The Overlook

An occasional essay on topics related to the Western landscape.

In view of all this modern noisy confusion, when mankind is trying to find itself again, it is my contention that our national parks and wilderness areas should be more quiet, where people who really want to can go and be individuals and get a better perspective. In some cases, it isn’t what you do, but how you do it, that counts.

Olaus Murie
From a letter to Park Service
director Conrad Wirth, 1958


A Conservation Shrine in Wyoming

For anyone who gives public talks, as I do occasionally, it is a wonderful thing to have a lively and engaged audience. The forty or so folks sitting on folding chairs in front of me on this perfect Wyoming evening could not be more attentive. This is not due to any eloquence on my part; rather, it's because of the log cabin in back of me. We sit before the front porch of the comfortably weathered home of Mardy and Olaus Murie, close by the willow-lined Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. There aren’t many shrines in the world of conservation, but this is one of them. The cottonwoods ringing this little clearing are turning golden, and for an hour or so, as we discuss the lives and work of this revered and influential couple, we can imagine Jackson Hole as it once was.

I’ve never visited Walden Pond, or John Muir’s sunny California ranch, or Slabsides, the cabin where John Burroughs penned homage to the Eastern woods. I would love some day to sit at Listening Point--Sigurd Olson’s lakeshore rock where he drew inspiration for his many books--and I suppose I would gain something from kneeling at Ed Abbey’s grave, hidden to all but a few cognoscenti out in the Arizona desert. Like churchgoers, art patrons, and even sports fans, there are places where we honor the icons of our movement, where we make pilgrimages to absorb some of the glory or wisdom that surely reside there.

Sitting next to me in front of the porch is Kate Gersh, associate director of the Murie Center, a nonprofit that is extending Olaus and Mardy’s work through lectures, discussions and courses for new generations of conservationists and environmental activists. She has invited me to share a few words about Olaus’s activities with the Wilderness Society, of which he was president from 1945 to his death in October 1963. During these years Olaus helped this small but dedicated organization build support for a law to protect the outstanding wild places on our national forests, national parks and national wildlife refuges. His role complemented that of Howard Zahniser, the Society’s executive secretary, who remained in Washington to lead lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

As a kind of outreach person for the nascent wilderness movement, Olaus traveled throughout the western states, meeting with outfitter associations, garden clubs, hunters, Audubon societies, and anyone else who saw some value in keeping our remaining backcountry free from roads, dams and clearcuts. In his soft-spoken, self-effacing manner, he would describe his and Mardy’s adventures in the Far North and in the Rocky Mountains, always insisting that we make space in our lives for wild country and the creatures that live there.

Olaus Murie, Howard Zahniser, and Irving Clark at a 1956 meeting of the Wilderness Society council at the Murie Ranch. (courtesy Murie Center)

I was a preteen when Congress finally passed the Wilderness Act in September 1964. At the time I did not know there were such things as wilderness areas, although my family had driven past several of them only a month before Olaus died, on our first trip out West to what would be our new home. By then it would have been too late to stop by the Murie ranch, as so many other young naturalists and conservationists had, to be welcomed with a plate of Mardy’s home-baked cookies and take a walk with Olaus through the woods that had been their home for nearly two decades. Gravely ill with tuberculosis, Olaus received his closest friends and associates, with whom he had participated in the long struggle to enact this landmark legislation.

After a short presentation in which I offer some quotations from Olaus’s writings and pose a few questions, Kate and I ask for our audience's thoughts. I’m interested in how these folks have come to know and appreciate wild country, and to discuss whether we can hold on to such experiences in a world increasingly overtaken by our ubiquitous and invasive technology. Will today’s young people regard wild places primarily as a backdrop in which to record their daring physical exploits? Or will enough people still wander through mountains and forests with a quiet eye, alert to the sounds and spoor of animals, as Olaus was?

The author of a well-known book on animal tracks as well as landmark studies of the caribou of Alaska and the elk of Jackson Hole, Olaus was “the humble epitome of a fine biologist,” according to Stewart Brandborg, who worked closely with him on parks and wilderness issues. A wildlife biologist himself, he credited Murie with opening his eyes to the deeper meanings found in such places. It was around 1957, shortly after the first versions of the Wilderness Act were introduced in Congress, and Brandborg was a young lobbyist with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. Olaus and Mardy had made an epic expedition the previous year to the Sheenjek River valley in the remote southern flank of the Brooks Range, and Brandborg's boss, Charles Callison, asked him to show the Muries around Capitol Hill. He listened with great interest as they spoke to congressmen and senators about the ecological riches found in Arctic Alaska and urged them to support legislation to protect it.

The Sheenjek River Valley in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (David Cline, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

The Muries’ message reached the right people, and in 1960 the House of Representatives approved a bill establishing a nine million-acre Arctic Wildlife Range. Opposition from the Alaska delegation halted the measure in the Senate, but Fred Seaton, president Eisenhower’s Interior secretary, went ahead and signed an administrative order creating the range, now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Reflecting on those Congressional visits, Stewart Brandborg recalled how Olaus’s heartfelt but accurate descriptions of wild creatures living in the untrammeled Alaskan tundra gave him a “framework for something deep in his psyche,” which informed his own work on behalf of wild country. Brandborg went on to become executive director of the Wilderness Society following Howard Zahniser's death in 1964. It was another instance of the strong influence Olaus and Mardy had with young people.

My Jackson Hole audience quickly seizes on this matter of how to generate enthusiasm for wilderness among coming generations–to replicate, as it were, the tutelage that Olaus and Mardy gave so many younger women and men in their day. It’s a problem that clearly bothers us older folks, who wonder if our daughters and sons and their friends will ever put down their I-phones and connect to nature as we once did. A few argue that this will take place on its own schedule, and that technology gives people unprecedented access to knowledge about nature. One twenty-something fellow says he sees this happening already. Wild mountains and deserts are hugely important to him and his friends, and not to worry, folks, they’re just going about it in a different way.

The Craig Thomas Visitor Center at Moose, Wyoming. (Acroterion, courtesy Wikimedia)

I’m heartened by his statement, although I’m far from sanguine. Human kind continues to encroach into every last wild space, as we’re reminded each time a jetliner cruises by on its approach to the airport a few miles to the south. To the north, up the long gravel driveway that leads to the Murie ranch, a new national park visitor center looms tall, a modernist fantasy with huge windows framing the view of the Grand Teton. Stone obelisks inside the center feature inspiring quotations from people associated with the park, including Mardy and Olaus. In case their words don’t get through, the floor sports plastic panels that light up with endlessly spooling videos of the park and its wildlife. Piped-in sounds of bird calls emulate the natural scene outside, minus the jet noise.

The Teton “discovery center,” which I visited earlier on the day of my talk, is meant to be an introduction to the wonders found within the park. It’s one of the more spectacular manifestations of the Park Service’s goal of making natural areas relevant to new generations and new demographics, and perhaps it serves this purpose well. I pause long enough to jot down a few quotations from the obelisks, then head outside. A small sign directs me down a soft forest path which leads a half mile to the cluster of old cabins at the Murie ranch, a former dude outfit which Olaus and Mardy bought in 1945. What would they think of this grand edifice so close to their home? In the center’s archives, inside a wonderfully cosy cabin that Olaus used as his studio and office, I peruse letters he wrote in the 1950s to Park Service director Conrad Wirth, who masterminded the colossal park modernization program called Mission 66. Olaus took exception to many aspects of this program, from obtrusive visitor centers and paving of park roads to the underlying assumption that the parks should be made easy to enjoy—to be “everything to all people,” as he told Wirth in 1958.

The author at work in Olaus's studio. (Bessann Swanson)

Murie even questioned the value of interpretive exhibits along scenic park roads. In another letter to Wirth, Olaus objected to providing these features along the new paved highway (later named the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway) which ran along on the east side of Jackson Hole. The turnoffs themselves were necessary, Murie wrote, but he wanted tourists to get out of their cars, get off the pavement, and walk down toward the river. There, standing or sitting on an overlooking bluff, they would begin to receive the real message of the Tetons, which involved the humming of insects and the murmur of the river as well as the postcard-perfect glory of the high peaks. “Can’t we work toward simplicity and let nature have a chance to speak to us?” he asked Wirth. “It is the little things that count; the subtle things that more people are becoming aware of.”

Few tourists possessed the intimate awareness of their surroundings that Olaus had developed through decades of close observation in a variety of habitats. Could visitors reasonably be expected to sort out nature's lessons during a brief a park visit? His purist approach would be derided today (and probably was then) as utterly elitist. Yet he had a deeply humanistic outlook in which he maintained that close contact with the natural world could benefit anyone, nature lover or not. This, he believed, would strengthen American society. It was a matter of resisting regimentation, of withstanding the impulse to conformity that bothered so many free-thinking intellectuals in the 1950s.

"There is a danger of looking upon a slick highway as an end in itself. And with the great number of signs, which take away from the visitor any chance to exercise his own judgment, he is told to snap pictures at certain places, how to park, and the picture turnouts themselves have names! At one of these in Jackson Hole, now dressed up in machine age style, there are eight signs, telling the visitor how to behave and what he can do there. Government tells the people where and how he must enjoy the scene; we are being regimented, told how to behave in all detail.”

Olaus Murie, from a letter to Park Service director Conrad Wirth, 1958

Murie’s complaints may seem minor compared to the environmental problems of the postwar era, which included atomic fallout, pervasive chemical contamination, and the relentless destruction of natural habitats (by highway construction, among other things). Murie was well aware of those issues, yet he understood that the increasing distance of modern people from their natural surroundings lay somewhere at the root of these problems. If more Americans could experience the outdoors as he and Mardy had, they would be less likely to tolerate (or demand) shiny highways leading into every wild place.

Much like Edward Abbey, who was rangering in Arches National Monument around this time and gathering ideas for his landmark book Desert Solitaire, Murie insisted that the Park Service had an obligation to get visitors out of their automobiles and into the landscape, even if it meant blisters and sunburn. “The national parks are not pictures on a wall,” Olaus wrote in the last year of his life. “They are not museum exhibits in glass cases.” He knew that immersion, not distance, was needed if we were to grasp the meanings found in wild country. As for the Park Service’s strenuous attempts to accommodate the auto tourist, Murie observed that park visitors were “vaguely seeking something enriching” and needed to be shown the path into a more challenging environment. Highway turnouts would never suffice. Cars didn’t need a place to see the scenery, he quipped to Wirth.

Mardy and Olaus Murie outside their home (courtesy Murie Center).

All this history is on my mind as I listen to the discussion in front of Olaus and Mardy’s porch. New technologies challenge park managers in ways the Muries could never have imagined. From selfie sticks to buzzing drones, the visitor experience is evolving into something akin to a performance, not Murie’s hoped-for immersion in a larger reality.

How much of this concern is simply the eternal inability of older people to fathom what the young are up to? They will find their own way into the wilderness, our young audience member insists. Others are not so sure, and point to the seductive nature of screen technology, which seems calculated to capture and hold attention. Most agree, though, that taking a cell phone on a hike or backpack is no big deal; that’s just how we keep in touch these days. Should drones, then, be allowed in parks and wilderness areas, I ask? That gets nays from nearly everyone. We do have limits, then, I point out. Some intrusions have no place in our sacred landscapes.

There we have it again–that reference to the holy, which seems to crop up whenever we talk about places like Yellowstone or the Tetons or the Grand Canyon. Some landscapes should remain inviolate even in the face of multiplying technological wonders. The Park Service recently banned drones from the national parks, just in time, it seems, before whirring videocams start to appear over one’s backcountry camp. There will be pressure to relax such bans, however, on the theory that individual freedom trumps the needs of a handful of solitude seekers.

Olaus Murie in Alaska (U.S. Fish and WIldlie Service).

The human effects of technology, and the need for restricting it at times, was a question that haunted Olaus Murie. He had spent countless days in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, relying on little more than a Trapper Nelson backpack, a canvas or silk tent, and a sturdy dogsled or wooden boat. (Sometimes, as Mardy chronicled in her book Two in the Far North, the advanced technology of the day got them into trouble, such as when their boat’s engine self-destructed on their 1926 journey into the headwaters of the Yukon.) But their goal was not adventure per se, it was to observe caribou or mountain sheep, a calling that required a deep awareness of the whole ecosystem. Fancy gear might make for a more comfortable trip, but not a more enlightening one.

I suppose that the Park Service, in its effort to make the national parks appeal to younger people, could package up Olaus and Mardy into a some sort of holographic video presentation, letting them appear in person on the floor of the Teton visitor center, talking directly to us. They would be aghast at such treatment, of course, but if Olaus could speak to us across these fifty-some years, he might tell us to go outside forthwith, walk down to the Snake River or out onto the sage plains at Antelope Flats, and look for an animal track, examine a piece of scat, or listen for the drumming of a grouse. He would urge us to set aside the endless quest for ever-new adventures, or to count coup on a dozen parks in a summer. Instead he’d hand us his little field guide and tell us to go look for what lies at our feet and in the trees around us.

He and Mardy might also have some words for those of us who have assembled in front of their old home. I suspect they would find all this reverence and adulation discomfiting. But we need our heroes, and they will have to serve alongside Ed Abbey, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and many others. We need them as reminders of what we ought to be doing with our days, to slow down and get out of the frantic routine, to go out in the woods, to be filled with reverence and respect for what’s out there, and then to come back home and work like hell to save some of it.

The fire is stilled these days in the Muries’ home in Jackson Hole. Visitors can sit around the empty hearth each afternoon in summer and listen to a docent talk about these two extraordinary people. Do Olaus’s and Mardy’s spirits still abide there? I cannot answer this, but I do know that their work is not done, and must be continued by those who find special meanings in wild country. For them, and for me, the Muries’ words and lives will remain a guiding presence.

© 2015 by Frederick H. Swanson

Watercolor by Bessann Swanson (