The second and third seminars in the McGillicuddy Humanities Center’s reading group on “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay” took place on Feb. 25 and March 4. Author Marilyn Sigman led the discussions, and professor Laura Cowan May organized them. These discussions centered around the middle sections of the book, titled “Artifacts” and “Fugitive Resources”, which covered a wide range of subject matter.
“Artifacts” focused on the material culture and history of human occupation in the southern coastal regions of Alaska. As Sigman informed the audience during the course of the brief supplemental presentation, humans began to inhabit the Kachemak region approximately 8,000 years ago, following the glacial retreat 2,000 years prior. One of the main groups of native peoples, the Dena’ina, arrived in the region approximately 1,000 years ago. Sigman also showed images of various sites of original inhabitants in the region, as well as some of the tools and artifacts important to the Kachemak material tradition. The importance of exploring these artifacts and archeological sites is to see how they align with data on changes in fishing harvests, and how these can be used to track the changes in the environments in which the natives of the region lived.
As research continued, it became clear that the data reflected depletions and changes during the times in which various groups would move away from certain areas. During the Feb. 25 discussion, readers went into breakout rooms to talk about the understanding of natural shifts in Alaska’s southern coastal environments in a way that is helpful to researchers tracking current climate change patterns. More specifically, readers responded to the question of how traditional values can help to lead the way forward in facing the ongoing crisis of climate change.
The third installment of the series centered around the section of Sigman’s book entitled “Fugitive Resources,” and the discussion covered the various ways in which the Alaskan fishing industry has been affected by climate change, as well as legislation. Fisheries management and technological advancements have led to a more holistic approach to sustainably-sourced fish.
This section of the book looked at three examples of fish populations in the Kachemak Bay region: the halibut, the salmon and the herring. Sigman noted some of the cultural significance of these fish populations in the art and culture of the area, and how colonialism affected the ecological landscape of the region.
One of the most important moments of this discussion centered around Sigman’s discussion of her writing process and inspirations for her work.
“I was kind of trained to write in a very boring way about science, but in my journal I would go ‘oh but I had this lovely walk in the woods, and I love nature’ kind of writing, and I had to merge all of that together,” Sigman said.
Sigman spoke to the process of learning to write through her creative nonfiction writing seminars and groups.
“It took a lot of drafts, and I did a lot of research, and then I think the real challenge was the form of personal narrative, which requires you to be present,” Sigman said.
Sigman also spoke to the importance of bringing life and personality to her work in order to make the project more interesting for a wider audience.
“Natural history has a kind of history where it is directed towards fairly literate people with some degree of science literacy, so I assume some level of interest in science,” she said, and then cited the words of advice of David Quammen, a famed travel writer. “I just imagine I’m having a conversation with someone. Just think of it more conversationally, and discuss not just the science, but what the science means to humans, and the humanities aspect of it.”
Sigman spoke to the usefulness of language and storytelling in effectively communicating science in a human way, which would inspire and inform an audience of the changes and ecology in a region of Alaska many readers would have otherwise not taken interest in. Works of literature such as “Entangled” help to emphasize the cultural importance of communicating the past traditions of the native inhabitants of the Kachemak Bay, and the holistic relationships between researchers and the region in which they conduct their research.
The final reading group discussion takes place on March 11. For more information on this series, visit the McGillicuddy Humanities Center website.