just numbers. Do they have individual personalities as well?
Saulitis: Oh, yes. One transient female we call Matushka always traveled with what we assumed was her grown son, because female orcas have long-term associations with their offspring. Well, the son died, and Matushka was by herself for a couple of years. A lone killer whale is a strange beast and tends to behave oddly. They’re intensely social animals.
Matushka started hanging out at a sea-lion rookery, feeding on the pups, which she could catch on her own. Cameras set up at the rookery to document sea-lion numbers were also documenting Matushka. Now, here’s this animal spending all her time at this rookery picking off pups. If you were to extrapolate her behavior to all the transient orcas along the coast, you would deduce that the sea-lion population decline is because of orcas!
Now, Matushka was always a strange animal. She would interact with tour boats that came to observe the sea lions, and the guides considered her behavior “play,” but we would say it was semiaggressive. For example, if we tried to get a photo, she would breach right near the boat and splash water at us. She’d always had a quirky personality, but it really manifested itself when she was alone.
After a couple of years of this, we stopped seeing Matushka around the rookery. The next time we spotted her, she’d joined back up with a trio of whales — probably her daughter and her daughter’s offspring — and she was acting much more like a normal transient. And yet, as we followed this new arrangement around, we noticed that the two calves were so ballsy! Once, while we were taking photos of them, the calves started messing with our boat, and the adult females rested near the shoreline for a while, on the periphery, as if they were sick of these rambunctious young ones. We looked at each other and said, “Are they dumping these calves on us, like we’re some kind of baby sitters?” [Laughter.]
Matushka’s personality influenced her offspring’s calves. In other transient groups we’d never seen anything like that; the adults always placed themselves between the boat and the calves. It’s a lesson in how individual the animals are, and also a reminder that if you watch just one whale and try to extrapolate from that animal’s behavior to all whales, you will be way off the mark. Your conclusions can get really out there if you aren’t being cautious, checking yourself.
Byl: You describe these observations so narratively.
Saulitis: The true bridge between the scientist and the nonscientist is storytelling. To go back to the idea of wonder, a scientific paper is supposed to translate data, but it does it in a language that most people can’t understand. I believe it’s the responsibility of the scientist to translate her findings into a story that everybody can understand.
Byl: You said earlier you fell in love with the Sound at first sight. I’ve had that experience, too: a bond with a place that isn’t about being awed. There’s a deeper nuance, like in a long-term relationship. There’s a “for better or for worse” quality to it, isn’t there?
Saulitis: Right, it’s the dailiness, slogging through difficulties, being trapped in the wall tent during storms and feeling like you’d do anything to rise up above the cloud layer, where it’s clear. But you ride it through, and it changes. It’s very much like the shift from falling in love to being in a love that’s long-term.
Since I was diagnosed with cancer, Craig and I have talked about travel. Are there places I’ve always wanted to see? But I don’t really have the desire. I mean, it’s nice to see new places, but when I ask myself, “Where do I want to spend my time if my time is limited?” it’s clear: I want to spend as much of it as I can in the Sound.
Byl: Into Great Silence opens with you looking back at the summer of 2010, when you were receiving chemo treatments on Cape Cod and tracking orcas in the Sound on your computer screen while Craig described in-person encounters to you on the phone.
Saulitis: I wrote that opening when I was back on the Sound the first summer after my treatment, during a remission period of a couple of years. Having missed an entire field season, I had this tremendous sense of relief to be out there resuming the search for Chugach transients. But the experience I’d just gone through had changed everything, including my relationship to these vanishing animals and my sense of what extinction really meant — the strange parallel between my fate and theirs.
After I’d gotten my cancer diagnosis, I’d made a commitment to write the book. I knew it was something I had to complete during my lifetime. Even though my cancer wasn’t going to be the main narrative of the book, I decided it would frame the story at the beginning and the end. I wrote sitting on the boat, looking out the window while we watched and waited for whales.
In this reprieve that I have now, when the chemotherapy seems to be working, I experience periods of well-being, but if I project too far into the future, it has no reality. And I refuse to live a tragic cancer story. Everyone’s lifetime is limited.
Byl: You said you made a commitment to write the book. What do you mean?
Saulitis: When you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s conventional wisdom to ask, “What would I regret not accomplishing?” Really, it’s important to put that question to yourself whenever you’re wondering what to do next in life, to hone your sense of purpose: If I were on my deathbed, what would make me think, Damn it? [Laughter.] You want to avoid having big regrets at that moment.
I had carried the story of the Chugach transients for twenty-plus years, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the oil spill was approaching. I’d known in my heart that I needed to write it, but I’d avoided it because I could not integrate the pain, the trauma of the spill. But now an edict rose from within: You have got to write this book. It felt like my responsibility to the animals, to the place, to my good fortune at having been able to live that life, to spend that time out in the Sound, being with the whales and bothering them. [Laughs.] My responsibility for my time on earth was to write that book.
Byl: In addition to grappling with your own mortality, you also knew that the Chugach transients would not live forever. Their reproduction patterns point toward extinction, correct?
Saulitis: There’s no more reproduction within that population. There are other orcas in the Sound who are doing well at this point, but the Chugach transients haven’t reproduced since before the oil spill, which killed almost half of their small population. So, yes, they are going to go extinct.
Byl: Since the book came out, you’ve had a reemergence of metastatic cancer. How does it feel to know that you’ve done what you wanted to do?
Saulitis: It was kind of scary at first. I thought, Oh, my God, I made a pronouncement that this was what I had to do before I die, and now I’ve done it. Does that mean the universe will say, “OK, you did it; you’re done”? But here’s the thing with a terminal illness, especially when treatments hold it at bay for a while: you don’t get off the hook. You ask, “What’s the next thing that needs to be done?”
Once I wrote the book, I felt a responsibility to get it out to the world so that the story of these vanishing animals could open up awareness, and maybe other populations wouldn’t get to the same point. There are places where we can still do something, like in the Puget Sound area, where the resident orca population is endangered. I told myself that if opportunities arose where the story of the Chugach transients could have resonance, then I would say yes to those opportunities. I’m strongly opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Northern Gateway Proposal for shipping oil through British Columbia waters, which are inhabited by healthy but fragile orca populations and other incredible marine and terrestrial life. There’s a lot of work to do. I couldn’t just stop with writing the book.
Byl: It reminds me of the book’s prologue, where you write about being a child and learning from an ABC Afterschool Special about the extinction of the Eskimo curlew. You were deeply affected by the fact that this bird didn’t exist anymore. Now you are telling the story of a different endangered animal to a different girl somewhere. It’s a kind of lineage, passing forward a message about the frailty of creatures. I’m getting a little choked up, actually.
Saulitis: The impact of that film, The Last of the Curlews, was heartbreaking. It wasn’t wondering about extinction, or being perplexed by it. The impact was a knowing. I was touching an awareness of huge loss, of what that one life-form meant to the planet, to my consciousness, to my conception of how life on earth works. It opened up this hole that I fell into. I was too young to totally understand it, but I fell right in. Eventually the hole sealed up, the way these things do in our lives, but it reopened when I confronted what was happening with the Chugach transients. I had to face a reality I did not want to acknowledge.
Byl: That they were going to go extinct?
Saulitis: Yes. I had to force my hand to write that sentence. And it threw me back to being a child, when all of me fell into the truth of what extinction meant. Children have such a capacity to identify with animals. Eventually we learn to put animals in a separate place, apart from us, but as children we don’t make that distinction. They’re fellow creatures. I remember watching this little girl once: She was probably five years old, and she was prancing along, and there was a bird singing in a tree. She turned to the bird and said, “Hi!” and then kept going, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And why not?
Byl: You’ve alluded to the limits of what science can say, which partly drove you toward creative nonfiction and, more recently, poetry.
Saulitis: Writing my first book of poems, Many Ways to Say It, was not a conscious choice. I had written a collection of essays, and then something shifted. Something within me needed poems. I started writing poetry and couldn’t stop.
I had recently moved to Homer, a new place, and connecting with a place is such a nonlinear process, such an immersion. The language of poetry was natural for that enterprise. My prose dried up during that time. I wrote hundreds of poems, and from them came Many Ways to Say It. What I wanted to convey in that book is that place trumps everything in the end. The natural world trumps science, and it trumps our will, and it trumps our desire to name and categorize things. It claims us. I was claimed by the landscape of Homer.
The second poetry collection, Prayer in Wind, came from a different impulse. I’d finished Into Great Silence and been rediagnosed with cancer — well, actually I’d started writing poems the winter before, but internally I knew that the cancer was coming back.
Byl: Did you feel that something wasn’t right inside?
Saulitis: I knew enough about biology and cancer, but also I just knew. And I was haunted by that knowing. Everyone around me wanted it to be over, but I knew it wasn’t over. This childhood impulse to pray returned, but the forms of prayer that I’d learned as a child felt like a cop-out — like bargaining with God in a foxhole: “I’ll do anything.”
I decided to explore the question: What is this impulse to pray? I was meditating in the mornings, and the Catholicism of my childhood still had a strong hold on me, as did the spiritual practices I’d incorporated into my life through the years. I felt a sense of urgency to see that impulse toward prayer through as far as it would go, to see what it told me, what it taught me about what I believed. That’s another question that arises when you get a terminal-cancer diagnosis: What do I really believe about why I’m here?
Byl: You end Into Great Silence with a prayer “that what’s broken can be mended. That what’s shattered can be made whole. That what’s damaged can be repaired.” Throughout your work, there’s a palpable hopefulness, even in the face of extinction. How do you think about hope, or the lack of it?
Saulitis: I think about it all the time. It’s so fraught and so tricky. In Buddhist thought hope is considered dangerous because it’s not about what’s happening right now; it’s about the desire for some future outcome. And with metastatic cancer there’s a strange culture of hope that’s extremely difficult to navigate. On my most recent visit to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance a nurse tried to explain to my sister and me why my oncologist was resistant to answering questions about prognosis. Part of that is because no one knows. Cancer turns out to be as individual as the human body. Maybe there’s some statistical trend, but cancer has a measure of complete unpredictability, even to an oncologist. But my doctor wasn’t going to give out survival graphs or statistics, the nurse said, because she “didn’t want her patients to lose hope.”
In that moment at the doctor’s office, my sister said, “I’m sick of that kind of hope! I don’t believe in that anymore at all.” After my first treatment she’d been the one to tell me to stop being negative: “You’re cured, you’re cured!” But now she said that when you focus on the hope for a cure, you’re cheating yourself of a million smaller hopes that are actually attainable.
That’s the crux of it for me. Now, when I pray, it is for what I know is attainable. And my prayers are answered. [Laughs.] Whether I’ll be healed of this cancer feels out of my hands, almost irrelevant, in a strange way. I have to focus on what is right in front of me. What do I hope for today, for the next month? In this reprieve that I have now, when the chemotherapy seems to be working, I experience periods of well-being, but if I project too far into the future, it has no reality. And I refuse to live a tragic cancer story. Everyone’s lifetime is limited.
There’s stubbornness in that prayer that you read from the end of the book. The Chugach transients will be lost to this earth, and yet the Sound is a place where healing continually occurs. Yes, it’s a threatened place. Climate change and ocean acidification and loss of salmon are all grave threats. And yet at the center of that place is a palpable force of healing that is unstoppable. It just is.
The Eyak are a people of Prince William Sound whose language is now extinct in native speakers. Some of the last speakers of Eyak insisted that their language was embedded in the place, and as long as the place remained, their language would come back. [Voice breaks.] These people, whose language is gone, whose culture is gone, who have lived in that place for ten thousand years or more — they know what they are talking about. I believe there’s a truth in what they’re saying, something we don’t understand about how the earth heals, what losses mean to a place, how it’s all entwined. The Eyak fiercely believe that there will be people in the future who will come to know the land in such a way that they will re-create the Eyak language. It will arise again. Maybe it won’t be exactly the same. Maybe it will be in another form. But the land, the earth is the center.
The idea that Eyak can come back ties into what I said about cancer. I hate reading obituaries that say, “She died after a long battle with breast cancer.” So she lost her battle? No. I refuse that narrative. She died fully alive. That’s the idea behind “brokenness can be mended”: we are fully alive even in that moment when we die.