Her obituary last week was correct in every particular: Her name was Mollie H. Beattie. She was 49, the first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As reported, she succumbed to a brain tumor, dying Thursday in a hospital in Townshend, Vt.
Hers appeared to be a short and public life, reduced to milestones of schools attended, positions held, survivors left behind. But obituaries, even more than most news accounts, demonstrate to those who know the subject how stark is the distance between mere accuracy and truth. Mollie, as she was known to one and all, was many things, but never a creature of Washington, never a composite of accomplishments and, most certainly, not a public being.
True, she had allowed herself to be thrust into the center of an intensely public debate, selected to hold aloft the tattered banner of conservation and the Endangered Species Act, which she viewed less as an act of civil legislation than divine ordination. But Mollie's brief and quiet sojourn in Washington -- less than three years -- left a lasting mark on both the physical landscape of the nation and the political terrain of conservation ethics.
I first met Mollie shortly after she arrived in Washington. She had consented to a series of personal interviews for a profile I was writing. I remember her pageboy haircut, her radiant face, utterly devoid of makeup, and her smart blue suit with brass buttons -- a visible concession from someone who otherwise lived in jeans. Later I would speak with her about topics as diverse as tropical forests, endangered species and the National Biological Survey.
No sooner had she arrived than she put the agency on notice that change was in the offing. In the long hallway leading to the director's office, there is a portrait gallery of former directors -- then black-and-white photos of middle-aged white men in stiff white shirts, dark jackets and Windsor knots. Mollie chose a color photo of herself in hip waders, holding a pair of field glasses and standing at the edge of the water. Just behind her, on the opposite shore, can be seen a Kodiak bear. It was a statement that needed no elaboration.
Conservationists immediately embraced her appointment as the ultimate victory. She was one of their own. But Mollie shunned the notion of being an eco-evangelist, combining hard science (a degree in forestry from the University of Vermont), a master's in public administration from Harvard, and a child's sense of awe. It would prove to be an irresistible combination for political friend and foe alike.
She came by her love of nature honestly. Her grandmother Harriet Hanna was a self-educated botanist and landscape artist who knew every tree by its Latin name and, like all the girls in the family, was richly eccentric. "Her wackiness intrigued me as a kid," Mollie told me. "She seemed a little freer than everybody else." Mollie recalled that her grandmother would be seen outside in her nightgown at 5 a.m., toting her 4-10 shotgun in search of opossums disturbing her garden. Her home was part animal shelter, part clinic -- home to lame deer, birds with broken legs and raccoons that had become dependent on her largess. "I got her ethic that if it moves, feed it," said Mollie.
Mollie's mother, Pat, also has a fiercely independent streak and devotion to nature. Pat Beattie never told me how old she was, only that she was "well over 65." She lives in a log cabin among eight acres of sagebrush south of Ketchum, Idaho. She rides horses, climbs rocks and drives a Ford pickup. "As I get older, I like the wilds better," she told me years ago.
As a young girl, Mollie would catch mice in the winter and make them a home in an aquarium, feeding them hamster food. In spring, when food was more plentiful, she would release them. And always she had a gift for persuading even nonbelievers that nature was worth saving. When she was 8 and on a family vacation in California, she came upon a house sparrow with a broken wing. Against her mother's advice, she persuaded a pilot with United Airlines to allow the bird to ride with him in the cockpit from California to New York where she intended to nurse it back to health. The bird sat on the compass of the DC-7 all the way across the country. The pilot then drove the bird to his home in Putnam County but when he showed it to his wife, the bird keeled over dead. Four decades later, Mollie was still in mourning.
Her mother worried how Mollie would fare in Washington, a place where capitulation often passes for compromise. Her fears were unfounded. Mollie could be tough. Just ask Ralph Wright, former Vermont speaker of the house. "Mollie just didn't take any crap from me," Wright once told me. "She stood up to me when I tried to push her around. She gave it right back. I didn't mess with Mollie anymore." Mollie took a certain pride in standing her ground. She bristled when Wright once suggested she was a daughter of privilege. "I'm as shanty Irish as he is -- on both sides!" she boasted.
Still, she was conciliatory by nature, uncomfortable with confrontation, not out of weakness but out of belief that even the human habitat -- perhaps especially -- was big enough to accommodate all species and manner of ideas. She had a supremely quiet confidence. "I've always worked hard never to allow my lifestyle to rise to the level of my income or my expectations of my career to be one of an endlessly ascending trajectory," she told me shortly after assuming office. "I've worked very hard on those two things so I'm always free to go, because I know where my lines are. If you have to put it on the line, you have to put it on the line. There's a place past which it isn't worth it."
Heading the agency was not an easy job for Mollie. She told her sister shortly after arriving that it was a great job -- for 10 people. She maintained a dizzying schedule. Once, flying over Iowa, she could not remember if she was flying to the East or West Coast.
A few months after her arrival here I asked her what was the hardest thing about Washington, expecting her to cite the withering assault on conservation issues or the late-night hours in the office. Not Mollie. "My hardest adjustment?" she repeated. "The lack of darkness at night, living in a place that's never quiet. The confinement of it. I'm used to absolutely unadulterated privacy. That's hard. It's a real loss that I can't just wander off into the woods."
Mollie was neither ideologue nor politician. She held to the same positions in her personal life as her public life. Her mother recalls that Mollie shamed her into avoiding the purchase of any colored tissues, warning that the colors were slower to break down in the soil.
Fifteen years ago she let her guard down and admitted she'd gone to forestry school "damn well determined to subvert the system." And she did just that. She helped to elevate the level of national debate while lowering levels of distrust and enmity that characterized much of the conservation issues in the '90s. During her brief watch at the Fish and Wildlife Service, another 15 wildlife refuges were added, more than 100 conservation habitat plans were agreed on between landowners and the government, and the gray wolf was reintroduced into the Northern Rockies. The wolf was one of her two favorite animals, the other being coyotes. "There's something so wily and elusive and mysterious -- they almost seem magical, the coyotes."
She knew how to reach out to those with whom she disagreed. A woman -- and a non-hunter at that -- she presided over an agency long in the sway of the hook-and-bullet crowd. Within days of her arrival she told a gathering, "My father was seriously wounded in a hunting accident, and my uncle still carries a bullet behind his heart." She then went on to talk about the decline in hunting accidents, praising hunter safety. She was one of the boys. She could talk the talk and walk the walk.
She always took the broad view of nature and of man's relationship to it. "I believe there's only one conflict," she told me, "and that's between the short-term and the long-term thinking. In the long term, the economy and the environment are the same thing. If it's unenvironmental it is uneconomical. That is a rule of nature."
Last month legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to name an 8-million-acre wilderness reserve in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after her. Not a bad way to be remembered.
Toward the end, friends and family began exchanging "Mollie stories." Steve Wright recalled how five years ago he had passed her on a country road and recognized her license plate -- "4STR" -- for "forester." He chased her down on his new motorcycle, a 1200cc Harley-Davidson, finally catching up with her at a gas station. Mollie took one look at his cycle, hiked up her skirt, threw one leg over the sissy bar and sped off. She turned around to wave goodbye as she barreled at top speed up Vermont's Route 100. Ten minutes later she returned the bike. Vintage Mollie Beattie.
Mollie's last day of consciousness was Tuesday, a time when closest friends and family gathered at her bedside at the Grace Cottage, part of a tiny village hospital. Present too was Dozer, her big brown mutt with crooked ears and graying muzzle. It was said that the nurses spent as much time feeding Dozer as caring for the patients -- again Mollie's talent for getting others to provide for nature. Toward the end, in a moment of solemnity, Mollie was asked if there was anything else she needed. After a second's reflection, a mischievous glint came into her eyes. "Potato chips," she said. The room erupted in laughter.
There was always a sense that the world had come to Mollie's door, and not the other way around. Atop her stunningly understated three-page resume was her address, a box number on Rural Route No. 3, in Grafton, Vt. She lived a mile from the nearest utility pole in a house of wood she and her husband, Rick Schwolsky, built amid 142 acres of beech, birch and maple -- red and sugar -- on a gentle south-facing slope. There she kept her bees and shared the honey with an occasional black bear, driving him off only when he took too much.
There was no television in her house, and in the living room hung a painting of a woman standing with her hand on an oak tree. The woman is depicted speaking, but instead of words, oak leaves are coming out of her mouth. The picture was titled "A Woman Who Speaks Trees." It was one of the few possessions that Mollie said really meant anything to her. I can think of no more fitting epitaph. Mollie, too, was "A Woman Who Speaks Trees." Ted Gup is writer-at-large for Gentleman's Quarterly and teaches journalism at Georgetown University. CAPTION: Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie, keeping a watchful eye last fall on her charges.