Review of Doug Peacock’s Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home
Doug Peacock, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home. Ventura, CA: Patagonia Books, 2022.
Reviewed by John Miles, Rewilding Earth Book Review Editor
There are many Doug Peacocks: Grizzly Man, the guy who could spend months living with grizzly bears in the wilderness of Montana and Wyoming and write great books about bears and his adventures with them; the Green Beret medic in Vietnam who sought solace in wild places and became a “warrior” in defense of those places; friend of Ed Abbey, who made him into a fictional character named George Washington Hayduke in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang; award-winning filmmaker; and above all, fearless and tireless advocate for wilderness and wildlife. Doug is legendary around the West, loved by many, hated by others such as trophy hunters, cattle ranchers, and others who have been scorched by his criticisms and threatened by his advocacy.
In Was It Worth It? we meet other Doug Peacocks. The book is a collection of reflective and frank essays written over decades, a look back over parts of a life lived in search of wild creatures and wild beauty, in the deserts of the Southwest, the Sierra Madre and Baja California of Mexico, the wild coast of British Columbia, the high Canadian Arctic, the Bikin River of the Russian Far East, and cays of Belize. In the preface Doug writes that “Solitude is the deepest well I have encountered in this life, and I found most of it either down here in the desert, or up in grizzly country.” A long essay titled “Headwaters” at the core of the book describes how, a few weeks after he and several others buried Ed Abbey in the desert, the FBI came knocking at his door in Tucson and he escaped to the Big Hole River in Montana on a solo and furtive canoe trip. He would travel fifty miles on the Big Hole, then another hundred on the Jefferson to “where it joined the two other great rivers, the Gallatin and the Madison, to create the headwaters of the Missouri River.”
The Big Hole was so shallow at its headwaters from drought that his old drift boat scraped on rocks, and he had no idea what conditions might be downstream, but he was on his way, would camp “guerilla-style,” fishing and gathering to supplement his meager supplies, and deal with what he found. His trip, he admitted, had less to do with the FBI than it did “with wanting a leisurely break from my own life for a bit.” He wanted time to “mull things over” and live clean, “far from the temptations of whiskey and bars.” He drifted along, chopping his way through trees thrown across the river by a storm, dragging his boat around small dams, enjoying the wild beauty and especially the solitude. He writes, “This vague notion of being on the lam, of being on the run from some variety or abstraction of authority or danger, was commonplace in my life; it had been my companion throughout the years of war and peace.” It took him sixteen days to reach the headwaters of the Missouri. In some ways, perhaps, this river journey encapsulates his life journey.
He writes that his camps on this trip, deep in willow thickets, were like the camps his kids would make for play hideouts. He would lie in his little tent, “listening for approaching animals, remembering that sweet boyish comfort.” He “wanted both the openness of the child and the confidence of an adult.” He was guided by his children “and old Ed, whom I so admired for his bravery, both physical and spiritual.” Thinking of old Ed, he continues,
Walking the wide-open terrain of anarchy in full view of ideological and academic snipers blasting away from the high ground took guts. There were intellectual risks in the merging of disparate ideas. The iconoclast Abbey took chances; he laughed at odd times, irreverently seeking new ideas or images he thought essential to survival of the planet.
Abbey and Peacock traveled different paths, but they shared gutsy approaches to work for the planet.
Peacock is a good storyteller. In the essay “Treasure in the Sierra Madre: 1985,” he and his companion, whom he calls Scarp, bribe and talk their way through the border, police roadblocks, and other obstacles until they reach Canon del Nido. They are searching for grizzlies, supposedly long since eradicated from even this wild corner of Mexico. Deep in the canyon they find a huge cat track, bigger than Doug’s hand. They travel toward a ridge where Doug thinks they might find grizzly sign, pitch camp, eat a light meal, and throw their sleeping bags at the edge of their campfire. Doug writes,
I am snug in my sleeping bag, about to fade off, when the nearby yips of coyotes snap me awake. A few minutes later, a deeper, lower howl rumbles through the canyon.
“Did you hear that?” Scarp whispers.
The sierra is silent. Neither of us speaks. After a five-minute pause, we hear an answering howl from the opposite direction.
Wolves! I thought that they would be here.
What riches. We are sharing the mountain range with a jaguar and at least two Mexican wolves. If only a grizzly bear would wander into the fading firelight, we’d have it all: a gold mine of apex predators, all the top carnivores of the Sierra Madre.
They find evidence of a grizzly the next day – characteristic digs and scat – then return to camp.
We lean on our bedrolls by the glowing fire, listening to the night sounds of owls and goatsuckers. A coyote yaps from somewhere down the canyon. Then, a coughing sound, close to camp, breaks the silence. The low vocalization is strange to my ears; it puzzles and alarms us and, for a very real minute, scares the shit out of me. It seems to be coming from a big cat, and that cat is very close.
“Holy shit,” murmurs Scarp.
We get up. I throw logs on the fire. The coughing is coming from just beyond the firelight. We are too alarmed and cautious to investigate, so we cling to the blaze. I can hear brush moving. It’s the jaguar for certain.
There is one last cough from the darkness, only a stone’s throw from our fire, and then, silence.
After a restless night, taking turns keeping the fire up, they find the cat’s tracks the next morning and follow them for a while until they lose them. That’s okay, Peacock thinks. “The treasure of beauty and mystery that lingers here belongs to the mountain, along with the last Mexican grizzly.”
Few of us would venture into a place like this, let alone in search of grizzly bears. Doug Peacock spent his life doing this sort of thing. But that is not all. In a chapter titled “Sheepherder Stew for Abbey,” he describes in lively detail how he prepared sheepherder stew for Ed Abbey’s wake. Knowing his death was near, Abbey had shared his wishes for his wake, and one of them was for the stew. Peacock describes how he and two pals went out to poach a “slow elk,” which he explains was what the bison-hunting Plains Nations called the White Man’s cattle. He observes that “Poaching slow elk is simply put, cattle rustling, punishable everywhere in these parts and throughout the West by imprisonment, hanging, or something in between.” Never one to shy away from risk, or inclined to stay within legal lines, Peacock got his “slow elk” and explains how he, wilderness epicure that he seems to be, prepares the stew. He delivers it to the wake, observing that “The cooking was service to his people. The tribulations of preparing sheepherder stew and the voluntary agonies of attending to the dying and burial struck me as some kind of penance.” Further, he reflects that “Ed’s passing refuted the notion that death can render a life meaningless. We would see.”
While this is a serious book in many ways, it is entertaining throughout, whether he’s writing about grizzly bears, Ed Abbey, or explaining why he would never trophy hunt. He asks rhetorically if tracking down a wild griz with a camera equates with trophy hunting, then answers his question. “Absolutely not, as any Safari Club International member would point out. Why? I didn’t pull the trigger. There was no kill. Without a kill, there is no ‘authentic hunt.’” “Here,” he goes on, “Is the crucial difference between trophy hunters and me: I don’t hunt predators. I wouldn’t shoot a bear for a cool million.” In another essay, “Stalking Bears with Doug Thompkins,” he goes along as a bear expert, presumably to protect the expedition members from polar bears, but instead of a gun, he carries a spear and explains why. He considers himself responsible for his companions (though he admits he doesn’t know much about polar bears – he’s a grizzly expert), and he agreed to walk point with his spear. “The bedrock assumption, never discussed, that keeps my carrying the spear from becoming something other than a campy joke, is that you need to be willing to die.” Here is another metaphor for his life journey – living at the tip of the spear to what he loves. He doesn’t have to use the spear, though a family of three white bears pass close to his tent. He eloquently concludes this chapter with this comment,
Like Antaeus, the giant of Greek mythology, invincible while touching the Earth, I have to be on the ground, holding tight to the world, always sharing the land with animals that hold down the same living skin of the Earth with the fierce weight of their paws.
Peacock shares many other stories and thoughts in this book. He is a thoughtful iconoclast and quite a character. He is fierce and funny, often self-assured, and sometimes troubled, angry, even frightened. He has a scholarly side and knows his natural history, especially that of grizzlies and other carnivores. He loves them all, the wild and the beautiful in nature and he expresses that love in these essays. In his closing chapter titled “The Perfect Bait for an Outbreak,” he shares his view of the predicament we humans are in. He vents his anger at how we seem unable to see what he considers the “raw, unvarnished truth.” He accuses science and journalism of watering down “the severity of a changing climate” and “pulling their punches.” There is too much caution and timidity and “semantic arguments that optimism and hope will color a rosier world.” But that, he says, “does not change that unpolished truth.”
He continues his rant:
Who and what are at risk? If past extinctions provide guidelines, then it’s all life larger than a small meadow mouse. Now I can unpleasantly anticipate being among those minority humans left of Earth to die from old age. I’d be happier if everyone could. It’s the scourge of my geezer-hood; I am unconcerned with my own death and fatally engaged in the lives of all my survivors. There is bottomless, contradictory sadness in a fleeting glimpse of justice – nature bats last avenging the scorched Earth, pay to Homo sapiens – bundled up in the loss of beauty and suffering in the lives of the people you love most.
Strong words, to be sure, from a strong voice. Is this hyperbole? My guess is he would say not.
Which brings us to the question he poses in the book’s title, “Was it worth it?” At the conclusion of the final chapter, after he calms down, he inventories some of the magic moments of a lifetime spent in nature with friends and family. He describes going with a friend to the Grizzly Hilton “and the two of us watching a circle of friends tightly gather around a small water hole: four swaying adult mother grizzlies, four bear cubs, a yearling and two subadult grizzly bears, a prior litter of one of the moms. Science doesn’t admit this spectrum of behavior: The bears were dancing. It was worth it.”
Was It Worth It? is published by Patagonia Books which publishes “a select list of titles on wilderness, wildlife, and outdoor sports that inspire and restore a connection to the natural world.” Cover to cover the Patagonia titles are exceptionally well done – writing, design, photographic reproduction – all are of very high quality. The photos are carefully selected and placed to support the text and portray the places, wildlife, and people about whom the Patagonia authors write, but the writing is always primary. Was It Worth It?, along with the recently published Life Lived Wild by Rick Ridgeway, are inspiring additions to the Patagonia Books list and reasonably priced. I highly recommend them and look forward to this publisher’s next releases.
Order your own copy of the book: Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home.
David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.