Wilderness warrior reflects on environmental journey, makes Aspen a stop Saturday on book tour | AspenTimes.com

Wilderness warrior reflects on environmental journey, makes Aspen a stop Saturday on book tour

Legendary wildlife activist Doug Peacock reads and answer questions at Explore Booksellers

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Doug Peacock will appear at Explore Booksellers on Saturday to discuss his new book 'Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home.'
Courtesy photo

When wildlife activist Doug Peacock began writing his environmental memoir, “Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home,” he really didn’t know the answer.

The author, filmmaker, and co-founder of Save the Yellowstone Grizzly has dedicated his life to grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states. On Saturday, the day after Endangered Species Day (on Friday, which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act), he will read passages from his new book and happily answer questions at Explore Booksellers.

His latest collection of essays recount his experiences and advocate for the wilderness, which he believes is the only thing left worth saving.

Reaching back decades, he included stories he hadn’t yet published in previous books. The essays recount significant events that “punctuate how I felt about the world,” he said in a phone interview.

Peacock wrote this book faster than any other he has published: He spent a year during the pandemic, writing “under the shadow of climate change.”

“The theme is: The beast of our times is climate change. And I don’t feel that we’re facing it straight on in many ways,” he said. “I go out in the wild world to document it and work at it.”

As chairman of the board of Save the Yellowstone Grizzly and Round River, the latter of which works with indigenous people and governments on conservation strategies, he has helped create or protect more than 35 million acres of wilderness, he said.

“I worked full time trying to save grizzlies. I enjoyed it and considered it absolutely essential,” he said. “I feel I need to document the problem clearly, and I talk about what I’m trying to do and where the huge problem lies.”

He crafted his latest book “carefully,” ensuring the reader “could travel with me as far into the wilderness as they wanted,” he said.

In “Was It Worth It,” he blends well-crafted language with stories and images of the wilderness, placing the reader amid it all. Altogether, he has spent a year and a half in Colorado’s wild country, beginning in the early 1990s in the San Juans, where he searched for grizzlies. But if you ask him how many years and months he has lived in the wilderness worldwide, he good-naturedly answers that he’s never counted.

“It’d be like counting drinks in whiskey bars,” he said.

More eloquently, he writes in his book: “I log my life by winter counts, in the fashion of the Plains tribes who painted significant events on the inner sides of a bison hide. This might be a battle, a treaty, an encounter with a dangerous creature, finding a spirit animal, or possibly a winter so cold the cottonwood trees split apart. Though the indigenous people tended to mark each year, not every year of my life was worth a winter count. Some counts could come bundled in decades with only the rivulets of spring runoff and the emergence of bears to mark the in-between times.”

Peacock’s latest collection of essays recount his experiences and advocate for the wilderness — which he believes is the only thing left worth saving.
Courtesy photo

However he counts, a new era began in 1968, after two tours in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic “who attended to too much collateral damage.”

During the war, he carried maps of the northern Rocky Mountains, staring into the blank spots of the wilderness. When he returned to the States, he couldn’t be around anybody, even his family. He retreated deep into Wind River Range in Wyoming — the coldest, wettest rains in the United States outside of Alaska, he said — to confront his demons from Vietnam.

“The only place I’ve ever been comfortable in is the wilderness, even as a little boy,” he said.

He credits grizzly bears for restoring his soul. He had suffered a malaria attack in the Wind River Range, so he sought out Yellowstone’s better weather and hot springs to regain his health. There, his journal entry documented a 105.6-degree fever. A couple days later, he crawled out of his tent, drenched in sweat, headed into the hot springs, and spotted a mother grizzly with her two cubs. Not knowing much about grizzlies at the time, he sat in the springs for 15 more minutes and then decided to bolt toward a lodgepole pine. Only, he smashed his head and blacked out. When he regained consciousness, he scrambled to the top of the tree, head bleeding and body freezing.

“It wasn’t much bigger than a Christmas tree. The bears were 20 to 30 feet away,” he said. “If she wanted me, she could have had me. She was very polite — entertaining, but polite. Those bears made a distinct impression on me, and that’s why I started (protecting grizzlies). I needed to get outside of myself. Grizzly bears allowed me to exteriorize all of my demons and look at them.”

In fact, he savored the feeling of “not being the top dog on the fundamental configuration of the food pyramid,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful and forced humility. The grizzly is the one animal on our continent that can put puny, arrogant homo sapiens where they belong: in the middle of the food pyramid. It’s the one animal that can challenge our facile notions of domination.”

“Was It Worth It” recounts journeys with Edward Abbey, whom he and three friends ended up burying illegally in an undisclosed location, along with “solitary walks” he shared with Peter Matthiessen, Doug Thompkins, Jim Harrison, Yvon Choulnard, and others. It takes readers on the hunt for jaguars in the high Sonoran Desert, tigers in Siberia, and amazing birds on the Galapagos Islands.

Glimpsing “Hayduke Lives!” bumper stickers acts as a public acknowledgment to Peacock that Abbey’s writings still matter, and Peacock adds more insight into the fictional character of George Washington Hayduke in “The Monkey Wrench Gang” in chapter one of “Was It Worth It.” Turns out, Abbey based Hayduke on his first encounter with Peacock at Yellowstone, during the peak of the combat veteran’s hallucinatory malaria paroxysm.

“I prowled around Yellowstone like a madman, leaving no tracks in the rapidly melting snow,” he wrote in the chapter. “I fit the criteria for a half-dozen paranoid categories, all of which I embraced as necessary for life in the wild. It pushed me to the edge.”

So was it worth it?

Though Peacock is extremely concerned about climate change, as his last chapter depicts, all in all: It was worth it.

If you go…

What: Doug Peacock’s new book: “Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home”
When: 4:30 p.m., Saturday, May 20
Where: Explore Booksellers, 221 E. Main St., Aspen
More info: explorebooksellers.com
Learn more: savetheyellowstonegrizzly.org

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