A Letter to Ade Murie
I miss you.
First, may I call you Ade? In the photos I see of you, white-haired on a high ridge in Mount McKinley National Park, a thousand feet or more above the Park Road, field glasses in hand, tundra underfoot, looking, always looking, you strike me as the kind of guy who’d say, “Sure, you can call me Ade. And what’s your name?” Warm smile. Soft voice, almost musical. It seems odd, I know, since we never met. But many people today know you, or of you: travelers and teachers, scientists and students, scholars and conservationists, artists and politicians. If you only knew. Maybe you do. Living as you did, first as a visionary wildlife biologist, then author, and always a crusader for wildness and wild places, you did something remarkable. While Walt Disney pounded us with messages and images of “the big, bad wolf,” you said just the opposite. You said wolves are beneficial to prey species; they cull out the old, sick and weak, and create a more robust, vibrant, magical landscape. You took risks. You spoke the unpopular truth. You lived with great intention and reached beyond your allotted time and created a legacy, a damn good one. That’s how I know you.
Second, you always wanted this park to be larger than its original size as established in 1917. You wanted it to protect entire watersheds and the summer/ winter home ranges of wildlife populations; you wanted an intact ecosystem. It happened in 1980, six years after you left us, with passage of a lands act that established more than 100 million acres of new Alaska national parks, preserves, monuments and wildlife refuges. Your park was tripled in size to six million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. It could happen only once, and did; it’ll never happen again. We’ll take what we can get, and be grateful every day.
Third, I hope you’re comfortable with this. You’re now called “the conscience of Denali.” A heavy mantle, for sure. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “conscience” as “the faculty of recognizing the distinction between right and wrong in regard to one’s own conduct.” That can get confusing these days, bombarded as we are by television and Twitter, Facebook and You Tube... things you never heard of. Just as well. Everybody’s got an opinion. If they believe it enough, it’s fact; if they shout it, it’s truth. What they need is time on the tundra. Quiet reflection. Less noise. Fewer gadgets. A historian I know says you “exerted a force both spiritual and scientific” in the early development of this park. In other words, you gave us all something to admire and strive for.
You changed the way we see the world.
And last, the cabin you so loved on the East Fork of the Toklat River, still stands. In winter, at twenty below, it’s used by rangers on sled dog patrol. In summer, bathed in light, it’s occupied by visiting scientists and artists- and writers-in- residence for inspiration. Sometimes bears, standing full height, scratch their backs on the weathered corners. From inside, you think it’s an earthquake until you hear the low, satisfied sound of groaning.
It’s September now. Getting cold. I’d write more but I’m drawn outside. The stars are out; the wolves are howling.
Thank you, Ade.
Burrows: Welcome to Denali Events, this brand-new public outreach platform hosted by Denali National Park and Preserve.
My name is Kimber Burrows and I am Program Director at Denali Education Center, one of several wonderful park partner organizations.
I am thrilled to be a part of this 15-minute presentation, coming to you live from the beautiful Murie Science and Learning Center, located here at the Denali’s park visitor campus.
For those of you joining us virtually, we welcome you to take part in this conversation by submitting questions via the comment thread on the Facebook page or by using the Livestream chat box.
Live captions for this event are also available via the park website. Please look for us at www.nps.gov/dena.
I going to attempt to keep my introduction of today's guest brief to allow us some time for possible questions.
With that said, however, some introduction is certainly in order.
Kim Heacox has spent several years working for the Park Service as a park seasonal ranger at Denali, Glacier Bay, and Katmai National Parks.
He is an accomplished photographer, activist, and author of more than ten books, including the text for our current Denali park map, which has circulated more than 300,000 copies since 2012.
He has been described as one of America's finest outdoors writers and his latest book, "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America," is the perfect kickoff for our Wilderness Act Celebration.
Without further delay, one of the first questions I would like to ask you is what does wilderness mean to you? Heacox: What does wilderness mean to me?
Magic, mystery, wisdom, hope, wonderful opportunities.
The chance to provide answers to questions we have not even learned yet to ask.
It is a respite, a break maybe from the tyranny of our industrialization.
To go out and renew ourselves and find the ancient earth, the ancient text.
The way things used to be. It is the greatest show on earth. Burrows: I couldn’t agree more. It is the greatest show on earth.
Heacox: Yeah, nature. Wild nature. Burrows: What do you feel is the relevance of protected wilderness in a place like Alaska? We get that question a lot. Especially Alaska. It’s so big, so wild already.
Heacox: Right, I think Alaska offers us a whole second chance. To do things a little differently than we have done the first time around.
It’s really hard to re-create wilderness. I don’t know if you can entirely. But to have an original text of anything rather than go back and put the fragments together.
Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, founded about 30 years before the passage of the Wilderness Act, said one of the rules of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.
In the wilderness, in Alaska, we have wilderness on such a vast scale that we have complete ecosystems.
So we begin to develop ecosystem thinking, systems thinking, and how the natural world really operates and survives.
I do not even want to use the word operate. It’s too clinical.
How it works. And that word itself isn’t appropriate either, but how the natural world goes about doing all the magnificent things that it does on a grand ecosystem scale.
This, to me, is like an Alexandria library. It only gets more valuable the more time that goes by, and the more acreage all around the world is eaten up by the modern human machine.
It is a library. In Alaska, we have complete books, complete volumes, complete sub-libraries.
We have 50 percent of the acreage in the U.S. National Park System, more than 50 percent. Alaska is what America was. Burrows: The last frontier. Heacox: The last frontier. Yeah, that’s what they call it on the license plates.
I tend to think that the last frontier is not Alaska. It is not the bottom of the ocean. It is not outer space. I think it is open-mindedness and open heartedness. And that wilderness can help develop that. Encourage that. Go out and reset our clocks.
I saw an amazing picture very recently of a matador in Spain and the bull is almost dead. He only has to plunge the sword in one more time. And he sits down and he stops. And I thought, wow, if any of us, just one time in our life, can have a profound change of heart, and allow ourselves to see something anew. Well, where to go to achieve that? Try the wilderness.
Burrows: You are such an accomplished author and photographer. I have seen some of your work. It is just spectacular. What inspires you? What keeps you going? Heacox: Well, the wilderness inspires me, the fact that we have it. That people came before me and they saved it. That we’ve left the apple unpicked. We have not picked every apple off the tree.
It is almost biblical, in a way. That inspires me, that there is this, within the human condition, there are all these fragments of light, like we are a prism.
The white light hits us, and all of these beams of separate light of the rainbow scatter, and we can really see better what we’re made of. And I like that about humans. We’re very complex.
And I like to look at both sides of an issue. I like to explore it all, and to take a hard look at my own positions, to be a critical thinker.
And writing really turns me on in that regard, much more than photography. Photography is great. It’s powerful. It’s fun. But writing, there’s nothing like writing.
Like Dumbledore said to Harry Potter, I believe our most inexhaustible source of magic in this world is words, language.
So, I write. To unfold the fold of lie. To find out what’s going on.
I don’t know if I believe that, let me explore that. I’m my own writing, break down my own arguments. Turn them over.
Heacox: Yeah, question it. Exactly. So, yeah. I just don’t write about the natural world. The John Muir book that I just completed takes a hard look at a lot of things. It takes a hard look at civilization, society, culture.
Why do we believe what we believe? When do you have those epiphanies, whatever they might be, that make you wake up one day and not kill the bull. For sport, anyway. To feed yourself, sure. Yeah.
So I think writing is critically important. And I think it’s important to be a critic of my own culture and society and nation and the human condition in general. And to praise it and sing its song when I can.
I’m not interested in the Facebook like culture. If everybody likes what I’m writing, I”m not saying anything. But I don’t want to be a provocateur just for the sake of it. I want to be respectful.
Burrows: Speaking of your new book, what is it about John Muir that really captures you and inspires you, and provokes you to write an entire book?
Heacox: John Muir, there was nobody else like him at the time. He was all by himself, pretty much. There were others that were there with him, but they weren’t as lyrical as he was, as far as writing goes. They weren’t as passionate as he was. They couldn’t take the heat. They wouldn’t stand up and take the heat. He was writing for the light. When you go toward the light, with light comes heat. And he was willing to do that. And he changed America and he changed the world.
He was influenced by Wordsworth … Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, of course.
But then he turned around, and he influenced Teddy Roosevelt, all of the founders of the Wilderness Society, Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, Benton McKay.
And then those people influenced FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt influenced Jimmy Carter, and Jimmy Carter signed the Lands Act to create a hundred million new acres of wild land in Alaska.
So, Muir was critical. There was nobody else like him. And he came along at the perfect time.
Burrows: Well, perfect that we’re in the Murie Science and Learning Center then.
Heacox: Exacly. Olaus Murie was the older brother of Adolph Murie. And Adolph Murie, when the Wilderness Society was founded in 1935, Ade Murie would have been 36 years old, about to come to Mount McKinley National Park, now Denali National Park and Preserve, and do his most important work. He had to be hugely influenced by his older brother, and his colleagues, who were all influenced by John Muir.
And Muir was a crazy man. He climbed mountains, and climbed trees in storms, as fun. He loved glaciers. He came to Alaska for glaciers, not gold.
Burrows: He had fun.
Heacox: He did. He loved trees, not timber.
Burrows: Well, I know our time is so brief together today, so I want to have one more question answered before we wrap it up, and I know we’ve only got a few minutes left. What was the message in the book, the Green Boat, that you find pertinent to today.
Heacox: Yeah, the message in the Green Boat is that facing climate change, it sometimes feels so daunting and overwhelming. I just want people to think about Nelson Mandella. He said, it always seems impossible until it’s done.
And in the Green Boat, a book by Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, she says, what we have to move from, is to from trauma to transcendence. Right?
And we can do that. We can do that. We can tackle this and become highly-innovative. And we can take it on, and we can make a better world for our children, and their children’s children’s children. But we have to face up to it.
Burrows: In your speaker series, I saw some of your work. You talk about the art of seeing. I wondered, how does that relate to our experience, how do you feel like that relates to our experience in the natural world, that art of seeing?
Heacox: Well, yeah, the art of seeing. Sight is such a dominant sense with us. And you can develop it your whole life. To always be asking yourself, when was the last time I really took a close look at something I’ve never taken a close look at?
When was the last time I really laid down on the ground? And looked through the blades of grass? Got underneath a spiderweb?
And when’s the last time, when I did that, and allowed that to flood into me? And then closed my eyes? And allow all of the other senses to come into play for three minutes, and then, reopen my eyes.
And allow all that to be a scribe of your own humanity, and talk to yourself about how that was for you, and go home and write a poem to your mother.
Burrows: Makes you want to go and take a tundra nap.
Burrows: Well, I know, again we’re again running short on time. So thank you for sharing some of that with us.
It’s been a fantastic event. Our first Denali Event. We’re looking forward to many more throughout the summer. So for those of you viewing, information regarding upcoming events will always be posted on the park website on the events calendar, as well as on the Livestream site, Facebook, and Twitter.
If you miss an event, not to worry. They’re all archived recordings, and they will be available on the Livestream as well as the park website. So, when in doubt, go to the park website, search for Denali Events, and they’ll all be there. So you can partake and follow up on all of these great conversations that we’re having throughout the summer.
Again, I want to thank you the viewers for attending today.
want to thank Mr. Heacox for joining us, Kim Heacox.
And I thought maybe it would be a good idea to end with a quote of yours, actually. I pulled this from one of your writings. Just something for us to think about as we go forward. And so, Kim Heacox wrote —
“Perhaps then wilderness will become something as humane as it is natural, much within us, as it is around us.”
So again, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for joining us today, and I hope to see you at the next Denali Event.
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Author Kim Heacox and host Kimber Burrows appear in a live conversation on June 3, 2014.
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Last updated: March 29, 2017