A Review of Eva Saulitis’s Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist
By Randon Billings Noble
I read Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist in the cold and dark. I was not in Alaska, on various boats and beaches where the majority of these essays are set, but in a writing studio as small and snug as a ship’s cabin, during a power outage due to sub-zero temperatures. Never was I so grateful for a flashlight – and Eva Saulitis’s gorgeous, searching, and sustaining prose.
Her preface warns us that these “essays are set in the thin places … where the material and spirit worlds exist in close proximity,” and each contains elements of the concrete and the abstract. The first essay, “The Burden of the Beach,” describes the rough autopsy of a killer whale found dead on an isolated beach. Wearing thrift-store clothes (meant to be thrown away afterward) and heavy rain gear, Saulitis and her assistant take turns cutting into the carcass (“[s]plit open rinds of blubber fall away”) while the other sings to ward off bears. While they work to retrieve the whale’s stomach and determine the cause of death, Saulitis remembers stories about the island’s history, myths of women turning into bears, and rituals Alaskan Native peoples perform when they kill an animal. When Saulitis and her assistant leave the carcass of the whale behind, she imagines the animals of the island “biding time, waiting to reclaim what’s theirs, their eyes in the alders, watching.”
Saulitis is a scientist who can maintain a clinical distance from what she observes. But she is also a writer who can imagine an island watching her back, who conjures the past through photographs, and who isn’t afraid to ask questions that other scientists might acridly dismiss: “Is it ‘animapomorphic’ to ascribe animal traits to humans? If it’s wrong to suppose that animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves?”
It is this combination of fact and philosophy that makes Saulitis’s writing so powerful, whether she is describing fleeting encounters with wolves or remembering the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. “Ghosts of the Island” blends personal, geographic, and Chugachmiut history. “One-Hundred-Hour Maintenance” weaves together engine repair, tai chi, oboe playing, and the many forms of love. “Wondering Where the Whales Are,” perhaps my favorite essay, charts Saulitis’s fascination with both the biology of killer whales and their mythology, their rarely-heard voices and the language of science, as well as mysteries not easily explained: “Science. It seems solid, but it’s mostly space, like a gill net I drop over the world.” Saluitis gives us what she catches – as well as that which the net of science cannot hold.
A perfect essay collection, like a perfect album, is rare. There is nearly always a piece or a track that disappoints. Not so in Leaving Resurrection. Even the essay titled “And Suddenly, Nothing Happened” – which describes what happens (or doesn’t) in the absence of whales – becomes a thoughtful meditation on the ways we recover from loss, insist on change, pick through wreckage, and reshape our lives.
Resurrection Bay, the body of water referred to in the collection’s title, may be a place that needs leaving. But this collection is one that I will not easily leave behind. I will return to it again and again, like the transient whales Saulitis follows, always searching for something new and mysterious, even off familiar shores.
Eva Saulitis, Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist, Boreal Books, 2008: $18.95
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books; PANK and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.