Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grizzly Years

Doug Peacock grew up in rural northern Michigan.  As a boy, he spent a lot of time alone outdoors, exploring the woods, swamps, and streams.  Later, he fell in love with the West, especially the Rockies.  He enjoyed fishing and rock climbing.  His plan was to become a geologist, so he could wander around in the great outdoors and get paid for it.  But one day he realized that his dream career would likely involve working for oil and mining companies, “whose rape of wild country repelled me.”  Sadly, he abandoned the plan, and volunteered for an exciting job with the U.S. government.

Peacock loved the central highlands of Vietnam.  It was a gorgeous region, inhabited by good people.  Then, the war spread there.  He was employed as a medic in the Green Berets, an elite combat unit.  His job was to provide first aid to injured soldiers and villagers, and the fighting kept him very busy.  He witnessed far too much senseless death, destruction, and suffering, far too many dead children.

By and by, he came down with a devastating case of war rage, which he has been struggling with for most of his life.  Back in American society, it was no longer possible to blend into the crowd, and feel at home.  He couldn’t talk to his family.  He spent a lot of time in the woods, trying to pickle his demons with cheap wine.  Finally, he bought a jeep, and headed west, to pursue two powerful medicines: solitude and wildness.

For American soldiers, Vietnam was not as safe and secure as strolling through a shopping mall.  There were tigers, vipers, snipers, booby traps, and Vietcong.  The odds for survival were boosted by good luck, common sense, being with experienced warriors, remaining as silent and invisible as possible, and maintaining a state of heightened awareness.  Survivors slept lightly, easily awakened by snapping twigs and other irregular sounds.  Survivors developed an acute sense of smell, because an odd whiff could warn of danger.  Survivors frequently stopped, looked, and listened.

Similar skills were useful when moving through grizzly bear country, where Peacock spent many post-war years.  Near the beginning of his wilderness quest, he hiked around a corner and discovered that a large brown grizzly was approaching, and it was not at all happy to see him.  The bear’s head was swinging back and forth, jaws gnashing, ears flattened, hair standing up on his hump — the ritual that precedes charging, mauling, and a bloody hot lunch.

Peacock slowly pulled out his large caliber handgun, had second thoughts, and lowered it.  His shooting days were over.  He was ready to die.  Something happened, the energy changed.  “The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow.”  It was a life-changing experience.  He became a grizzly tracker.  He acquired a movie camera and began filming them.  He did winter lecture tours, wrote about bears, and told his story in Grizzly Years.

Importantly, the book reminds us of a forgotten reality, living in wild country amidst man-eating predators — the normal everyday reality for our wild ancestors, whose genes we inherited.  Outside my window each morning, the blue jays stop by for a pumpkin seed breakfast.  Before they glide down from branch to porch, they look in every direction for winged predators and pussy cats.  They don’t live in a constant state of fear and paranoia, they simply live with prudent caution, look before leaping, and never do stupid things.

In grizzly country, Peacock stayed away from animal trails, and slept in concealed locations.  He tried to remain invisible and silent.  He tried to approach bears from downwind, so his scent would not alert them.  He spent years studying bear behavior, and the quirks of individual animals.  He was charged many times, but never mauled.  He learned how to behave properly during close encounters.  Never run, climb trees, make loud noises, move suddenly, or look weak and fearful.  Instead, act dignified, and display peaceful intentions without appearing docile.  Calmly talk to the bear, while keeping your head turned to the side.

Peacock’s tales are precious, because they encourage readers to imagine wilderness as their true home, and to contemplate the normal everyday tactics used by our wild ancestors to avoid being eaten.  Grizzly country was one place where humans were not the dominant critter.  The bears could kill you and eat you whenever they wished.  This ongoing possibility freed Peacock from wasting hour after hour in self-indulgence — thinking, analyzing, daydreaming.  It demanded that he always pay acute attention to the here and now.

Americans expect wilderness to be as safe as a mall.  We don’t want to be killed and eaten when visiting a national park, yet parks foolishly build trails and campgrounds in high-risk locations.  If a hiker is mauled, bears are killed.  Now, if a cat kills a blue jay, we don’t kill the cat.  In automobile country, the streets are lined with busy enterprises selling chunks of dead animals.  So, why are government bureaucrats so uptight about what God-fearing American bears choose to have for dinner in the privacy of their own homes?  Why do delicious primates from Chicago expect to be safe in grizzly country?

I’ve never seen a “Save the Grizzlies” bumper sticker.  To maintain a pleasant Disneyland experience, and avoid lawsuits, the Park Service kills aggressive bears, and bears that beg for snacks.  Backcountry outfitters kill them.  Ranchers kill them.  Violators get light punishment from judges in redneck country.  Bear numbers are in decline, and this infuriates Peacock.

In Vietnam, he had a ringside seat at a contest between a full-blown industrial civilization and a society that practiced muscle-powered subsistence farming.  He witnessed the indiscriminant massacre of countless innocent villagers and children.  Back in the U.S., he saw that the same monster was obliterating western ecosystems, from mines in the Rockies, to developers in Tucson.  He had escaped from the Vietnam War, but there was no escape from the American war on America, where “greedy scumsuckers” were raping and desecrating “the last refuge of sanity on the planet.”

Peacock wasn’t the only Vietnam vet with war rage who found sanctuary in the mountains.  Other vets were equally pissed at the scumsuckers.  They had lost many friends while defending the freedom and democracy of God’s most cherished nation.  And so, in those mountains, angry American vets defended the sacred American ecosystem against the atrocities of the “syphilization” they had been trained to serve.  When loggers built bridges that had not been authorized by the angry vets, the bridges were mysteriously demolished.  So were helicopters used for oil exploration.

Peacock did not become a corporate geologist, and spend the rest of his life shopping with the herd.  It was a great gift to live so many years outside the walls.  He was able to observe the insane monster that lurks behind the cartoonish façade of the American Dream, and he was able to explain the horrors that so many folks inside the walls were unable to see, feel, or imagine.  In wild country, Peacock was careful to never be seen, or reveal his plans.  “If I got into serious trouble, I didn’t want to be rescued.  My considerable carcass could feed the bears.”

Lots of additional information can be found at his website.  He’s also the star of numerous YouTube lectures and interviews.

Peacock, Doug, Grizzly Years — In Search of the American Wilderness, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011.  [Originally 1990]

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