A Paragon of Nature Writing: On Doug Peacock’s ‘Was It Worth It?’

In his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey famously based the character of George Washington Hayduke, a Vietnam veteran turned ecoterrorist, on the real-life environmentalist Doug Peacock. Hayduke was a hero for increasingly excessive and exploitative times. Peacock’s own entry in the canon of environmental literature, the 1996 book Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, was an earnest if rather quiet paean to living more respectfully, even reverently, in relation to animals and the planet. Since then, the environmental movement has spiraled out of the wilderness and finds itself far beyond Abbey’s and Peacock’s American West—it matters everywhere, in all regions and at all levels. So what is the role of such traditional environmental literature these days?

Reading jacket copy of Peacock’s latest book, Was It Worth It?: A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home, one might expect more of the same. But Peacock is hardly at war in this book—there is no monkeywrenching, no dramatic tales of brute survival. The single threat of close combat comes when Peacock fabricates an eight-foot spear just in case a polar bear charges him during an expedition in the far north—an incident that he really, really hopes will not happen. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

Was It Worth It? is a collection of essays culled from across the past few decades, all of which reflect Peacock’s decidedly subdued approach to wilderness adventuring, and writing. Indeed, whereas the jacket describes the book as “gripping stories of adventure,” readers might be delighted to find instead a recurrent lack of adventure on the page—at least, by expected standards. If the narratives “grip,” it’s because of Peacock’s prose: the adventure lies in the wording, a suspense built by sentences. Apex predators and sublime wilderness remain curiously—and importantly—elusive throughout the book. The “long trail,” such as it is, is meandering, often mundane, and with plenty of dead ends.

It’s an understandable marketing move by the book’s publisher, Patagonia, to play up Peacock’s mythos. But a very different story begins to emerge within the pages—I found myself surprisingly moved and inspired by Peacock’s mellow, methodical, and meditative recounting of various trips and landscapes. Was It Worth It? is about his friendships with people and encounters with wildlife, and about some solitary experiences too. Simple if simply decadent meals are cooked over campfires; beers are consumed, and sometimes poured out rather than imbibed, to honor past lives.

Peacock is a masterful observer of detail, wherever he is. In many ways the book is a paragon of nature writing. But the detailed accounts often subvert the genre. For instance, on a solo trip down the Jefferson River in Montana, he writes about the many diversion dams that channel and attempt to control the river’s current. These “little dams” are both a physical obstacle to his journey, and a semaphore of the type of human intervention that Peacock often rails against. But he doesn’t blow them up or damn them to hell; he just navigates his old wooden drift boat around them, at times with great effort, on his way down the river. Early in the trip he admits that he’s not even sure how many of these dams there are on his route. But: “It didn’t actually matter, as I had no choice but to keep going; I’d figure it out as I moved downstream.” So long wilderness warrior, hello Taoist ordinaire.

On that same river trip, Peacock occasionally stops to fly fish, but these scenes are delightfully anticlimactic. Seeing some big trout rising at the end of a run of rapids, he “felt all the old magic again.” But unlike Hemingway’s Nick Adams, who feels something similar, the fish don’t bite for Peacock. After the initial anticipation and a few excited casts, the scene fizzles entirely: “Nothing doing.” Peacock quits fishing as abruptly as the trout first appear in all their alluring splendor. Again the book upends the genre conventions, spending more time in a quiet, ruminative state rather than relishing in ornate imagery and dramatic escapades. (Another story includes a slightly more successful fishing interlude, on Belize salt flats, but even it features photo of the fly fisherman above a self-deprecating caption: “Doug fishes poorly; skunked again.”)

Some of the stories told in Was It Worth It? are legendary, such as Edward Abbey’s secret desert burial and the wake that followed. But Peacock tells these stories in plain language and with simple aplomb, the effect being that the mythical figures of the environmental literary canon are brought down to earth—right where they should be. In this way Peacock is paving the way for all sorts of writing and art that is indebted to, but grown up and out of, the earlier phases of green activism. The point isn’t to keep repeating the slogans or elevating the masters: now, we need to make it real, and keep it relevant. After a certain bear sighting in British Columbia, Peacock articulates the outcome of the experience with utter directness and precision: “The presence of this vulnerable animal shattered my anthropomorphic prejudices.” Rather than being outdated or obsolete, we need this kind of ecological humility more than ever—at this moment when, as Peacock remarks in another chapter, “the hot winds of climate change are coming for us all.”

Beyond Peacock’s sober reflections on climate change and imminent ecological destruction, there are at least two other sources of trauma haunting this book. There is Peacock’s own acknowledged PTSD from his time in Vietnam; this comes up several times throughout the book, almost repetitively—just as flashbacks would for someone suffering from the disorder. Then there’s Peacock’s keen awareness of the erasure of indigenous peoples and cultures, and the ancestral role he plays in this ongoing arc of history. At one point, in another episode that almost reads as absurdist, Peacock and his cousin sneak around suburban lower Michigan to “repatriate” a cache of arrowheads and other ancient tools that Peacock had dug up and collected as a kid. The reader hovers above the page as Peacock commando crawls through a flower garden outside a McMansion, to restore some semblance of cosmic order. It’s a touching scene, absolutely serious and a bit funny, too—which is to say, classic Peacock.

I have been reading—or reading about—Doug Peacock since my college years in the ‘90s, when I first started to study environmental literature. We share a mutual friend in the Montana poet Greg Keeler, and Peacock offered a generous endorsement for my book Searching for the Anthropocene. So I was hardly a neutral reader of this new book. But having taught and written about environmental literature for two decades now, I come at this genre with a sharp critical sense of what works, and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Peacock’s new book, I’ll admit that I thought the title was glib. Was it worth it? Was what worth it? What could that even usefully mean? But reading the book, going along with Peacock on his trips through the mind and across the planet, the question takes on multiple registers. It reverberates, pressing on the reader in a way that is not just useful but urgent. Nature writing is more difficult, and more important, than ever. I had thought about this when reading other recent books that loosely fall in this realm, and are actively expanding it, like Lauret Savoy’s Trace, Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, and Barry Lopez’s last book Horizon—all books that show how the work of observing and deriving lessons from our world gets dragged down by all the weights of human history and our present conundrums.

Peacock’s new book isn’t prescriptive, and isn’t overtly heroic. It’s realistic, modest, even. But it shows how close humans always are to our biological being, a fact to be ignored at our own peril. Peacock’s essays reveal how it’s always worth it to pay attention—and not just during high-profile adventures. The true adventures of environmental awareness might always be taking place off to the side of where the action seems to be. Or, really, the adventure is everywhere—we just have to see it, and act accordingly. Doug Peacock shows us how.

Strange Flights

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In April 2001, I was offered the most interesting part-time job I’ve ever had. For $7.25 an hour I began working at my local airport, where I would don a United Airlines uniform and learn all the ins and outs of commercial aviation.

This was outside of Bozeman, Montana, where I had recently moved for a Master’s program in English. My airport job paid the rent all spring and summer, as I covered many of my co-workers’ shifts; within a few months I could practically run the airport by myself. I remember the startled look on passengers’ faces when they’d see me boarding them at the upstairs departure gate after having just checked them in for their flight downstairs a half hour ago; and then they’d see me outside a few minutes later loading their baggage onto the plane, before finally hopping onto the diesel push-back Tug and sending them down the taxiway. It was a small airport, and the airline employees were trained to do every task.

Starting in the fall of 2001, my other part-time job commenced: teaching freshman composition three mornings a week as part of my graduate work. This involved reading the essays of dutiful ranchers’ children and transplant trustafarians alike, with the former group having a more intuitive knack for descriptive prose.

September 11 was my day off. On my days off, when I was off fly-fishing or hiking, I would find myself subconsciously tracking inbound flights and takeoffs, distant jet blasts and glints of silver in the sun. I remember the absence of planes that day as a kind of kink in the muscle memory that any job creates over time: where Delta’s 737 usually flew overhead from Salt Lake City at noon, there was only silence and sky.

I was scheduled to work at the airport the following afternoon, on September 12. But first I had a class to teach. It was my first time teaching at the college level, and we were only a few weeks into the semester; I was 23 years old. I recall sitting in a discussion circle with 30 freshmen on that day, not really knowing what to say.

As I tried to direct attention to our course anthology, I remember one student who was so upset that he blurted out in class, “We need to bomb people, NOW!”

When I tried, in my most affected professorial tone, to gingerly ask the class to consider the construction of the “we” in this claim, and whom exactly it was “we” should bomb, the same student screamed back at me, “ANYBODY!” His idea seemed to be that by inflicting firepower by air on other people, the United States could steal the show: the products of our military jets would be the focus of attention, and take away from the spectacle of four commercial airliners having gone rogue.

And a spectacle it was. When I walked over to the student union after class for lunch, I saw that several large TV screens had been wheeled into the open spaces between the seating areas. Some students filtered in and out of the dining hall like normal, scooping out helpings of macaroni and cheese; other students stood transfixed, watching reruns of the planes crashing again and again and again into the towers of the World Trade Center. The event was being familiarly looped, and the ambience of the instant replay created a warm, somewhat stale sensation — despite the chillingly fresh content.

That afternoon, I drove out to the airport for my shift. I had tried to call in to figure out if flights were on time, or if I even had to work — but the lines were all busy. I decided to play it safe and just show up. When I got to the airport, the scene was one of stunted pandemonium. The terminal seemed at once totally chaotic and oddly frozen. Yes, my manager explained, I was still needed for work; but there were no flights due in or out that day. However, they could start back up at any moment — so we had to be ready.

In the meantime, there was a line of skittish passengers to deal with, people who were scheduled on flights that were not going to depart. These passengers didn’t realize, perhaps, the scope of what had occurred the day before, how all the commercial airlines had simply been grounded into the unforeseeable future. Not that we airline employees knew any better: the best we could do was reschedule the passengers on flights a day or a week later, send them off with newly printed itineraries, and cross our fingers.

After assisting a dozen or so confused and distraught passengers who were feeling the logistical back-blow of what would come to be called 9/11, I went back into the break room and saw my manager Lance taping onto the wall a few photographs of himself directing a C-130 Air Force cargo plane onto our taxiway. This was one of the strange flights that had landed at our airport the day before; Lance had taken the roll of film to a one-hour photo lab that evening and had them printed out, and now was displaying them like little trophies. Lance told me excitedly that a Stealth bomber had landed in Bozeman, too; but it had refueled and taken off again before anyone could get a picture of it.

The next day, I rummaged through the files on my desk, and found an essay that appeared in the Spring 2001 Patagonia outdoor clothing catalog. This short piece was called “Homage to Faizabad,” and it was written by the journalist Rob Schultheis; he was covering a drawn-out war in Afghanistan. The essay begins beautifully:
We’ve been flying for nearly an hour, with nothing below us but the raw gorges and snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush. Somewhere down there are villages, fields, roads and trails, and the war we have returned to cover, but it’s all lost in distance, space and scale in the vastness that is Afghanistan.
Schultheis goes on to describe the isolated town of Faizabad, including the friendly people he meets amid the wheat fields, pastures, and poppy fields. I took this essay to campus the following day and photocopied it for my students; in class, we took turns reading it aloud, slowly, paragraph by paragraph. We talked about the expository strategies that the author employed, including the initial focalizing mechanism of an aerial view; we also talked about the real people depicted in the essay, people caught up a long history of conflicts and power struggles in this place freshly glossed in the news, Afghanistan.

Over the next several days I kept arriving at the airport to work only to face passengers who felt immobilized, and who were becoming increasingly frustrated that air travel had not started up again. As airline employees, we were not trained to explain the conditions and contingencies of a national state of emergency — instead, we would concentrate in front of our computer monitors, fingers clicking away, and rebook the passengers on theoretical future flights, exuding less confidence by the day in the following day’s departures. Still, it was our job, and so we carefully rescheduled passengers using a booking system that increasingly felt like dabbling in postmodern fiction: we were creating complex itineraries that would never be.

Some passengers came back to the airport day after day trying to fly out of Bozeman. Their travel clothes became rumpled looking, and they had less confidence on their faces every time they came through the sliding doors of the terminal. It became more of a travesty with each day: people showing up with full suitcases and long faces, only to trudge back to the long-term parking lot a couple minutes later, after we had turned them away. Yet sure enough, one day a full plane flew in from Denver, and air travel was back on.

By the end of the semester I was teaching my students about narrative perspective, and we were discussing how things could be examined from multiple angles. My students read Mark Twain’s “Two Views of the Mississippi,” and we parsed his two takes on the riparian landscape: that of the Romantic river gazer, and that of the jaded riverboat worker. Now, it seemed as though there was a third perspective we needed to talk about, one that we had encountered in Schultheis’ essay: the view from above. For at this point the news was flooded with aerial reconnaissance images of Afghanistan, including the Tora Bora region that looked not so unlike our own Tobacco Root Mountains stretched out across on the western horizon. There were contrails over those peaks; and on the news we could see weirdly congruous imagery of peaks on the other side of the planet, rendered by other planes with different intentions.

Like Twain’s philosophical quandary about getting to know the river, and thus losing a sense its innate beauty, our own romance with flight had become complicated. For myself, I could no longer treat the Gallatin Field airport as a simple workspace; I saw it enmeshed in politics and power, territory and populations. This was no mere “regional” airport — it was part of a fraught global matrix where all flights were strange flights, and travel was never an isolated endeavor.

 

Image courtesy the author