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Doug Peacock: ‘The World Needs an Ed Abbey Now’

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.

About Allen M. Jones

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  1. It’s nice to see an interview with Doug Peacock – I only with it were longer!

    I think there are two reasons we need Ed Abbey: the first (and obvious to me at least) was Abbey’s insistence on not only protecting the Earth but just not using it up. Be gentle – consume but do so gently and in a responsible manner. Nothing beats a steak, cold beers, and a cigar.

    And this leads to the second reason we need Abbey: he was who he was. He made no apologies for smoking cigars or drinking or eating meat. Today? Hell, having some friends over now means khakis from EMS/ REI, $175 “walking” shoes, and if (God forbid) the man has a beard it’s neatly trimmed.

    Abbey confirmed environmentalist/ conservationist philosophy is large enough for just about anyone – including bearded and grouchy men who hunt their own meat. But where is that today? It seems buried beneath a veneer of self presentation and not self preservation.

    Sociologically, movements have always been characterized by people who are gruff and grouchy and don’t give a damn what others think. Look at Einstein – the man never saw a hair brush he liked. George Washington? Stood on the front of the boat pointing with his sword (or if not it makes for a hell of a print!). Edward Abbey? In one of his books he measured the distance travelled by the beer cans tossed out the window (alright, not advisable and not a photo op but poignant nevertheless).

    Conservationists have almost lost touch with the dirt that makes us who we are. Sometimes it is about hoofing a few frozed steaks and beer into the backcountry. In fact, I’d say that’s the cultural stuff that let someone like Abbey become who he was.

    People comfortable in the board room are often uncomfortable outside the board room.

  2. The man appears to be mentally ill to me. The only reason he thinks the environmental movement is dead is because its had to curtail it methods employing demagogery and dogma. The American Public has grown weary of those practices and that has forced the professional environmentalist to use reason and reasonble tactic. Only fanatics like Mr. Peacock are sorry to see the environmental movement evolve.

    His comment on the delisting of the grizzly bear is a perfect example of the point I’m making. Pure demogogic speech, with no facts or evidence to support.

  3. Although of course I can’t speak for Doug Peacock (who’s no more mentally ill than the rest of us), for my money it seems to me that the health of any movement or political interest largely resides in the diversity of opinion that it can comfortably embrace. A point could be argued that in the face of the current state of things — our culture’s extreme and institutionally entrenched anti-environmentalism — moderation is perhaps not the only “reasonble” (sic) tactic.

  4. “The man appears to be mentally ill to me. The only reason he thinks the environmental movement is dead is because its had to curtail it methods employing demagogery and dogma. … Only fanatics like Mr. Peacock are sorry to see the environmental movement evolve.”

    I disagree. That’s no different than saying people like Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), Beethoven, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie (“Madam Curie”) were fanatics and employed demagogery and dogma. All of them were pegged as completely insane by the ‘experts’ of their day. We’re fortunate they opted for their own path and didn’t ‘evolve.’

    Not unlike Edward Abbey they were not seen as instrumental until after their deaths (except for a small minority of observers/followers/readers). Nearly everyone saw them as crazy, as you claim Peacock and I assume you also mean Edward Abbey are. History tends to favor the lone person who looks askance at standard practice and questions it.

    Rarely mentioned are those pointing and name calling – unless you’re taking a social movements course in college. But the fields of literature, science, mathematics, art, and science are always led by the giants that were dismissed as crazy or insane.

    “Vox Clamantis in Deserto”

  5. Doug Peacock is an original. My God, his is the only voice with any guts. He tells it straight. The environmental movement has stopped moving! Where is it?

    His voice absolutely haunts me–it like having your conscience speak….

    If you have ever gone on a solo trip (I used to do them yearly), or even if you have ever camped away from the fricken cars in a national park, you know that Peacock is speaking the truth. Wilderness should be preserved at any cost. Once it is gone, it will be gone forever.

    Frankly, we could use a little more blunt, ass kickers on our side rather than the lawyers and the Starbucks drinking women running the show. Lets get some balls people!

  6. After seeing the gentleman’s “mentally ill” comment it inspired me to, as Ginsberg said about Antler’s epic poem “Factory”, ” laughter beyond tears”.

    You know, if you don’t get it why don’t you just go on to the next issue because you probably never will.

    Peacock has only one true credo that echo’s Abbey’s and that is ‘it is every patiots right to defend his country against its government”. How difficult is that to follow?
    With little natural world remaining now is it really the time to compromise? The movement needs new blood badly and if Peacock can inspire it so be it.

  7. If you’re not willing to compromise, are you willing to try and take me by force?