Author: There are no easy answers in affairs of the heart

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

"Heart of the Sound" is an interesting combination of memoir and wilderness writing, the first book by an Anchorage writer who is also a teacher of creative writing. It mixes scenes of the author's relationships with friends, husbands, son and other humans with her relationship with a place, Prince William Sound.

The catalyst for the book was an incident that struck horror and grief into the hearts of many Alaskans - the Exxon Valdez oil spill of Good Friday, 1989.

Writer and teacher Marybeth Holleman fell in love with Prince William Sound when she first came to Alaska from North Carolina for a summer job with Denali National Park. Instead of employment in the park itself, she was assigned to sell tickets on the Whittier shuttle, the train running between Portage and Whittier. She had never heard of the Sound before the summer of 1986, and now she yearned to be "out in it." After a 20-minute lesson in kayaking, her wish came true.

The spill was a terrible day. She investigated it. She cleaned sea otters, fed them and made notes on their behavior after cleaning. She spoke about her feelings on National Public Radio. She wasn't sure she was doing the right thing. She cites two of the reactions to that radio appearance: "It felt good to hear from her, to know she had heard my commentary But I was uneasy about a writing success that came from such a disaster. I felt guilty, like an ambulance chaser. Another friend from Cordova also heard the commentary (on NPR). She told me she had been in her car, driving to a meeting about oil spill cleanup efforts. She told me she had to pull over, it made her cry so hard."

Holleman, too, cried. But that wasn't enough. She wanted to do more. She felt criticized for her passion about the Sound - and for wanting more passion in her human relationships.

After the oil spill, Holleman was grieving about her divorce, grieving about shared custody - having given up half of her time with her son, Jamie. She spent time with biologists studying whales, with biologists studying trumpeter swans. She hoped to find solace in the Sound, but she found the continuing effects of the spill going on and on, no matter what the public stance about "cleaned beaches."

It is now 15 years after the spill. Holleman is still hoping the Sound can be fully healed. The good fight, she says, may be in continuing to care - about nature, about other people - no matter what happens.

A century ago, 80 percent of Americans lived on farms. They never traveled except into the nearest towns. They had no chance to see places like the Grand Canyon or Prince William Sound. Their focuses were the cows in the pasture, the chickens in the coop, the child with fever, the storm clouds threatening the hay. To save paper and postage, they penned their correspondence both side-to-side and top-to-bottom. A century ago, Holleman might have stayed on her acreage in North Carolina.

Now we travel. We see the bigger picture. The scope of our lives expands, our comprehension of our planet and its ecosystems enlarges. So what are we going to do next? Can our enlarged comprehension of the planet help us to save wild places for our children, for their children - or are we already too committed to technology? Those are the questions Holleman asks.

This is not an original story, not an original battle. Consider the years that conservationist John Muir fought the Hetch Hetchy dam that threatened a pristine valley he was impassioned about. Muir wrote, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well as dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

What is the value of a snail darter or a tiny owl? Is a sound more valuable than fuel-guzzling pickups? Will well-meaning people who show their appreciation of beautiful vistas by buying postcards be willing to recycle their plastic grocery bags to save oil, be willing to wash forks rather than use plastic ones, be willing to walk to the grocery store once a week to save oyster catchers, be willing to use more efficient boat engines to save halibut from din? Holleman reminds us that there are no easy answers.

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