Mary Paetzel returns home to the mountains she so loved

Mary Paetzel returns home to the mountains she so loved

Mary Paetzel would have harrumphed at the whole spectacle.

There we were Friday afternoon, some two dozen of her longtime friends and admirers standing atop 7,420-foot high Dutchman Peak, everyone with a lump in his or her throat, trying to keep our eyes from watering.

But there was more laughter than tears. This was a celebration of someone who was truly the most unique individual we ever had the good fortune to meet.

Friday would have been her 88th birthday. The feisty self-taught naturalist died Aug. 3 in Grants Pass.

She had been brought home for the last time, to have her ashes gently placed under a mountain mahogany bush on the peak she loved overlooking the upper Applegate River drainage.

"Mary wanted her ashes scattered on Dutchman — she left expressed wishes for that," event organizer Lee Webb, retired Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest biologist, reminded us. "But she didn't say 'have a party,' " he added. "I can see her now, saying, 'None of that crap. Just put it out there.' But, secretly, she would be enjoying herself today."

From the mountaintop floated the words and sweet music to "Red River Valley" and "Amazing Grace" performed by a talented trio including fiddle player Janet Levinson and vocalists Marguerite Garrison and Joyce Wind with their guitars. They also played "Solitary Woman," a peaceful song written by Levinson, a forester who worked with Mary.

Indeed, she would have loved it. Underneath Mary's crusty exterior was a warm person with a hearty laugh, a rare individual who actually did stop to smell the roses along the way.

For her, those were wild roses included everything nature had to offer, from bees to trees, from crickets to caterpillars.

Born in Peru, Ind., on Sept. 21, 1919, Mary, always one to go her own way, quit school after the ninth grade when school administrators insisted she focus on cooking and sewing classes instead of the hard sciences. She tried to enlist into the Army during World War II but was rejected because she had sight in only one eye. No problem, she simply got a job working as an aircraft mechanic during the war.

It was after moving to Southern Oregon in the 1940s that she began exploring the Siskiyou and Klamath mountains. For 30 years she collected pollen for a pharmaceutical company to be used in allergy tests.

But her love was studying nature. In 1986, she discovered a rare population of Mariposa copper butterflies in the Siskiyou mountains. Her interest in butterflies led to a forest contract job of surveying butterflies on Dutchman Peak.

Back in 1963, she had written a "Writer's Prayer" asking that her written words be remembered.

"Dear God, if you heed my humble prayer, I only ask that you help me share this work of mine, this talent of Yours, with others — that I may brighten a little the dark places, that I may gladden a little the heavy heart, that I may make less dreary the sad day," it reads in part.

"With your help I beg to bring the sun and blue skies and clean woods, the peaceful river, the tranquility of the hills, to all who need and want them," she added.

Her prayers — and ours — were answered.

Mary's three books, including "Spirit of the Siskiyous," published by Oregon State University Press in 1998, contain her wonderful essays and sketches of nature.

With each essay, you feel like you are peering over the gifted writer's shoulder, holding your breath as you both observe nature's wonders.

Consider "Wandering Troubadour," which she wrote in June of 1963.

"Have kept a pet cricket since last fall, but now in these beautiful days of sun and warm breezes I haven't had the heart to keep him shut up in his little prison so yesterday I gave him his freedom," Mary wrote.

"First I made him a snug little retreat beneath a poppy plant and even constructed a little porch over the door to keep him dry. As soon as he understood he was free to go he gratefully accepted his newly built home and moved in.

"He sang long and happily all day and night — but today he sang from another spot, and another. He is all over the field and garden as though he couldn't resist traveling after being a prisoner so long. But always he sings. First from the greenhouse, now from the rose bush, again from the stone wall by the house.

"Sing little friend and enjoy your well-earned freedom," she concluded.

On Jan. 31 of this year, Mary penned her final essay, titled "No grieving my friends."

"The bird in the gilded cage has flown," it began. "The golden path of the moon over the marsh is irresistible and the swans are calling. I won't be too far away.

"When the leaves turn golden in autumn, when the snow begins to fall, when the birds return in spring, I will be there," she added. "When the geese are on the wing, I'll be there.

"For the sounds of the wild things of the earth will be heard in eternity, and I'll be there."

It was probably just a coincidence that a solitary white butterfly could be seen flitting among the mountaintop congregation Friday afternoon.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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