Pioneering Conservationist Mardy Murie on Nature, Human Nature, and the Wealth of the Wilderness
By Maria Popova
“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” Walt Whitman asked in contemplating what makes life worth living, then answered: “Nature remains.” But what happens when nature is in peril, no longer the consolatory constant counted on to remain? A decade before Rachel Carson catalyzed the modern environmental movement, she addressed the urgency of this question in a prescient 1953 letter in response to the government’s merciless assault nature for commercial gain: “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
Another quarter century later, as Carson’s legacy was beginning to blossom into policy change — including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — the naturalist, conservationist, adventurer, and author Margaret “Mardy” Murie (August 18, 1902–October 19, 2003) echoed Carson in her 1977 congressional testimony for the Alaska Lands Bill:
Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.
The seedbed of Murie’s reverence for the wilderness was her childhood in Alaska. There she encountered nature at her most beautiful, most ferocious, and most generous. The winters stretched from October to April and the temperature dropped to fifty below zero for weeks on end, but Murie remembers living “in an atmosphere of tolerance and love” — an orientation that stretched beyond the relationships between humans and into humanity’s relationship with nature. In the preface to her 1962 memoir, Two in the Far North (public library), she writes:
Here in Alaska people still count, as much today as in the twenties. I would love to think the world will survive its obsession with machines to see a day when people respect one another all over the world. It seems as clear as a shaft of the Aurora that this is our only hope. My prayer is that Alaska will not lose the heart-nourishing friendliness of her youth — that her people will always care for one another, her towns remain friendly and not completely ruled by the dollar — and that her great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the arctic blossoms may live on in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the North.
This is the great gift Alaska can give to the harassed world.
In the foreword to the 1997 edition of Murie’s memoir, Terry Tempest Williams — a Murie of our own time — quotes from an unpublished manuscript Murie had shared with her in her ninety-fifth year:
There may be people who feel no need for nature. They are fortunate, perhaps. But for those of us who feel otherwise, who feel something is missing unless we can hike across land disturbed only by our footsteps or see creatures roaming freely as they have always done, we are sure there should be wilderness. Species other than man have rights, too. Having finished all the requisites of our proud, materialistic civilization, our neon-lit society, does nature, which is the basis for our existence, have the right to live on? Do we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness this right?
Two years after the publication of Two in the Far North, Murie would bring her devotion to conservation and her lyrical language to the 1964 Wilderness Act — a landmark legislative triumph of respect for nature, designating 9.1 million acres of federal land as protected from human exploitation. She helped compose its founding ethos — a precise yet immensely poetic definition of wilderness:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
In 1998, midway through her ninety-sixth year, Murie’s conservation work earned her the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Complement with Terry Tempest Williams on the wilderness as an antidote to the war within ourselves, Henry Beston on relearning to be nurtured by nature, Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, Henry David Thoreau on nature as a form of prayer, and Carson on our spiritual bond with nature.
Published October 4, 2018