My friends know I follow writers who specialize in western landscapes, and a few months ago one of them asked me what Doug Peacock was up to. I'd heard Peacock was working on a book about a different, earlier time when our species faced a warming climate and what we might learn from that now. But that wasn't what I said. I said, "I think he's writing his memoir of the Pleistocene."
I caught myself. Peacock couldn't write a 'memoir' of the Pleistocene, that geological epoch lasting from 2.5 million to 11,000 years ago and marked by massive glaciation and the Paleolithic Era, Of course he couldn't--he wasn't there.
I wasn't that far off. I can see that now, having read his latest book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth. (Counterpunch/AK Press, 2013)
Peacock's previous writing (four books and dozens of articles) document his deep experience with death, grizzlies, "living off the land", and walking, floating, climbing the earth's wildest parts. With this book, he mixes what he's learned from his wild life with his insatiable appetite for knowledge (the book's bibliography alone is worth its cover price) in the soup of his potent imagination. The result is the story of "the Greatest Adventure" -- the story of the first people coming to America. They found:
a land bountiful without parallel, the bright habitats beckoning with adventure, sizzling with life and devoid of any trace of human occupation. But it also bristles with dangerous beasts, formidable water crossings and massive ice fields.....
Peacock writes as if he was there because in a way he still is.
The book's main text is a serious discussion about the different controversies surrounding the peopling of the Americas: Who were they? When, why, and how did they come? And most exciting: Has their ability to adapt -- to a wildly fluctuating climate, to the short-faced bears, dire wolves, Sabertoothed cats, and Pleistocene lions that wanted to eat them -- been passed on to us?
Between facts, well-founded speculations, and serious questions, readers will find both entries from journals Peacock has kept during the five decades he's spent exploring the world's wild corners, and life-like scenarios of the Pleistocene travelers he's dreamed. They are eerily similar.
Abalone clung to rocks at lower tide levels and crabs and octopus lived in the tide pools.....the people lightly roasted seaweed on the fire and used it to roll up crabmeat like a Pleistocene burrito.
I decided to go for the clams....I dig down a few inches off to the side of the siphon holes until I can see the elongated shell of the clam. I pluck out the three-inch long shellfish and repeat the process a couple of dozen times. ....I kindle a fire between beached cedar logs...
In the wilds, not much has changed in 15,000 years.
I thought the earliest Americans came from Asia to northwest Alaska via the Bering Strait, which, with so much of the world's seawater frozen into the epoch's massive glaciers was then a land bridge. In this book, I learned that we may have also traveled down ice-free corridors between retreating glaciers. And there's the likelihood that some moved down the Pacific coastline using small boats to cross the hundreds of inlets, fjords, and rivers dumping frigid water and icebergs directly into the ocean.
Peacock imagines what these early travelers ate (rivers "clear of glacier-scour clouding, throbbing with salmon"), the predators they encountered (hunters listening all night to the huge short-faced bear feeding on the Mastodon they had just killed, as it "cracked bones with his massive jaws") and the wild beauty they were the first humans to stand before, awe-filled. And from Peacock's journal we get a sense not only of what crossing an Arctic river ("a mere 100 feet or so across, and lined with bucket-sized boulders") might have been like, but a step-by-step guide to how he did it with a cheap rubber raft and a length of rope.
This entry made me squeamish, recalling a hike I took with Peacock in Yellowstone and the raft he wanted to build from dead saplings and nylon cord to paddle across Yellowstone Lake to save a day of walking. I had nightmares, hearing the screams of Boy Scouts as they drowned in that lake, after huge wind-driven waves swamped their canoes. I managed to talk him down off of that idea, but he's yet to let me forget it.
Most of that hike (and many others I've had in wilderness ) could have taken place in the Pleistocene. That's the beauty and value of wilderness. It's where we were born and where, Peacock asserts, "our own organic consciousness evolved". Peacock believes that we must fight "to protect the wild; wilderness will buy us the kind of time geo-engineering never could or will." By wandering in the wilderness "from whence we came, that original homeland that carved the human mind..." we might also discover that those same survival tools that kept our ancestors safe (from cold and raging rivers, a pack of dire wolves, Pleistocene lion, or short-faced bear) will work against the modern monsters we've created with that same mind.
If not, so be it. I'll be fine now that I know three key things: how to defend myself against marauding mammals with a long pointed stick, the dull end braced against the ground; that bones from fresh carcasses are combustible and burn hot in a fire; and eating a stew of tasty Amanita phalloides mushrooms might be a pleasurable way to die.
Whether we crumble into a massive heap, adapt, or miraculously dodge the slow moving climate bullet, will depend not just on scientists, economists, politicians, and preachers, but on those who can connect us to a past when we faced monsters and survived. We need story-tellers like Peacock who are scanning the horizon, sniffing the air (being sure to avoid carcasses) while imagining our way forth.