Of all our greatest Presidents, George Washington is surely first among equals. After leading the Continental troops in the Revolutionary War, he retired like Cincinnatus to his pastoral home, Mt. Vernon, on the banks of the Potomac River. Later returning to public service as the first President elected under the new Constitution, he set a powerful example for the peaceful transition of power by stepping aside after only two terms – arguably his greatest contribution to our democracy.
Mt. Vernon is a stately manor. We must not forget that it was maintained by the forced labor of enslaved people, a sin that cannot be overlooked or forgiven. But the estate still stands today as a testament to the political greatness of its most famous occupant. Oddly, Mt. Vernon is not a national park or monument. It is in private charitable hands, owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the oldest national historic preservation organization in the United States. The Ladies Association bought the property from Washington’s heirs in 1858 in order to restore and preserve it for posterity.
I first visited Mt. Vernon about five years ago and I experienced what can only be described as the channeling of a spirit. Walking around the house where Washington lived, noting the key to the Bastille that the Marquis de Lafayette sent him at the stormy start of the French Revolution, still hanging in the place of honor where Washington had placed it, seeing the bed where he died, bumping my head on the same low threshold of back stairs where he must have ducked countless times – I was transported and literally felt his presence around me.
There is no substitute for iconic places and our history is replete with them. Old South Church. Independence Hall. The Alamo. The Statue of Liberty. Pearl Harbor. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Lincoln Memorial and National Mall. Ground Zero.
In a patriotic essay written on the heels of the September 11 attacks, Alaskan author Richard Nelson issued a plea that we honor and cherish our public wilderness with the same reverence that we hold for national treasures like those I have just mentioned.
“We all know that America’s public lands ‘belong’ to every citizen,” he wrote. “But does this actually register in our minds at a deep, intuitive level? … If people thought of themselves as the real owners of these American places, they’d probably care more about them, do more to support them, and take more action to defend them.”
Much remains to be done, but on this 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act the hopeful optimist in me notes that substantial amounts of wilderness have been protected in our nation. Moreover, some of the iconic places where conservation has been proposed, debated and celebrated have also been protected and preserved with the loving care that we as citizens bestow upon Mt. Vernon and other important sites from our political history.
One such place is the Murie Ranch, located within Grand Teton National Park, very near the park visitors’ center at Moose Junction. The ranch is operated by the Murie Center, a not-for-profit organization formed in 1997 for the purpose of partnering with the National Park Service and providing stewardship for the property where Olaus and Mardy Murie, and Adolph and Louise Murie, lived from 1945 until Mardy’s death in 2003.
Olaus and Mardy Murie were charismatic leaders of the conservation movement in the twentieth century, he serving as President of The Wilderness Society and she carrying on the work after he died in 1963, shortly before passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 – which was conceived on the front porch of their low-slung ranch building. Adolph was first and foremost a scientist, like his half-brother Olaus, and he married Louise, who was Mardy’s half-sister. Under their collective ownership, the ranch became the de facto western headquarters for The Wilderness Society, serving as host to many meetings and discussions among the leaders of the conservation movement.
The Murie Ranch has many of the same characteristics as Mt. Vernon – and for me this includes the spine-tingling sensation of person and place, the feeling that Mardy might appear at any time with a plate of her famous crybaby cookies, a frosted molasses treat that she loved to serve to visitors on her “front porch of conservation.” Guests still flock to that porch, often following the half-mile hiking trail that wanders through the woods and fields that separate the ranch from the park visitors’ center.
In 2006, the Murie Ranch was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition accorded by our nation to historic properties. Another of the roughly 2,500 historic places that have been honored in this way is Mt. Vernon. And another is the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. How fitting it is that the home of our greatest President and those of some of our greatest leaders in conservation should be honored in the same way.
This is the second in a series of posts about the Legacy of the Muries. See the Blog Index for the related posts.