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Writing the oil spill:
Q&A with Marybeth Holleman

“A large part of my vision was to give voice to PrinceWilliam Sound. Humans could relate their reactions and sufferings, but what about the wildlife, the place?”

— Marybeth Holleman
Author, The Heart of the Sound

Anchorage author Marybeth Holleman has announced the release of her book, The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost — a personal account of her life in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. AlaskaWriters Homestead interviewed Marybeth on the week of the book’s March 12, 2004 release For more on Marybeth Holleman, visit her AlaskaWriters Web site, http://www.marybethholleman.com.

Q. You give a powerful description of your initial reaction to the news of the spill. You were grief-stricken, staying out of work for a week. Do you still feel a gulf between you and other Alaskans who didn’t react as viscerally? What sense do you make of this today?

A. I think those of us with a connection to Prince William Sound had a strong reaction immediately: grief, anger, denial, shock. And, too, as I say in the book, my own naivete that I didn’t realize the Sound could be harmed in this way certainly made my reaction more visceral. I didn’t know this place I loved was so vulnerable; it felt as if my world had toppled. However, I also know now that many people, all around the world, were affected by this event in a myriad of ways, and that certainly lends some comfort. As well, I have a handful of friends, among them my husband, who also felt that immediate shock, and with whom I will always feel a strong connection.

Q. You weave your divorce into the story. How did you decide to include your personal life in the book -- and what boundaries did you set for yourself in telling that part of the tale? Did you vet any of this with your son or ex-husband?

A. Adrienne Rich once said, “the personal is political.” To me that means you can’t separate what happens in one arena of your life with what happens in another arena. In fact, many of the ills of our society arise from the ways in which we detach and separate pieces of a life. The spill, the divorce, the birth of my son, the entrance of Rick into my life, my life and the lives of all those I knew and loved human and more-than-human alike are not pieces I can, nor wish to, separate out. They are all strands that form the weave of life. So there was no way for me to honestly leave out the divorce or any other changes in my life.

What I did consciously strive for is to keep my relationship with Prince William Sound in the forefront. All too easily a place becomes backdrop for human drama. That’s not what I wanted to write, not what I felt needed to be written; plenty of others do that very well. As humans we like to read about other humans. It’s a strong magnet. I had to be careful not to let the human story take over the story of the Sound. Early on, some readers, including a
high-profile New York agent, wanted the book to be about the human stories, with the Sound and the setting. That was a suggestion I had to reject many times over.

My son has read much of the book in one form or another; both Andy and Rick read the entire thing before it was published. Both recognized and honored the fact that this was my story, seen through the lens of my experience, and neither of them asked for any changes.

Q. You bring up interesting issues about how we accept the incremental death of place -- or, as you put it, allow our baseline to shift. Do you think your own baseline ultimately shifted? If not, how do you keep that from happening?

A. I’m afraid I can’t help but have my own baseline shift constantly. I live in this world, with all the distractions and adjustments it brings. I can’t stop time or change. The idea is to be aware I try to be aware of how my baseline shifts, of how my experience of a person or place or event changes over time. And I try to bring it back to center a bit. The act of acknowledging change, of remembering how things were and could be again, can help lessen the shift.

Writing is a way of being aware, and a way of remembering. Sometimes I think of my book as a eulogy, in the same way Isak Dinesen’s Africa no longer exists, or Edward Abbey’s Green River no longer exists, my Prince William Sound no longer exists. Of course it does, but not as I first knew it. And there’s the hope. So in a sense, this book is one attempt to keep my baseline and that of readers from blindly shifting.

Q. You speak about your experience helping with relief efforts, and the feeling that much of the work was not only fruitless but even more harmful than helpful. If you could go back to the moments right after the spill, knowing what you know now, what might you have done differently?

A. I might make the same mistakes all over again. Just last week I noticed a male pine grosbeak in the backyard. He seemed sick — he wouldn’t fly, his feathers were fluffed up, head pulled into chest. Every time I’ve taken a sick or wounded bird to the bird treatment center, they have ended up dying. Still, I couldn’t just watch this bird suffer and die. I tried to work but kept going back to the window, checking on him. I called the center, got together the box and towel to catch the bird, and watched. Waited. Hours later, finally, and much to my relief, the bird flew. I was glad for my hesitancy. So that’s one thing I’d do differently: look a bit longer before leaping.

But when there’s another spill, I hope I’ll retain my memories and lessons well enough to not drive around in a boat chasing oiled birds. I’ll try to do more of the witnessing as we did on Perry Island so that I do not turn away from the death and destruction, so that I keep my eyes open, do what I can, but try to be ever mindful of the consequences, of when I have to say “enough,” and step back, and recognize that I can’t fix it no matter how much I want to.

Q. Scientists often point out that one of the positive effects of the spill has been an explosion of research on Prince William Sound animals, many of which were barely studied before. But you question the value of the scientific research. Isn’t it a good thing that science is paying more attention to the animals and ecosystem of the Sound and elsewhere in Alaska?

A. What I question, what I disagree with, is calling science “restoration.” We’ve confused science with restoration, knowledge with healing. I love what science has to tell me about the wildlife and wild places. It enriches my experience, no doubt. And I’ve no doubt that some research does result in better protection. But not always. Sometimes it’s just knowledge. And it’s only one kind of knowledge, as I point out in “Bull’s-Eye.” My problem is with saying, “We’ve spent all this time and money studying these animals, and that’s restoration.” It’s not. The best use of restoration money has been habitat protection that’s a way of restoring the whole, of preventing further damage.

Also, we need to consider the scale of the science effort. About $500 million (1/2 of the entire natural resource damage settlement) has been allocated for research; some say we could have spent 10 percent of this amount and learned as much. Then we could have used more of the settlement funds for habitat protection.

There are parts of the oil spill region that should have been protected, but weren’t; many of them are now clearcut, further delaying recovery. That’s a spectacular travesty.

Q. Along the same lines, researchers recently used the results of blood tests and tissue samples to determine that the oil spill continues to poison some animals in the Sound. Where would you draw the line between monitoring the health of the Sound (albeit invasively) and stepping back to let it recover?

A. Again, this isn’t restoration. It’s just proof that oil hurts animals. While it’s new information, it doesn’t do any good, isn’t restoration, unless some protective measures come from it. Also, scientists could take more care in deciding when to use intrusive methods. They need to develop and abide by a set of ethics toward their subjects. Some research is much less intrusive, for example, watching and photographing killer whales, or sitting in trees clocking the speeds of marbled murrelets. But capturing, implanting radios, taking blood samples — these should be done only as a last resort, and with the smallest number of animals possible. When I hear about a project that captures healthy river
otters, or healthy harlequin ducks, puts them in an aquarium to study the effects of oil on their systems, I have to wonder how we’ve gotten so far away from the true meaning of restoration.

Q. For your fellow writers, could you tell a little about the process of conceiving of and then selling this manuscript to a publisher? How long did it take for you to crystallize how to tell this story? What kinds of reactions did you get along the way to publication?

A. The year of the spill I wanted to write a book about it, but I wasn’t interested in the kind of journalistic accounts that folks were interested in reading at that time. I remember talking with one writer who did immediately write a book about the spill. “Oh, don’t do this kind of thing,” he said, “I imagine you sitting on a beach five years from now, reflecting on all this, and writing from that perspective.” Well, it’s taken 15 rather than five [years] to get that kind of reflective, long-term perspective.

Several chapters of this book were originally written and published as essays. Over 90 percent of everything I’ve written from magazine articles to essays to poems is about Prince William Sound. An obvious obsession. So on my 40th birthday, I spent a week in a cabin in the desert southwest pulling together all these disparate pieces essays, journals, notes, articles and envisioning the thing as a book.

A large part of my vision was to give voice to PrinceWilliam Sound. Humans could relate their reactions and sufferings, but what about the wildlife, the place? I had a couple of models, but not much. One was Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. She wrote about that place so well that, at least for me, she gave it voice — the land, the wildlife, the Native people. Another was Edward Abbey’s work Desert Solitaire and many of his essays found in Slumgulion Stew. And then there was a conversation with Terry Tempest Williams very early on in this project. I told her what I was trying to do, the pieces I wanted to pull together falling in love with Prince William Sound, the spill, the connections to the place and its inhabitants, changes in my personal life. And in that conversation came two guiding words I kept above my desk for years: Give Voice.

Ah, but how? So easily we slip into the human stories. As humans, that’s what we crave, in the same way we become caught up in soap operas, be they fictional or real. But I wanted readers to feel for Prince William Sound.

Oddly, I found my answer while sitting in the dentist’s chair, spaced out on nitrous oxide. Moments in the Sound floated to me in a series of images watching three river otters play in an upland pond; terns flying by at sunset, their bellies lit orange; fireweed gathered by a streambank, that brilliant fuschia lighting the land. I knew immediately I’d found the way to give voice. It dovetailed with another thing I’d hung on to that as a writer, as a person on this earth, all the living, the real living, lies in the briefest moments when we’re truly here and now. Virginia Woolf calls these “moments of being” the very things that as writers we are beholden to recognize and to attempt to capture into words. Mary Austin had another term :“flashes of mutual awareness.” Austin’s term adds another dimension, moments when both the human and the other being, squirrel, tern, you name it, are aware of
each other in that single moment.

So that’s what these short prose-poem like pieces throughout the book are about: giving voice through moments of being, flashes of mutual awareness. Now that the book is done, I see they serve another purpose to provide breathers to the reader, moments of light, during an often tragic story.

Q. Did the book help you heal? What do you hope the book will accomplish for others?
A. A friend once said, “Writing is exorcism.” In a way,
that’s true. And of course, the other writer’s adage is, how can I know who I am until I see what I write? So yes, it helped. But it also contains lessons that I must continue to learn, that I will probably spend the rest of my life learning.

I hope the book will help others recognize their own locus amatis, their own beloved places. I hope it will help shift the way we humans see ourselves in relation to the more-than-human world. That the connection will be strengthened. If we get that, then actions more harmonious with the continuation of all life on earth will naturally follow. So yes, I’m asking this book to do quite a large task. And of course if it succeeds I’ll likely never know, and neither will readers. So much of our learning is below the surface of conscious thinking.

I want the book to be worth the trees it’s printed on, to paraphrase something Thomas Lyons once told a student.Worth the trees it’s printed on — not just an entertaining story, but something that could change lives, something that could help make this world a better place.

Yep, grand delusions, indeed. But that’s why I write: to make a difference. To be of use.

Q. You’re launching the book shortly before the 15th anniversary of the spill (March 24, 2004). Do you have special plans for that day?

A. Usually, I spend that day alone or with my family, on a mountain or in the woods, in reflection, a sacred day of remembrance. This year, however, with the publication of my book, I feel a responsibility to reach out. So I’m talking with some others who were also profoundly affected by the spill about an evening community gathering to remember and reflect, to remember the spill and how it continues to affect the place, the wildlife, and us, and to reinvigorate a desire to champion those places we care deeply about, regardless of what degradation and disaster befalls them.

— Compiled by Sonya Senkowsky

Note: For permission to reprint this article for free in your online or print publication, write editor@alaskawriters.com.

About Marybeth Holleman
Marybeth Holleman, a member of AlaskaWriters.com, is author of The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost. Her essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, among them The North American Review, Orion and The Christian Science Monitor. She also teaches creative writing and women’s studies at the University of Alaska, and holds a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She lives in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains with her husband and son. Visit her Alaskawriters site at www.marybethholleman.com.

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Photos of Sonya Senkowsky © 2004 David Jensen / David Jensen Photography.

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