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April 30, 2012

So far this year we have lost some luminaries in the realm of activism–social, political, environmental. Two worth mentioning in the space of this blog are Martin Murie and Adrienne Rich. Martin Murie was the son of Margaret “Mardy” and Olaus Murie, two pillars of the Alaskan environmental movement. The Muries were instrumental in the lobbying of Congress for the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a region rich in plant, animal, and people history. Mardy Murie wrote about her experiences in the area that became the Refuge in her best-selling memoir, Two in the Far North. She also writes in the book about taking Martin as a toddler into some of the wildest areas of Alaska on scientific expeditions with Olaus, a famed biologist best known in Alaska for his research on wolves in the Arctic. Martin passed away earlier this year and from a beautiful tribute from his former student, we learn a little more about how his parents’ values and dedications survived and flourished in their son:

Biologist, teacher, writer, and ranter, Martin called himself a “varmentalist.” He was an activist for nature and wildness and against war and corporate domination. Anyone meeting Martin at a demo, in a classroom, or on the wrong side of a “No Trespassing” sign found right away that his smile was to the core and his readiness to listen and argue was an open invitation. He had a confidence in folks, in the human animal, that kept him up and fighting for justice. “Because we are sociable, we work together,” he said.

Adrienne Rich would share that sentiment, I think, only adding an insistence on the presence of others marginalized by dominant structures of power: women, queers, the working class. She famously once said: “Art…means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” She wrote this in her 1997 letter refusing the National Medal of Arts, in protest against the Clinton Administration. She expressed her dismay further, that amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” Read more about her life and poetic legacy here.

The following poem from the school among the ruins: poems 2000-2004 connects two spaces very dear to me, drawing a line up the coast from south to north in a narrative migration that travels across–and connects–land and people. The poem exemplifies, I think, the work I attempt here on the blog, which is to notice that many stories make up a single life (and can be told in a variety of ways) and that stories connect across lives, lifetimes and places.

There is No One Story and One Story Only (2002)

The engineer’s story of hulking coal
to Davenport for the cement factory, sitting on the bluffs
between runs looking for whales, hauling concrete
back to Gilroy, he and his wife renewing vows
in the glass chapel in Arkansas after 25 years
The flight attendant’s story murmured
to the flight steward in the dark galley
of her fifth month loss of nerve
about carrying the baby she’d seen on the screen
The story of the forensic medical team’s
small plane landing on an Alaska icefield
of the body in the bag they had to drag
over the ice like the whole life of that body
The story of the man driving
600 miles to be with a friend in another country     seeming
writing in a letter difficult truths
Of the friend watching him leave remembering
the story of her body
with his once and the stories of their children
made with other people and how his mind went on
pressing hers like a body
There is the story of the mind’s
temperature neither cold nor celibate
Ardent     The story of
not one thing only.

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