It’s been well past a year—January 28, 2012—since my dear friend and mentor and kindred spirit, Martin Murie passed away. For almost a quarter century, I often turned to him for support and advice and understanding the way a son looks to his father. We shared an unshakable love for the West and for wild lands everywhere. We understood that the West was more than the sum of its parts, and believed that its survival requires a deeper examination of our own lives and our culture–our ‘civilization’— than most of us are willing to admit.
He was always there, no matter what the crisis or how difficult the problem. He understood that finding a resolution isn’t often as critical as just the willingness to listen. He offered his advice and sometimes his criticism, with love and compassion. He was one of the best men I have ever known.
It’s been hard for me to sit down and write about Martin. This has been one of those rare times when I struggle with the idea that an old pal is really gone. I don’t mean to get mystical here but Martin comes to mind so often, I wonder at times if he isn’t perched in a corner of the room, silently offering the support he gave so generously when he was here in the flesh. I like that idea.
I met Martin Murie almost 25 years ago. I had just started The Zephyr—I don’t think I was more than a couple issues into the first year—when he introduced himself at the Main Street Broiler in Moab. In those days, Moabites were the poor survivors of the uranium boom that finally went bust in the early 80s. Many of my advertisers were as broke as I was and we all participated in a barter economy that I thought was perfect. As we ate our pre-paid burgers, Martin and I shared our first of hundreds of conversations. He had seen and read a copy of The Zephyr, liked it, and had sought me out to tell me. That’s how Martin was. His encouragement and optimism gave me the kind of confidence I needed to keep going.
Of course, I recognized the last name, ‘Murie,’ and asked if he was related to the great Mardy and Olaus Murie—regarded by many as the founders of the modern environmental movement. He was, in fact, their son and for his entire life, he would honor the family name in every way possible.
He had grown up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and lived a life inextricably tied to the natural world. He loved every component, every morsel of it, both as a scientist and as a philosopher. And as a poet. But he also worried about our species’ ability to live in harmony with it. He often spoke about the Big Picture.
In a Zephyr essay, he once wrote, “I offer, for discussion, that the Big Picture lies inside the work and discouragements and joys of people power. We can light out for that territory, the red heart of democracy…That democratic heart has to be kept beating, strong and steady.”
He came to distrust power while paying a dear price for his patriotism. Martin learned the art of technical rock climbing living in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, so when war broke out in 1941, he joined the 10th Mountain Division. It would be a brutal experience that changed him profoundly. He saw unimaginable carnage, senseless destruction, and his best friends die at his side. Martin was seriously wounded and lost the sight in his left eye.
Remarkably, he emerged from all this a gentler man and a committed pacifist for life. But for Martin, whether he was defending the wilderness or campaigning for peace, it was still all part of his Big Picture. He wrote, “Do wars and economic disasters and climate change have anything to do with wilderness preservation? Yes, absolutely, because it is all one huge shebang, rapidly running out of control. Refusing to list polar bears as endangered is directly connected with the insane urge to grab every drop of oil on the planet, even in Arctic seas where polar bears try to adapt to ice melt and tundra softening, and these events are directly related to the military establishment whose use of oil is the largest fraction of our share of that dwindling, and precious, resource.”
He may have been a pacifist but he had no problem being demonstrative. We shared our frustrations for many years. It was plain speaking at its finest. In the late 90s, Martin wrote the novel, ‘Losing Solitude,’ and when I proposed that he publish a regular column in The Zephyr under the same title, we truly bonded at the heart.
We traveled through some hard times, Martin and me, but I always felt better knowing we had each other’s back. He could be painfully candid and disarmingly hopeful, all at once. I’d say, “Martin, how can you see the world so grimly and still stay so positive?”
He’d just laugh and say, “It’s GOT to get better, right?”
He had no problem speaking his mind. In one memorable essay he noted, “Let’s be clear about a few things. We live in a nation governed by stealth and secrecy that has launched us on a track that leads to Hell. It’s time to become refuseniks, people who stick up for one another, refusing to be sidetracked by prominent spokespersons and news manglers who make up sentences that don’t stand the test of logic or constitutionality or American underclass tradition.”
We became the Unholy Duo of sorts when we found ourselves lone voices of dissent against mainstream environmentalism and its recent strategy to dig itself deeper and deeper into the pockets of the mega-rich. Martin complained that, “…money rules, and its rules are rigid…Rich moguls can give generously, and even govern environmental organizations, feeling they are doing their part to save nature, just as they green their corporations with superficial changes that do not cut too far into profits.
“Corporations crow in public now, about that magic formula: that ‘business as usual’ and ‘going green’ can get along nicely. That’s what keeps us from lifting a finger to actually slow our use of energy, slow climate change and the mad lifestyle we’re all trying to adapt to.”
We had already seen the first signs of wilderness ‘Disneyfication,’ even two decade ago, but as the recreation industry and environmentalism became more incestuous, his frustration boiled over.
“How,” he asked, “do you ‘plan’ an adventure? Can’t be done. There is no better way to lose contact with ‘the wild’ than this pernicious, money-driven treatment of human creatures as nothing but consumers of planned adventure, aka wreckreation.”
Still Martin managed to keep a happy perspective on his own life and family. He and his wife Alison were together for more than six decades and raised three daughters. When he retired from his teaching job at Antioch College in Ohio, he and Alison bought some property in the backwoods of the Adirondacks, where they lived as close to the land as two people can. At 80, he was still chopping wood and slogging through two feet of snow and loving every moment of it. He walked the walk.
In the last few years, and especially after the Iraq War began, Martin spent much of his time devoted to the idea of Peace. First in Bangor and then in Ohio, where they finally re-located to be closer to their children, Martin and Alison dedicated each Saturday morning to a protest for Peace. They and a small band of friends and allies stood on a street corner with their banners and placards, hopeful that they might inspire just one more person to join their ‘movement.’ In his very last email to me and his last original Zephyr story, he titled it, “Bright Spot in Ohio.”
“I make my rounds from corner to corner, stopping passing pedestrians to ask them ‘Have you ever thought of joining us?’ The replies are always interesting. Sometimes I say, ‘Taking that step will change your life.’ That is true. It takes a little gumption to take that crucial step, to show your face to passing cars and walkers of the sidewalks. Some blame the weather and I accept that. Sometimes rain or snow or cold makes the demo miserable. My parting shot is ‘I’ll look for you next Saturday.’ Recruits are few, but steady — this, after all, is a very small town — they soon become ‘regulars.’ We have a drummer now that livens things up on even the most miserable day.”
And then Martin proclaimed: “LET’S HIT THE STREETS.”
Indeed. Nowadays, I miss his affable voice and the comfort it always brought me. We could all use some of his ‘Hope grounded in Reality’ spirit….Martin’s Big Picture. I can hear him rallying us to look forward…
“Here’s a revolutionary thought: Create an awareness that includes a finely honed ability to pay attention to the other creatures who are, as we are, full partisans in and of Nature. That alertness can extend to those of our own species, especially those who don’t agree with us. I’ll venture to say that a minimal requirement for the future well-equipped varmentalist has to be the fine art of listening.
“It would be a brushy path, hard to see very far ahead, but our feet would guide us. We might trust those feet. Along that path are ways of creating justice for all of our species and forward to full democracy, inside our movements as well as throughout our society. Then we can get together and work out dramatic, romantic (sure, why not?) and truly effective ways to begin to save the Earth.”
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