Writing Across Other Cultures: In apology and gratitude

I recently wrote a short piece by request of my local museum about an object in their collections. I selected a stone lamp of the type I had written about in my book Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay. I received several responses after the article was posted to the Museum’s Facebook page that what I had written was offensive and disrespectful to Indigenous people for whom the lamp has cultural significance and is part of their heritage.

An Indigenous person requested that I make a public apology. My initial attempt to do so was received as a defensive statement by this person and by a group of writers who participate in a Facebook Binders group of creative writers. I learned a lot about how what I had written, and failed to write about, caused people hurt and harm.

Here’s the link to what I wrote next which is published on Medium: Writing about Other Cultures: In apology and gratitude.

As I mentioned in the article, I consider my education and avoidance of further hurt and offense through my writing to be a work in progress along with my participation in ending colonial and racist legacies.

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Responding to the Storming of the Capitol on January 6

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.

My Epiphanies about Storming Buildings and Participating in the Resistance

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Entangled, the Museum Exhibit

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.

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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&notif_id=1599278252239718&notif_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.


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Full Kirkus Review

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

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Entangled Wins the 2020 John Burroughs Medal!

Burroughs Medal

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.

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“Stray Hopes” Essay Accepted for Salmon Shadows Art and Humanities Project

“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.


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KUAC Northern Soundings Interview

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/.

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Homer Tribune Author Interview

March 9th 1:32 am | Christina WhitingPrint this article   Email this article

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.

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An Interview in the Kenai Peninsula Clarion

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 kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com


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KBBI Interview

New book looks at the history of people and ecological change in Kachemak Bay

 •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.


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