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Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness by Doug Peacock

I have a confession to make: I have been reading quickly lately. I’m busy – buying one house and selling another, getting rid of most of our furniture and one car, arranging to ship the other, planning a cross-country move and a goodbye party, and honoring social commitments with lots of friends because I don’t want to miss a chance. I’ve quit my full-time job, and now my employment consists of writing book reviews (and any additional editing work I can get). I’m reading with the finish line in mind: finish this book, write it up, start the next. One a day, ideally; and often it is that quick. I’m not unhappy with my output, and I love to read books and learn new things, and the more the better. But at some point I can’t take it all in…

And then there’s that one book that just forces me to slow down. This week, it was Doug Peacock’s searing, precise, deeply felt writing in Grizzly Years.

grizzly

After Vietnam, I caught myself saluting birds and tipping my watch cap to sunsets. I talked a lot when no one was around, especially to bears.

You recall that I was impressed by Peacock’s Walking It Off. And I recently enjoyed Great Bear Wild; which pushed me to finally pick up Grizzly Years, which has been waiting patiently on my shelf ever since Walking It Off more than two years ago now. As I neared the end of this outstanding read, a beautiful short chapter about the Sea of Cortés makes me want to move straight on to Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, which I have owned for a year or more but sits unread. (Actually, it’s packed now, so it will wait.) And that’s how my reading path develops, sometimes.

But what about the book itself? It has many things in common with Walking It Off, which was written and published later but actually feels like a fine book to read in preparation for Grizzly Years. Like that later book, this one studies the interplay between war and wilderness, and I was again struck by what I would have thought would be the unlikely duality there; I guess I thought war was inimical to nature, through it’s destructive power; but Peacock repeatedly and convincingly likens his combat experience to his behaviors in grizzly habitat.

After Vietnam, he was too upset by the “real world” or what he calls (with perhaps a nod to Huck Finn) Syphilization. As Peacock says best himself:

Vietnam gave us a useful pessimism, a pragmatic irreverence I can wear comfortably down any bear trail. No one can ever show me a photo of a mutilated body or dead child again and tell me it is the way of the world. I can’t live in that world, but I do want to live. If this is a wound, it doesn’t want mending.

I was surprised to learn that his local “rough” bar on the edge of the wilderness is mostly populated by Vietnam vets.

They were friends, naturally, as this particular drinking establishment was largely avoided by company loggers, grizzly bear poachers, and higher ranking officials of the Department of Interior.

He tells us that those vets naturally moved toward the edges of Syphilization, the wildest country they could find. In this chapter, Peacock approaches Abbey’s tone of humor, but then gets serious again quickly. He’s a serious guy.

I’m afraid I am implying that the book is largely about war and its personal aftermath, though, which is incorrect. As its title indicates, it’s really about grizzly bears. Peacock spent a few decades traveling seasonally to visit with the same bears year after year, observing where they bed down and den and eat and mate, learning their habits and finding in respect for their wildness some peace for himself. These are not tame bears, and he doesn’t live peacefully side by side them – he has to be careful, because these are true, wild grizzlies. But he knows well enough how to do that, how to live nearby for days or weeks without dying (although he comes close a few times).

Much of the book is grizzly sighting after grizzly sighting; but it doesn’t get old. Every time it’s exciting and beautiful and tinged with danger (which contributes that humility he needs), and the scenery varies, as Peacock travels from his fire lookout in the Montana high country, to what he calls the Grizzly Hilton (also Montana, a pocket of habitat where he consistently sees the best bears), to Yellowstone, the Madison River to fly fish, the Sonoran desert, then to seek out the last Mexican grizzly in the Sierra Madre. (Maybe next year he’ll try the north country again, Yukon or Alaska.) He subsidizes his sparse lifestyle with a little money earned for photographs and film of grizzlies, a commercialism he is ambivalent about. When traveling in the backcountry, he lives off granola, protein powder and (like the bears) huckleberries; but in his lookout cabin, he cooks chanterelle mushroom bisque and cracks open fine Bordeaux wines. Peacock is well named: he is a colorful character, but has none of the strutting associated with the peacock. Abbey is less present here than in Walking It Off, which is fine because Peacock doesn’t need him. I may have gotten here by way of Abbey, but Peacock is a very, very fine writer without help of his friend’s celebrity. In the same style that I appreciated in Fire Season, Peacock intersperses his personal narratives of grizzlies and war with explorations of the history of grizzlies, their place in native cultures, and Syphilization’s damage upon them. He exhorts us gently and briefly in support of preserving a little habitat to let these creatures live. But mostly it’s just simple, beautiful description of his grizzly years.

Beautiful writing, thought-provoking and poignant and important, a fine work of natural observation and consideration of people and grizzlies, war and wilderness: Grizzly Years is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the most important I could recommend to you.


Rating: 10 yearlings.

3 Responses

  1. […] Grizzly Years, Doug Peacock – nonfiction […]

  2. Am still reading “Grizzly Years,” and just finished your review. Love both. The excerpt beginning with, “Vietnam gave us a useful pessimism…” hit me like a two-by-four in the head, and I saw that its inclusion in your review means it affected you as well. Thanks.

    Dave Meeks

    • Thank you so much, Dave, for placing the review anywhere near the book in your estimation. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book and if you have further thoughts–other passages that struck you, or whatever–I’d love to hear from you again.

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