Legacy of the Muries, Part 4

Mardy Murie’s classic 1962 memoir, Two in the Far North, was republished in 1997.  Terry Tempest Williams wrote a Foreword for the new edition, recounting a conversation with Mardy while the two of them sat in front of a crackling fire at the Murie’s cabin in Wyoming, sipping hot tea and watching the snow fall. 

Terry asked Mardy if she was pessimistic about the future of conservation, to which Mardy replied:

“I’m more apprehensive and at the same time more hopeful than I have ever been.  I’m counting on the new generation coming up.  I have to believe in their spirit, as those who came before me believed in mine.”

That optimism for the future, for a new generation, characterized Mardy Murie’s long years of leadership as an advocate for conservation.  When she started speaking out on these issues in her own voice, after Olaus passed away in the 1960s, the next generation that she had in mind was my own generation; by the time she concluded, she was referring to the generation of my children, or perhaps even of their younger friends.

Speaking of optimism, the most infectiously optimistic person I have ever met has to be Debbie Miller, the author of many books including A King Salmon Journey previously reviewed in this blog (click here).  Debbie also had tea with Mardy at the Murie Ranch, and her conversation is described in "Tea with Mardy," a chapter in Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid's compilation, Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony (Milkweed 2001).

But I digress.  Let’s go back to the ‘60s, specifically to the watershed year of 1968.  The Tet offensive was launched early in the year and fighting raged across Vietnam, including in the little hamlet of My Lai.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, and Robert F. Kennedy in June.  Chicago police brutalized anti-war protesters outside the Democratic National Convention.  Richard Nixon won the Presidential election. 

In September of that tragic and tumultuous year, Mardy Murie gave a speech in Spokane, Washington, on the subject of “Youth and the Future of American Wilderness.”  My series on the Legacy of the Muries concludes with some observations she made about optimism and hope, and about the next generation of conservation leaders. 

I will let her speech notes do the talking:

“There is another facet, another side to man which science and technology have perhaps left out of their calculation.  This is that man is a natural animal.  But I think the youth of today are becoming aware of this; perhaps it is a part of the much-talked-of ‘rebellion’ against the cold, machine-engrossed world they have inherited....

 “So this is the picture of the world with which our young people are faced today.  But I believe there is a bright side to the picture....  Why?  Because of young people, of course – yes, because they are looking about them, to question, to see:  the damage that has been done to their environment; the great jewels that have been saved, the untouched unspoiled places still with us, the chance to save them.  There are young people who are not completely daunted by the horrible problems which have been handed down to them....

“I have seen youth in action in ways which don’t get headlines in newspapers, but which I feel are going to have the real impact on our world."  At this point in the speech, she gave numerous contemporary examples, ranging from student activism on conservation issues to cleanup programs, Outward Bound, wilderness and science camps.  Today, she might have pointed to the Student Conservation Association or programs like City Kids DC or Muddy Sneakers.

“From talking to all these young groups I know that they are serious, and at the same time joyous, about working, each in their own home region, to restore a livable, clean and pleasant environment for all our people; I know they feel that if we can’t do this, of what use are all man’s other activities in that environment?"

In the '60s, there was a lot of talk about the generation gap, and Mardy took that issue on as well:  "The young are eager, questioning, seeking, wanting.  If we older ones have forgotten how it feels to wonder at the world, to seek, to be curious, to feel and to savor, in wilderness or out of it – then there will be a generation gap, and our society will be the poorer for it.”

Fifty years later, we still live in a dangerous and challenging world.  But the cause for optimism remains -- only this time it rests on the shoulders of a new cohort of emerging leaders.  Those of us who have benefited from the efforts of Mardy, and Olaus, and Howard Zahniser and Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson and the many other heroes who fought for conservation in the 20th century should do all we can to engage with the next, more diverse, generation who will provide leadership on conservation and related issues well into the 21st.

The full text of Mardy's speech excerpted above is on file in the archives of the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.  A previous version of this essay was published as a Guest Shot opinion piece in the Jackson Hole News & Guide on October 2, 2014.

This is the fourth, and last, in a series of posts about the Legacy of the Muries written while the author was a Pattie Layser Writer-in-Residence at the Murie Center in September 2014.  See the Blog Index for the related posts.