A Wandering Life

In Review: Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home

As death thins the ranks of the old-guard of wildlife aficionados — E. O. Wilson passed at 92 last year, while Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson preceded him — Doug Peacock, surviving many of his peers, looks back at his many crusades to save wild places and beings, and ponders: What did it all add up to?

The ex-Green Beret combat medic is best known for closely observing and advocating for Northern Rockies grizzlies and as the inspiration behind the George Hayduke character in Edward Abbey’s eco-anarchistic The Monkey Wrench Gang. While the new book’s cover shows his younger, fur-capped self wielding an 8-foot polar-bear spear in the Arctic, Peacock’s trophies have always been strictly experiential. An emphatic hunter and fly fisherman, he detests “ceremonial executions,” “recreational killing,” poaching, and the National Rifle Association.

Peacock
Peacock conducting grizzly surveys in the wildest corners of the Bitterroot range in Idaho and Montana in 2002. His motto, shared by his guide and pal Edward Abbey, fits this troubled age well: “Duty, textured in with the joy of living fully and loving the Earth.” Photo courtesy of Doug Peacock.

Having sought tigers in Russia’s Far East, blue sheep in Nepal, bighorns in the Sonoran Desert, jaguars in Belize, and British Columbia’s “spirit bears,” he humbly adheres to a biocentric cosmology, one that registers clearly as he recounts a lifetime of adventures and reflects on our relationship with the natural world and with each other.

In 1968, after witnessing too much collateral damage — a “cowardly phrase” applied to carnage from screwed-up air strikes — in Vietnam, Peacock returned to the American wilderness and channeled his renegade mind toward defending wild things, demanding their “uncompromising protection.”

“Every creature on Earth bigger than a field vole is at risk of decimation or extinction,” he reminds us, calling today’s climate crisis “the beast of our time” — an odd metaphor from someone partial to beasts. But then, too, he’s a pacifist awed, thrilled really, by animals, yet a carnivore fond of venison.

The book offers a strong plug for “walking it off,” (the title of a previous memoir), which has always been Peacock’s preferred mode of dealing with turmoil, be it political, spiritual, or domestic. Walking in solitude has also been his preferred method of studying nature and subsistence societies. He reflects on how arrowhead hunting as a boy had sparked his interest in First Peoples’ epic migrations, which he examines in Beringia — the land linking Siberia and Alaska, most of which natural sea level rises flooded during the Holocene — and in Baja California, at larger than life-size rock paintings of ghost figures and deer.

Peacock strongly believes in giving back and in righting wrongs. On an outing in Michigan, where he was born, he reburied stone adzes, flint knives, spearheads, and hammerstones, “treasures of a lost world” he collected there 50 years earlier. In the intervening time, “fancy houses had been built on the lonely sand ridges, and rows of townhouses had been plunked down in the cornfields of my youth.” He risked getting shot during some of these repatriations, dressed in camouflage gear, carrying a garden trowel, belly crawling Rambo-like onto private property. Reading about these escapades one easily sees how his bravado and brand of humor and justice bound him to Abbey. Peacock’s motto, shared by his guide and pal Abbey, whom he helped inter in the desert in defiance of The Man, fits this troubled age well: “Duty, textured in with the joy of living fully and loving the Earth.”

Formerly a hardcore solo traveler and still a foraging gourmet, Peacock deeply values friends — friends alive and departed — who often joined him on quests. Among them are Yvon Chouinard, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, and the late Peter Matthiessen and Jim Harrison.

This outspoken octogenarian compares the passage of his years to the way northern Plains Indians accounted for theirs. They drew memorable events on bison skins; he just remembers them. Judged by their standards, not every year of his was worthy of being recorded, he admits. Luckily, there have always been bears emerging in spring, marking intervals. And when they hibernated, he lit out for his beloved Southwest.

So, was it worth it overall? For Peacock, rescued by wildlings from war traumas and from then on embracing conservation, the answer is a resounding “yes” — his has been “a good life full of swamps, rivers, woods, deserts, and mountains.”

For readers craving inspiration and vicarious thrills through tales of derring-do in some of the world’s last untamed, uncrowded places? Likewise. As for the lasting impact of his work for the grizzlies and other charismatic fauna which are now being decimated by heatwaves, hunting, and development? That remains to be seen.

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