An Elegant American
I loved Stewart Udall. He was an elegant man who wore his silver hair often pulled back in a small ponytail. I recall his crisp white shirts accented with a Hopi bolo tie, black pants, black boots. He was a Westerner at core, tied to Western lands from Utah, where his Mormon roots were set, to St. Johns, Arizona, where he was born, to New Mexico, where he died on March 20, 2010. He was ninety years old. He lived, as T. S. Eliot describes in Four Quartets, a “life of significant soil.”
On September 21, the main building of the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., was rededicated in his name. He was a man who carried a vision of what “the open space of democracy” looked like as Secretary of the Interior, from 1961 to 1969, under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And his leadership helped to protect federal public lands for future generations.
That both the spring equinox and autumn equinox are marked this year by Udall’s passing and placement in perpetuity is a testament to his commitment to balance—a balance of power and a balance of nature.
Consider his legacy: Udall was a driving force in both the writing and passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which included 9.2 million acres of public lands. Today, more than 100 million acres of wilderness have been protected. Under his leadership, sixty additions were made to the National Park Service, including the creation of Canyonlands, North Cascades, and Redwood National Parks, eight national seashores, nine recreation areas, twenty national historic sites, and fifty-six wildlife refuges preserving critical wetland habitats for migratory waterfowl.
Udall was also a key player in creating the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Trail System Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.
He was a fierce advocate for Indians. When he died, LaDonna Harris, president and founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, told Indian Times Today: “Native Americans have a special place in our hearts for the first Secretary of the Interior to recognize American Indians as contemporary, self-determined peoples.” Harris, a member of the Comanche Nation, added: “He was a real hero for his tireless fight for justice for the many Navajo and other tribal members who were contaminated by uranium mill tailings.”
A champion of diversity throughout his life, Udall changed the face of the National Park Service. Robert G. Stanton, the first African American to head the National Park Service, in 1997, credits Udall for his career.
“Stewart Udall came in and took a look at the face of his workforce and there was a noticeable absence [of African Americans] in the professional and technical areas,” says Stanton in his oral history. “So Secretary Udall went to the bureau heads and raised the question, ‘How many do you have on your staff?’ We were called Negroes at the time. ‘How many Negroes do you have on your staff?’ And he was not satisfied with what he learned. In 1961, the National Park Service had only one African American ranger, Noble Samuel, who was in the Virgin Islands National Park.”
According to Stanton, Udall then said: “What I will do is pull together in my immediate office a cadre of recruiters to go into places where Interior has never gone before, at least on a large scale, to recruit from the historically black colleges and universities.”
Udall sent one of his recruiters to Huston-Tillotson, where Stanton was a student. The recruiter told the college president: “It’s a new day. We realize Interior has not recruited among your student body before and we want you, Mr. President, to recommend among your students those who you think will represent the college well and will represent themselves well in a new environment.”
Robert Stanton was one of the two students recommended by his college president. He became the first black park ranger in Grand Teton National Park.
This story carries a particular poignancy when set against the backdrop of Udall’s personal history. As a Mormon missionary in 1940, he was well aware that “Negroes” were not allowed to hold the priesthood of his own religion. And in The Book of Mormon, Indian people are referred to as “Lamanites” carrying a curse of their rebellious forbearers.
Part of Udall’s greatness of spirit resided in his sense of an inclusive justice. Like Aldo Leopold, he understood that people of all races had a contract with their community, and that community included plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and every human being. Udall recognized that social issues and environmental issues were issues of justice, whether he was sitting on the Central Arizona Water Conservation Board or whether he was presiding as Secretary of the Interior.
The last time I saw Stewart Udall was at his home in Santa Fe, a couple of years ago. His son Tom (now a U.S. Senator from New Mexico) was with him. My husband, Brooke, and I wanted to pay him a visit. We had just read his op-ed in The Denver Post honoring the centennial of Rachel Carson’s birth. He had been a close friend of Carson’s and was one of the pallbearers at her funeral. Both Carson and Udall had written landmark books that had become national bestsellers: Silent Spring, published in 1962, and The Quiet Crisis, published in 1963. Known as a great orator, Stewart was preparing his talk that he would deliver at the JFK Library to honor Rachel Carson. After sharing some memories of his friendship with the great conservationist, he quoted Carson from memory:
“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature . . . but man is a part of nature, and this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
“A war against ourselves,” he repeated. He paused as he stood before the three of us. Our eyes met and I’ll be honest, mine were filled with tears. “Will we acknowledge this in time?” he asked.
In a letter to his grandchildren on Christmas Eve 2008, he spoke of the great challenges of our time: peak oil and climate change. “Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the Earth needs your devotion and tender care,” he wrote. “Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the Earth!”
Stewart Lee Udall and my own great-grandmother Vilate Lee Romney shared the same middle name of a common ancestor. They would have both known and quietly held this Mormon Article of Faith: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men. . . . We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
Stewart used to tease me, saying we come from “good pioneer stock,” as they say in our part of the world. We were relatives. And so I take his counsel personally and recommit myself not only to his communal vision, but to his loving, passionate embrace of a personal justice that created so powerfully his practice of the wild.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “ The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.
To read other stories by Terry Tempest Williams, click here.
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