A conservation elder celebrates 101

  Perhaps all standoffs between so-called environmentalists and industry are 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. 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 the visionaries, Mardy Murie, celebrated her 101st birthday in August. A person who reaches such formidable age can hardly help but acquire near-mythic stature of her own, and so Mardy has become something of a legend: She is the grande dame of the conservation movement. On her birthday, 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 wish her happy birthday. I knew she didn't recognize me; 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, on any scale.

It is impossible to gauge the impact of this frail centenarian 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 with not only with Olaus, but with a wild place. More sojourns above the Arctic Circle followed, and the couple's connection with the land and creatures eventually inspired the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for which the Muries--along with George Collins and Lowell Sumner--were largely responsible. Olaus died in 1963, and Mardy furthered their vision.

In 1964, she was present when Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law; it had been conceived on the Murie's ranch in Moose, Wyo. In 1998, after decades of impassioned writing, speaking and testifying before Congress, Mardy traveled to Washington 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 has 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 expectation. Politically active as a wife, mother and widow, she was adventurous, a woman whose unwavering conviction was rooted in an intimate relationship with a wild place and which 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 despite having audiences with presidents, over the decades Mardy 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, where we commit ourselves with utter certainty?

Mardy Murie is legendary, but she is also an ordinary human being who knew what she valued and who stood her ground like a mother bear. She was simultaneously fierce and soft. She was an unstoppable activist in an era before environmentalism took on labels ranging from elitist to left-wing, and before a schism was gouged between conservation and industry. Perhaps her path was less rocky than ours. Still, her journey required hope that carried her beyond wishful thinking, and into action. Her contributions are many, but for me, her most enduring gift is the example of her life -- written large, and with wild grace.

Geneen Marie Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range (hcn.org), a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. She writes in Kelly, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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