- Many Ways of Seeing, Many Ways of Saying
boston: beacon press, 2013. 272pages, cloth, $26.95.
fairbanks, ak: boreal books, 2008. 224pages, paper, $18.95.
pasadena, ca: red hen press, 2012. 96pages, paper, $17.95.
I first read Eva Saulitis’s essay collection Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist in the darkest days of winter. I was in a little writing studio, small and snug as a ship’s cabin, and it was easy to imagine myself in Alaska, on a small boat in Prince William Sound or in a wall tent on Squire Island, where most of these essays are set. I kept reading even when the power went out and a deep freeze set in—by flashlight, bundled in a sleeping bag—with each essay pulling me deeper into life on the Alaskan coast, on the water, and underneath.
Saulitis’s preface explains that her “essays are set in the thin places . . . where the material and spirit worlds exist in close proximity” (xi). And from the first lines of her first essay, “The Burden of the Beach,” we see this powerful combination at work: [End Page 203]
The killer whale is long gone now, washed off the beach where we found it. By the roiling of stones, the ocean has erased the evidence of its weight, the oil and blood, even the bones. It breathes a different air, the air of memory. But our question remains: What did it mean?(1)
Saulitis and her field assistant, Molly Lou, have come to isolated Montague Island “to find this body, measure it, photograph it, cut into it, collect its blubber and skin, remove its stomach and take what’s inside” (1). That is their scientific mission. But the dead whale provokes questions more than it provides answers. As they cut into the whale’s abdomen, searching for the stomach, Saulitis wonders about the history of Montague Island, the mythological origins of its fierce brown bears, the unmarked reefs and ledges of its coast. She considers her friendship with Molly Lou, who is a poet, not a scientist, and who has taught her “the question of poetry, which is also the question of science, What does it mean?” (6). And when they are finished, when “streaks of intestine spill from the hole, stick to rocks [and b]rownish fluid fills the cavity, where organs sag” (8), she remembers that traditional Alaska Natives will not touch a killer whale—and here is one she and Molly Lou have not only touched but cut into and taken things from. “I don’t know what ritual will make this right. This is it, the paradox we—scientist and poet—live out” (8).
And that is the main tension that drives this collection—the paradox of being both a scientist and a poet, the difficulty of living in the thin place between fact and myth, data and interpretation, seeing and feeling. In the essay “Wondering Where the Whales Are,” Saulitis asks, “What should we be called—scientists, voyeurs, observers, natural historians, writers, intruders, watchers?” (141). She notes that the killer whales she studies have many different names: “aaxlu, takxukuak, agiluk, mesungesak, polossatik, skana, keet, feared one, grampus, blackfish, orca, big-fin, fat-chopper. Whale killer . . . Orcinrus orca” (141). And in another essay, “And Suddenly, Nothing Happened,” she lists the terms that the tour boat operators use: “Hair balls are sea otters. Harbor seals are beach maggots. They call whales ‘blubber.’ . . . Larger whales are ‘wide bodies.’ Ones that are elusive they call ‘Old Iron Lung’ or ‘One-Breath Wonder’” (159). The names of things reveal the attitude of the namer, and Saulitis is careful with her terminology, even as she tacks back and forth between the Latin Orcinrus orca and the Tlingit keet [End Page 204] shagoon. In nearly all of her essays, Saulitis weaves together her scientific findings with the myths and legends she has learned from Alaska Natives: “While my logical mind grapples to reconcile...