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Peacock The Firebrand Asks: Is Fighting For Wild Earth Worth It?
May 17, 2022
Peacock The Firebrand Asks: Is Fighting For Wild Earth Worth It?
Doug Peacock battles for grizzly conservation, inspired an Ed Abbey character and served as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam. His new memoir is perfect read for summer
by Todd Wilkinson
HAD DOUG PEACOCK BEEN INTERESTED IN PENNING A SWAN SONG, it might have happened in 1968 after he returned from the war in Vietnam. As a young Green Beret medic, he arrived back home traumatized, mentally discombobulated and aimless. He was depressed. That was a long time ago and, as one of many crossroads in Peacock’s enigmatic life, it is explored in his provocative, inspiring and challenging new memoir, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home.
Peacock is known for being a rhetorical grenade thrower when it comes to his environmental passions. However, as a demonstration of the level of respect he commands as a communicator with the written word, earlier this year he was honored with a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Recipients going back to the Academy’s founding in 1898 include many of the most impactful artists and writers of the last century.
Peacock, who lives in the tiny Paradise Valley, Montana enclave of Emigrant near the Yellowstone River—his residence backed into the foothills of the Gallatin Range with views of the Absarokas—just turned 80. How he got here, to the realm of green folk hero, it’s fair to say no one could have predicted.
For a young person today, convinced these are the most trying times of any generation, it is impossible perhaps to imagine how unsettling the 1960s and early years of the 1970s were in America when Peacock was the same age you are now. A US president was assassinated early in the 60s—the year Peacock turned 21— young men were drafted to fight in a conflict in a place on the other side of the world most had never heard of, a constant possibility of nuclear war loomed, a river in Ohio caught fire, a major oil spill happened off the California coast, the Hudson River became contaminated with deadly chemicals, there was the rise of AIM and the Black Panthers, the most prominent civil rights leader in the country was assassinated, the leading presidential candidate who would have taken on Richard Nixon in 1968 got assassinated, in cities there were riots and parts of them burned, seven years after Nixon was elected president, he was impeached and resigned from office, and, last but not least, over 58,000 US troops and service people dead in Vietnam, 1.1 million North Vietnamese dead, maybe two million civilians and countless wounded. Peacock tried to save his share of colleagues and others, holding their hands as their lives drained away.
When he returned to Michigan, in 1968 it was a country divided—politically, racially, by gender, and environment. Along with the bitter unreconciled purgatory awaiting those who served in uniform, with judgment delivered unto them by some members of the peace movement, there was—and remains—unspoken guilt and shame for those who tout their creds as patriots but who, in their youth, found a way to pull strings and dodge service.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives an oration before a full auditorium at the University of Michigan in 1962, young Douglas Peacock, who invited King to campus, sits behind him bespectacled and dressed sharply in a suit. Three years later, Peacock's draft number came up and he was sent to Vietnam where he became a Green Beret medic; six years after the reverend's visit, just days after he returned home, King was assassinated in Memphis. Why does Peacock relate to grizzly bears and want to defend them from traumatic treatment by people? Because he knows what the human species is capable of and wants to preserve these creatures who live in the same wild places that gave him solace after the war. Photo courtesy Doug Peacock
Some four a half decades after Peacock came home, he has demonstrated his resilience, owed in large measure to his protective allegiance trying to perpetuate the survival of grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies. Fighting for them has filled him with the will to live. He still isn’t interested in delivering a coda, though readers taking a glancing view at his new book could get that superficial impression.
In a nutshell, some of the following details speak to his legend. He grows up in Michigan (the state that also gave Greater Yellowstone the writers and Montana residents Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane), goes off to Vietnam and suffers PTSD, heads out West in search of healing, finds solace in country still wild enough to hold grizzlies (including southern Colorado!), and along the way meets Edward Abbey. During that time, he becomes the inspiration for Abbey’s character George Washington Hayduke featured in two books about the Monkeywrench Gang, then Peacock settled in Montana, and still wages a blistering, ongoing fight to keep bears protected. The Yellowstone population of grizzlies was given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 and several attempts to remove them permanently from that classification, allowing states to take over management and bring back a sport hunt, have failed with Peacock cheering the legal action that made that happen.
When Abbey died in 1989, it was Peacock and a few friends who buried the writer in an unmarked grave in the Arizona desert. But here are a couple of things you may not know, little tidbits—bookends, if you will—that speak to Peacock’s values, still present from when he was a teenager and, of late as he still moves his octogenarian body on wanders into places where the Great Bear is now re-inhabiting terrain it once was extirpated from. That includes stretches of the Gallatins right behind his house.
As a young person dreaming of being bound for college, Peacock took it upon himself as a sophomore at the University of Michigan in 1962 to reach out to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He invited King to come give a talk in Michigan and picked him up at the Detroit airport. They shared thoughts about war being a waste of human lives and issues that are part of the modern acronym DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). King spoke of the unjustness of mostly underprivileged kids getting sent off to fight in a political war. Months later, Peacock himself, powerless, was in the jungle of southeast Asia, put into the position of kill or be killed.
Besides answering the question posed in the title of his new memoir, Peacock gives readers a look into the evolution of a wildlife conservation activist who has enjoyed some successes and been devastated by loses. In the face of so many existential challenges threatening people and nature, he also gives reason for why we need to not acceptable cynicism and instead mount a rally.
“We had a good visit. I was so young,” Peacock said of King. “After his talk, I was exposed to the full hatred and wrath of a professor in the engineering school at the University of Michigan. He was a John Bircher. The John Birchers and the FBI went after King because he challenged power. In 1968, I had gotten back from Vietnam only a week earlier and King was killed. I told my friend I wasn’t surprised it happened and they got angry with me. Sometimes you have to use dangerous words, that challenge the dysfunction in our society and it might be unpopular. For some, it gets them killed but everything we enjoy today came because people were willing to challenge authority.”
Secondly, Peacock, being an inveterate bushwhacker, amassed a collection of arrowheads he found over the years—in the Midwest, Southwest and Northern Rockies. He believes those hand-forged objects need to be returned and so he has spent the last couple of years dropping them on the ground in the places he found them; often in reverence to those who made them centuries or perhaps millennia ago. In gratitude, he says they represented tactile connections for him to a concept of time beyond the way we in the modern Western world ponder it.
Back in March, Peacock, our fellow pal writer David Quammen and I, came together in a public Zoom call hosted by Country Bookshelf in Bozeman to carry on a conversation as Peacock discussed his life and new book. The friendship between Peacock and Quammen goes back to the 1970s; mine to the spring of 1989 when Abbey died. I was then a punky greenhorn twenty-something reporter new to Bozeman having just moved up from Jackson Hole.
One should think of Peacock’s new book, Was it Worth It?, not only as an ideal read for people interested in heading into the wild woods, but it is a confluence of Peacock’s experiences. Mostly, a kind of meandering journey as he wrestles with the question of “what does our time on Earth matter?” For those trying to find their way and who feel drawn in effable ways to wild places, how can we give back?
Peacock’s answer is by lending voice and action to causes that need a stronger one and on behalf of non-human beings that need representatives.
Peacock does not adhere to the Father Knows Best school of social graces; he is constantly irreverent and skeptical about politicians and government and large corporations, same as Abbey was, too. Hence, there are some people of certain persuasions who don’t like Peacock very much, particularly those in federal and state wildlife management agencies whom he has accused of selling out grizzlies as they face an uncertain future. He’s been described as a loose cannon. “Peacock’s diplomatic skills are less than zero, but his feist quotient exceeds any known scale of measurement,” wrote his friend Rick Bass in a profile that appeared inMen’s Journal in 2017. “An iconic eco-warrior and spiritual godfather of monkeywrenching, he’s the author of five books, including Grizzly Years, one of those texts — like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — that nearly every environmentalist winds up reading. “
“Peacock’s diplomatic skills are less than zero, but his feist quotient exceeds any known scale of measurement,” wrote his friend Rick Bass in a profile that appeared in Men’s Journal in 2017. “An iconic eco-warrior and spiritual godfather of monkeywrenching, he’s the author of five books, including Grizzly Years, one of those texts — like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — that nearly every environmentalist winds up reading. “
Peacock has been featured in two recent documentaries—one a film, Grizzly County, by Ben Moon about Peacock and bear conservation. (view clip below). Then, in 2021, a 29-minute documentary titled The Beast of Our Time: Climate Change and Grizzly Bears debuted and won an award. Presented by Round River Conservation Studies, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, and supported by Patagonia and The Sierra Club, it is narrated by Jeff Bridges with a score by Bill Payne of Little Feat. The film, directed by Maaike Middleton, features interviews with Peacock, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Hannibal Anderson, Malou Anderson-Ramirez, Barrie Gilbert, Jesse Logan, Lane Craighead, Brad Orsted, Louisa Willcox, Dave Mattson, CMarie Fuhrman and others. You can watch it in its entirely by clicking here.
Somewhere, Peacock says with a twinkle in his eye, society began crossing a threshold into new awareness, realizing that species aren’t recovered solely for the purpose of being hunted again.
One thing his critics cannot dismiss is that he put his life on the line for this country and he believes that patriotism also involves protecting the natural home front. Another thing not inconsequential is that he started championing the realm of animal sentience long before it became widely accepted by the main of the environmental movement. Scientific studies into animal behavior prove that what he says is not crazy—animals are intelligent and they possess emotions.
Whether one describes it as other beings possessing souls is up for debate, but Peacock reminds that the kind of barbaric carnage he saw in Vietnam would lead one to question whether some humans have souls. We continuously demonstrate our capability of committing atrocious acts of cruelty against each other and nature, he says.
In addition to being anesthetized by digital technology, our society, he says, suffers from dulled senses, the way generations of traumatized combat troops have. Peacock doesn’t hunt and he condemns those who would pursue a grizzly in order to turn it into a rug or head on the wall, but he understands how some hunters cultivate a sixth sense of awareness.
He finds it compelling that as people age, especially men, they often stop trophy hunting, or put their guns down altogether, because they enjoy the thought of big animals roaming the forests alive rather than dead. He knows people will argue with him over this, and he's ready for rebuttals, but he believes that when a person drags a grizzly carcass out of the woods, it diminishes the spirt of place and leaves behind dissonance in the social structure of wildlife.
Being highly sociable species, the same as humans are—he is convinced that random killing of grizzlies, bison, wolves and elk leaves behind a trauma humans don’t yet fully understand. That’s the Green Beret medic reflecting.
Was It Worth It? is filled with observations and turns of phrases that demonstrate Peacock’s ability to be a really fine writer, though he says he is self-taught. His earlier books—Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, among them—explain how grizzlies ambled into his consciousness. In the pages of those works are aspects of magical realism, not altogether different from how Jim Harrison approached grizzlies in his novella Legends of the Fall, a mixture of spiritual reverence, visions and fate.
After Peacock returned from Vietnam, he headed to the Rockies, Colorado Plateau and Sonoran Desert and did walkabouts. He landed in Tucson, explored the Utah desert, slept many nights under the stars, and found his way to Yellowstone. There, alone and dealing with a recurring bout of malaria, he hallucinated. During the delirium he believed he was encountering grizzlies at close range in the backcountry. The bears were no phantasms; they were real.
Was It Worth It? is the kind of book that is going to be referenced in the future, by readers, nature advocates and young people who will be peering back thinking what was on our minds as we confronted the challenges now before us. With Peacock, they—and we— will find the passionate, heartfelt ruminations of an activist who never thought of himself as radical. Radical, he says, is doing nothing when all is on the line and the chips are down.
Here's how part of our conversation went.
Be it a reading, delivering a sermon on environmental activism or lecturing on a college campus, Peacock's presentations are always entertaining, spirited and irreverent. Photo courtesy John Zumpano. The work of Zumpano, who lives in Livingston, Montana, is featured in several books and he is known for his portraits. To see more of his commercial and collectible work go to www.jzphotoart.com
Todd Wilkinson: Why so you feel a connection with grizzlies? Why not wolves or bison or elk or wolverines or trout?
DOUG PEACOCK: On this Quammen and I are quite in agreement. The grizzly in this continent is one of the animals that can remind the most arrogant species on the planet of its proper place on the planet. It’s the one animal in our backyard that reminds us we are not, nor have we ever been the center of the universe. They also force us to confront our own allegedly benevolent values, which are demonstrating kindness and generosity and empathy, and respecting the space of others, and just being smarter and more aware in how we move through the woods. Grizzlies are not seeking conflict with us; most of the time we give it to them. Out treatment of bears is a reflection of what we see when we look in the mirror.
TW: You have taken a particular interest in the ancient Anzick site near Wilsall, Montana in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And you discuss it in your book.
PEACOCK: The real importance of the site in what it reveals about paleo humans. I believe it is the most important site on this continent and reveals clues about the origins of Clovis culture. Think of it, Montana is where the first Clovis people landed. Right here, we have some of the oldest known evidence of what people were doing when they moved down the east side of the Rockies as the glaciers melted.
TW: You disagree with some of the professional conclusions that have circulated.
PEACOCK: There are arguments over radio carbon dating and debates over which sites in North America are older—when did Clovis culture which marked a breath through in making distinct stone tools and points used for hunting.
TW: Why does it matter?
PEACOCK: It matters because knowing the dates of where people were and what they are doing allows us better to think about how they were dealing with a warming climate and with megafauna. I’ve long been intrigued by the fact that paleo people, who were fewer in number and possessed lesser weapons than we have today with guns and technology, could hunt and bring an end to species that were very large, and much more formidable than grizzlies. I think it serves as a cautionary tale.
TW: Please provide a little more perspective for readers here.
PEACOCK: First of all, Clovis is a great example of where Homo sapiens got after sailing along for over 300,000 years. Only in the last 15,000 years has there been what we would call a stable climate and for a long time we didn’t mess up much of the planet. When Clovis culture arrived, there were the first events of paleo extinction; overhunting by Homo sapiens combined with climate change is similar to where we are today. What we’ve added is unprecedented habitat destruction. But it’s much more dire and severe than 12,000 to 13,000 years ago in Montana. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned.
TW: Hayduke Lives! What significance does it have? What did Abbey intend by modeling a character after you? What was the essence of your bond?
PEACOCK: Hayduke Lives!, the book, was the logical conclusion of the story that began with The Monkeywrench Gang. He either falls to his death or he doesn’t. Why he modeled the character after me, I can’t answer that. I never asked him.
PEACOCK: No, we never did. When you have loving friendships or relationships, there are things you don’t need to ask about.
TW: There was a public persona of Abbey and then the man behind it. How did you relate to the latter?
PEACOCK: Abbey was a human being. And I don’t know what perfection would be, but he wasn’t. He could be cranky but we had an absolute important friendship for 20 years. Our friendship had a paternalistic edge because I was younger and he knew I was searching to find myself. We did well together when we got out into the desert on camping trips.
"Abbey was a human being. And I don’t know what perfection would be, but he wasn’t. He could be cranky but we had an absolute important friendship for 20 years. Our friendship had a paternalistic edge because I was younger and he knew I was searching to find myself. We did well together when we got out into the desert on camping trips."
TW: You’ve enjoyed the company of a lot of impassioned people who care about nature, from Doug and Kris Tompkins to Yvon and Malinda Chouinard and pals like Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Rick Ridgeway, Jeff Bridges and others. If all of you were sitting around a campfire with young people between their teenage years and their thirties, what advice would you have for how they might make a difference for the wild Earth?
PEACOCK: I might, without making something up, direct them to some of the last paragraphs at the end of the book [Was It Worth It?]. It answers the question and relates to what we do when it is our time to walk off the stage. We are figuratively peering into an abyss and what is being defined now is the character of our species given the run it has had. How do we behave?
PEACOCK: I believe in fighting for wild causes and the best way of doing that is arming yourself with the friendships of others who love the Earth. Join the [indigenous] tribes in waging a dignified defense of native rights. Consider the wisdom found in indigenous views. Respect the power that you have to do something in this moment that nobody can take away from you. Respect the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Consider getting arrested. Resist the destruction of things that ought not to be given away or stolen from people and animals that will need them in the future.
"I believe in fighting for wild causes and the best way of doing that is arming yourself with the friendships of others who love the Earth. Join the [indigenous] tribes in waging a dignified defense of native rights. Consider the wisdom found in indigenous views. Respect the power that you have to do something in this moment that nobody can take away from you."
TW: I want to ask you about that famous Abbey quote that's pinned to a lot of walls in the offices of conservation groups around Greater Yellowstone and the West. Reader can see it by clicking here. It's great advice for people who feel burned out and overextended in their work. He advises to use the outdoors for re-filling the well of inspiration and passion.
PEACOCK: I know what Abbey meant when he wrote it. He did not intend for it to be used as an excuse for people to let themselves off the hook. Conservation is hard work. It can be a struggle. He was speaking to people who have done the work and he meant “Don’t let the work become your life.” If you’re on the payroll of a conservation group and you’re not doing the work of pushing yourself outside our comfort zone and defending things whether it is popular or not, then you’re being half-hearted. And we have no chance of saving this place if people and groups are being half-hearted.
TW: What do you say to outdoor recreationists who claim that recreation is conservation?
PEACOCK: What they need to do is get tuned in. As a practical matter I would advise them, as I do younger friends of mine, to go spend some time in the wildest place they can, sitting completely still, actually listening to what’s happening in those surroundings, slowly breathing and try to become aware of as many things that you weren’t aware of before. Be humble. Encounter nature on its terms and don’t try to steal away something just to fill your ego because it’s not about you. Don’t be thinking about your 401k or your mate. You don’t improve your broader level of awareness when you’re bounding through the backcountry on the back of a wheeled machine and needing to wear a helmet. In my case, when I go in, it takes me several days to externalize my own point of view. It helps when there are grizzlies around because they help you externalize automatically. I admit my own time in grizzly country, with how I approach it, has evolved.
TW: I don’t want to give them away, but your words in the last stretch of the book are moving— about never giving up hope, never throwing in the towel or believing that getting old is a license for no longer doing what you can. What is your greatest source of hope?
PEACOCK: My source of hope surrounds this question: Tell me, what else, among all the things on this planet, is capable of giving us more satisfaction, as individuals and people, than working together to preserve the diversity of nature? There’s so much beauty in the world. Even though the odds don’t look good for us, we’re going to have to fight like hell. Hope is a dangerous word these days. It doesn’t mean closing our eyes and hoping for the better. We’ve got to open them and stop making excuses for our apathy. The fundamental bedrock facts of reality are not going to change if we try to ignore them. We have to speak the raw truth.