Last Sunday, March 24, was the 24th anniversary of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Though I still shudder at using that word, "anniversary," for something so dreadfully damaging. Prince William Sound, as well many other beautiful and fragile marine areas along Alaska's southcentral coast, from Kodiak to Kachemak Bay to the Barrier Islands, has not yet recovered, and most likely never will be.
In honor of the places and wildife and people harmed and killed by that technological disaster, I am highlighting a trio of books that speak of it, using story as a window for the reader to enter, and experience as the hardwood floor upon which it stands.Two of these books are just out, reminding us of the longevity of trauma; one is my own, released 15 years after the spill and then re-released in 2010.
My memoir, The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, is a love song to Prince William Sound, from my first years spent along its shores, through the oil spill, to the turbulent years of restoration. Twining together the destruction of an ecosystem, the disintegration of my marriage, and my emerging identity as a new mother, I explore the resiliency of nature - both wild and human - and the ways in which that resiliency is tested.
In Mei Mei Evans’ novel, Oil and Water, the narrative begins with the spill itself and follows four main characters as they deal with and respond to the first year of the disaster. Evans takes us back into a disaster we’d just as soon forget, but with such real characters that we are compelled to keep reading. Evans makes use of the freedoms of fiction and the constraints of reality to dig deep into the human effects of an environmental disaster, allowing us to see what has not before been seen, understand what has not before been understood. It is an unflinchingly clear and brave look at a hard subject that affects every one of us, no matter where we live.
In Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Saulitis charts the lives of a single extended family of orcas in Prince William Sound, a family so devasted by the oil spill and subsequent changes that they are now on the verge of extinction. With scientific clarity and poetic intimacy, Saulitis describes her research and first-had experiences with these whales. It is, truly, “a moving portrait of the interconnectedness of humans with animals and place-and of the responsibility we have to protect them.” Lovely and heartbreaking, this book cuts to the core—which is exactly where, at this time of mass extinction and global warming—we need to be.
Our stories, our art, cannot replace what was lost, but they can stand as testament to the power of the natural world and our own human creativity to witness, honor, restore, and protect, so that we may find our way to a more harmonious relation with the more-than-human world - and with our one and only home planet.