by Suzanne Schreiner & r & Doug Peacock has been thinking a lot about war lately. Peacock - Vietnam vet, grizzly guy and environmental activist - thinks the latest conflict, the war on terror, is "another bad war - a war not only against the people in Iraq and Afghanistan but against life on earth." As he looks around, he sees a precarious time for our planet, particularly for the environment. Peacock speaks at a benefit for Get Lit! next Thursday night at the Met.
As the Endangered Species Act is itself endangered by a hostile administration, environmentalists talk about a sense of hopelessness, about how far the tide has ebbed for wild creatures and for wilderness generally. For Peacock, that can only betoken bad things -- as much for ourselves as for wilderness. A central tenet in the Peacock cosmology is that a species that has distanced itself from its origins, the wilderness from which it arose and spent all but the last 10,000 years or so, cannot survive.
In his new book, Walking It Off: A Veteran's Chronicle of War and Wilderness, Peacock credits his own survival after the trauma of Vietnam to his retreat into and connection with wilderness: "I was convinced the world had gone quite mad, and I retreated into the wilderness to deal with it." Looking back, he writes, "Vietnam was the crucible that forged my own militancy, identifying for me my real enemies and the real war, the one being waged against life on earth.... By late 1968, I was ready for something as demanding and dangerous as war but aimed in the direction of life.... I was looking for a war worth fighting."
Enter Edward Abbey, environmentalist and author of Desert Solitaire, who "had already identified his own battleground: the wilderness of the American West." Abbey, 15 years Peacock's senior, sized up his talents - the "useful [military] training and that great anger going to waste" - and determined he might be useful. Really, to talk about Peacock is to talk about Abbey, his spiritual and philosophical father. It was from Abbey that Peacock learned to take his anger and channel it into militancy on behalf of the environment, as portrayed by Abbey in The Monkey Wrench Gang. The legacy of the Gang - in which Peacock served as the inspiration for George Washington Hayduke - survives in the work of take-no-prisoners activists like Earth First!
Peacock's other defining subject, right up there with Abbey, is ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly bear, the very essence and emblem of wildness. After Vietnam, unable to face society, he found his way to the grizzlies, and it was due to his time with them, he believes, that he was led back to himself. "After my war, home was the Rocky Mountains," Peacock says. "I wasn't looking for grizzlies but found them anyway. What was invaluable was the way the bears dominated the psychic landscape. After Vietnam, nothing less would anchor the attention. The grizzly instilled enforced humility; you were living with a creature of great beauty married to mystery who could chew your ass off anytime it chose." Yet his years as a fire lookout in the Rockies taught Peacock something else about the grizzly: while the bear could attack or kill almost anytime he chose, mostly, he chose not to: "That was power beyond a bully's swaggering. It was the kind of restraint that commands awe - a muscular act of grace."
Humans, his words suggest, might extend a similar act of grace to the natural world, by suppressing our tendency to swagger and bully, and by a conscious exercise of restraint. Peacock acknowledges "these are dire times." When it comes to such things as the rate of extinction of species, he says, "the blows are not reversible." But, adds the habitual warrior, "I respect courage as much as anything in this world, and these are the times to speak out.... Appeasement is not the answer.... In wildness," he continues, cribbing from Thoreau, "is the preservation of the world."