Here’s a link to my article up on Medium’s Politically Speaking. The events on the Christian Day of Epiphany made me think about my own epiphanies when I participated in the anti-war protests in the 1970s. The government truths and lies being protested during this insurrection/coup were very different from those we protested then, but the structural racism of our society is depressingly the same.
The COVID pandemic and the cancellation of a traveling exhibit provided me with an unexpected opportunity to work with my local museum – the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska – to co-curate an exhibit about natural history collecting in the local area. Museum curator Savanna Bradley and I selected objects from the 24,000+ specimens in the museum’s natural history collections to illustrate and explore the theme of shifting baselines in societal attitudes and museum practices on the collection, curation, and uses of natural history specimens. The exhibit opened on July 9 with COVID precautions in place and ran through September.
The exhibit focused on the “western” museum tradition that began as private “cabinets of curiosities” owned by European aristocrats. These became the nucleus of national public museums which received the scientific specimens collected by Russian and other European naturalists who first reached Alaska in the late 18th century through “voyages of discovery” by colonizing nations. After the U.S. purchased Alaska, American naturalists and scientists organized collecting expeditions on behalf of U.S. national museums to the territory of Alaska, including to Kachemak Bay, in the late 19th century. The Pratt’s collections began with the donations of private collections in the 1950s and they now serve the mission of a place-based community museum. Savanna, a talented artist, provided whimsical drawings of the “cabinets” typical of museum displays of different eras and additional artwork to tie the displays together.We gave museum visitors opportunities to ponder the future of natural history museums, as attitudes have shifted toward conservation of species once collected in large numbers and collections are beginning to serve as baselines to monitor changes related to a rapidly-changing climate.
As we were developing the exhibit during a period of heightened attention to racist and colonial aspects of institutions, including museums, we decided it was important that the exhibit include an acknowledgement of the broader context of the western museum tradition as one rife with colonialism, racism, and misrepresentation. I also wrote an exhibit guide “Diving Deeper” to provide this broader context, with emphasis on the Indigenous knowledge and languages that were largely ignored until relatively recently and cultural aspects of scientific and common naming conventions.
Exhibit-related programs included:
– A First Friday virtual event in September featuring readings from my book and one by local author Nancy Lord from her book Green Alaska about the famous Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899: https://www.facebook.com/prattmuseum/videos/922866088122918/?comment_id=922907694785424¬if_id=1599278252239718¬if_t=comment_mention&hc_location=ufi
– An on-going radio series “Sound Collections” was kicked off by my interview about my own collections in my “home museum” followed by interviews of a diverse group of other local collectors.
A veteran biologist and longtime Alaska resident explores the region’s Indigenous and natural history.
In this debut volume of nature essays, Sigman applies the ecology concept of “shifting baselines” – essentially, establishing a new sense of normal after a significant change-to her own life and to Homer, Alaska, and the surrounding Kachemak Bay, where she has resided for many years. The book’s pieces draw on the author’s work as a researcher and environmental educator. They focus on the connections between the changing populations of fish, mollusks, and marine mammals and the shifts in the human population, both the region’s Indigenous communities and the waves of settlers who have migrated from the United States mainland to Alaska for more than a century. The essays are both informative and enjoyable reads, as Sigman does an excellent job of conveying scientific topics to nonspecialist readers. “In the Spirit of the Lamp” shows how the prehistory of a location is deeply connected to its present. In “The Silver Horde,” the author makes an effective comparison between artificially breeding salmon and driving a Prius, each solving one problem while contributing to another. The prose is vivid (“Parents exchanged nest duties with courteous butler-like bows before the
stay-at-home mom or dad flew off to forage along the north shore”), and the essays provide a clear sense of place and belonging. Readers will discover that Alaska’s environmental problems are complex and layered, with competing interests vying for supremacy and outcomes that are clear only in the long term-halibut overfishing, for instance, or the challenges of managing salmon hatcheries. “The Bidarki Story” is one of the collection’s strongest essays, following a graduate student’s shellfish research that succeeds by treating the Indigenous bidarki harvesters as scientific partners rather than passive subjects. Readers who have never been to Alaska will come away with a clear sense of the landscape and the wildlife and people who inhabit it as well as an appreciation for the work of ecologists.
A well-written and deeply intriguing collection of essays on humans and nature in Alaska. – Kirkus Review
I was thrilled to learn that my book Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay was selected for this award given to one book a year for distinguished natural history writing by the John Burroughs Association! It joins a list of awardees that began in 1926 with William Beebe’s Pheasants of the World and which includes Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Barry Lopez’ Of Wolves and Men, Loren Eiseley’s The Firmament of Time, and the many other natural history writers who have inspired me in my writing and conservation efforts. The inspirational Alaskan writers who have received the award include Adolf Murie (A Naturalist in Alaska, 1963), Victor Sheffer (A Year in the Life of a Whale, 1970), the (sadly and recently) late Richard Nelson (The Island Within, 1991) and Sherry Simpson, my teacher and mentor in the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA program, for Dominion of Bears in 2015.
The award luncheon originally scheduled on April 6, 2020, at the Yale Club in New York City was postponed due to the COVID pandemic and is tentatively re-scheduled for April, 2021.
“How have we developed our collective salmon narratives, what are these narratives obscuring, and how can we bring these shadows into the light?” This was the call to artists and writers issued by the Alaska Humanities Forum and Alaska Salmon Fellows in March, 2018. “As Alaskans,” the call continued, “we typically tell positive salmon narratives and we often neglect the matching dark sides of our stories, like the struggles for sustainability, equity, and resource management.” The literary submissions and visual art selected will be part a traveling Salmon Shadows exhibit, with publication to follow in FORUM magazine.
The “Stray Hopes” essay I submitted that was accepted was an excerpt from the “The Silver Horde” chapter in my book Entangled on the history of Alaskan salmon fisheries and management. The dark side of the story told in “Stray Hopes” is the potential for ecological consequences on stream and marine ecosystems that shadows the faith placed on hatcheries to boost Alaska salmon production.
Robert Hannon interviewed me in Fairbanks and added the interview to his 2018 Earth Day podcast in between conversations with researcher Kimberly Maher on the effects of climate change on birch sap, and with Fairbanks singer, educator, and environmentalist Susan Grace. My conversation with Robert begins about 14 minutes in the podcast at https://northernsoundings.com/2018/05/01/earth-day/.
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.
Author explores ecological, historical and personal change
By Kat Sorenson, Kenai Peninsula Clarion Posted February 28, 2018
“I walked the beaches, attuning my meanderings to the tidal cycles. The rocks lurking beneath the water were exposed by the ebbing tides, and they teemed with life in glistening swaths. The many-legged and shelled creatures clung to their crevices and the last drops of moisture until the tide returned. I walked the forest trails when the plant emerged, green-legged and the flowers shifted from violets in spring to a panoply of blossoms during the summer and later as bursts of red and yellow marked their dying back under the spruce trees.” — Marilyn Sigman
During her eleven years working as a naturalist guide at the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies in Homer, author Marilyn Sigman started looking deeper into what was going on around her.
“I became really concerned about climate change and how it was changing a place I was really attached too — Kachemak Bay,” Sigman said.
This affection and worry spurred Sigman to write “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay,” in which she weaves the history of the Kachemak Bay with her and her family’s own journey. Within the pages, history, science and narratives tangle into one.
“I could really see a lot of change in the places that I had been doing all my work,” said Sigman, who spent a decade working within the bay in many different aspects, from ecotourism to school field trips. “I was trying to find a way to think about climate change without being sad, without knowing what to do, so I thougt it would be interesting to look at the whole past of how people, who have been living in Kachemak Bay for over 9,000 years, have gone through climate and environmental changes.”
In the book, Sigman explores how the ecosystem impacted people, and also how people impacted the climate, how the human world shifted over to altering the ecosystem.
“I don’t think it’s a belief,” Sigman said of climate change. “I just accept it’s happening. The evidence is compelling, but I also don’t assume that the reader agrees. I go with the idea that this is what the evidence shows. It’s always changing. The environment changes and people have to respond, and they may be causing it.”
Through her writing, Sigman points to Alaska’s natural resources, and how over time, they have drawn people to the area and sent them away, creating a story of “settlement and displacement.”
“Something that became one of the themes of the book was that I started looking at my own family,” Sigman said. “I’m a third-generation immigrant and all of my ancestors came to America. Looking back at why people leave places, and why they stay in places and thinking about how when things are changing and people are asking ‘what are we going to do,’ it becomes interesting to look back at my own family and see how the environment impacts their decisions.”
Sigman said she learned a lot, and was able to focus more on her writing, while in the University of Alaska Anchorage Creative Writing and Literary Writing Program. She was able to hone her creative skills, and become more deft in her interpretation of scientific studies.
“It was an evolution of being a creative writer, but keeping the non-fiction aspect with science and history,” she said. “I had to learn the craft of that more literary and creative writing… And when you’re writing about science, you’re translating but scientists are critical about the way you interpret their science… I was always in the back of my mind wondering what the scientist would say.”
Sigman balances what a scientist would say with her own thoughts with mastery, gleaning lessons of how people interact with the world around them, starting in Homer.
“Marilyn Sigman unites her ‘science brain’ with her naturalist’s heart and an insatiable curiosity to bring us a beautifully written account of human and ecological connections,” said Nancy Lord, author of ‘Beluga Days.’ “Part memoir, part natural history, part quest into understanding the nature of change.”
Sigman will be speaking at Resurrect Art Coffee House Gallery in Seward on Friday at 6 p.m. She will also be at the Soldotna Public Library on March 6 at 5:30 p.m.
Reach Kat Sorensen at email@example.com
New book looks at the history of people and ecological change in Kachemak Bay
RENEE GROSS •KBBI Radio, Homer JAN 5, 2018
Throughout her former job as the director of the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies, Marilyn Sigman, saw how climate change was affecting the state. But instead of researching how climate change might develop in the future, she decided to look to the past, specifically at how Kachemak Bay’s climate has changed over time and how people have adapted. Her book “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay” is coming out on February 15th.
On January 9, 2018, Outside Magazine published the article Women Writing about the Wild: 25 Essential Authors. The list spanned centuries – from Susan Fenimore Cooper’s naturalist writings in 1850 that were consulted by Thoreau to Rachel Carson in the 1950s to Terry Tempest Williams, Ann Zwinger, poet Camille Dungy, and a slew of other historical and current writers. Not a single Alaskan women writer was included, however.
I am, of course, biassed, but I want to add my shout-out to the three Alaskan women writers who mentored me into the genre of creative non-fiction.
The first is Nancy Lord who introduced me to Creative Nonfiction in a class she taught at the Kachemak Bay campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage in Homer. I had other opportunities to learn from her in her writer/instructor role in the annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference and in the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA program. As a writing teacher, she has the admirable ability to deliver incisive and dead-on critiques calmly and clearly, a model she facilitates for peer reviews among “emerging” writers.
Nancy is who I want to be when I grow up – an author who lives in Homer, Alaska, (the place I am working my way back to in order to retire there) and combines fierce and uncompromising environmental and moral activism with excellent science-based nonfiction writing. After demonstrating her mastery of the personal essay in Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore and Green Alaska: Dreams from a Far Coast (based on her participation in the 100th-anniversary reprise of the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska), she turned to fiction and short stories in The Man Who Swam With Beavers. She then wrote the long-form Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale to examine the plight of beluga whales in Cook Inlet where she and her long-term partner, Ken Castner, have their summer fish camp.
Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life compiled a decade of essays into a collection that came out in 2009, in the midst of her tenure as Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 2008-2010. “I have written largely about Alaska, in this book and others,” she wrote in the Preface, “not only because Alaska is my home and thus the place I know best but because it’s the last place in America that big enough and wild enough to hold intact landscapes and the dreams that are so absent from almost everywhere else.” Writing about Alaska’s “remarkable beauty and examples of the visible linkages between natural systems, history, and the present,” Nancy offered the hope “that this book will encourage readers to search their own home places for some of that beauty and connectedness, and understanding” so that they “might protect and even restore what they love.”
Her essayistic writings often involve “ride-alongs” or rather, “hike-alongs” with scientists in the manner of John McPhee, demonstrated by the essay “Fossiliferous” she wrote about dinosaur research in Denali National Park when she was the writer-in-resident there one summer. Her 2011 book, Alaska Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North, was based on re-visiting places and people she had first encountered in western and northern Alaska several decades earlier. Not content with the response to the urgency of the message of the impacts of the rising arm of the hockey stick graph of CO2 emissions, she undertook the writing of a novel to reach a broader audience. pH, published six years after Early Warming, is about, of all things, ocean acidification. Readers are hooked and carried along, as well as effortlessly educated about chemistry that usually evokes shudders, with a well-plotted storyline about intrigue within the scientific community and its intersection with an artist.
As she worked on writing her novel, Nancy was invited to edit the anthology Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from the Salmon Project. The anthology, published in 2016, includes essays by twenty-one of Alaska’s best essayists, including Ernestine Hayes, Seth Kantner, and Heather Lende; and thirty-plus more personal stories by Alaskans about their relationships with salmon. “This is the way of Alaskans and salmon,” she wrote in the Introduction. “Alaskans . . . are quite literally made of salmon. The protein, omega oils, and calcium pass from salmon into our bodies and bones, our good health. Beyond that, our families and friendships and communities are all made of salmon – through the ways we work together, eat together, and share not just salmon but common values. Follow the circles out, and it’s easy to see that Alaska itself, our home place, is to a great degree made of salmon.”
I also knew Nancy in her role as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Alaska Conservation Foundation during the time I also served as a Trustee. She served on the Board for seven years and as the Chair for two, somehow balancing her writing life with her huge contributions of time and wisdom to the organization.
In future posts, I’ll feature Sherry Simpson and the late Eva Saulitis, as well as some of the Alaskan women whose writing I became acquainted with through the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA program.