On the Wild Edge In Search of a Natural Life

David Petersen; Introduction by John Nichols

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272 Pages



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Twenty-five years ago David Petersen and his wife, Caroline, pulled up stakes, trading Laguna Beach, California, for a snug hand built cabin in the wilderness. Today he knows that mountain land as intimately as anyone has ever known his family, his lover, or his own true self. He has become so attuned to his environment, as this memoir reveals, that when a dead twig snaps, he knows what stepped on it, how much it weighted, and what its intentions were.

Here, Petersen distills a quarter century of living "off the map" into a record of four high-country seasons, tracking the rigors of survival from the snowmelt that announces the arrival of spring to the decline and death of autumn and winter that will establish the fertile ground needed for next year's rebirth. The reciprocity of nature is everywhere apparent in this artful, intelligent, and engaging book: the same impulse that governs the flight of elk or bear also governs the predator's (including our species') impulse of pursuit.

In the past we listened to Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold; in Petersen we have a worthy heir. His observations are lyrical, scientific, and from the heart. His work thus reinforces Thoreau's dictum: "In wildness is the preservation of the earth." In prose rich with mystery and soul, his words are a plea for the survival of the remnant wilderness


Praise for On the Wild Edge

"When I was a kid, my favorite book was My Side of the Mountain . . . If that kid had grown up and moved to Colorado, he might be David Peterson . . . His message is illuminating and vital."—Mountain Gazette

"David Petersen took a different fork on the journey of life. Grab your boots and come along, it's not too late. With the heart of a mountain man, a learned eye for what really counts and a pen as precise as a high-country lightning strike, he is our guide back to our ancestral home, to the woods and the wild—to a place in the Rockies where there is nothing to buy and no shiny trinkets to distracts us."—John Blazar, author of Yukon Alone

"David Petersen—curmudgeon, woodsman, hunter, lover, ardent conservationist, hermit, hedonist, self-deprecating stylist—has written a natural history of the good life, lived large, and ethically, on pennies a day. The man can make you laugh, but there's a certain rage here as well, mostly muffled by an engaging modesty. Petersen never shakes his finger in our faces, but we still come away from these words reassessing our own lives and attitudes toward the wilderness."—Tim Cahill, author of Road Fever and Hold the Enlightenment

"Many of us would like to live a life of greater intention and simplicity, but few can and even fewer do. David Petersen is one of those rare human beings among us who lives a wild life with a cultured mind. In this very personal book, we are given a glimpse into the heart and soul of a man who survives the seasons through deliberate choices. He hunts as a matter of sustenance and respect, making peace with the elk who live near him. He writes as a matter of conscience and clarity, creating a body of work essential to the literature of the American West. He has created a map all of us can follow."—Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Open Space of Democracy

"The cabin that nature-writer Petersen built in the hills above Durango, Colorado, measures 596 square feet—tiny by expansionist American standards, but still four times larger than the famed cabin, the granddaddy of them all, that flanks Walden Pond. Their VW bus stuffed with LPs and back-to-the-land treatises, Petersen and his bride found their way to the place in the early '80s, having fled crowded southern California and xenophobic Montana. Colorado was different: it was open to newcomers, and perhaps too open, for Petersen's song of praise for the semiwilderness, 'edge' life closes with a bitter lament about the overcrowding that has come about precisely because so many other baby boomers have decided that edge life is for them, too. Whatever the case, on the flank of Missionary Ridge the migrants of a quarter-century past found 'the serenity, purity, and unpredictability of real mountains.' They also found a low-impact way of life that has sustained them for all that time: on the plus side, the blessed be-here-now freedom of not having jobs, car payments, children, and other quotidian concerns of the acquisitive American greedhead set; on the minus side, not having any money, a matter that comes to a head when Caroline is diagnosed with malignant cancer, 'the karmic dues of industrial culture.' That crisis forces Petersen to question whether his 'elective semipoverty and arrogant independence' is not a species of self-indulgence that runs the risk of condemning his wife to death—a righteous concern, given the healthcare system's disdain for the poor, even those who, like Petersen, hunt for their supper, keep a low profile, and don't ask anything of the state except the right to be left alone . . . [This book has] enough good writing to please those who cherish their own sojourns on the edge."—Kirkus Reviews

"Although he might bristle at such a comparison, like Thoreau, Petersen is a man who chooses to 'live deliberately.' For him, this means a nearly self-sustaining existence high in the Colorado Rockies. He built his own home, hunts for his own food, walks gently through the forest, leaves little trace of himself upon the land. Taking the reader through one year of his life, Petersen squeezes the essence out of each season in a dialogue that embraces both the metaphorical and practical aspects of living in the midst of nature's rapidly diminishing bounty. One comes to learn as much about the life cycles of the elk and bear that were the mountains' earliest and, he hopes, eternal residents as about Petersen himself. Nestled within his compelling and frequently humorous recollections of near-death exploits and mundane daily rituals, Petersen eloquently communicates his deeply held environmental ethos. Honest, outspoken, and unabashedly conscientious, Petersen is a passionate advocate for the responsible stewardship of the land and its inhabitants."—Booklist

"Readers are educated about the fascinating aspects of the flora and fauna [Petersen] observes on his daily hikes and topics as diverse as ethical hunting, animal intelligence, and animism . . . Petersen writes with humor and a well-honed craft that will delight fans of Edward Abbey. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



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  • David Petersen; Introduction by John Nichols

  • David Petersen and his wife live on a mountain near Durango, Colorado. Prior to leaving behind a conventional life, Petersen was a pilot in the U.S. Marines, the managing editor of a national motorcycle magazine, a two-time college graduate, a mailman, a beach bum, and the western editor of Mother Earth News.