Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, June 30, 2006


Last week Doug Peacock was in town for a book-signing party at Ken Sanders' Rare Books. Doug's primary claim to fame was his turbulent friendship with Edward Abbey, and the fact that he served as the raw template for the character George Washington Hayduke in Abbey's classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the years since he and a few friends buried Abbey in a secret desert location in 1989, Peacock has developed into a fine “wilderness writer” in his own right. His new book, co-authored with his wife Andrea, is his second one dealing with his life's obsession with Grizzly, or Brown Bears (Ursus arctos). It looks like it should be a good read; unfortunately, it sold out before I could purchase a copy. The same thing happened at my own book-signing party a couple of months ago. We need to have a little talk with Ken about his ordering policies.

At the event, each co-author read a short excerpt from the book. I had never met Andrea, a professional journalist whose method seems more clinical, and probably provides a good balance against some of her husband's literary excesses. I found her reading about a bear hunter especially interesting. Without interjecting any judgments of her own, she created a portrait of this bowhunter, a man whose passion for bears ran deep, and who had thought long and hard about his sport, and described it in the most articulate terms. His style of hunting required a level of skill rarely possessed by contemporary Americans: the ability to track down a half-ton Brown Bear, and get close enough to it to deliver a mortal broadside shot. Should the bear charge, no arrow could slow it. This is the closest thing to a fair contest, where the bear is almost equally capable of killing the man. The only advantage held by the latter is the knowledge of the rules and the stakes of the game. As Andrea described the hunter's philosophy, I found myself agreeing with and fully understanding everything he said. Killing a bear in this manner is truly an accomplishment, and a way of being far more ecologically connected than most of America. What struck me especially, though, was the total selfishness of his viewpoint. Though he spoke with great passion about how the hunt enriched him, his analysis lacked any consideration of how his sport affected the bears, the wilderness, the boreal ecology, and all the things he obviously loved so much.

The truth of the matter is, the hunter's impact is probably pretty negligible, overall. While it may be wasteful and ugly to kill a member of a dwindling species every few years, we all engage in more damaging activities every day of our lives. Being oblivious to our effect on the natural world is only obvious when it involves an activity as extraordinary as hunting Brown Bears with a longbow. I've thought long and hard about the effect of my own favorite sport, falconry, and came to the conclusion many years ago that any harm caused by responsible falconry is negligible. I'm pleased to see that the U.S. Department of the Interior came to a similar conclusion in their new Draft Environmental Assessment(pdf). Be that as it may, flying large falcons in the modern age requires more daily miles of driving than can be easily justified.

It's easy for those of us with a deep love of the natural world to forget how damaging that love can be. As human population and standard of living continue to rise, we're obliged to be aware of our personal impact, whether we hunt bears, build a house in the woods, or simply enjoy wilderness hiking, and consider what we're willing to give up for our love. A few centuries ago, a man like Andrea Peacock's bear hunter would have been honored, and rightly so. Today there are probably few of us who would leap up to praise his anachronistic sport, but rather than jeering him, we would do better to look more closely at the motes in our own eye.
illustration: SLOTH BEAR & INDIAN PIED HORNBILLS ( 1998) ink wash 19" x 12"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug and Andrea are friends-- I have to get that book!

I wonder if the bear hunter is Don (E. Donnall) Thomas, who also lives in Montana. If so, he is a pretty good conservationist too. He once served Libby and me a dinner of cougar, hunted by his own hound and bow. A serious man.

I also think about flying big longwings. Right now I still do, but I can get to good habitat for jacks, my principle quarry, within ten miles. My Bluffdale buddy Dave has given it up for reasons not unlike yours. And I think more and more about Goshawks and small falcons, whose quarry I can walk to...

Thanks for a stimulating and thought- provoking post as always.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great post Carel.

On falconry: "Be that as it may, flying large falcons in the modern age requires more daily miles of driving than can be easily justified."

Big longwings have never been a practical option for me in the SE. But even with a shortwing I am driving now more than ever.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Steve: I'm afraid I don't remember the hunter's name. I'll have to get back to you on that. I don't know if I could enjoy eating a Mountain Lion steak.
Matt: Flying a big longwing (falcon) is the only real falconry, as far as I'm concerned, and I really miss it, but there's something to be said for urban hawking, too. A couple of friends of mine are consistently getting great flights at starlings in city parks with Kestrels!

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Outdoor Hunting said...

As having passion for real hunting is also having books like this.

11:43 PM  

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