Laurie Murison – a life of juggling

Laurie describes herself as an “Intensely private person”. Much of her life is lived in the public domain, as the public face of GMWSRS and the ‘go to’ person who is constantly in demand. This in itself requires a juggling act of sorts, balancing her private life with her very public one.

Describing Laurie in a few words is incredibly difficult, she is a complex creature whose depths are mostly hidden from view. Some aspects of her character which are evident on the surface are her calmness, curiosity, passion, humour, (she has a sharp wit), intelligence, creativity, problem solving and mediating skills, and non-complaining attitude. She always wants to learn, desiring to know why something does or does not work, and she always wants to give of herself. Laurie veers towards optimism rather than pessimism and would rather treat life with lightness than heaviness. She is “Happy to be moderate in my emotions. Intense emotions are draining, I would not have the energy to hate or even to be ecstatically happy”. Laurie is a woman of the calm, centred, middle ground in many respects.

An important aspect of her character is her tolerance. Laurie describes this as something which “I try to carry throughout my life. Even if I do not like someone I remind myself that there must be something good about them. Tolerance is difficult, but nature can help us learn it. For example, in nature, homosexuality is very common, it is no big deal. Some humans turn it into a big deal. There is no need to do so, it is natural in itself”. This attitude is essential for her work as a conservationist, enabling her to juggle the conflicting needs of nature and people to reach the best compromise possible.

Another highly important aspect of her character is her attitude towards living a life of giving. This comes from a “Family tradition. My grandmother had to bring up her siblings from the age of 13, and then her own children and her brother’s, my mum brought my brother and I up as a single mother who also had to work. I brought myself up in some respects and was expected to solve problems from a young age. Living a life which involves so much voluntary activity, a charitable life, is just a way of life for me. It is something I accept and do without really thinking about it”. To Laurie, the way other people live their lives is strange. She cannot imagine a “9-5, five days a week, working for someone else” kind of a life. It would not suit her; she is too used to working under her own volition for the benefit of those around her. “Most people seem to think in terms of how much they are worth; for example, how much they should earn to carry out a certain job. Not so many people think in terms of how much they can give of themselves.” I remember Bob Bowman describing Laurie as a woman who is “Dedicated to being in service to the community”, I can now fully appreciate the reality of this.

In her seven day week during the summertime, a typical day for Laurie may go along the lines of:

8am = administration for three organisations (GMWSRS, Swallowtail Keepers Society / SKS, and unofficially Grand Manan’s Tourism Association), catching up on unfinished business from the previous day
9am = attending the research station to oversee the museum and gift shop
9.30 – 11am = emails (answering questions from tourists, whale watchers, researchers, consulting companies, fisherman…), banking, checking on any needs of researchers at the station, general DIY
11am – 4.30pm = marine biologist aboard Whales’n’Sails whale watch boat, educating tourists while collecting whale photo-ID’s and data
4.30 – 7pm = gift shop accounting, responding to messages and more emails, checking weather updates, downloading data and photos, ID’ing individual whales and studying their interactions and behaviours, more DIY
7.30 – 9.30pm = giving a lecture to local or visiting groups
After 9.30pm = completing data, writing articles, blog posts and newsletters
12pm = go to bed!

This pattern has some variations, such as delivering morning lectures to a holiday camp for teenagers, doing two or sometimes three whale watch trips, or responding to an immediate crisis such as a porpoise trapped in a weir or a dead animal on a beach, but her first priority is always the whales. The only time Laurie would not be aboard the whale watch boat (apart from in bad weather) would be to attend North Atlantic right whale meetings which fortunately seldom occur in the summer.

When people ask her “When do you eat your dinner?” she often replies with a laugh, “Oh, next Friday evening!” – the only guaranteed meal because she “Works for my dinner!” at a local inn on lobster night. Laurie usually grazes her way through the day rather than sitting down to eat. She and her husband Ken talk to each other “Once in a while”, and she also checks in on her mum and attends to her needs. The one character able to demand Laurie’s attention enough to take her away from her work is Gandalf. Gandalf is Laurie and Ken’s cat. He is an unusual cat who enjoys going on walkabout, and at least once a day he likes to go walkabout with Laurie. At some point every evening he will give Laurie the look of “We haven’t been for our walk yet!” and Laurie has to leave her work to accompany him on a stroll down to the beach and back.

During the winter, when the whale watch boat is not operating, Laurie’s schedule relaxes somewhat but still includes a seven day week. Winter allows time for her to catch up on all the tasks that may have remained at the bottom of her ‘to do’ list all summer, such as ongoing administration and management for GMWSRS, SKS and the Tourism Association. During winter Laurie writes funding proposals, restocks the museum and gift shop, attends meetings and conferences, reads scientific reports, scrutinises her own data, organises and sends ID photographs to various research institutes, updates the GMWSRS website, updates the North Atlantic Right Whale Adoption Program, provides maps and updates a small booklet for the Tourism Association, prepares for the following summer and carries out general maintenance. Winters allow her to talk to Ken more frequently, try to finish renovation projects on their own home without starting new ones, and, occasionally, take a day off. Juggling finances is, of course, an important and challenging ongoing task for the Research Station and Laurie has to manage all donations and create promotional material for GMWSRS.

As if Laurie’s life was not full enough, in recent years she has also taken on a community project to fill any spare minutes in her day. In 2008, the keepers buildings owned by the village of Grand Manan at Swallowtail lighthouse on Grand Manan Island had been empty for four years. Laurie, and other members of the community, formed a charitable organisation to create a new future for it. Swallowtail Keepers Society now manages the out-buildings, and hopefully, next year the lighthouse itself. Their long term aim is to host artists and musicians to run workshops, house historic information for tourists and generally be an asset to the local community. In the medium term they are looking for a summer live-in keeper, to manage the renovations and talk to tourists. But until then Laurie and Ken oversee the majority of the work taking place, from writing funding proposals and arranging fundraising events, to organising volunteer work parties, to managing students employed on renovation work, to picking up a power drill and renovating it themselves!

There are a few things Laurie would like to have the time to do in life such as gardening, enjoying calm, peaceful times with friends and having an outlet for her artistic streak. She loves music as it “Stimulates different parts of the brain” but has not played the piano or clarinet for years. However, overall Laurie “Enjoys most of what I do, otherwise I would not go through the pain of so much juggling! I am good at it but it can be overwhelming at times and I have to constantly keep the bigger picture in my head as well as the 101 small pieces of it. It can be stressful but that stress is alleviated by going out on the water with the whales. They are my first love. I also particularly enjoy the educational work as this gives me the chance to talk about what I love!”

Laurie’s passionate life of giving encompasses both the animal and human worlds. But it is her love and knowledge of the North Atlantic right whale which really intrigues me. I want to know more about these rare cetaceans who are hanging onto existence by the merest of threads. So it is these beautiful and highly endangered creatures, through the eyes and experiences of Laurie, who will be the focus of my next post.


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