If you’ve read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, it’s easy to think of Abbey’s friend Doug Peacock as the character Hayduke, a rambunctious drunk stubbornly dedicated to the environment. At least the second part is right. But Peacock, one of the founding fathers of Earth First!, a group that formerly garnered attention by sabotaging logging operations and now practices less physically threatening forms of civil disobedience, says that the character Abbey based on him is not actually representative of the true Doug Peacock. The true Doug Peacock is the award-winning author of The Grizzly Years, and a wildlife cinematographer who travels the country frequently, giving lectures by invitation, mostly to young people.
He is also the subject of the 1989 Earthrise Entertainment documentary Peacock’s War, which deals with a difficult time in Peacock’s life: volunteering for the draft during the Vietnam War, serving as a Green Beret medic, and returning to the States an emotional wreck, only to find salvation in the arms of a forest. Although the film is 15 years old now, more and more environmental activists seem to be dusting it off these days as the United States faces a new war overseas and a continuing battle over its homeland wilderness.
Peacock spoke with the Independent from his Livingston, Mont., farmhouse last week. Peacock’s War, he says, is about a veteran crawling back in the brush to regain the essential elements of his own humanity. But how was such a feat accomplished?
“It really helps,” says Peacock, “to have animals that can kill and eat your ass anytime they want to, even though they tend not to, because self-indulgence is really impossible. Above all, it’s a self-enforcing humility. When you’re in grizzly country in Montana, you’re a second-rate citizen, and that alters your entire perception of the world. You hear better, you smell better, you walk more alertly. And humility is the emotional basis behind reason. You just need to be opened up sometimes, and that’s the opportunity the bears gave me.”
Peacock hasn’t stopped—one gets the feeling he couldn’t even if he wanted to—making frequent pilgrimages into bear country to observe the alpha mammals, but these days he is deeply troubled by what he finds: bear “parks” and politically charged bear studies. Peacock is against bear parks, like the Great Bear Adventure park outside of Glacier, where humans can drive through and observe “tame” bears from their car (a “bear handler” was bitten at the park two weeks ago, suffering a punctured lung).
“The travesty of these places is that you have these tamed animals in the middle of what should be the largest wild grizzly bear ecosystem south of Canada,” Peacock says. “The tamed bear is not a substitute for the real thing.”
Peacock also rails against the current U.S. Geological Survey grizzly population study, which began June 15 and seeks to determine whether the status of grizzly bears has improved since they were listed as a threatened species in 1975. He sides with Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who called the study a “pork” project.
“The appropriations money for this pork,” Peacock says, “comes from Senator [Conrad] Burns. Senator Burns is not a friend of grizzly bears or a friend of wilderness. All he wants is to get the bloody grizzly bear off the threatened species list. For that, he needs a number. So we’re starting out with a terribly compromised political situation.”
So if he doesn’t believe in bear parks or the new bear study, what does Doug Peacock believe in?
The answer should be obvious coming from a friend of Edward Abbey: wilderness. It was wilderness that helped Peacock regain his humanity after Vietnam, and now he hopes that that opportunity will remain open to those returning from Iraq and any future wars.
“As long as that opportunity remains, men and women can still go there and find the resources to reorder their own lives,” Peacock says. “I was like a wounded animal crawling into the brush at first. And I just happened to run into grizzlies and they changed my life and, in a profound way, saved my life. That’s why I’ve been involved in payback ever since.”
Peacock sees parallels between the current war in Iraq and “his” war, Vietnam.
“What I see emerging out of this war, where once again we’re dealing with people of a different color who speak a different language, is dehumanization. That’s what makes a My Lai possible. That’s what makes prison abuse possible. And those are the things that I think really destroy our national character. Right now, I believe we haven’t been so low since Vietnam. Filtering through the media, you can just see that we’ve lost our humanity once again.” If we are to get that humanity back, Peacock argues, wilderness might be a good place to start. Unfortunately, Peacock argues, the Bush administration is making advances that threaten the future of wilderness. On July 12, the Bush administration proposed opening roughly a quarter of all national forests to logging with an amendment to the Clinton administration “roadless rule” that could ultimately render it null and void.
“We’ve got to get rid of these people,” Peacock says of the Bush administration. “They’re anti-life: anti-human life, anti-wildlife and anti-wilderness. We can’t endure this, and I don’t think the culture will survive without sizable hunks of wilderness, because that is indeed our true homeland. If we think we don’t need these things in terms of true physical and spiritual evolution, we’re crazy. That which evolves doesn’t persist without the conditions of its genesis.”
Although he feels that his Earth First! persona may have been overstated in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Peacock is nonetheless a fan of civil disobedience, provided that those who practice it are willing to accept the consequences without whining.
“I value people taking that kind of moral responsibility for life,” Peacock says. “That is the real nature of courage, I think.”
And at least a shade of the Hayduke persona comes to light when Peacock is asked about Rebecca Kay Smith, an Earth First!er who is currently suing several Forest Service and law enforcement officials in Montana for allegedly cutting down her food and water supplies during a month-long 2002 tree sit in the Bitterroot National Forest to protest the Big Bull timber sale.
“That is a valid form of responsible free speech,” Peacock insists. “And that kind of cheap-ass, petty harassment by the goddamn sheriff’s department is inexcusable. I hope they get their ass sued.”
But Peacock is not, in reality, the radical, brawling Hayduke. Peacock is simply himself, a disabled veteran hoping his country won’t repeat its mistakes, hoping the land—and the grizzlies—he loves won’t be tamed in the name of “progress.”
“You know,” he says, “because I’m supposed to be Hayduke, people are always asking me what’s the most radical thing they can do in defense of the environment. And these days, I find myself saying, ‘Register to vote.’”
Doug Peacock and fellow author/activist Rick Bass will speak this Saturday, July 24, at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint, Idaho, following a screening of Peacock’s War. The event is a benefit for the Yaak Valley Forest Council and the Yaak Wilderness Festival. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Call (406) 295-9736 for more information.