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Mardy Murie links past, present environmentalists

SITTING with Mardy Murie in her log cabin living room here, one is immediately struck by her clear, searching eyes. It is a gaze softened by years of experience - the gaze of a pioneer.

Here is the first woman ever to graduate from the University of Alaska (in 1924).

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Here is the woman who traveled the untracked wilds of Alaska with her husband , Olaus J. Murie, for some 30 years - during which, as Olaus established himself as one of this country's most accomplished naturalists, she raised three children with little more than a campfire, a tent, and the trees.

Here is the woman who, after her husband's passing in 1963, took up the mantle of conservation. Her work - which included serving on the council of the Wilderness Society, giving speeches, and testifying before Congress - brought her the two most prestigious awards in the environmental movement: the Audubon Medal in 1980 and the Sierra Club's John Muir Award in 1981.

And here is a woman who has just finished preparing, she says, a ''double batch of Bavarian cream'' for a dinner party of 16.

Today, Mardy Murie is still breaking the trail for a new generation of those interested in the natural world. Her spacious home, set in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, has become ''a sort of universal meeting point for the environmental movement,'' says William Turnage, president of the Wilderness Society.

''She is the last link between the great conservation tradition of John Muir, Robert Marshall, Olaus Murie - and the environmental movement today,'' he explains.

Many of her guests are young people. Year-round, she regularly invites groups of students from the nearby Teton Science School, an acclaimed environmental education institution, for her now-famous tea and cookies - and a few of her endless wilderness tales.

''I always wonder if there'll be one disinterested, bored face,'' she says, ''but I haven't seen one yet.''

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No wonder. Her home is a veritable treasure-house of natural and historical artifacts. There are, of course, Olaus's wildlife paintings - of moose in snowy woods, of rare birds. Most of the paintings now hang in museums and schools across the country. The ones here, she says, are gentle reminders of the man with whom she spent ''39 perfect years.''

And there are reminders of her long love affair with Alaska: four shelves of books on the state, including her own classic work, ''Two in the Far North''; a caseful of delicate Eskimo ivory carvings; a handsomely crafted basket from Atta Island in the Aleutians; and a rough-worn brown leather ball.

She picks up the ball and launches into one of her apparently endless collection of stories. On St. Lawrence Island, off the north-central coast of Alaska, they play a game with the ball, she explains, and ''whoever comes up with the ball gets to rub noses with his girlfriend.''

But it is a book on the coffee table that most represents her association with the 49th state. ''Alaska National Parklands: This Last Treasure,'' by William E. Brown (Alaska Natural History Association), is a tribute to the millions of wilderness acres that were set aside by the landmark 1982 Alaska Lands Act. In honor of her vital role in passage of that bill, the work is dedicated ''to Margaret E. Murie - pioneer Alaskan, conservationist, writer, and inspirational realist in the modern world.''

In fact, it was for calling attention to ''the great national treasures of Alaska,'' as well as her ''lifelong contribution'' to conservation efforts, that she was awarded the prestigious Audubon Medal, says Russell Peterson, president of the Audubon Society.

''I'm looking at her picture on my wall,'' Mr. Peterson says by phone from his office in New York. Recalling his many contacts with her, Peterson says, ''She has a perceptive mind and persuasive voice - and a gentle spirit.''

That gentle spirit has won many other friends - including some who have fought from the other side of the conservation issues. Former Wyoming Sen. Clifford P. Hansen is one.

''Not everyone shares her convictions about wildlife or wilderness,'' says Mr. Hansen, talking recently from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., ''but I can assure you no one has ever questioned her integrity.'' He should know. He first met Mardy and Olaus when they settled in Jackson Hole in the late '20s. ''She has by her example and her enthusiasm caused a great many people to deeply consider the issues of environmment and wildlife,'' Hansen says.

Vitality has been the essence of Mardy Murie's long, successful life. ''She is a rather remarkable combination of timelessness and youthfulness,'' says the Wilderness Society's Mr. Turnage, a close friend of some 14 years. Beyond that, Turnage says, ''she is a philosophical and spiritual symbol to the movement . . . there is a profound, peaceful aura about her.''

Indeed, sitting in front of Mardy Murie - her white hair pulled back in multicolored braids from a face that looks remarkably young - it is plain that the stillness of the wilderness has been instilled within her.

Suddenly there's a rumbling at the door, and one of her 10 grandchildren comes rushing in and plops down next to Grandma. Mardy, an arm around the girl, gently advises that she take care on her hike in the Tetons.

Then she turns and says, with a wry smile: ''My grandchildren were asking me last night at the dinner table how I raised children in camps in the wilderness.''

Actually, she recalls, it was quite easy. ''The children were perfectly well and happy and occupied. I didn't have to answer the phone, wax floors, go to bridge parties. . . . The only thing that bothered me was so much stooping over the fire.''

Although she hasn't spent any extended time in Alaska for years, ''I think about it a lot,'' she says. BuzPzty Zo no feeling of loss or regret. ''You know, I've had about a thousand times more than most people have in life. I've had (through many trips) New Zealand, Africa, Jackson Hole, and Alaska, and I can't ask for more.''

But there are plenty of people asking more of her. Soon the phone rings, and it's someone from the Wilderness Society in Washington asking her advice on a National Parks bill in Congress. ''This is the way it goes,'' she remarks.

Recently, 150 letters arrived after an article about her by the Associated Press. She answered every one of them. ''I was just so touched that someome somewhere was interested in a woman trying to preserve wilderness,'' she says, almost embarrassed at all the attention.

How does she do it all? After a long moment in thought, she says: ''Whenever Olaus was confronted with a problem, he would say, 'How would Jesus have handled it?' ''

And does she do the same?

''I hope so,'' she says, her eyes sparkling.

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