Friday, June 28, 2013

Walking (continued): Under the Tetons

(Outside the town of Jackson a little patch of woodland that looms large in U.S. wilderness preservation. Since this visit Brooke and Terry have lost their cherished place at the Murie Center. And yes, that's an Ansel Adams photo at the end.)                                         

       "Look, a bear."
     Not one but three black ones, a mother and cubs, close enough for us to clearly see the blond streak down the mother's back as she ambles in our direction. I'm at the historic Murie Center in northwestern Wyoming. My companions-nature writer Terry Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke, the center's former director-are used to looking at wildlife, but not so closely. Terry's wearing a crisp blouse, slip-on boots, and a silver Navajo clasp in her steelgray hair; Brooke has on a faded T-shirt and old running shoes, but they're clearly a team. Ever since we entered this flat, riverine landscape of spruce and quaking aspen under the brow of the Grand Teton Mountains, they have been identifying flowers in a kind of antiphonal botany lesson: goldenrod, sticky geraniums, monkshood, bog orchids, coneflowers.
     "They're like old friends," Terry says. "Right, Brooke?"
     "Right" He pauses. "And those are asters. There's scarlet gilia. And horsetail, which has survived since the Jurassic-it lived with the dinosaurs."
     We're in the middle of what's called the Around the World Walk but is really just a jaunt, as Terry calls the half-mile loop. The name was bestowed by the well-known naturalist Olaus Murie who, with his wife, Mardy, established their nonprofit here for "creating strategies for conserving wild places."
Now deceased, the  Muries were long-term residents of the beautiful Snake River valley and early influentials conservationists. They owned and later donated these 77 acres on the outskirts of Moose, where hikers provision before taking on the Cascade or Paintbrush canyons and tourists gas up for the drive to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National parks.
     The Wilderness Society was born here half a century ago, and much of the nascent Wilderness Act of 1964 was debated. The Muries also mentored people, among them Terry and Brooke when they were instructors at the Teton Science Schools in the town of Jackson. "This was Olaus's daily walk," said Brooke. "You can make it around in half an hour, or you can take all day."
     "We see elk here all the time," adds Terry. "During the fall rut, the woods are full of bulls bugling. You can smell the pheromones."
     I smell dust and pine needles baking in the sun. The bleached carcasses of fallen lodgepole pines are banked by pine squirrel middens-piles of needles and cones picked clean as corn cobs-and all around are rotten logs full of ant colonies. An unseen pine siskin chatters ominously. Other possible distractions hereabouts are big gray owls and moose, but Ursus americanus has all our attention.                                 

     "Hey," Brooke whispers, with no effect on the bear. Sandy-haired and sunburned, Brooke has degrees in biology and sustainable business, and where wildlife's concerned he's more scientist than entrepreneur. By his own admission, he "wants to save the world," in part by preserving scenes like this. Among the ways the Murie Center seeks to foster conservation is to host conferences and retreats with wilderness as a common theme, bringing together young conservation leaders, business people, government officials, academics, and kids, some from urban centers. Even now, a group of teenagers from Newark is eating bagels in one of the collection of historic log cabins from which we set out.
     Terry has written several books, among them Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, touching on the urgent need for protecting natural landscapes and their indigenous inhabitants. In The Open Space of Democracy, she insisted that "our character has been shaped by the diversity of America's landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it."
     "We're here," Brooke tells the bear. Spontaneously Terry and I add our voices to the announcement, and the sow digs in her heels. One of her cubs goes up a spruce, the other off into the brush. For a long moment the mother stares at us, then turns, stands, and braces her front paws on the spruce. We tiptoe past, aware of both the charms and the perils of a jaunt in this valley.
     The clearing ahead in washed in clear mountain light. We emerge into a meadow under the gaze of Buck Mountain, rising some 12,000 feet above sea level. Marching off to the north are the other peaks of the Tetons, which means "breasts" in French. One story holds that the word was bestowed upon these decidedly jagged granite uplifts by lonely Gallic trappers. The rock faces could as easily be seen as facets of prime American jewels, the high defiles full of snow in July. A stream is running over cobbles, providing an inspiration in this dry season.
     Terry says, "I depend a lot on the soundscape. That's the ruby-crowned kinglet we're hearing."
     "And the chipping sparrow," says Brooke.
     And the private jet, approaching the Jackson Hole airport a few miles to the south. "That's a sound the Muries never heard," Terry adds, and we reflect on the vast changes that have overtaken the valley and the nation in the last half century. The spring-fed runnels passing through the little rock garden make a sound that gradually replaces the whine of turbines, and we relax a bit.                                                   

     This discreet pocket at the foot of the mountains has been largely untampered with for a long time, despite its closeness to millions of people who pour in annually to embrace the grandeur of mountain and plateau. Incredibly, all this was little noticed by Americans until the mid-20th century, after park status had been long debated, with loud opposition from ranchers and persistent advocacy by, among others, the Muries. Brooke tells the story of Olaus meeting with ranchers in an effort to sway them, after his pickup had been stuck in a stream. He returned after the meeting to find that some of the ranchers had pulled the truck out for him, "the point being that they might not agree with him, but they liked and respected him."                                                     

     The park became a reality in 1950, and from that point on visitation-and development on the park's periphery-has grown exponentially. Today Teton County has one of the highest median home prices in the nation.
     The trail takes us back through the woods and loops past the Murie Center. The historic cabins are on the National Register of Historic Places, and restoration of these functional artifacts of ranching is another objective of the center. We cross a little wetland on a rustic bridge, pass some cottonwoods, and we're standing on "the beach," a stretch of sand overlooking the floodplain of the Snake, with Black Tail Butte in the distance.
     Now the soundscape includes distant highway traffic, but anyone wishing to get really away and into the alpine experience can easily do so in the immediate neighborhood. For instance, just up the road is the trailhead to Death Canyon, offering quick access to the ruggedly gorgeous country for which the Tetons are famous.
     We have come most of the way Around the World, and only an hour has passed. Walking, however, is not a matter of time, or distance, but of perception. This proximity to both the wild and the civilized has provided much to see and to think about, as Olaus Murie no doubt intended.
     "It's been a meditation," says Brooke.
     "And a gift."
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