New West: Among other things, your new memoir Walking it Off is a paean to your friend and mentor, Ed Abbey. What would he have thought of the book?
Doug Peacock: Despite his reputation, Ed was generally a forgiving man, although I do think he’d be pleased that he’s not in the book anymore than he is. And he probably would have been appalled at the lack of humor. That bothers me some, that I wasn’t able to write more humor into it. Also, I suppose I might have irritated him a little by using his journal notes. It’s kind of a private deal. But then they’d already been published.
I think he would read between the lines and see the heavy body blows that have been dealt to the earth since his death. I think he would be glad to be dead. He was really concerned for the earth he was leaving behind for his children, and things have only gotten worse.
NW: When Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was originally published, you had a falling out over his appropriation of your personal history for his very public character, Hayduke. In Walking it Off, however, you mention Hayduke often and fondly. What was it, at the time, that caused you to dislike Hayduke? What makes you like him better now?
DP: When Abbey was writing Monkey Wrench Gang, I knew about the book, but I didn’t know about the Peacock character. It’s true that it took me a while, but I later came to enjoy Hayduke. How in a cartoonish way Abbey nailed the wounded war vet. I hadn’t even heard of post-traumatic stress disorder until 1990. There was no way I would have gone off and sought assistance for what I considered to be the inevitable residue of war. It wounds everyone. I wasn’t aware of that. Abbey was a lot of comfort in that regard.
Hayduke I’ve always considered Abbey’s creation. If there was a trade-off, it was in people assuming for years that I was this strong, not-very-smart character. But the world, the conservation movement, they need cartoon characters like Hayduke.
The world needs an Ed Abbey now, too. When he died, I’d have figured that there would be a hundred Abbey’s out there by now, but there’s not. I have to credit Ed for being this eternally cranky sonofabitch. There were no sacred cows. He offended everyone, and in such a funny way. I have to say, if he saw the current state of the environmental movement today, he’d roll over in his grave. The movement is totally wimped out. It’s emasculated. Afraid of the administration, of corporate donors. They want a cordial relationship with agencies. There’s never been a more anti-life time in our history than now with the Bush administration. Anti-wildlife, anti-human-life. Ed cared about freedom and liberty. They weren’t just empty words to him. He was coming more and more to the conclusion that wilderness was the only thing worth saving. There’s no one around now that has that same kind of moral and physical presence.
NW: It’s a long tradition, going off into the wilderness in search of psychic healing. What is there about being alone in the woods that’s regenerative?
DP: It’s not like you come out the other end of this thing. You have to go out there again and again. Solitude is such a deep well. If I go somewhere alone, where I’m comfortable, after four or five days I really do feel myself start to open up in ways I don’t otherwise. It’s the quickest exit from culture, to go off by yourself. I enjoy any activity that anchors your attention in the present.
NW: Are there bright spots in the conservation movement?
DP: The most important issue to me now is the delisting of grizzlies in the lower forty-eight. With a few exceptions, environmental organizations have rolled over on this one. There’s no question, if you delist the grizzly it’s the end of the grizzly in the lower forty-eight. Doug Honnold and Abbey Dillen at Earthjustice, they’re about the only ones out there actively fighting the bear delisting.
I’ve just come back from British Columbia, where I’ve been working with a group called Round River Conservation Studies. In cooperation with the Tlingit Indians, we’ve been trying to conserve an area of the Taku watershed and wilderness. It’s an area of about 5.5 million acres. Ten years ago, the Tlingit were just emerging from the whole boarding school problem, the forced inculturation issues, they were just coming into their own. Now they’re about to have government to government negotiations. Canada wants to put a road into this wilderness, and the Tlingit are trying to stop them. It’s exciting, thinking we’ll have 5.5 million acres of wilderness. There’s a similar deal going down with the Heiltsuk Indians.
These are cooperative efforts between conservation groups and first nations. That’s one thing I’ll be keeping my finger in. I’m not skilled at the battle, fighting in the trenches, but I like to kind of work as a spiritual adviser. I’ve committed myself to helping raise money for certain efforts. A lot of how I work is through the networking of friends. I’m hardly the brains or the physical energy behind it. I just encourage.
A couple of other things. Most of what I do involves payback in some way or another. I don’t want people to forget Ed Abbey. The other sort of payback I want to work on has to do with Vietnam. I still need to do something personal in that regard. That’s going to mean relearning the language and going back over there. It’s something I owe. It’s not something you have control over. That’s going to take up a decade of my life.
I also need to decide if I’m going to write anymore. I have to specifically examine if I have anything else to contribute. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. A friend on his death bed read this book, read the meditations on dying, and one of the last things he said to me was Doug, you’ve got to publish this book. Get Abbey out there again. And we have veterans coming home again, coming back, maybe they’ll find something of value in here as well. You really feel yourself to be alone and unique when you’re coming home. As recently as a few years ago, I was determined not to publish this book. Initially, I wrote it just for myself. But too many people told me to publish it.
NW: What other writers do you admire, particularly in the conservation movement?
DP: Among conservationists? Peter Matthiessen. Honestly, I don’t read too much in the conservation movement. Terry Tempest Williams is a dear friend. I admire the energy Rick Bass puts into it. He spends a lot of his time on real conservation and I admire that. There’s some great writers around here locally that I like to read. Jim Harrison. Otherwise, I read a lot of dead people. Backpacking across Cabeza Prieta, you want a specific gravity, a certain density. I’ve brought Moby Dick along, The Odyssey. I remember I read Legends of the Fall one time. Dostoyevsky. War and Peace in case you get stuck someplace in a rainy tent for four days. I admire William Eastlake, too. Castle Keep, Go in Beauty, Bamboo Bed.