Doug Peacock is one of those rare, intelligent, and earthy individuals that you'd expect to see arise from the pages of a Ken Kesey novel: passionate about the American wilderness and 'larger than life' because he embraces it so strongly.
A famed grizzly bear expert and radical environmentalist, Peacock grew up in Saginaw before serving two tours as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam and eventually gaining fame as the model for George Washington Hayduke in radical novelist/environmentalist Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.
This ecological 'call-to-arms' became the inspirational bible for young environmentalists in the late 70's and early 80's that came to form Earth First and today are being prosecuted under provisions of the Patriot Act for defending our natural resources.
In his new book, Walking It Off: A Veteran's Chronicle of War & Wilderness, Peacock comes to terms with his long and turbulent friendship with Abbey and states a poignant declaration of the need for an 'earth ethic'.
After decades of filming, defending, and living with grizzly bears in Montana & Wyoming, Peacock has gained respect and fame around the world as one of the foremost experts on these majestic & embattled creatures. His books Grizzly Years and The Essential Grizzly are considered to be at the top of the genre.
Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Peacock prior to an appearance at The Andersen Enrichment Center with his cousin, 303 Collective founder Marc Beaudin.
Review: How did you get involved with Grizzly Bears and such a phenomenal author like Edward Abbey?
Peacock: I started to study archeology & philosophy at the University of Michigan, but couldn't get any money for being a philosopher, or do what I wanted as a philosopher, which was to climb mountains & cliffs, so I became a geology major and went out to Colorado and did a thesis and a lot of fishing.
I didn't love college, so would quit whenever I could and go out West and pound nails for a living. In those days you had to be married or a full time student or you'd get your ass drafted. They caught up with me in Berkley back in 1965, so I volunteered from the draft and spent about 18 months in Vietnam.
When I came back, I was really out of sorts so went and camped out for a whole year in Wyoming and Montana and spent some time hanging out. My junior medic in Vietnam had a father, Edward H. Spicer, who was a famous anthropologist, who was kind enough to take me into his home during wintertime.
I wasn't a writer, but read a lot of books, and one of the neighbors was a writer and starved for intelligent conversation, so I'd go over there and have drinks in the afternoon. One night I went over there and all these poet types were sitting around and I sat next to guy with a dark beard and rolled a cigarette. It was Edward Abbey and before the night was over he told me to come to Oregon Park and visit, because he was a ranger there at the time.
Review: How did your passion for the environment develop?
Peacock: It started in Michigan because my Dad was a professional boy scouter, which means he worked 70 hours a week for two grand a year. He dragged me everywhere, so I grew up in the woods and would cut loose to catch turtles and roam by myself, where I'm comfortable.
By my late teens I discovered the American West, which really grabbed me. After Vietnam my life did change. I came back and knew the one place I was comfortable was in the wilderness, where there weren't any people around. I felt bad about that at the time, but the truth is I saw too many dead children in Vietnam. That informed my entire politic. I was active in so-called liberal politics and anti-war efforts before Vietnam; but I've got to tell you, for an anarchist militarist, the best job you can have is being a Green Beret central pilot in Vietnam, where anarchy ruled. But at any rate, after I returned is when I ran into the grizzlies. And after Vietnam, once you see war, you respond to the preciousness of all life. In an important way, bears saved my life. They allowed me to recollect elements of my own humanity.
Review: Did you know Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man featured in Werner Herzog's recent documentary?
Peacock: Yes, I knew Tim well. He came to visit me. I dealt very differently with Grizzlies and once I learned they were in trouble, I felt I owed them something back for saving my life. In Yellowstone they had this deal going on where 300 hundred grizzlies were shot over a 3-year period, so I started 'advertising' their plight by collecting 60 millimeter film. But I couldn't be more different than Treadwell. In the end he really thought bears accepted him into bear society, but they have their own agenda and are impervious to our expectations of them and their acceptance. What Tim overlooked is that bears have their own ways. He lasted 13 years doing that and then his luck ran out. That happens in the Grizzly business.
Review: How did your character get developed by Abbey for 'The Monkey Wrench Gang'?
Peacock: Well, the original members of Earth First were quite a bit younger than Abbey and me. Abbey and I were good friends and did all kinds of initiatives together in the early '70s and hung out a lot. Bad things were happening everywhere and there was no real political or legal opposition, so we figured as adults, we make these decisions ourselves. We were small potatoes, though - nothing like Earth First. Our actions were an anodyne to the despair of seeing wild lands wasted by commercial development. He did get ideas from those experiences, though, and published the Monkey Wrench Gang in 1975. The Earth First agenda came right out of that book. I became casual friends with all of the guys, but neither Abbey nor I were very social. Now they're facing terrorist charges under The Patriot Act and the only damn thing this Administration has done thus far is to put the screws to a couple of poor, almost pathetic, earth liberation people.
Review: So what is your take on the 'state of our planet' today?
Peacock: The earth is in such trouble right now that everyone needs to scream from their own stump. But the central problem seems to be human beings collectively don't understand what lies in their best interest for survival. It isn't about wealth, but it is about the fact that our physical survival as a species has everything to do with all things natural. The climate is changing so fast that one layer of global warming triggers another mechanism nobody had even heard about before. It's like we're having a last great big party right now. If that's the case, I'll enjoy it, too; frankly, I don't know what will get peoples' attention anymore, which is why I consider the wilderness the last great fort for these kinds of spiritual revolutions.
People need to learn 'humility'. There is no such thing as a sustainable development anymore. I don't have a magic cure, but what I think is important to understand is we humans evolve in a habitat, like all other animals - or at least what's left of that in America. Those remnants are what we call 'wilderness'.
Frankly, I wish we had Abbey around right now because nobody was so cranky and possessed such an inherent sense of insult. He learned not to take himself too seriously. At the end of our friendship, he was dying and I took him to a very beautiful place and buried him. He pulled all the tubes out of himself in the hospital, looked at me with the clearest eyes I ever saw, and said, 'It's time to go'. He didn't die that night, but a couple nights later.
Review: What are your thoughts about mineral rights? Natural resources belong to the public, yet our government keeps selling them off to well-heeled corporations at a fraction of their value, all the while complaining they don't have any money so need to raise our taxesï¿½
Peacock: If corporations succeed we lose, and we're helpless. We have to fight this. The 1872 Mining Law still goes where anybody can buy an acre of land for five bucks in the middle of the wilderness and argue they have a right to work a road into it. I know good ranchers out west that want to keep their land intact, but this whole concept of private property is social and should be evolving, as it is in the rest of the world. This red neck 'I own it I can pave it' attitude has got to go. I don't think anybody owns the land, not really. . We need to hold corporations accountable. Throwing some of these high rolling CEO's into the slammer would be a good start.
Review: So what is your mindset and outlook about the future?
Peacock: I feel you have to be optimistic, but it does look like rolling the stone up a really steep mountain right now. I just read this cheery book by Lovelock, this elderly Englishman, how by the end of this century a billion people will be gone and the few breeders left in the species will be living on the polar ice caps because they'll be the only place habitable. That's pretty grim.
I think our Western philosophy has to change, especially regarding dominion over animals and wildlife management. We think we understand natural systems and fix one problem by creating another. We keep patching things together to forge a solution when in reality we never did understand our entire eco-system, nor did we think about it that much. 10,000 years ago agriculture came into the picture and Western Europeans spread across the continent. No other culture has impacted the earth like we Western Europeans with firearms. 60 million bison existed when Lewis & Clark went upriver and 80 years later we had a few hundred left in scattered herds. Why? We never thought that much about the impact of our actions.
Today I'm committed to anything I can do to raise consciousness. My issues settle around the value of wilderness for the human heart, and the human mind that springs from that. Honestly, the most radical act an environmentalist can do is register to vote. We've lost so much ground the past six years. All life has taken a beating - human, plant, and animal life has taken a huge downturn. Politics are important right now. Maybe they don't exist anymore because of corporate money, so we just need to find another way.
16th November, 2023