The Fascinating Fishers

Mar 9, 2024

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Photos: Carter Fish

The Fishers are fascinating. Murray and Emily. Individually and as a dynamic duo. B&NC MAG readers will recall, from the narrated photo essay titled American Road School in the September/October 2021 issue of B&NC MAG, that it was the Fisher family – Murray, Emily, and their now-12 year old daughter, Grayson, and two identical twin now-8 year old boys, Pen and Alex – who used the opportunity of covid to take-off on an adventure, criss-crossing America in an RV. The story of the Fisher’s ‘RVenture’ was intriguing, and Emily’s photographs of the places they visited were utterly captivating. Emily is delightful, friendly, and upbeat. Though she’s modest about her photographic work, she is a master behind the lens. Her work has soul. Her photos in nature are rich and nuanced, evoking the primary images of Ansel Adams. Her portraiture is iconic, like John Singer Sargent gone digital. “I grew up in the Brandywine Valley, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in what is known as ‘Wyeth Country’. I went to Chadds Ford Elementary and Unionville High, went on to James Madison University for an undergraduate degree in Fine Art with minors in Art History and French, and then on to graduate school to get my masters in Arts Administration at NYU. My mom is an artist, art was always my favorite subject, and I always wanted to be an artist,” Emily says. “But after college I gravitated more to the business side of the art world. I worked in museums, galleries and auction houses, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Vose Galleries, Skinner Auction House, and the Whitney Museum. I spent four years at Christies in New York and then moved on to managing a private art and furniture collection in Greenwich, New York and Palm Beach,” Emily recounts.

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“I met Murray one summer on Fishers Island through mutual friends. The name of the island is just a coincidence, but we do have a lot of family there. We were married, lived in New York City, and had all three kids there. I started to really focus on photography when Grayson was born. I started out using my IPhone but, completing the Certificate Program at the International Center of Photography, I learned how to use a digital  camera and how to do my own editing and printing. I have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. I usually shoot what’s around me–our kids, our animals, even the abandoned pink house that was recently torn down next to Lucia’s!  I know what I like and I know when I’m taking a good picture.”

To sing Emily’s praises as a photographer where her modesty prevents her from doing so, Murray adds, “Emily is an artist! She’ll never tell you, but she wins awards every time she enters her photography in a judged competition. Most recently, she entered a photograph in a National Wildlife Federation competition and her photograph was selected out of the 39,000 entries. She’s had her work shown all over, and even had one of her images blown-up on a billboard in Manhattan.”

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Murray is a force of – and for – nature. He was born in Bogota, Colombia, where his family had a ranch that the Fishers still visit as often as possible. When Murray was still a young child, the family moved to be with his mom’s family and to run an organic cattle farm just west of Richmond, Virginia. Murray grew up surrounded by and involved with nature and animals. He even had a pet boa constrictor. Murray’s dad, who was in the first class of the Peace Corps in Colombia, and Murray’s mom, who knew every plant, shrub, and tree, nurtured Murray’s love for the outdoors. Murray recalls doing some outdoor activity every day of his childhood – whether it was fishing or hunting or birdwatching or catching frogs.. He went to Vanderbilt University and majored in Biology, and took a year off during college to work with a leading Ornithologist studying Macaws in the jungles of Bolivia and Peru.

 

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“Anywhere I’ve ever been I’ve always been the ‘nature guy’,” Murray explains. “I feel a deep responsibility to protect our earth, and it’s been my lifetime’s journey figuring out the most effective way to do that. In college I determined I was better suited to work on the policy side, rather than the science, and every decision I make is based on how and where I will have the greatest impact. Admittedly, I’m an idealist.”

“I read Riverkeepers, by Robert Kennedy Jr. and John Cronin, and felt it was the best articulation I’d found about the way I felt about the planet,” Murray recalls. “Coincidentally, my great uncle, Lem Billings, had been roommates at Choate with JFK, and the story of their lifelong friendship was featured in a book titled “The Best of Friends”, by another Bedford local, David Michaelis. In 1998, I was hired through Americorp to work with Bobby on his Hudson Riverkeepers project, and actually moved in with Bobby and his family in Mt. Kisco for a few months before finding a place of my own in Irvington. Although I always figured I’d end up moving back to Virginia, I fell in love with the Hudson River – all 360 miles of it and the 250 species of fish that live in it – and called my parents to tell them I wasn’t coming back.”

 

“Working to help protect the Hudson motivated me so much that I wanted to help replicate the organization to help protect water bodies all over the world,” Murray continues. “I left Riverkeeper in 2000 to help Bobby establish the Waterkeeper Alliance, traveling the globe to help start new Waterkeeper programs and lobbying on their cumulative behalf.”

 

“While working at Hudson Riverkeeper, and specifically one day when I was watching a Marine Scientist work with some kids dressed in chest waders standing in the middle of a river identifying and releasing fish, it occurred to me that every kid should learn from this kind of practical experience. I realized that I had learned more in my one year at Hudson Riverkeeper than in my four years at Vanderbilt, and thought there should be a school based on the same work and total immersion that I had experienced at Riverkeeper. Around the Summer of 2002, I started to tell everyone who would listen to me that I wanted to start a school – a kind of ‘Waterkeeper Academy’ – entirely focused on the geography and oceanography of the New York Harbor…and nearly everyone I talked to offered support of one kind or another.

Mayor Bloomberg was supporting the establishment of small, themed schools, and our Harbor School was one of the eight schools licensed out of a pool of about eighty applicants,” Murray says proudly. “We found a great Principal and put a super team together, and opened in a less-than-ideal location in Bushwick, Brooklyn in September 2003 with eight teachers and 125 highschoolers. Although we had to shuttle kids to the harbor every school day and jump a lot of other hurdles, we made it work! As the school grew, and with a ton of fundraising, we managed to move to the school’s current location on Governors Island, and then we added a multi-million dollar Marine Science and Technology Center in 2012. Today, the Harbor School has over 500 students, with eight State-approved marine-focused career and technical education programs, and with the addition of two new buildings in the next couple of years has plans to grow to 1,100 students. We boast the fact that the student body demographics still mirror the demographics of New York City as a whole, and that our 91% graduation rate is 10% higher than the City average.”

 

“As pleased as I was about the Harbor School’s growth and move to Governors Island, I was at the same time dismayed by the state of our classroom: the New York Harbor. For the most part, the Harbor was flat, featureless, polluted, and difficult to access. We knew from reading The Big Oyster at Harbor School, that when the colonists arrived in New York City the Harbor was healthy and flourishing, and that there were then 200,000 acres of oyster reefs – enough to filter the entire volume of water in the Harbor every day!” Murray says with a kind of eureka excitement, “…So, in 2014, I co-founded the Billion Oyster Project, together with Harbor School teacher Pete Malinowski…and it’s flourishing!! We’ve planted over 120 million oysters so far…on our way to one billion by 2035…and all these oysters are working, all day every day, to filter the water, create habitat for marine plants and animals, and help protect our shorelines from storms!”

 

Bringing his story current, Murray says, “I worked full-time leading the Billion Oyster Project until 2018, stayed-on as Chair of the Board through 2022, and am now Chair of our Leadership Council. But, pre-covid, I determined it was time to transition into the for-profit world, creating and backing environmentally-focused small businesses. I’m now involved in a mixture of about 14 for-profit and not-for-profit projects, and have most recently focused on a company called US Coastal Service, which aims to create a fleet of electric, coastal cargo ships for the New York Harbor, and thereby relieve a significant percentage of the City’s pollution and congestion.”

 

Murray sums it up saying, “I’m saddened by the reality that, as humans progress, nature loses, and that our climate continues to warm and we continue to lose more and more species every year. I nevertheless remain charged with the idea that I can have a positive effect.”

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After living in Manhattan for some 17 years, Murray and Emily decided it was time to move their young family to the country. The Fishers’ close friends, Willie and Christina Geist, had purchased a weekend house in the area, and enticed the Fishers to come up. Emily explains, “We took a weekend house in North Salem for five years, and loved having the family living in so much nature, but we wanted more of a sense of community as a part of the equation. And then Chevy and Jayni Chase, who has been a supporter and Board member of the Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project, and a bunch of other friends from Fishers Island who live in Bedford, like Sam and Phoebe Polk and Nancy and Blue Eaves, sold us on moving to Bedford full-time. When we found our historic property right in the Village…we knew we were home.”

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The Fisher’s property actually dates back to 1791, and was built as a tavern by Benjamin Hays. “We like the feeling that our home has historical significance, and that we’re stewarding an asset of the Village, although we do live with the conflict that our environmental footprint may be too large,” Emily admits. “We are in love with the Bedford community! Our boys walk to school. Murray coached Grayson’s lacrosse team. We’re always out as a family exploring the Ward Pound Reservation, the Mianus River Gorge, and all the other local parks and trails. Murray loves to take the kids out observing nature whenever he can, like his parents did with him. And we’ve kind of opened up our great barn to welcome as many community activities as possible. Just last week, we hosted a get together for the Boy Scouts, a Cotillion for local kids, and an art show exhibiting local artist FitzHugh Karol’s and my own work. We’ve made lots of great friends here, and feel like we’re exactly where we want to be.”

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“And,” Murray, ever conscious of the environment, slips in, “we’ve rewilded about half of our lawn. That area is now covered with grasses and wildflowers. It’s beautiful, requires way less maintenance, adds to the local biodiversity that all pollinators and birds depend on, and increases carbon sequestration. I’m not saying that everyone has to get rid of all of their lawns, but folks with big parcels ought to consider the benefits and advantages of rewilding a portion of their properties. I’ve even backed a company called Plant It Wild, which will transition and maintain rewilded property without a big upfront cost and at about the same cost as maintaining a lawn. …Sorry for the shameless plug, but this will help the environment…and I’ll do just about anything!”

Bedford 2030 will present Murray with an Environmental Hero award for his ‘water’breaking work at their Moon Dance gala on Saturday, May 18, 2024. And Emily photographed Jayni and Chevy Chase on the cover of this issue of B&NC Mag. Emily’s photography Instagram is @emilyfisherphoto

 

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