Marine biologist, poet, and essayist Eva Saulitis studied killer whales in Alaska’s Prince William Sound for nearly 30 years. She had migrated to Alaska as a young woman seeking a wilder life, but she was well aware of the legacy of her childhood on the shore of Lake Erie. At age 45 she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Five years later she died, leaving a brilliant, posthumously published volume of essays: Becoming Earth.
What was I looking for so eagerly in Saulitis’s final book that I hadn’t already enjoyed in the vivid prose and poetry that braided her life as a scientist, woman, and lover of wild Alaska? Or more specifically, that I hadn’t already read in a long line of cancer memoirs, from Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge to Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place to Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream?
Before the robust evolution of the modern nature memoir, Rachel Carson’s magnificent Silent Spring was the best we had, or could perhaps hope for, to help us understand the corporate-sponsored killing of our bright and beautiful world. What Carson did not share was her own cancer story. She died too young, a private person known for her scientific brilliance, her courage as a spokeswoman against DDT, and perhaps most of all her exquisite prose. But the confessional aspects of contemporary memoir would not have interested the reclusive Carson.
In Becoming Earth, Saulitis draws from the wisdom traditions of Carson and many others, including Stanley Kunitz, Christopher Hitchens, and Sogyal Rinpoche. Yet her book sings in her own personal stories. She is of our time, and my hope is that the personal nature of her account will move us to stand up and advocate like never before.
I had tracked the last years of this colleague’s life through her online journal, and found there a compelling investigation into the end of life, including the design and weaving of her own casket. In Becoming Earth, Saulitis similarly offers us raw honesty, supreme dignity, and a commitment to seeking truth.
I was riveted immediately by the opening chapter, where she returns to New York for a visit, and comes to understand the violence perpetrated against her homeland and her own body, likening it to “an embodied memory of abuse, like silence.” She writes:
I witnessed sources of that abuse during childhood drives to Buffalo to visit my parents’ immigrant Latvian friends, the thruway taking us through the steel mill town of Lackawanna, with its spewing stacks and grimed-up row houses. . . . We came of age an hour’s drive from Love Canal, downwind of Three Mile Island, on the heels of Silent Spring.
Genetic testing would eventually reveal one piece of my ancestral story. . . . A mutation shut off my immune system’s ability to fight breast cancer. It was just bad fucking luck—genetics meets life history. My oncologist would later say as much. We live in a poisoned world. Some people have the genetics to handle it, some don’t, that’s my sense of it.
Saulitis reminds us of the inescapable relationship between our bodies and the Earth, even as, in illness, we might try to deny them. “[I was] still wearing low-cut jeans that pinched my hipbones,” she writes. “Still thinking I might one day train for a marathon. . . . But how can I say this: dissociated from my body as flesh, which is vulnerable, which is mortal. Dissociated from my body as a repository for my natural history, and the unnatural history of my birthplace.”
I can relate to her dissociation. Despite my frequent contact with dying people, both as a threshold choir singer and a caregiver for my father during the last years of his life, the fact of my own death is vague and easily pushed aside. Like Eva’s husband and sister, I have spent many days of my life in doctors’ offices, chemo infusion labs, and radiation waiting alcoves, accompanying my own loved ones on their journeys. But I have done this as a parent and as a friend, not as a patient. In Becoming Earth, Saulitis is a pathfinder for all of us, as she peels back the layers of her dying process.
Even as she undergoes treatment after treatment, Saulitis never loses her focus on the earth holding her:
Each morning, I walk my altered body down the hill to the wetlands, through a dark spruce forest, listening. . . . If the coastal spruce forest has a voice, this is it, varied thrush calls sketching an acoustic self-portrait of the landscape. . . . How did I ever grasp time and home without these markers? . . . The same bird, over and over, year after year, it’s song pinning me more tightly to this landscape, thousands of miles away from my birthplace, and I’m more greedy than ever for it.
Because we live in a time and culture that hastens not only our own deaths (through cancer) but the extinction of so many other species, we are honor bound to learn from what Eva offers. For it may be that only if we can open our eyes and our hearts fully to the painful realities of our time, can we find a way forward.
What I want is for Saulitis’s book to spark transformation of a culture dissociated from the fact that we have permitted poisoning of our earth. And recognition that that poisoning is resulting in an ever increasing human suffering and death. I want to know that even though her body has been returned to the earth, her words will do this.
“Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with,” she writes. “I don’t yet—might not ever—understand how to meet it. I stumble toward it in the dusky conifer light.” In Becoming Earth, we are privileged to walk beside her.