The morning of the memorial celebration and potluck for Eva Saulitis, the beloved Alaskan writer, biologist, and writing teacher who died of cancer in January at the age of 52, I imagined she’d be there signing copies of her last book—printed just before her death—Becoming Earth. I pictured her sitting at a folding table on the grass at the edge of the bluff, overlooking Kachemak Bay, cracking open the brand new books and smiling mischievously.
Turns out, she wasn’t there, of course, but the event did feel like a book signing—in a way. Eva’s dear friend Margaret sat at the table last Saturday behind the stack of new books, handing out the slim beautiful volumes in exchange for donations to a UAA scholarship in Eva’s name.
But that was later. And what came before was painful, beautiful, scorching. About 80 people gathered on the beach at the foot of a lovely property owned by friends of Eva and her husband Craig. Eva had arranged to hold the celebration there before she died. The sky was grey and white, the water still and silver.
For those who don’t know, Eva wrote intensely about her illness, her impending death, and about the process of her dying in a number of publications, a blog, and her Caring Bridge website. Sometimes angry, but usually full of dazzling gratitude, the writing was raw, beautiful, and haunting. Eva had always been wise but now her wisdom was fierce, even as she asked question after question that had no answer.
In the last months of her life, Eva had asked a Homer artist whose medium is basketry to help her make her own casket. Each fall, the artist Mavis Muller leads the community in weaving an over head-high basket at the top of one of our local beaches and then torches it at dusk in a celebration full of drumming, two story flames, and whatever feelings you bring to it—giddiness, grief, curiosity. Eva had worked on the baskets for many years. She, Mavis, and Eva’s family all helped weave a coffin of alder and willow boughs, birch bark, nettles, and fireweed stalks. Eva bundled the grasses upon which she would be laid.
Although Eva’s body has long since been cremated, the basket casket was there on the beach atop a support made of driftwood. It was a thing of intense beauty. Into the wooden frame had been woven the wing of a green-winged teal, a wasp’s papery nest, dried kelp, and many other treasures of the Earth. The lid was propped open and inside the casket were flowers, spruce cones, photographs of Eva, and messages written on paper and ribbon. People stood at the casket and cried.
For about an hour, Eva’s family spoke. Her husband Craig told us about how, just before her last breath, Eva woke from a morphine-enhanced slumber, sat bolt upright in bed, and locked eyes with her sister before giving Craig a wide smile. Her friend David Grimes sang and led us in song, and then the casket was set on fire. We all stood there as the tide rose up the beach, pushing us toward the blaze. But we had to step away, the heat was too much on your face even twenty feet distant.
Eva was my first creative writing teacher. And before her, I hadn’t met someone who combined lyrical, personal writing with science. She showed me that path. I didn’t feel done with Eva. There was so much left I wanted to learn from her. There are so many of us who feel that way.
The casket sank in the fire, turning into ashes in the shape of woven branches. For a time, it looked like a pile of seine net bleached white by the sun. After a while, we all wandered back up the trail down which we had come, to an opulent potluck—Homer-style. It was then that I walked over to what could have been the book-signing table. I wrote my check and walked away with the book which has a photograph taken by David Grimes of a lake or pond. The surface is frozen or perhaps windblown. All at once you see the surface of the lake, the leaves in the water below it, and the reflections of the trees above.
“I died and the mountain remained,” Eva wrote in the last paragraph of her book. “There is a future, and it is not us. It is the mountain. It is the earth.”
You can give to the UAA scholarship too. Go to http://greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu/give/ and type “Eva Saulitis Endowment Fund” into the form.
|photos courtesy of Tom Kizzia|
Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer who lives in Homer. Her natural history memoir, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, was a bestseller in the Pacific Northwest. Her Northern Lights column about life in and around Homer appears weekly on the website of The American Scholar. In addition, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, Alaska Dispatch News, and elsewhere.