Above the Waterline: Three women and their landscapes

It’s probably not a surprise that I love to read books about nature and people whose outdoor adventures and conservation work illustrate the wondrous variety to be found on this planet: the landscapes that most of us would not be able to experience, but for intrepid individuals and brilliant writing. I have three new favorites, all women nature writers whose books I’ve recently read: Margaret (Mardy) Murie, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Terry Tempest Williams. Their experiences and poetic observations span a period of nearly 100 years.

“Two in the Far North” by Mardy Murie was a gift from one of my sons. Published in 1962 and updated over the years, “Two” is a memoir and natural history classic that begins in Alaska in 1911, when Mardy is a child. It covers almost eighty years of her long life: from her youth growing up in a Fairbanks log cabin – to her marriage on the banks of the Yukon River to wildlife biologist Olaus Murie – to their challenging river and dogsled expeditions in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It ends with Mardy’s tireless work, after Olaus’ death, on behalf of wild places and wild things and her recognition as the “grandmother of the conservation movement.”

Based on Mardy’s daily journals, this fascinating book tracks the Muries’ partnership, their passion for wild Alaska, and their four decades of research expeditions and advocacy that helped change the face of American land protection during the 20th century. Testifying to a Congressional committee in 1977 on behalf of the Alaskan Lands Bill, Mardy said: “I am testifying as an emotional woman and I would like to ask you gentlemen, what’s wrong with emotion?” I couldn’t agree more.

About the time the Murie’s moved to Wyoming in the late 1920s, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, then in her early 30s, bought a seventy-two acre orange farm in the remote swamps of north-central Florida with a small inheritance. A newspaper journalist who had tried unsuccessfully to write fiction, she hoped that a change in landscape would inspire stories that would sell. As she wrote about the people and natural environment surrounding her new home, she produced classic modern literature.

I read Marjorie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Yearling,” about a Florida backwoods boy, when I was young and loved it. But, it took an early spring paddle trip this year to the Ocala National Forest and its spring-fed rivers to compel me to read “Cross Creek,” Marjorie’s non-fiction book published in 1942 about her years in the Florida hamlet located on the creek between two lakes.

A fearless woman who seamlessly made the transition from city to backcountry, Marjorie embraced adventure: whether hunting rattlesnakes, floating hundreds of miles down the St. John’s River in a small boat with a female friend, or cooking elaborate dinner parties for visitors on a wood-burning stove. Evident throughout the book is her deep appreciation for nature and the plants and animals (both wild and domesticated) that surrounded her.

In closing, Marjorie asks: “Who owns Cross Creek?” And then answers: “The red birds, I think… the earth may be borrowed but not bought, used but not owned… Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons… and, beyond all, to time.” I thought of these words, as we paddled on Cross Creek in March, beneath massive cypress trees with osprey flying overhead.

A modern environmental writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams lives in Utah and was mentored by fellow nature writer Mardy Murie. Although I had heard of Terry’s work for years, it took a chance bookstore encounter with her newest book, “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of National Parks,” for me to become hooked on her writing.

Published in 2016, the year of the National Park Service Centennial, this book is a literary celebration of national parks and monuments, twelve of which she highlights. Terry’s series of park portraits – part landscape, human and natural history and personal memoir – captures the essence and spirit of our country with lyrical language.

“The Hour of Land” has inspired me to plan a months-long journey to visit national parks that I have not yet seen – and to do whatever it takes to ensure that these special places not be diminished. Like much of Terry’s work, this book is a clarion call to action, a compelling antidote to complacency. Her hope for the future? “May we remain vigilant in protecting our public lands and hold the ground in the years and decades ahead so that ‘the open space of democracy’ remains open.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

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