Rafe Sagarin liked to joke about being a marine biologist—in a desert. Rafe, with the cool title Program Director of the Ocean, was in charge of converting the mish-mash ocean at the enclosed Biosphere 2 into a mesocosm simulation of the Sea of Cortez. And his typical good humor masked the hard work that lay behind such efforts.
Rafe worked very hard. He was a brilliant scientist—he might have said natural historian, since he constantly talked about the need to revive the skills of close field observation—and he was an author. His book Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease was published in 2012 and showed his ability to synthesize ideas from disparate fields. (He had worked previously as a Congressional aide, and there’s a photo in The Washington Post showing Rafe as he guides President Clinton and Vice-President Gore along California tide pools.) As a researcher, he helped to prove that global warming was forcing the migration of southern marine animals farther north.
Rafe mentored graduate students at the University of Arizona, especially via the Carson Scholars Program, which is how I came to know him. We were part of a team that selects and trains graduate students to write and speak more effectively about their work in environmental fields. Because Rafe himself could do this wonderfully, he was a terrific role model. As an adjunct assistant professor in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment, he was also a grant-writer and fundraiser because he was not on a permanent faculty line. All this and: a husband and a father and a foster parent. Sometimes he would chat before a meeting about how he and Rebecca had just gotten an infant to take care of. He wouldn’t have slept the night before.
On May 28, while he was riding his bike near B2, he was struck by pickup driven by a man authorities have said was “impaired.” Rafe Sagarin was 43.
If you wish to support the Biosphere 2 Sea of Cortez project that Rafe was so excited about, you may learn about it here and follow the donation link: b2science.org/ocean.
The first time I met Rafe we fell into talking about the poet Robinson Jeffers. Then John Steinbeck and marine ecologist Ed Ricketts. He loved Steinbeck and Ricketts and their Sea of Cortez expedition so much that he was part of a re-creation of that journey in 2004. It was covered by NPR, and an exhibit at B2 discusses both trips in the context of Rafe’s efforts to convert B2’s ocean into an educational tool and a place where researchers could work at the scale between the bench and the world itself.
I knew after this conversation that Rafe was someone special. We had quiet moments, not enough. Those quieter moments—away from committee meetings and teaching students how to deliver elevator pitches—almost entirely occurred at Biosphere 2, where we hold the annual Carson Scholars retreat in the fall. One evening we caravaned out to the “Glow Festival” in nearby Oracle, a hilarious, high school-like comedy of missed turns and parking lot consultations, resulting in everyone giving up and returning to B2 where we all sat under the stars and talked. I remember his exclamations at the lunar landscape I showed him through my telescope.
The last time I saw him he gave me the name of an editor—that was Rafe: looking out for friends and colleagues, helping. One Sunday afternoon after a retreat, we got on our road bikes and sped through a 20-mile route and talked about family and work. There should have been more such conversations.
When I did my first ride in Tucson after the news that he was gone, I thought, “This one is for you, Rafe.” A couple of nights ago, I dreamt I was in his lab–a ramshackle house where a student was crying–and I was there to find out if, in his notebooks, he had written any poems. I woke up, having failed in that search, tears in my eyes.
in memoriam: Rafe Sagarin
When the pointlessness of speech
is met by memory
to endure articulation of what
we know must always end
then saying becomes itself again :
of solace, improbable
as an ocean in the desert. Everywhere,
water has been moving for a long time.
It knows the shore where it keeps arriving
—the sand and frond and shadow.
It knows sway and channel, creatures, soil and root,
owns depth, feels air
rest upon its restless cresting like a lover.
Why does pain unmoor our boats
as we float in the evening?
We scramble for oars, we cry out.
How you answer is how you live,
and words in their failures
become buoyant on both seas,
the one that seeps away and the one that remains.
Christopher Cokinos recently completed a Udall Center Environmental Policy Fellowship at the University of Arizona, where he directs the creative writing program. His most recent book is Bodies, of the Holocene, and he has poems and prose in The Writer’s Chronicle, TYPO, Watershed Review, and elsewhere. His manuscript, The Underneath, was a recent semi-finalist for The Vassar Miller Prize.
Read poetry (here and here) and prose by Christopher Cokinos also appearing in Terrain.org.