Sunday, November 25, 2007

Grizzly Years

My dad was the son of a sheepherder, which made him a sheepherder by default until he went to college. He spent his summers in the mountains of south eastern Idaho, and life revolved around the next opportunity to shoot his gun. With sheep being the trade and lifeblood of the family it was necessary to ward off predators, the largest of which were bears. I don't think my dad ever shot a bear dead, but he, his brother, and my grandfather poisoned plenty of them (over twenty if my memory serves). In all those years growing up they killed only one grizzly bear, and he was massive.

Our photo slides are replete with him posing next to dead bears, or actually posing the bears themselves like awkward fly swarmed mannequins in human positions. One photo, we title "the Laughing Bear" shows a dead bear sitting with his back against a large tree trunk looking very relaxed and wearing a large goofy grin on its face. He cradles a rifle in his paws and perched obediently next to him is the old sheepdog.

Now the thought of shooting animals for sport (or food for that matter) holds no appeal to him. At some point that switch turned off. He hasn't killed game in decades. And that's the way it goes.

My friend Nick, uber outdoorsman and literary mind, gave me a book for my birthday called Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness by Doug Peacock. The book is a mix of war story, alienated humanity, and conservationism. I know very little about "the American wilderness", or the ecological and environmental issues that so many hold dear. But I'd like to think I can appreciate what would make it such a passionate cause for some. Peacock was a friend of Ed Abbey and for over 20 years his life revolved around the Grizzly Bear. After coming back from Vietnam a wrecked and empty person he developed an almost codependent symbiosis with the Grizzly bears of Yellowstone & Glacier National Park, among others. It is a detailed account only a fanatic journalist with an all consuming passion could write. For Peacock, the passion for Grizzlies is truly a love that comes out in the detailed description of his encounters. Naturally so, for his relationship with them saved him to a large degree from the horrors of Vietnam.

I couldn't relate to much of the book though I absolutely loved it in parts (particularly his war stories). Peacock quotes Luther Standing Bear of the Ogalala Sioux, who said "Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery." This is true. We look around us and see the unusual, the foreign, the unknown and we flee or try to change it to fit our notions, rather than trying to look at things with fresh eyes. For Peacock it came through his experiences with bears. For someone else it may come through a bassoon or a rifle or a surfboard or a garden. But we should all be looking for the Great Mystery, and willingly acknowledge its manifestation.


Zombie said...

Ever seen Grizzly Man. The documentary of a guy that lived with Grizzly Bears, kinda weird, but cool.

Les said...


Yeah, I did see that documentary. I remember that the guy really found a lot of satisfaction out of the creation around him.

He was clearly off his rocker to some degree though (as we all are I suppose). I remember him really being in love with this one fox, speaking sweetly about it and following it around...then when the fox stole his hat he started freaking out and wanted to kill the thing. Sad but funny.

Nick said...

Great post ! I'm glad you enjoyed the book.