Rafe Sagarin

September 15, 2015
Eric Magrane

In memory of Rafe Sagarin (1971–2015), who was killed by a truck while riding his bicycle near Biosphere 2 in May.

On multiple occasions, I remember Rafe Sagarin quoting the poet Robinson Jeffers.

“Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through,” he would recite, from Jeffers’ poem “Roan Stallion.”

Rafe moved seamlessly between different ways of knowing the world, and his wide-ranging intellect, knowledge, and curiosity radiated from all that he did. His thinking, while reflecting his training as a marine biologist, was outside of any narrow conception of art or science or disciplinary boundaries.

I knew Rafe as a colleague at the Institute of the Environment, as a mentor through the Carson Scholars Program, and as someone who had deep passion for helping humans adapt.  His work on the importance of close observation in ecology and on adaptable systems was—and will continue to be—an inspiration for many.

Rafe had a penchant for thinking and dreaming big, to which his most recent project to transform the ocean at Biosphere 2 attested.
Octopus drawing by Rafe Sagarin
I was often struck by Rafe’s sense of play, from his stories of interactions with octopuses to his quick willingness to join a hike with artists and scientists in IE’s Art & Environment Network. I wasn’t surprised to read about him being a founding member of a “Beaver Queen Pageant”—a playful family-friendly community conservation fundraising event revolving around “beaver-drag contestants”—while he was at Duke University.

In the spring of 2013, Rafe and I had a wide-ranging, videographed conversation on art and environment, with excerpts posted on Proximites and on Terrain.org. Late this summer, I went back and watched the video of our conversation. I was struck again by his ability to make connections across boundaries and topics that might seem at first disparate and by his skill at thinking scientifically and philosophically at once.

I found a couple of short clips—not shown in the original 2013 crosspost with Terrain.org—that illustrate a bit of Rafe’s originality and vision. Any one quote can’t speak to the full scope of Rafe’s work, of course, but I believe that these two clips say something about the energy that he embodied. In them, he speaks of life as a process, and of the tendency—even in the face of great biodiversity loss and environmental challenges—of life to continually diversify.

He speaks about the process of life as a success story. It’s hard to think about this, knowing that we lost Rafe way too early. But he’s right, and this is one of the insights that I’ll remember him sharing with us.

Like in Jeffers’ poem, Rafe has broken away from the mould of humanity.

And just as Rafe quoted Jeffers, many of us will quote Rafe Sagarin.  

Rafe Sagarin on Recursivity from Environment UA on Vimeo.

Rafe Sagarin on the Trajectory of Life from Environment UA on Vimeo.

A public event to honor the life and work of Rafe Sagarin, Learning from Rafe Sagarin: A Tribute, takes place on Thursday, September 17, at 2:30 pm, at ENR2 S107.

Following the tribute, the Beneath the Waves Film Festival at The Loft Cinema (7 pm, 3233 E Speedway Blvd.) will include the short film, An Ocean Under Glass, which explores the world-famous Biosphere 2 and its efforts to create a living model of the Gulf of California. Sagarin co-directed and stars in the film.

Octopus drawing by Rafe Sagarin