Saturday, January 16, 2016

Eva Saulitis, moonshots, and cancer

We've lost one of the most eloquent of nature writers, poet, marine biologist, teacher, and author Eva Saulitis. I knew her only from internet correspondence, but her orca book, Into Great Silence, made a deep impression on me. It is one of the great books in terms of personalizing nature and making us understand another species.
Saulitis’ book  tells much about what we’re learning and what we don’t know concerning orcas.  She followed a transient pod, originally of 22 animals which traveled in smaller, intermingling groups, and pairs,  in and around Prince William Sound from 1987 (thus watching the devastating effects of  the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill) until, a quarter century later, there were seven, most having died or vanished, the calves no longer coming.   We don’t know how many species of orca there are, or whether they are part of a highly variable species (similar to, say, humanity).  She wrote that a stocky type with a tall fin, known as Biggs’ killer whale, appears in transient populations from four separate regions, which never cross paths. 
The author watched an incredible scene where four orcas chased and harried a fleeing Dall’s porpoise. Suddenly, as if a whistle had blown, all five animals simple stopped where they were.  Two minutes later, the chase started again, the orcas taking turns breaching beneath the porpoise and throwing it in the air, until the prey was finally grabbed and eaten. On another occasion, though, a Dall’s porpoise attached itself to an orca pod and was tolerated. It hung out with them for months.  Was the porpoise in the chase “game” perhaps unaware the orcas were serious?
She describes her interest in conservation as dating from seeing the 1972 cartoon The Last of the Curlews.  (I’ve seen it, and it was very touching.)  She wrote about the neurobiology term “origin moments,” those times when we experience something remarkable for the first time. The mind tends to remember even the smallest details.  For me, for example, one was the pillar of fire that split the night sky when Apollo 17 left for Moon while we watched from a beach miles away. For her, it was her first encounter with orcas.   

She died of cancer, a malady that has claimed far too many. We all know about David Bowie and Alan Rickman. My friend and agent, Cicily Janus, has been batting it for over a year.  (Please give here: I have.)

President Obama's launch of a "moonshot" initiative against cancer is a worthy cause, one I am willing to be taxed to support.  I have no special knowledge of medicine, but I do have some of space history, and I have to caution that his comparison to putting a man on the moon is a misleading one. President Kennedy's challenge to land an American on our natural satellite was a huge technical endeavor, but there was never any doubt about how to do it (namely, rockets), even though countless details needed to be worked out.  Cancer is a complex phenomenon with some 400 variations. It won't be cured with any single approach.  It will take time, money, and cooperation, and progress will be incremental.  But it's worth doing.

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