The Nitt Peckerwood Papers

By Daniel Johns, Ph. D.

Reviewed by George Sibley

"With all the scientific marvels of modern technology filling up the pages of Monkey Wards these days, and the way they've got the airplane down to where there's hardly a time all day without one of those trails across the sky, and how now they've even come up with this atom bomb which the ­papers say 'probes to the very heart of nature' - in spite of all that, I still haven't met the scientific feller yet who can tell me how it is a gray jay can finish off the last of one of Ma's pancakes and still be able to fly when I can't hardly lift myself up from the table ....“                                           -From the Nitt Peckerwood Papers

   Through a fortunate accident and the presence of a dedicated Western historian with a predilection for curious research, the writings of a heretofore unknown - and unsuspected - ­homespun philosopher and amateur ecologist have been brought to light and are presently being prepared for publication. According to Western Slope historian and teacher Daniel Johns, now editing the material he discovered, the publication of
The Nitt Peckerwood Papers should be an event in the history of conservationist literature to compare with the advent of such works as Sand County Almanac, Desert Solitaire, and the Sierra Club picture books with quotes from Thoreau.

Nitt Peckerwood - whose real name was Horatio Allegro Peckerwood - ­was, in his own words, a "converted miner" who was born on a-homestead in Nebraska in 1863 but spent most of his life in the high mountains of Western Colorado, where he died in November, 1956, at the age of 93.

From 1889 until the year of his death, Nitt Peckerwood lived almost contin­uously on a ten-acre patented mining claim in a rocky paradise high in a pleasant aspen valley near Crested Butte, Colorado. For the first few years there he lived alone in a small drafty tarpaper shack; but when he met the girl in Crested Butte whose name he was to change to Clementine Peckerwood, he began construction of the sturdy log cabin that still stands on the property. He took his young bride there in 1895; their one and only child, a son named Hearken William, was born in 1897. Only in their later years, when Nitt was in his early eighties and Clementine in her late sixties, did they begin spending the rigorous winters in town, in an old house Nitt picked up cheap when the Crested Butte coal mines closed.

Exactly how Nitt Peckerwood made his living no one really knew for sure, except to know that he never seemed to work at it really hard. There was undoubtedly some gold on Pecker­wood's claim, although he was always very closemouthed and deprecating about the richness of the vein. He also had a still in the shack he'd first lived in, and a reputation for dis­tilling the best applejack, peach brandy and plain potato hooch to be found on the West Slope, although testimony indicates he gave away about as much of that as he sold. The Postmaster provided the most revealing information; he had noted over the years that Nitt Peckerwood received regular communications from a brokerage firm in Denver, and in his later years, from a noted flourishing mutual fund. It seems likely that Peckerwood found a modest but sufficient treasure of gold on his claim, which instead of blowing on booze and women in the customary style, he cagily invested in the rock-bottom market of the 1890s.

But gold was not the only treasure that Nitt Peckerwood found on his land high in that beautiful valley of the Elk Mountains. Around the turn of the century he began a journal of observations and thoughts which, expressed in the plain, no-nonsense style of his early Nebraska schooling, gives us one of our most affecting records of a man's deep affinity for the natural world around him. Through the years we see the evolution of a beautiful natural style, from the early sparse and disjointed "public school diary" style to the free-flowing, almost conversational, eloquence of his last years. For an example of the development of this style, we can this obligatory wood-cutting sequence from 1952:

" ... [A] feller was up with a notebook and pencil asking me about what I knew of the history of the town and all. It happened I was out working at the woodpile at the time ... See that pine log there, I says to him, and see this saw here? And I set that good sharp saw to the dry pine and set to making chips. It was a two foot trunk I was working on, a real sweatmaker of a log, but dry and fine and, like I say, a good sharp saw ... when I'd cut into her about three inches, with maybe ten to go to the middle, I stopped. Well, young feller, I said, there's where I come onto the picture, and you can see we ain't nowhere near the heart of the matter. Who you want to talk to ain't me, you want to talk to the trees ....”

And compare with this earlier wood-cutting entry (October, 1904):

"Chopped wood today. Half a cord.”

As is often enough the case where the intellect tried to manifest itself in frontier America, Nitt Peckerwood found scant encouragement for his literary endeavors among his family and friends. Old timers around Crested Butte recall asking Clementine Pecker­wood what Nitt might be up to, and her inevitable answer: "Up there scribbling away. All he does anymore, scribble, scribble, scribble; it's getting so's I can't even get him to cut wood or build the fire without him getting inspired with a thought right in the middle of doing it and running for his pencil, so's I end up having to finish everything he starts ... "

Peckerwood's son Hearken William (who stated a preference for being called "Just Bill"), now a successful insurance salesman in Chicago, showed little enthusiasm when told in a phone interview that his father's "scribblings" might be one of the literary finds of the century. "About time something came of all that," said the younger Peckerwood. "I remember when I was a kid, every time I'd ask Dad anything, or ask him to help me with my homework, or to take me out hunting, either he wouldn't even hear me, or he'd look up just long enough to growl, 'later kid, can't you see I'm busy writing?' And while he was sitting there writing all that stuff about the simple pleasures of doing things like chopping wood and fetching water, who do you think was doing the chopping and fetching? Hell, he never had the time, he was so busy writing about it. let me tell you, living with a homespun philosopher isn't all that great." Genius, as they say, is never honored at home.

So low, in fact, was the regard for Nitt Peckerwood's work among his family, it was almost lost forever to posterity: after his death in 1956, Clementine threw the whole collected works down the outhouse. She herself died two years later without telling a living soul what she had done. Only the fortuitous presence in the Crested Butte area of Professor Daniel Johns, with his curious method of historical research, saved the works of Nitt Peckerwood.

Johns, a member of the history department at Western State College, "researches" outhouses in his spare time. With a metal detector, a gas mask, a flashlight, elbow length rubber gloves, and for really rich finds, a wet suit, he ranges through the towns and ghost towns and tiny settlements of the Elk Mountains sifting through the accumulated contents of backhouses, both those abandoned and those still in (generally illegal) use, looking for objects and materials of historical interest.

He admits that, while the business is full of surprises, his outhouse research has a relatively low yield so far as historical content is concerned. "Most of the time I find about what you'd expect to find," he says. But he feels that the Nitt Peckerwood find totally justifies his methods.

He came across the old Peckerwood outhouse, abandoned since 1958, on a Saturday afternoon hike this past summer. "I had an inkling I was really onto something," said Johns, "when I saw right off where somebody had built an old schooldesk into the wall right in front of the hole on the left (Peckerwood was apparently left­handed). “My god,” I gasped. “A real outhouse philosopher!”

Johns was referring to the fact that, while one might imagine that such writer-philosophers as Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey*, and most of the staff of this magazine either did or still do most of their philosophical work in a well-located outhouse with the door ajar on some narrow frame of untouched natural splendor, the evidence tends to indicate that they all did most of the actual writing under more traditional circumstances, merely remembering the circumstances of their apparent inspiration - which leaves us with the sobering thought that a nostalgia factor needs to be read into their works.

But Nitt Peckerwood stands out in this distinguished assembly as a real purist: he actually appears to have done most of his writing where the others only did most of their thinking; today the literary buff who is capable of a modest hike can see for himself the tiny desk mounted on the wall where one would generally expect to see a paper-hanger or a cobholder. And it is probably a fortunate irony that Nitt Peckerwood's working habits were what they were, since the desk provided the clue that caused Daniel Johns to plumb the depths of the sixty-year-old outhouse where Clementine Pecker­wood had chucked the journals of her beloved but underappreciated husband.

As Johns describes it, the task of editing The Nitt Peckerwood Papers is largely a matter of "cleaning up" the work - and this not with a board of censors in mind. He admits that this task is not too bad, since the outhouse was only used for a couple of years after Mrs. Peckerwood's excrementitious act.

He did, however, admit to one editorial problem. In the course of doing a complete search in Nitt Peckerwood's outhouse, he had come upon isolated individual sheets of "scribblings" at lower, and therefore older, levels well beneath the place where he found the bulk of the material as discarded by Mrs. Peckerwood. Johns was not sure how to handle these “fragments,” as he called them, since the possibility existed that Peckerwood himself might have thrown them away – and even, as often appeared to be the case, put them to a most base and functional purpose first. But on the other hand, given the general respect accorded his work, they might have been used and discarded casually by either his wife or his son or a visiting friend "caught short" with nothing but slick pages in the catalogue. His present intention is to note the place of these "fragments" in the chronology of the journals, and then include them as an appendix to the complete works.

As to the "scribblings" themselves, I had neither the time - nor, frankly, the inclination given the still rather raw nature of the manuscript - to peruse the contents fully, but Johns did point out a few of the better passages he had come across so far, which should serve to whet the appetite of those lovers of "armchair nature" for more Nitt Peckerwood.

Like his contemporaries Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Nitt Peckerwood might have been at his best when he was only minimally indulging in heavy meditations on the human condition and sticking mainly to simple, direct observations on the natural world in all the subtle nuances that become manifest only to the dedicated watcher - as in the following, written i'n the fall of 1927:

"The aspen have all turned yellow now, which I take to be an indication of the approach of winter. There's a few exceptions, of course, as there always are - there's some aspens whose leaves haven't turned anything at all, mainly because they don't have any leaves, which I take to be an indication that they're dead ... "

Peckerwood had a finely-tuned sense of the cycle of "changeless change" that marked the passage of time. For him, time proceeded as the pendulum proceeds, an often but not always predictable cycle of change which had its continuity not as a consequential sequence of eventualities, but which took its continuity from the fact that in the course of its changing, the changing always passed through the same points of reference. As when he wrote in 1944:

"Sun come up again this morning, expect it'll probably set again tonight as usual. Seems as how a body could note that practically every night the sun sets, and the sun also rises nearly every morning, excepting when its (sic) more or less to (sic) cloudy to tell. A body could actually just about count on it, in fact, in fair weather ... "

But Peckerwood was also capable of a certain teleological impatience at this apparently perfect cyclic order:

"I could never figure out the whyfore of some things like the mosquito or the hippopotamas (sic). But then I figure creation must of looked around one day, like I'm starting to look around, and said, 'Isn't anything different ever going ,to happen around here?' and come up with the hippatopomas (sic) out of sheer boredom ... "

   He recognized, however, that it was this teleological impatience that set man in an unnatural relationship with the natural world:

“It don’t pay to try to hurry nature. That’s what a case of the piles is all about.”

   In an approach ever earthy but always sensible, and rooted in the reality of experience, Nitt Peckerwood had a gift for expressing  in a few words what more learned men can take volumes to explain. For example, while he probably never heard the word “ecology,” he had a fine grasp of what we would call today ecological precepts, as when he noted in 1931:

“If you don’t take care of your shit, your shit takes care of you.”

Although a miner and prospector part of his life, Peckerwood had little that was good to say about the industry:

"The way it looks to me, the only mining operation what's got a chance of staying clean is one man and one mule and no luck. .. "

In fact, in the best tradition of the American outhouse philosophers, Nitt Peckerwood had little apparent use for any of the works of man:

"I was talking to the movie picture feller in town yesterday, and he told me about how he was hoping to get a new wider screen for his movie house, and, showing me this book from the noon mail that tells about new gadgetry that makes it look like you're right there in the middle of the picture. But who needs it is what I ask. Take me now, I'm setting here looking out the propped' open door, which is only two and a half feet wide, but I find I don't need any wider of a screen than that, which shows me all there is worth seeing Cod's world the way He almighty meant it to be seen, not cluttered up with the junk and jimcrackery of mankind. And I don't have to pay for enjoying the picture either, unless I don't turn the place over to Ma pretty quick, who's been hollering for half an hour now if I'm planning on nagging the place all day ... "

And on occasion, Nitt Peckerwood surpassed all of the outhouse philosophers in that "hard and brutal ascetism" that under its veneer of literary nature worship borders so close on a good healthy misanthropy:

"The passing of old Pete Kervaterak reminds me that my time is probably getting close too, but I can face up to the idea pretty good any more. I got to where pushing up daisies looks a lot more constructive than tramping them down ... When I look around me here, and see how even I, who wouldn't  have done it on purpose for all the world, have messed up this little bit of God's former finery practically beyond redemption, I figure it must be true for all of us what we used to say about Indians: where the natural world's  concerned, the only good man's a dead man."

Those words, written eleven months before he died, a full decade before the rest of the country would begin to wake up to the dreadful impact of man on nature, sound today as the harbinger of the proud mood of self-disgust and collective guilt that is so energetically fostered in the environmental movement.

   Johns hopes to have the editing of The Nitt Peckerwood Papers completed in time for the pre-Christmas release of a deluxe coffee table edition next year.

* Per exemplum, Edward Abbey’s Black Sun: “...[T]amping down the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, he walks to the little outhouse down the slope, away from the cabin and the trail.... Entering the outhouse, leaving the door wide open, facing the white aspens and the darker trees beyond, he lowers his trousers and sits. Lights the pipe. This ceremony too he enjoys as much almost as any other. The order, the decorum, the satisfaction of completeness. All excretions, he recalls, are pleasurable....”