Eva Saulitis’s Eloquent Goodbye

eva_head_shotLess than three weeks old, this particular revolution around the sun has already been defined by cancer. It took David Bowie first, quietly and then not. He kept his diagnosis to himself for eighteen months, and when he died it was like an explosion, radios playing and replaying his songs, writers overflowing with words, a funeral that echoed and reverberated the world over.

Alan Rickman was next, four days later, pancreatic cancer. Again, the world mourned his death and celebrated his life in equal parts. Again, his struggles against dying were private, until they weren’t.

I observed all of this with a degree of detachment. I wasn’t a huge Bowie fan, and I’m not much of a movie person. But this Saturday, absently scrolling through Twitter, cancer punched me in the chest: I learned that Alaskan writer and marine biologist Eva Saulitis had died. I looked out the window, at pine boughs brushing the sky, the sunlight catching beads of snow on their needles. I looked back at my computer screen. I searched for an obituary, and didn’t find one.

I didn’t need to, though. Eva had written about her breast cancer for years. She wrote honestly and bravely. She wrote about her own mortality while she watched the Chugach transients, a group of orcas she studied for decades, die one by one. The group hasn’t birthed a single surviving calf since before the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, and Eva’s husband and research partner, Craig Matkin, once told me that’s because the orcas are at the top of the food chain, absorbing all the BPAs and oil and other chemicals ingested by everything below them. They’re victims to their own strength and grace, repositories for all the toxins we’ve injected into their environment. Into our environment.

“Studied” isn’t a verb that aptly describes Eva’s relationship with the Chugach orcas. She was a respected and meticulous scientist, but less interested in flashy breakthroughs than in understanding a single, genetically distinct group of orcas and the world they live in. The orcas weren’t entries in a log or blips of GPS data on a map. They were a manifestation of a place Eva loved, a place of green-shouldered mountains dropping into a cold ocean, of tannin-colored salmon streams plunging through dark forest, of rocky, seaweed-strewn beaches and nights punctuated by the breathing of whales. She spent hours rolling on the sea in tiny boats, watching and taking notes. She could recognize individual orcas by sight.

Though she and Craig published papers showing unequivocally that the Chugach transients are going extinct, Eva found that scientific language wasn’t adequate to explain their peril. So she turned to creative writing—to poetry, essays, and memoir that interwove her story with the stories of the orcas she loved. It only made sense that after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she wrote about that too; it was tragically fitting that her own life and those of the orcas were spiraling into the sea together. “No one teaches us how to die,” she wrote in Orion in 2014, after the cancer had metastasized into her right lung. “Facing death in a death-phobic culture is lonely.”

Eva Saulitis gave that loneliness a voice, one missing from other high-profile losses of 2016. Her passing may not shake the world as Bowie or Rickman’s have, but her courage in sharing it gives the rest of us a beacon to follow into the darkness. It offers us a brutally real, painfully beautiful glimpse of what it’s like to carry a body battered by cancer through a world that’s also battered by cancer.

And though much of Eva’s most memorable writing is about loss, loss is not her legacy. As I read and reread her essays, I found myself pushing away the computer and walking outside until I was knee-deep in snow, breathing its sharp cold smell, spinning under the pine trees, my head tilted to prisms of sunlight. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over.

“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.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News and is based in Durango, Colorado. 

Comments

  1. This is a beautiful appreciation. Now I have to go out and find Eva saulitis’ writings. What endures, now part of everything.

  2. Thank you for your kind remembrance of Eva. She was an amazing person. I am grateful that her words will reach wider and wider audiences, because there is great wisdom and beauty to be found in them.

  3. Krista, this is beautiful. Your own eloquent tribute has introduced Eva to me. Words endure, too, and I’m grateful to find hers through your own. Thank you.

  4. Beautiful and moving piece, and another reminder that time, in this life, is precious and finite. We must be aware of the gifts of each and every day and soak in all that life has to offer.

  5. such an elegant farewell after a battle so familiar to many. Nature has been gifted with her presence.

  6. Beautifully spoken. And a wonderful weaving of her words into yours.

  7. Thank you…eva was certainly one of a kind, like the orcas she loved. We are all closer to understanding and holding what it means to be human because of her and her life entwined with the Other.

  8. Thanks for this beautiful piece. I feel fortunate to have been Eva’s friend and neighbor when she lived in Fairbanks, and to have shared some time with her out in Prince William Sound, a place I grew to love and to write about. Years later, as I wrote my own book, Surviving Bear Island, set in Prince William Sound, Eva took the time to read two drafts from afar and to offer expert advice. I miss her dearly. She will live on, not only in her writing, but in the hearts of all the people she has touched.

  9. What a lovely tribute to an amazing woman. Her loving heart and sun-filled soul will continue to shine on.

  10. What a fitting tribute to our Eva, my sister-in-law

  11. Beautiful. To many diying from this dreaded disease every day.

  12. Thank you for this. Eva’s passing has absolutely shaken the world of the many, many people who loved her, and every place she is mentioned and remembered helps assuage the grief a small bit.

  13. Beautifully stated. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words for my sister-in-law/sister. A human that was loved and admired by so many people.

  14. The letters by Eva were enormously moving. She was a remarkably gifted writer and her spirit, courage and appreciation of nature will remain as a lasting echo of this gallant woman.

  15. Thank you for this. My father died two weeks ago and it seems so many who have touched my life, if only very briefly, have gone on as well. It is good to trust that Nature knows how to do this, or God, or a salmon.

  16. Thanks Krista for your beautiful thoughts regarding remarkable Eva. It’s curious—when someone is alive, we tend to place them in time and space, here or there. But in death they seem to be everywhere and nowhere and everywhere. Sister Eva, some day, at the perfect time, we’ll meet you in that wild dark mystery. Blessings

  17. This tribute to Eva is the most beautiful expression I have read today, thank you. Many of us who care and hurt deeply for the Earth’s environment and the immeasurable destruction humanity has caused find comfort in learning about the courageous humans, like Eva who dedicated their lives to protect our precious ecosystems. I want to believe her work continues from another place where disease does not exist. Thank you Eva Saulitis.

  18. Thank you. We in Alaska are still awaiting a full obituary and appreciation of Eva. Your eloquent tribute is a very fine example of what we’d like to see locally as well. I would also call readers’ attention to a reading Eva gave last July as part of the Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Summer Series at the U. of Alaska Anchorage, an essay in which she faces her coming end with frankness and meaning — ironic, in that she says she cannot truly find a meaning in her passage. What strikes me is the strength of her voice and its writerly confidence. I’ve been told that an upcoming collection of her essays, “Becoming Earth,” will include a printed version of this reading. Here is the link to a podcast of that event (after introductions, Eva begins at about time point 4:15) — http://greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu/podcasts//audio/UAA-Advancement-2015-07-22-54951.mp3 .

  19. I knew Eva only through her writings and powerful they are.
    She has touched many lives like mine through her insights shared
    and her incredible honesty. She will live on through her words and
    in the hearts of those she touched in so many ways.

  20. Thank you so much for honoring the amazing Eva with your words. I’m glad for each person who reads her, glad for the world that her words endure.

  21. She was so right: Death is Nature and Nature is Death. Living in Alaska one is so much closer to both and it’s what makes being alive so wonderful. Gratitude for a life well lived if ended too early.

  22. This is a beautiful and touching tribute to Eva’s life and death and her unique relationship to nature. While certain Eastern religions, Buddhism being the prime example, actually have strategies for how to die, the West remains largely ignorant regarding this most common of inevitabilities. Death, loss, impermanence, will always be constants for all living beings and nature. Thank you for sharing Eva’s particular immersion in these realities and her uncommon ability to hull meaning from them in her own life.

  23. And in the end, my sister, Eva Saulitis, knew how to die. She did so with such unflinching consciousness and grace and taught me so much about living and dying while living. She was my rock, my teacher, my sister and my best friend. She enriched all of our lives and if we can live as she lived-with honesty, compassion, curiosity, kindness and grace towards each other and all living creatures, she will be smiling out there in her beloved eternal wilderness.

  24. Thank you for sharing Eva’s story. A gentle reminder to all about our being human and being connected to nature. May we all live our life in gratitude. Peace to Eva’s family

  25. This is so beautiful and so welcome. You expressed my feelings exactly and no doubt those of so many. Thank you.

  26. A lovely tribute. Eva touched my soul. Much love to Craig.

  27. A friend of mine was a good friend of Eva’s…this is how I found your words, Krista. Your writing is just beautiful. Thank you for honoring Eva with such kind and eloquent thoughts.

  28. Beautiful. What a gift Eva is. She has given so much of herself there must be a bit of her bright light in all of us.

  29. I believe that good writing, writing that is from the heart, makes us want to explore more and learn more and live more. Your article, in tribute to a fantastic lady, a lady of courage and single minded purpose to benefit a world that didn’t even know they were losing something, has made me want to learn more not just about Orcas, but about what my world will be like without them. Thank you. Thank you also, Eva Saulitis for your courage, and your compassion. My heart and prayers go out to her family and those closest to her. I hope someone takes up the challenge she left us with – to find a way to coexist and care for our world as the precious orb it is and to care for all its creatures as well.

  30. I had no idea. This is so sad to me. We were contemporaries in graduate school. She to me, was one of those people you thought would live forever. I guess in a way, she will.

  31. She was the best writing teacher I ever had. Thank you Eva.

  32. I once took a class with Eva. She was wonderful and I will never forget her.

  33. Thank you for introducing me to Eva. I will now look for her writings so that I too can know her and experience her soulful beauty, and the gifts she left for us here on Earrh.

  34. I had not heard of Eva’s passing. My condolences to her family and friends.
    I visited Alaska in 2009 after completing treatment for my Ovarian Cancer recurrence. When I ran across her articles it brought me back to that beautiful land and helped me deal with the loss of a number of friends.
    She gave us all a gift in her writings.

  35. Having recently lost someone, of all things to….the sea, I can only imagine the lost for so many who loved and respected her. She is one of those who make Alaska so special to me. I have to hope her work joins that which will have those us ‘left’ to take special care of this great state.

    A beautiful voice lost.

  36. I stumbled upon your essay as a link in my Facebook newsfeed from a friend who lives in Alaska. What a beautifully crafted tribute it is. I had never heard of Eva Saulitis, but now I am going to search out her writings. Thank you for opening my eyes to another piece of the world we all share.

  37. Thank you – even though I had never heard of Eva Saulitis you got me intrigued and wanting to know more. A lovely tribute to a lovely heartful woman who like many others has been taken by this insidious disease. Thank you again for this lovely post

  38. I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with her in the summer of 2014, hiking and talking about remote places, words, writing, cancer, and who knows what else: everything under the non-setting Alaska sun that day. She was a magnificent person. I am sorry to hear she’s gone.

  39. i take ( some ) comfort in knowing when my time comes , i will return to the stardust from whence i came .

  40. beautiful. i’m soaking up all the wisdom and grace. thank you, we could all only wish for so loving a remembrance ~ and thank you to eva as well for sharing and giving much in her writing.

  41. We are diminished by her loss but we are all together in the cycle of Nature. She taught us this and we will remember her.

  42. I never knew of Eva Saulitis… A gift to our world. I will search for her writings.
    Thank you for your writing, Krista. A beautiful tribute , to a beautiful soul.

  43. I appreciate reading your essay on Eva. Like the comment above, I also did not know of Eva Saulitis…my loss. However, thanks to your beautifully crafted words, Eva, her efforts, and work will live on. And I hope many, many people read your essay. Thank you

  44. Eva was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. She possessed that wonderful gift that could make the person she was with feel both special and valued. Her smiling eyes could lift one’s spirit. And her remarkable way with words could expand one’s awareness, touch the emotional core, and be a delight, as well. A sweet soul who will be sorely missed. My most sincere condolences to Craig and the rest of her family.

  45. thank you. as a marine biologist and a breast cancer “survivor” this punched me right in the gut. I have to say that most “survivors” wait for the other shoe to drop. as a field biologist, I have recognized, early on, how everything feeds on everything else, but the beauty that we encounter eclipses worry, fear, and pain. we are part of this beauty – weather, fish, inverts, birds, marine mammals, plants and algae – and part of the whole life cycle that comes around again and again. my heartfelt condolences to Eva’s family, friends, and readers. God bless.

  46. I still remember the afternoon almost 30 years ago when Eva Saulitis stopped by my office at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I was an English professor and taught non-fiction. I was immediately struck by her potential as a nature writer, and encouraged her to enter our graduate writing program. I was deeply saddened to learn of her passing today.

  47. I grew up with Eva in Silver Creek. She would have been 53 yesterday. i can still see and hear her mischievous winking laugh – cant be believe she is gone. She worked in my dad’s vineyards with the rest of Migrant Local 2389 (about ten classmates, mostly guys) which was rough and tumble. On the other extreme, She was also a great student. But tried not to be too serious – which is not easy with librarians for parents. That great laugh and bright smile! She brought her gifts to alaska and the world is a demonstrably better place fot it.

  48. I am writing this message from Siberia. Thank you, Krista Langlois, for your thoughtful writing about Eva. Tomorrow I will light a candle for her at my favorite datsan (Tibetan Buddhist temple) here in Ulan Ude. People call the datsan by the name of its location: Лисые гора (Bald Mountain). It is a sacred place with a stunning view of the Selenga River, which flows north from Mongolia, through Ulan Ude, and into the sacred sea of Lake Baikal. It will be my privilege to honor Eva with this small candle in this special place, and to spin the prayer wheels for her and all that she worked for and shared. Peace and light be with you, Eva.

  49. It was not until my January issue of THE SUN arrived in the mail just a few days before Christmas, 2016, that I discovered after reading “The Body That Once Was Mine” by Eva Saulitis, that this talented woman had died. Somehow I missed knowing this, and so I write belatedly to thank her for her poem “Prayer 48” which inspired me a few years back to begin writing memoirs of my life, even at this late stage of 81.

  50. I did not know about Eva until the January The Sun story (and interview by Christine Byl, which I haven’t yet read). I felt curious after reading “The Body That Once Was Mine,” and did an internet search to learn more about Eva. I was pleasantly surprised she had become an Alaskan. Reading about the pollutants she’d been exposed to in her youth, I compared it to my relatively pesticide-free exposures of being raised in Alaska during the same era. Those who knew her know she is a teacher. That I know of, I do not have cancer, yet my inner voice tells me there is some reason I am learning about Eva, her life and her death, right now.

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