The West loses a conservation elder

  • Mardy Murie in 1990

  • Mardy fishing in Alaska in the 1920s

    Photo courtesy the Murie Center

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.

The outcome 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 decades ago.

One of those visionaries was Mardy Murie, who passed away on October 19, just two months after her 101st birthday.

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 grand.

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 itself.”

“Don’t call it ‘ANWR,’ ” she said. “Use the words ‘Arctic’ and ‘refuge.’ ” Only those specific words, she insisted, reflect any essence of the place.

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 inside.

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 ours.

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 grace.

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?

Geneen Marie Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range. She writes in Kelly, Wyoming.

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