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The McGillicuddy Humanities Center gives final seminar on impact of humanities on environment

The final installment of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center’s reading group on “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay” occurred on March 11.  Professor Laura Cowan May hosted the presentation which featured the author of the work, Marilyn Sigman. This meeting concluded the month-long weekly seminar,  encouraging participants to engage with their own communities and to stay in touch with the changes and the environment which they affect.

Cowan began the meeting by thanking the McGillicuddy Humanities Center, as well as the reading group’s participants. She also took time to do a land acknowledgment, expressing thanks to the Indigenous Peoples of Maine as well as those in Alaska. Cowan also talked briefly about the importance of programs like these.

“We need the humanities and the arts to accomplish change,” she said, speaking to the idea that the sciences and the humanities are not at odds with each other, and in fact, both are necessary to achieve growth.

She then passed the discussion to Sigman, who thanked the participants as well and expressed the hope that reading this work would inspire her readers to do their own writing. 

This discussion centered around the final portion of the book titled “The Ecology of Desire,” which reflects upon Sigman’s work with younger researchers, as well as exploring the history of the sea otter populations in the region. This section of her work also ties together the various threads of ecology, archeology and culture which she had previously explored in the book.

Sigman presented a brief slideshow on the history of the otter populations in Kachemak Bay. She highlighted the development of the Kechemac tradition of otter hunting and the shift towards the exploitation of the indigenous peoples’ hunting by Russian sailors for fur exports when they arrived in the region. The exploitation of this resource for commercial harvest was ended in 1911 with the passing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention. Later, more scientific-based conservation efforts led to the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. When the otter population was reintroduced to the area, they quickly became a keystone species in the complex marine ecosystem. Despite a great deal of competition for resources between the otters and commercial fisheries, they remain important to both the ecological and cultural landscape of Kachemak Bay.

Sigman also spoke to the importance of her favorite section of the work, a chapter titled “Tidepooling to the Stars,” which she described as being a sort of love letter to the work she had done in education and conservation. In this section, she describes taking a field trip to the tidepools of Kachemak Bay with a group of young students. She read these sections of the work aloud, which made it seem as though she was bringing the audience with her on these educational field trips.

At the end of the presentation, the group broke apart into small discussion rooms. Each member of the group was encouraged to bring forward a moment of the text which stuck with them or inspired them in some way. Many of the quotes that the participants brought forward dealt with the idea of entanglement and the interconnectedness of humanity with the natural world. 

When the group reconvened after the 25-minute small group discussions, the floor was opened to questions. Sigman spoke to the complexity of the genre in which she wrote, noting that finding the proper blend between scientific writing and her personal narrative was a point of difficulty, but a necessity in telling the story of Kachemak Bay properly. When asked what she was looking into writing about next, Sigman expressed interest in some of the more psychological aspects of how humanity interacts with nature.

“I’ve been interested in [studying] generational trauma,” she said, explaining how culturally and psychologically humanity ties into nature, and how the loss of connections to the world affects generational troubles. 

Finally, to conclude the discussion group, Sigman read aloud from the epilogue of the work.

“Just like this place we call Kachemak Bay and the people who lived there before me, I had been shaped by sea, wind, rain, snow, long and short seasons, volcanoes and earthquakes. But I had shaped something too in the people who walked alongside me, inhabiting this place, however briefly, and learning something about it in our human way, however scant. Something to savor, like the scent of seal oil and smoke,” Sigman read. 

The epilogue closed the discussion group with a fitting reflection not only upon how the world shapes us, but how we, in turn, are able to shape the world.

Sigman’s work is available to purchase at the University of Maine Bookstore. For more information on future programs hosted by the McGillicuddy Humanities Center, visit their website.

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