A literary heir to Edward Abbey, but with a sharp hunting knife and a deadly accurate long bow, Petersen’s evolution from six years in the U.S. Marine Corps to traditional big game hunter is chronicled in the beautiful but sometimes painful documentary film, “On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life.”
The film leaves out Petersen’s work as editor for Mother Earth News and his many books including Ghost Grizzlies, The Nearby Faraway and Man Made of Elk. His advocacy for Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is also omitted. Instead, Christopher Daley, the film’s cinematographer, sound recorder and editor, focuses on Petersen’s version of ethical hunting during archery season in early fall.
The movie viewer is there among the aspen leaves as Petersen quietly stalks elk at ponds he knows. Often in a whisper, he turns to the camera with soliloquies about life, death and the meaning of hunting, which homo sapiens have been doing for the last 3 million years.
For Petersen, fall is a singular season. He revels in the monthlong bow hunt, with time for wood cutting and hunts with companions versed in calling bull elk.
As an elk hunter myself, I am in awe of Petersen’s skills at tracking, finding and harvesting elk at a mere 20 paces, which is the effective range of his long bow. This is the hardest way to “make meat.” It requires infinite patience, skill, perseverance and innate knowledge of when to walk away and wait for another day so as not to frighten prey. The film is as slow and deliberate as Petersen himself, with a superb natural soundtrack and bright autumn vistas. This documentary is a cinematic parallel to Jose Ortega y Gasset’s classic book Meditations on Hunting. If Henry David Thoreau had left Walden Pond, moved West, learned to hunt and built a cabin among the aspens, his story would be similar to Petersen’s.
David and Carolyn bought their land, tossed mice out of a well-used travel trailer and, subsisting on rice, beans and tortillas, started to build their house with firewood as their only heat.
Self-reliant and close to nature, they were drawn to elk not just as source of fresh, organic meat, but also for the physical and mental challenge of the hunt. Antlers on the wall are a mnemonic device for telling stories. Hunting is about fair chase, ethics and a clean kill without wounding an animal. Petersen rails against the use of ATVs, night vision goggles and trophy hunters who could care less about harvesting meat and instead only seek the status of a big elk rack. Petersen hunts for elk of either sex. Like Native hunters over millennia, he takes the animal that offers itself to him.
Deeply respectful of wild game, Petersen jokes that some people have skeletons in their closets, but he has his in the forest. Over the years, he knows each spot where he has harvested an elk and he can recall that particular hunt in vivid detail. He is honest about his mixed emotions when he kills a beautiful animal, and the film resonates with his self-reflections spoken into the camera. Though he is a skilled and eloquent hunter, there is no braggadocio in the film. Just forthright statements about reading elk scat, learning signs left by wild game and the deeply felt pleasure of being alive and listening at dawn and at dusk, ending a day as it began by walking a mountain trail in darkness.
Petersen speaks meaningfully of life and death and our human need for nature. A powerful theme in the documentary is his devotion to his wife, and the film has a profound and deeply touching conclusion.
For those who hunt and for those who do not, this is a film worth watching. Part autobiography, part scenery, this is a visual testament to an honest engagement in life and to those meditative moments in the high country we often seek but rarely work hard enough to find.
Andrew Gulliford is a history and environmental studies professor at Fort Lewis College.