Sheepherder Stew for Abbey

An excerpt from conservationist Doug Peacock’s new book, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home

click to enlarge The team takes a break on the Bikin River, Russian Far East, 1992. Left to right: Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Jib Ellison, Tom Brokaw and Doug Peacock. - PHOTO BY RICK RIDGEWAY
Photo by Rick Ridgeway
The team takes a break on the Bikin River, Russian Far East, 1992. Left to right: Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Jib Ellison, Tom Brokaw and Doug Peacock.

On March 14, 1989, desert anarchist and writer Edward Abbey died. I attended his death, administering medicine, injections, and other hopeless remedies that last night. Two days later, three friends and I buried him in a desert grave.

Ed’s passing was a significant landmark in my life, a winter count. Abbey’s death was no surprise, as the doctors had misdiagnosed his portal hypertension as cancer of the head, of the pancreas. Ed was repeatedly told he had only a year or less to live over a five-year period. He bore this misinformation with great dignity.

Since Abbey had some time to think about it, he scribbled down some notes about his death and burial. This is what we had to work with:

Funeral Instructions

Ceremony? Gunfire and a little music please, maybe a few readings from Thoreau, Whitman, Twain, Jeffers, and/or Abbey, etc.; that should be sufficient. No speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.

A wake! More music, lots of gay and lively music—bagpipes! Drums and flutes! Jigs, reels, country swing, and polkas. I want dancing! And a flood of beer and booze! A bonfire! And lots of food—meat! Jerky and sheepherder stew. Gifts for all my friends and all who come—books, record albums, curios, and keepsakes. No formal mourning, please—lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking instead. Some gunfire! Doug and his guns.

It wasn’t an easy task to bury Ed; it took a couple of days to find the precise wilderness gravesite and there was plenty of squabbling among the team along the way. Three close friends shared the duties with me: Ed’s father-in-law, Clarke’s brother-in-law and my friend Jack Loeffler. Not all of us were comfortable with this forbidden labor; this was illegal transport of an unembalmed body, without permits, and internment in prohibited soil. Steve, Clarke’s brother-in-law, became my instant friend and guided me through my own hard landing following our planting old Ed in his final home—a mixture of grief, flashbacks, and fatigue.

I was exhausted when I got back to Tucson. Clarke (Ed’s wife) had scheduled a wake for Ed in just three days. My job would be cooking the sheepherder stew and smoking the jerky—plenty
of work.

The event would be a public wake for his friends and fans. I owed this to Abbey’s family and followers. It was my notion of service. Food had to be prepared. I needed to get my hands on some meat. What came to mind was a cow.

An obscene picture had recently been published of 16 severed mountain lion heads stacked in a pyramid against a tree. Government animal control agents had slaughtered them at the request of a single cattle rancher on US Forest Service land, so I had a steer from that particular ranch in mind—a very minor gesture of payback.

I had always been aware that I needed physical risk in my life. I didn’t know why—it was something I’d never analyzed. Maybe I required just a little danger—a little hazard fix—to imagine myself a tiny bit brave and competent. Sometimes it helped if the risk was slightly illegal, like a modern-day equivalent of a Crow stealing a Cheyenne pony. I had a vague notion that these acts reaffirmed me among my people, men and women who kept the faith alive by taking care of one another and fighting to protect the wild homeland—Abbey’s people.

Now with Ed in his grave, the hour had arrived for me to seriously reconsider my unsolicited part-time career as an environmental outlaw. After all, I had children of my own, a family to support. Even the most righteous monkey wrenching constituted illegal acts that could land me in the slammer. I not only knew right from wrong; I knew what was legal and what was not. But I still had Ed-related duties: one foray with the gang remained.

It now happened that these circumstances—Ed’s death, the mountain lion heads, the need to execute a little illegal act in reaffirmation of Abbey’s honor, and getting the meat essential for Ed’s wake—came into alignment.

After atrocities as immoral as body counts, the corrupt yet legal act of killing large numbers of Arizona’s mountain lions and black bears on a single ranch running cattle on leases that were 98 percent on public land was unacceptable in my world.

My plan was to go out to the lion- and bear-killer’s lease on the national forest and poach one of his slow elk for Ed’s wake. (Native Americans, especially the bison-hunting Plains Nations, called White Man’s cattle “slow elk.”) These Natives noted that the “spotted buffalo,” or range cow—in comparison with a wild animal—was markedly dim-witted and slow of foot. I had discussed lion payback with Abbey months before his death. Ed approved of the general plan. Of course, I didn’t anticipate Abbey being dead before the payback. Now, justice would be another spice for the stew.

Abbey deserved an honoring. The least I could do would be to execute his “Funeral Instructions” with a flourish.

Poaching slow elk is, simply put, cattle rustling, punishable everywhere in these parts and throughout the West by imprisonment, hanging, or something in-between.

The next morning, I went hunting with two pals. We pored over topographic, land-ownership, and national forest maps. Our approach to the grazing lease would be from the wilderness.

The pickup truck ground up steep primitive roads and then tracks. When the tracks petered out altogether we left the truck, but before we left it, I replaced the license plates with ones registered to Ed, who had no more need of them.

Dressed in camouflage, carrying binoculars and .22 rifles, and wearing sidearms, we picked our way through the agave and prickly pear. My two companions were known and dedicated Earth First! activists. One of them was an accomplished woodsman capable of talking to ravens and calling in mountain lions by clacking together two sets of deer antlers. The country seemed overgrazed. This cattle-grazing lease was, in fact, a perfect illustration of everything gone wrong with public land in the West—national forest land—where unbelievable numbers of coyotes, eagles, the last recorded Arizona wolf, skunks, badgers, coatimundis, ringtail cats, bobcats, mountain lions, and black bears have died unspeakable deaths in the jaws of the rancher’s steel traps and by poison at the hands of the tax-payer-supported Animal Damage Control agents of the federal Department of Agriculture. This trapping was legal and intended to protect the rancher’s cattle; our hunt was quite illegal and intended to harm the rancher’s cattle.

At dusk we startled an ocelot, a very rare cat this far north. We made a cold camp and turned in. During the night, curious and bold ringtails checked us out.

The next morning, we heard, spotted, and began stalking wild range cattle, man-shy animals that ran off. After two hours, we finally crept up on a thousand-pound cow and shot it cleanly between the eyes. This was a slow-elk hunt, and humane execution was mandatory. Ed Abbey had specified: “no gut shooting.”

In this rugged wild country, the beast was too big to move. We peeled the hide back with our knives on the spot and went to work. We cut out a hundred pounds of tenderloin and sirloin with our skinning knives, leaving nine hundred pounds for the bears, skunks, coatis, cats, coyotes, and ravens. The meat we took would go into beef jerky and sheepherder stew for Abbey’s
wake.

Excerpted from Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home © 2022 by Doug Peacock. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.

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