So Long, Joe Meuchal

Several dozen of us gathered Saturday afternoon at the Fairgrounds here in Ellensburg, Washington, to remember our friend Joe Meuchal (as in “Michael”). True to his nature Joe wanted no fuss made over him, so we just made a small fuss and spent a couple hours sharing memories, laughing, and celebrating a good man who will be well-remembered.

You probably crossed paths with Joe at one point or another over the past decades. He was one of those great story tellers and loyal friends you can’t forget – and wouldn’t want to forget, anyhow. He went to his well-earned reward on his 91st birthday.

Joe was an outdoor guy from the moment he could find his way out a door. He grew up on a homestead on the North Dakota prairie and then in Montana after the Great Depression took the homestead. As a young man he spent summers as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service, times of which he spoke and wrote often. He was a WWII and Korean Conflict vet. He worked forests and spent much of his adulthood as a rancher. Fresh air, sunshine, plants, wildlife, horses, and change were the constants in his life – all of them, he said, fueled his passion for knowledge about the world around him and the forces that shaped it. As long as he was able – as close to the end as possible – he took long daily walks.

If you were there Saturday, you heard about his work with Audubon and the many places – roundtables, committees and boards – where he made certain that someone was speaking on behalf of them. You also learned that even as he was speaking in great detail – scientific names and all – about birds, animals, native plants or weeds, he was devoted to seeing them in the context of a healthy habitat, within the big picture. He often noted that when we restore or maintain a healthy environment, with its variety of habitats, the plants and wildlife will find their proper balance.

I first crossed paths with Joe during the Big Game Management Roundtable (BGMR) – a group of some 50 stakeholders dealing with big game damage to agricultural ground in the Kittitas Valley of Washington in ’03 or ‘04. He was a strong voice for open space and the holistic management of wildlife and livestock. His insatiable appetite for the natural and cultural history of the valley and the region – and his nearly perfect recall of what he had learned from archive after archive – supported the roundtable in finding workable solutions to some fairly intractable problems. When he spoke about the BGMR and his role, he was speaking of his own values: “People are talking; trust is developing… Open communication… A diverse group of people collaboratively seeking solutions to the elk problems within the whole environmental picture.“

Over the years, he often spoke about the importance of kids being free to explore the outdoors without constraint. Only in this way, he insisted, would they fully develop their innate desire to learn all they could about wild things and wild places. A decade or so ago, when we were talking about one of the columns I was writing, he reminded me that without that passion for nature future generations will not do the work for a healthy natural environment that we are doing. On Saturday, a couple of his other friends reminded us of his strong opinions about the importance of outdoor kids.

Joe put together half a dozen books of his well-written and entertaining stories. Copies of various of them are in the hands of friends, but they were never widely distributed.

I thought I’d pass along a couple of the notes folks sent me about our friend.

Marc Eylar described him as an “old hand of many subjects, experienced and well read. Not only could he tell a good story but his ability to just listen and converse with you always left you feeling fortunate to be in the conversation. His laugh would warm your heart and when you were in his company you were content…and so was he.”

Robert Kruse wrote that Joe “possessed a  breadth of knowledge, experience and interest in sharing with others encyclopedic knowledge and recollections in natural science, landscape arts, agriculture, horsemanship and cultural history, to name a few. Joe took us back with him to days long ago and allowed us to experience moments in the past with colorant, spices and humor…to make the flavor just right.”

Maybe the best way to summarize how so many of us felt about Joe is just to let you read the words of his friend Charlie McKinney. “I feel like Joe, in his own way was a kind of Renaissance Man. If it had to do with plants or animals, wild or domestic; land, especially the American west or how people have lived on it or still do, then he was interested. He had a wealth of practical, hands-on experience because he had lived it. But he was amazing in that he could stay right up with you in a discussion of modern range management, forestry, wildlife management or environmental issues. Joe was steeped in the traditional ways but also knowledgeable about modern science and management. Joe maintained a wonderfully open mind to the end.”

A wise man once said to me, “A person is only as big as the number of things to which he or she attends with interest.” Joe Meuchal was a big man.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized