“Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, the gore at the [salmon stream] comforts more than it appalls. In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”
—Eva Saulitis, “Wild Darkness”
Eva Saulitis was a writer of uncommon insight. She was a field biologist, a soulful mentor and teacher, a passionate advocate for the natural world and its creatures, and a remarkable friend to me and to many others. Eva was also a Beacon author, which is why I write of her here. She died at age fifty-two on January 16, 2016, in Homer, Alaska, of the metastatic breast cancer that she journeyed with so mindfully for two and a half years. Surrounded by her treasured family and held up by a community that spans continents, Eva piloted the end of her life like one of the small boats on which she spent years doing field work—nimbly, with curiosity and stamina amidst difficult conditions, an ear cocked toward the engine, alert to the beauty and the losses that pepper the world. In her passing she leaves a wake of influence that belies a life ended much too early.
“Before I knew there was such thing as species, much less one that was endangered, I understood extinction. When I was nine years old, I understood extinction not with my mind, but with my heart.”
—Eva Saulitis, Into Great Silence
So begins the prologue of Eva’s second book of non-fiction, Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. The field-based memoir springs from Eva’s marine biology career studying a specific pod of orca whales, the Chugach transients, animals she lived and worked among on Alaska’s Prince William Sound for nearly thirty seasons. The book interweaves the story of this endangered sub-species of whales, none of whom has reproduced since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Sound, with Eva’s grasp of her own mortality as triggered by a breast cancer diagnosis. The book is a layered meditation on science and art, language and earth, and it deftly balances journal entries with logbooks, scientific detachment with personal feeling. Like all of Eva's non-fiction, Into Great Silence is underlain by a palpable, thumping heart.
“The essays that follow are transparencies, thin places, divided, stitched back together, an ugly cloth left out in the rain, an old wall tent’s hide, sewn and patched with oil-soaked pieces—stories—smelling of fumes and salt and air-dried canvas, both musty and fresh. One eye looking out at the world, one tarped body, wrapped in narratives, one brain asking what does it mean?”
—Eva Saulitis, Leaving Resurrection
That quote comes from Eva’s first book, Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist, where I first met her. In 2008, I read the collection of essays in my tiny cabin in Alaska’s Interior one particularly frigid January, almost 400 snowy miles north of the Resurrection Bay in the book’s title. I remember being struck, during the week I plowed through those intensely personal and thoughtful essays, by the similarities between Eva and me. We’d both spent decades doing fieldwork—her researching, me laboring—and had been utterly shaped by a lifetime of working outside. Like Eva, I was born in the rustbelt, nestled up to the Great Lakes that continued to mold me long after I moved north. She and I were both daughters of first-generation immigrants, families who had fled post-war Europe with trauma and tradition intact. Eva moved to Alaska—like me, and so many others—fueled by equal parts romantic notions and the authentic desire to know a quiet, wild place. Eva was raised Catholic, I Reformed Protestant, and I sensed in her voyage through literature, meditation practice, movement, and worship of the living earth a questing and open-ended spiritual path that intersected with my own. Still, what drew me in to Eva’s essays was not the confirmation of my own experience, but the way they opened from familiarity into ideas I had never articulated, possibilities I had not considered. I admired her words and the mind and spirit they implied.
I met Eva in person several years later, shyly, in a conference hotel in New York City, introduced by mutual friends, and I could hardly stop myself from whispering to her, I understand you. By which, of course, I meant I feel understood. I kept quiet then, but I know now that Eva had such an effect on a lot of people. Her willingness to cut through social façade and stand before you as her real self encouraged so many of us to do the same.
Eva and I kept in loose touch through the wide net of Alaskan writers and common friends until 2011, when our writing lives converged at Beacon. My agent called to tell me of Beacon’s interest in my first book: “The editor, Alexis Rizzuto, seems right up your alley.” She continued, “Plus, Alexis edits another Alaskan writer, a biologist, I think. That seems like a good sign.” I prodded her and she checked her notes. “Eva Saulitis,” she read. “From Homer?” I grinned out loud. “I know her!” I couldn’t imagine a better reference than Eva, whose personal and writerly integrity made me trust this editor before I’d ever spoken with her.
I called Eva to ask her in person about Alexis and her experience at Beacon, and I will never forget how thrilled Eva was, how joyfully she celebrated the publication of a book by someone she hardly knew. As for Beacon, she couldn’t have been happier. “Alexis is the real deal,” Eva told me. “She’s our people. She feels like an old friend.” (Later, minutes into my own first conversation with Alexis, I agreed.) Eva teased me, “Lucky dog, you owe me one! I’ve already broken her in with all the Alaska stuff, now you won’t have to.” Owe her one I did. When my manuscript referred to sphagnum tundra and Xtra Tuf rubber boots, Eyak and Tlingit native people, the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound, I didn’t have to explain them to Alexis. “I know these from Eva’s book!” she wrote in her margin notes, which always made me smile.
Our books came out within six months of each other, and like new parents united by their similarly timed offspring, Eva and I turned to each other during the process to ask questions and verify our experiences. (Do you like your cover? How hard should I push for my subtitle? Isn’t Alexis amazing?) We did a joint reading together, attended a conference where our books were unveiled, side-by-side. We each read the other’s book quietly, with no conversation about it until much later, when Eva told me, “I feel so strongly our books are somehow kin, and we are too.” I knew exactly what she meant. It was like our words became friends, and then we did.
The cancer that shortened Eva’s physical life fueled her literary one with a vigor that began at her diagnosis and lasted up until she died, having written four books in five years. She wrote Into Great Silence after the first cancer was found in 2010, saying many times and in many ways, “It was the thing I couldn’t die without having done.” Eva had often described her shift from science writing to literary non-fiction as the search for “another language with which to address the natural world.” While writing Into Great Silence, she shifted further, publishing two books of poetry within three years: Many Ways to Say It, a lyric companion to her whale research-based non-fiction, and Prayer In Wind, a collection of numbered poem-prayers that sprung out of her cancer’s eventual metastatic recurrence in 2013. The collections are united by her commitment to see things, and say things, anew. Eva resisted platitudes in her writing and her life, and cancer brought her plenty to push back against with her poetic tools.
“...Cancer world, like other worlds, spawns clichés and turns of phrase like ‘failing treatment.’ Like ‘battling cancer.’ Like ‘pink-washing.’ But poetry, that’s another world. Maybe I can say that poetry spawns ‘terns of phrase.’ Ordinary words that, put together in certain ways, shapeshift. They might evolve into a flock of birds and lift up off the page, like the crow flocks that seem even more present than usual in Homer when all the migrant birds are gone.”
—Eva Saulitis, blog post
No writer would be blamed for turning inward during terminal illness, but if anything, Eva’s writing on cancer grew even more specific and intimate. First on her blog, Alaskan in Cancerland, and later in Caring Bridge website updates, Eva posted regularly, more so in the months directly preceding her death. Despite their presence on a blog, these pieces seemed less updates than early drafts of essays—thoughtful, nuanced, wide-ranging. In them, she resisted cancer-clichés like “heroic” or “brave,” puncturing any saintly self-image with a by-turns wacky and wicked sense of humor. She turned a platform commonly used for medical reports and health updates into a venue for writing unflinchingly about life with terminal cancer, always weaving in the details of the world around her, whether on a boat in the Sound or in a hospital bed in Seattle scanning out the window for a glimpse of green. Most of all, Eva beckoned her readers—family, friends and students, fellow breast cancer patients and total strangers—to consider with her how to live mindfully and even joyfully in a broken but buoyant body, in a broken but buoyant world.
“I dip my hands into this stream, and all I have is what the stream yields up, what’s in this cup of my palm, this sip, these severed wings, that silver light, this moment...Surrounded by forest, by nests and corpses of seabirds, I kneeled down in the mud, filled my hands and drank it all.”
—Eva Saulitis, “Island of Wings: Three Days”
That quote above is from an essay in Becoming Earth, Eva’s last book, to be released in 2016. Made up of essays written in the past few years, it is a collection about living, and dying as inseparable from that. Becoming Earth returns to the themes that recur in all of Eva’s work: the mortality of animal bodies, the balm that love lends to suffering, and the terrific persistence of the world we are a part of. The book feels to me like a last rite and a first of its kind, a dispatch from a cusp. It is a gift left behind, one to be equally savored by those who never met Eva and those who knew her best. Most of all, it is a testament to Eva’s probing, incisive minds: the poetic one that would not accede cancer or dying to banalities; the scientific one, seeking always the further questions to ask and the assumptions to turn over and examine from a different angle; and the spiritual one, standing clear-eyed with her shoulders squared to her own mortality, open to learn whatever it could offer her. And then, to offer that.
As soon as I finish writing, I see how pointless it is to split those minds apart, even in order to describe them. Among the many things that Eva modeled, this one will live in me as long as her words live in the world: all of our selves are one self. And like the fragile and gorgeous planet that holds us, all of them are tenacious, and interesting, and worthy of love.
after Ilya Kaminsky
If I speak for the earth I must sing.
I must sing the same song every morning, sing
like the unidentified bird with its repetitive
cry, that nameless bird in the morning
who bleats & bleats like a lamb of
the wild. If I speak I must crawl
along its convergences:
forest & forest & floodplain & floodplain &
meadow & meadow & delta collecting data:
Transcribing the falling,
the hardening. The wet, the cautious.
the curious quick licks of an animal
at the furthest
edge of its range, pressing its pads
deep into groundcover, marking
trees with its foreign scent,
its foreign name. If I sing it’s because
the earth persists & this is just my brief
trees alive & dead & fallen, on all
fours through the under-story. To breathe
in a windstorm is singing. To sing is to praise
Earth’s madness, placing
carefully as a predator my tread
upon each, the darkest,
the coldest. It’s like dying each time,
not crazy to pray: Let this day, earth,
let it be given.
Injured and blistered amen.
—Eva Saulitis, from Many Ways to Say It
‘Reprinted with permission from Red Hen Press.’
About the Author
Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park outside the town of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and her stories and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. She owns and operates a small trail design and construction business. She is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods.