Watching climate change affect the place she loves, Marilyn Sigman responded by writing a series of essays, which have just been published as a book, “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay.”
Entangled looks at climate change over time through the different cultures that have existed in Kachemak Bay and how environmental changes influenced their staying and leaving, as well as the extent to which marine ecosystem change was caused by humans, both local and distant, as participants in the ecosystem?
“Through writing about the history and current reaction to climate change, I hoped to share the story, encourage others to connect to and care for the place in the same way and figure out how to cope with my feelings around climate change,” she said?
Sigman’s book goes full circle, from the entangled history of sea otters, bidarkis and the Sugpiat people in Nanwalek and Port Graham into an examination of the history of sea otters, kelp beds, sea urchins and humans in the North Pacific Ocean on a much longer timescale. It looks at the ecological interactions that took place not only during the earlier times of people in Kachemak Bay, but at the time that industrial-scale fisheries for herring, halibut, and salmon began.
“We are entangled with wild animals by our very uses of them, some of them not even tangible,” she wrote. “It’s a greater ecology constructed of human desires that have always coexisted with our need to fill our bellies.”
Sigman sees her book as a platform to discuss the psychology of climate change and of moving together through the grief process associated in facing loss.
“Reflecting on the past can help us think about the future in a different or more nuanced way,” she said. “Nature is dynamic, so if you can connect and stay connected with it, you can come out with a better understanding of what is required to keep the places we love as naturally-functioning as they can be with all the ways that people are altering the rest of the ecosystem.”
Raised in Montana, Sigman grew up in nature influenced by time spent fishing with her father.
“He would park me on the bank with a can of worms and a fishing pole and disappear around the bend,” she said. “I would get bored and start looking around me, noticing the bugs and birds and plants and I learned to pay attention to nature.”
In 1974, she moved to Alaska to study wildlife management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After completing her master’s degree, she worked as a habitat biologist based in Fairbanks.
She moved to Juneau to continue her work as a state habitat biologist, focusing on fish and wildlife habitat protection and eventually became the statewide coordinator of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Alaska Wildlife Curriculum.
In 1989, she attended a marine education conference in Homer and met Mike McBride, who along with his wife, Diane and other community members cofounded the nonprofit, Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and she learned more about the organization’s school field trip programs and day tours.
“I was blown away by the beauty of the bay and all that diversity of marine life and birds, and Homer had a kind of magical feel with all of its artists, scientists and environmental educators,” she said.
In 1993, she moved to Oregon to become the executive director of an EPA National Estuary Project. She returned to Montana a few years later to work as director of a nonprofit environmental education organization. All the while, her heart longed for Alaska, and in 1998, she moved to Homer to work as program manager for CACS.
A few years later, her title changed to executive director and she moved CACS in a direction of increased involvement in Alaska conservation and stewardship work, in addition to the work they were already doing with education.
Witnessing the impacts of climate change, she began to write about the changes she was seeing in an attempt to make sense of the scientific information and as a way to express her feelings about these changes.
After taking a creative nonfiction class with Homer writer Nancy Lord and receiving encouragement from Sherry Simpson, another local writer, during a Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference, she moved beyond writing just for herself. Her essays were published in the Alaska Quarterly Review and received Honorable Mention in a statewide writing contest.
In March 2009, she left CACS and Homer for an opportunity to work as program manager for the Alaska Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence in Anchorage. The project’s focus was ocean climate change and the blending of western science and Alaska Native knowledge in response to climate change. At first, she thought science education and better science communication were a large part of the solution to climate change, but she soon realized that people do not always want to learn about what is not in their economic interest. They not only denied climate change, but also rejected science.
“That’s what drove me to become even more engaged in creative writing,” she said. “I thought it might be a way to reach more people about what was happening.”
In 2010, she applied to University of Alaska Anchorage’s non-resident creative writing program and her essays evolved into a book examining the ecological history of the bay and the human role in it, from the earliest evidence of people setting up camp around 8,000 years ago to the effects of the oceanographic warming pattern nicknamed the Blob during the winter of 2015-2016.
One of Sigman’s mentors was another Homer writer, Eva Saulitis, who helped her weave her personal story into the larger historical story and guided her to a resolution of the question about the environmental work worth doing in the face of climate change.
“At different times in my life, I had tried to save the world, but I came to understood that not everything could be saved because change is the true way of nature,” she said.
Sigman believes that pondering global climate change in one place can be applied to any place.
She is currently on a book tour in Seward, Soldotna, Homer, Anchorage and Fairbanks, with the support of 49 Writers and will be moving back to Homer this spring, eager to once again settle back into the community she loves. Sigman will be in Homer this week for the Kachemak Bay Science Conference and for her book launch and reading at Grace Ridge Brewing on Saturday, March 10 at 5:30 p.m., which is open to all.