'Wild Darkness: In nature, death is not defeat', by Eva Saulitis, which was published in the March/April 2014 edition of Orion Magazine, is a stunning essay by Alaskan writer and marine biologist Eva Saulitis.
The essay opens with Saulitis writing about wild salmon who return upstream to their own birthplace to spawn and then die. Even though she is a whale expert and not a salmon expert, Saulitis and her partner made frequent hiking trips in Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska.
‘Hikes are our sanity,’ she writes. ‘We hike because we love this rainy, lush, turbulent, breathing, expiring, windy place as much as we love our work with whales.’
But her 26th field trip is different to every trip before. This time, she is witnessing the salmon through different eyes, the eyes of someone whose own demise is no longer an abstraction. Saulitis has just learned that her breast cancer has returned and spread to her right lung. It’s incurable.
Her time in hospital, she writes, taught her that certain experiences cut us off entirely from nature, or seem to. She knows that as long as we inhabit bodies of flesh, blood, and bone, were are wholly inside nature. But her time in hospital taught her to fear something more than death (and I quote): ‘an existence that depends upon technology, machines, sterile procedures, hoses, pumps, chemicals easing out one kind of pain only to fee a psychic other.’
Then she begins to sense, then hope, then trust that when the time comes, her body will know exactly what to do.
She writes: ‘I envied those salmon their raw deaths, not for a moment separated by nature.’
Later in the essay, after agreeing with Bill McKibben’s thesis in his seminal 1989 book, The End of Nature, that nothing on earth is apart from human tinkering, she writes: ‘My greatest fear is a variation of McKibben’s revelation: that the end of nature means the end of natural death, the end of a natural return to earthly elements.’
Eve Saulitis died two years after its publication, in 2016. Her obituary reads: ‘Renowned Alaskan writer and marine biologist, Eva Lucia Saulitis, age 52, was carried into her beloved eternal wilderness on the spirited wings of dear friend and mentor Celia Hunter's dogsled, in the early afternoon of Saturday, January 16, 2016 from her home in Homer, Alaska.’
It’s unclear whether the dogsled was physical or metaphorical but, given the subject of her essay, it was no surprise to learn that she played a key role in planning for the disposal of her body, including weaving her own casket with her family.
During her life, Saulitis also published five books. Her final book, Becoming Earth, grew out of the 'Wild Darkness' essay, and was published posthumously in 2016, although a few advance copies arrived just before she died. In the book, according to the publisher’s blurb, Saulitis revels in the nostalgia and secret pleasures that come from knowing life is fleeting.