Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Lowering the pistol, raising the hope

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

I think of hope. What creates it. What nurtures it. What kills it. Like everything, hope rises or falls with the individual.

Doug Peacock, author, grizzly bear and bison expert, wildlands activist and character model for Hayduke in Ed Abbey's novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang," went to Southeast Asia in the 1960s, a warrior/patriot/true believer ready to fight and kill and perhaps even die for his country. He accomplished the first two of the three but returned to America from the war in Vietnam with no more hope than the tattered remains of a road map to Montana, "to remind him of both beloved country and mythical place," in the words of Jack Turner. Love and myth are necessary to hope, and Peacock went into the wilderness by himself because he loved the place of wilderness and was guided into the heart of its mystery by its myth. There he found hope (and healing) by living for long periods of time in close proximity to and forming primal relationships with grizzly bears. Peacock lived his hope, and in his 1996 book "Grizzly Years," he describes it in terms of power and mystery when he encounters a grizzly in the woods and chooses not to shoot the bear:

"I peered down the gun barrel into the dull red eyes of the huge grizzly. He gnashed his jaws and lowered his ears. The hair on his hump stood up. We stared at each other for what might have been seconds but felt like hours. I knew once again that I was not going to pull the trigger. My shooting days were over. I lowered the pistol. The giant bear flicked his ears and looked off to the side. I took a step backwards and turned my head toward the trees. I felt something pass between us. The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow ... I felt my life had been touched by enormous power and mystery."

"I lowered the pistol ... The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity ... " Those are breathtaking words. There is more raw beauty and hope for planet Earth in the relationship and moment they describe than, say, in photographs of the birth of galaxies and the death of stars and suns the size of our solar system or, needless to say, in the raving braggadocio of many of the sneering, self-admiring, bunker living cowboys of Washington for whom grace and dignity are foreign terms, probably French.

The 21st century is beginning with far fewer species of life and, it seems to me, much less reason for hope than in the beginning of the 20th. The past few hundred years of human exploration, industrial and technological growth, the urbanization of its country sides and the explosion of human populations have changed the Earth from a cornucopia for all its creatures and beings to a supermarket for its dominant form of life, Homo sapiens.

It is man's accumulated fear of the power and mystery that brushed Peacock that has so crippled his hope and enslaved his energies to the supermarket. It is a lack of courage, not intellect or cunning that allows men to sell the irreplaceable as a commodity in the market place. Nevertheless, hope exists in many forms in every person, and it needs protection and nurturing within what Peter Matthiessen describes as "... deep generic dread of the death of Earth as witnessed in the despoliation of the New World, the great forests and rivers of America, the wilderness and the wild creatures ... now fragmented and broken or bound tight by concrete, poisoned everywhere by unnamable pollutions."

Doug Peacock found it in the courage it took to lower his pistol in the face of a creature above him in the food chain, choosing life over another round of the act of killing, the power and the mystery over control and domination.

I think of the grizzly bear. Something passed between the bear and Peacock, and the bear turned away with a noted grace and dignity as powerful and mysterious as Peacock's own in lowering the piston and determining that his killing days were over. Peacock's courage in forsaking destruction is the courage of hope. The bear, it must be remembered, was an active participant. It is neither unreasonable nor difficult to imagine that the bear was both conscious of that which had passed between them as well as changed by the passing. What was exchanged between the man and the bear is encompassed by the living meaning of the word "hope," and the bear did not turn away from Peacock without knowing both the power and the mystery.

Hope is a risk. One mountaineer's best quote is, "Hope is a vain word in the mountains," meaning that the mountaineer's life is so suffused with risk that adding hope's uncertainties would tip the balance into disaster. Probably so, but those who would be free must run the risk of hope as surely as there is great security and no risk and no freedom in despair, for there is no place to go from there. The risk in hoping is that not every hope can be fulfilled. To know the excitement of hope requires a leap into the courage of awareness that if you lower your gun the bear might eat you.

Or not.

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