Perhaps all showdowns between environmentalists and industry appear to be clashes of mythic proportion, but the unfolding story of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seems particularly so, a world-class drama whose players include migratory birds, caribou, polar bears, native Alaskans, eco-activists, oil executives and politicians.
of this mythic tale is yet unscripted. But if not for the
imagination and action of a few visionary individuals, a largely
unwitnessed, tundra-smashing conclusion would have been enacted
One of those visionaries was Mardy Murie, who
passed away on October 19, just two months after her 101st
Such formidable age carries its own near-mythic
stature, but Mardy became something of a legend for reasons other
than longevity. If the conservation movement had a grande dame, it
was unquestionably Mardy Murie.
On her birthday in
August, small clusters of well-wishers greeted Mardy as she sat on
the porch of her storybook log cabin. Her white hair was elegantly
arranged; she wore a dress embroidered with flowers. She seemed to
settle her eyes on mine when I stepped forward to thank her for her
life’s work, and to wish her happy birthday. She didn’t
recognize me, but it didn’t matter. Mardy always loved a
party, and probably would not have minded that this one was also
for us — those whom she’d inspired, mentored or
challenged to activism, however small or
It is impossible to gauge the impact
this frail centenarian had on the American consciousness. Anyone
who has ever heard of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has Mardy
to thank (or curse, depending).
With her husband, wildlife
biologist Olaus Murie, Mardy honeymooned by dogsled up
Alaska’s Koyukuk River in 1924, inaugurating a love affair
not only with Olaus, but with a wild place. More sojourns above the
Arctic Circle followed, deepening the couple’s relationship
with, and desire to protect, wild land and creatures. Eventually,
along with George Collins and Lowell Sumner, the Muries helped
inspire the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Olaus
died in 1963, but Mardy kept the vision they shared alive.
In 1964, Mardy was present when Lyndon Johnson signed the
Wilderness Act into law; it had been conceived on the Muries’
ranch in Moose, Wyo. In 1998, after decades of impassioned writing,
speaking and testifying before Congress, Mardy traveled to
Washington, D.C., to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for
a life dedicated to conservation.
She was then nearly 96
and a true elder, an “environmentalist” long before
there was such a word, who devoted herself to a wild place for, as
she has written, “the sake of the land
“Don’t call it
‘ANWR,’ ” she said. “Use the words
‘Arctic’ and ‘refuge.’ ” Only those
specific words, she insisted, reflect any essence of the
She was right, of course. ANWR, with its
unfortunate pronunciation, “anwar,” sounds like a place
far away, maybe in Saudi Arabia — somewhere an average
American probably doesn’t care much about — instead of
the last 125 miles of Alaskan Arctic coastline that is not already
open for oil drilling. Mardy recognized that such confusion
doesn’t hurt oil companies.
Mardy was a cultural
aberration for her time, a woman who charted her own course,
regardless of societal expectations. Politically active as a wife,
mother and widow, she was adventurous, with a sense of unwavering
conviction rooted in an intimate relationship with a wild place.
She influenced the pro-conservation decisions of at least four U.S.
presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and
Bill Clinton, who vowed to Mardy that there’d be no drilling
in the Arctic Refuge on his watch.
Yet the same woman who
had audiences with presidents welcomed me and thousands of other
ordinary pilgrims with homemade cookies and tea. She believed in
the value of conversation. She loved to dance, and at her 101st
birthday, while musicians serenaded her, she seemed to be waltzing
I went home from her party wondering: How many of
us can identify what we cherish, and decide how we will commit
ourselves, with such utter certainty?
Mardy Murie was
legendary, but she was also an ordinary human being who knew what
she valued. She stood her ground like a mother bear, simultaneously
fierce and soft. She was an unstoppable activist in an era before
environmentalism took on labels like “elitist” and
“left wing,” before a chasm was gouged between
conservation and industry. Perhaps her path was less rocky than
Still, her journey required hope and courage that
carried her far beyond wishful thinking, into action. Her
contributions are many, but for me, her most enduring gift is the
example of her life — a life written large, and with wild
Mardy died at home, in her log cabin on the Murie
ranch. Observers on the land reported that an abundance of owl
activity accompanied her passing. A random coincidence, we might
say, as if we actually knew. Or perhaps we might simply delight in
the mystery and wonder: What if the owls recognized the momentous
passage of a woman whose life’s work honored wild creatures
as our co-inhabitants here on earth?