The Mama Grizzly in me

Grizzlies: fiercesome, strong, determined.  Mamas: loving, passionate, nurturing.   Strange mix – yet real.  I find it fascinating to relate my own feelings, my work, my life to what first seems an improbable combination.  But the more I think about it the more meaning I can find in the analogy…

My life surely didn’t begin with this in mind.  I grew up in rural upstate New York, wandering old fields at the edge of a dairy farm community.  In a family of four sisters, we were free to explore the creek and crannies out back, searching for crayfish, frogs, or colorful flowers.  I simply enjoyed being: lying on warm
“table” rocks with closed eyes, feeling the breeze in my hair.  Mud and water seemed to pull me in, and my mother – after sighs thinking about clean up – would fully embrace me and my curious interests.  With no brothers to serve as contrast, we grew up with little regard for typical male or female roles.  And with great encouragement from my parents, I did not look at the world through a girl’s eyes, but through my eyes.

Through school and into college, I began to realize I was not on a typical path.  The exertion and sweat of sports, the welcome challenge of math and science, and the solitude and intimacy found in the out-of-doors were not considered within the standard female realm in the 60’s and early 70’s, yet they were drivers for me.  After a bit, I also recognized the internal “kick” I got from not being what people expected: a woman interested in big, wild critters and big, wild places; a field biologist; and headed for high mountain rainforests in central Africa. 

Word was out: mountain gorillas were going extinct.  Too little habitat.  Nothing to be done.  Having lived next door in Congo as Peace Corps volunteers, my husband and I doubted the accepted wisdom.  We knew no one had good evidence for why the gorilla population had dropped so drastically.  Thus, my keen interest, enjoyment, and passion for the wild combined with my scientific training - and the first stage of my career was born.  And what a birth!  My “first day on the job” in Rwanda brought me within several yards of a full family of mountain gorillas, when a two-year old with big brown eyes timidly reached out to touch the hem of my pants before twirling back into her mom’s enormous lap.  As I learned from these powerful yet gentle creatures, their survival was not yet threatened by a scarcity of food.  The problem was instead a basic lack of human awareness and protection, and working closely together with people this might be solved.

Fast forward.  Gorilla success….Uganda’s monkeys…Congo’s forest elephants…Cambodia’s tigers…Bolivia’s bears…America’s grizzlies.  Oh right - grizzlies.  And mamas.  Yep, this fast forward includes two sons as well – with me the proud mama.

So back to mama grizzlies.  I feel tremendously fortunate to have found my way in the early stages of global conservation efforts, to work in remote areas so very full of life, to learn constantly from the unexpected, to be welcomed by peoples of greatly different walks of life, to experience joy on mountaintops and in the midst of wild animals, and to contribute in ways where conservation results are clear and compelling.  I feel tremendously fortunate to be able to do this now in my own country, where we have so many wild lands at stake – so much future yet to be determined.  From the biggest wild of the Arctic to the rich mountain forests overlooking Asheville.  From the Joshua trees of desert California to the brilliant wildflowers of alpine Colorado.  The early conservation legacy left by Americans before us has yet to be fulfilled, and I am motivated by the responsibility that is now in our hands. 

Sometimes I feel that my life has been a bit like that little gorilla.  I reached out timidly at first, hoping I could make a difference as a conservationist.  I was “cradled” in the security and support of my parents, the life-long partnership with my husband, and the encouragement from my sons.  These have always given me strength, and proved vital while I was breaking into a non-traditional pathway in life. 

Yet over time the mama grizzly has risen up inside.  I am not timid.  I am driven by a combination of passion, a fierceness to protect, and also a sense of nurturing the delicate future that we foresee unfolding for our wild areas.  Nature will move forward, buffeted by climate change and many other impacts we throw at her.  But there is so much that we can do to keep the wild in her midst – and I am deeply moved by the number of mama grizzlies who are concertedly determined to fight for and nurture wildness in that future. 

Throughout these travels -- starting in my childhood until today -- I have met remarkable men and women dedicated to conservation.  Little did I notice that many of the women were standing in the shadows of others – some so deeply shadowed that they remained largely unseen, unknown, unrecognized.  Yet there in the background were strongly principled, politically savvy, scientifically astute, strikingly effective women like Mardy Murie, Rachel Carson, and Celia Hunter.  Women who fought hard for our wilds yet spoke of beauty, spirit, and love for the land.   That improbable combination.  Mama grizzlies from whom each of us can draw strength and inspiration – to ensure that we have both mama and papa grizzlies who will love and fiercely defend our wild life and wild places long onto the future.