Leaving Resurrection

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN?” asks Eva Saulitis more than once in these essays that search for answers to “the poet’s question” and “the scientist’s question” — which is, she submits, the same question. For some it is still a radical suggestion that science and art might share a common language — but not for Saulitis, who skillfully works through this notion as she chronicles her life as a whale scientist on and off the boat, and in and out of the field.

In Leaving Resurrection, Saulitis, a marine biologist for more than twenty years, openly questions science as a privileged method for discovering meaning. What is the best way to know the natural world and its creatures and how to do right by them? Is it through experience passed down by a thousand years of knowledge about killer whales, seals, and sea lions found in the stories of Native Alaskan elders? Is it through hundreds of hours spent on research boats — watching killer whales, identifying their idiosyncratic dorsal fins, dropping the hydrophone over the side to record their voices, collecting tissue samples with dart guns? Or is the real knowledge in the numbers — the data Saulitis culls from her observations, enters into spreadsheets, and churns through her computer?

There are stories of killer whales helping humans by driving seals onto the ice. There are stories of killer whales calling to people who are about to die. Science teaches us that these are myths. But what if they aren’t? A whale approaches Saulitis’s boat, a pulsing bloody seal in its jaws; the whale turns an eye toward her. “What are you saying?” she asks the whale. The whale might answer, “This is who I am.” Couldn’t killer whales and humans have once shared a language understood one another? Scientific method creates a shape, Saulitis writes, “a net of words.” Data, facts — these increase our knowledge, she admits, “but the step to wisdom is less certain.”

In addition to exploring the important intersections between art and science, Saulitis documents her decades-long relationship with Alaska’s Prince William Sound, its animals, and its people, including her numerous scientific comrades. Her essays are full of short portraits of the kinds of tough, quirky, and sophisticated characters you’d expect to find in Alaska, but whom Saulitis brings into sharp focus through her generous sensibility. It makes sense, given Saulitis’s broad imagination about how meaning gets made, that she weaves many intimate personal narratives into the central subject of this collection — the tale of whale research. It’s refreshing to read a book that doesn’t pretend that one’s personal life can be extricated from one’s profession. In this way, and in many others, the book challenges us to question our assumptions and expectations regarding our relationships to the natural world.