A life in love with nature – the ‘Issaquah Thoreau’

Reports of the occasional bear or cougar in our neighborhoods stir memories of the local wildlife in Irving Petite’s engaging books, written on his ranch up Tiger Mountain Road, where he lived pretty much off the land for over 40 years.

By Joan Newman

Reports of the occasional bear or cougar in our neighborhoods stir memories of the local wildlife in Irving Petite’s engaging books, written on his ranch up Tiger Mountain Road, where he lived pretty much off the land for over 40 years.

He and a partner bought 165 acres of logged-over land there in 1941, and built the ranch and a family of wild, semi-wild and domestic animals who often shared Petite’s cabin and enriched his love of the natural world.

No pink doggie bows or studded collars for companions of the man who emerges in his books and in his family’s recollections.

He delighted in animals’ personalities and respected their independence. His cabin became their haven and his ranch yard their park.

In his best known book, “Mister B” (Readers’ Digest Association, 1960), he tells of hearing the loud “bear music” of cubs suckling and vocalizing in a shallow den under a log.

One day, he heard the screams and screeches of a cub who had been rejected or abandoned. When Petite found the source of the noise, the little black bear grabbed his arm, climbed up his body and nuzzled his neck as if suckling.

Petite took the cub home and raised him like his own, always fascinated by the cub’s insatiable curiosity and vocal repertoire.

As the cub grew, the most difficult part for Petite was Mister B’s craving for affection. When Petite milked his cow, the cub climbed his back and “mumbled” into his neck.

When he got too heavy, Petite would shrug him off and give up his left foot to be gnawed on instead.

Petite’s niece, Sue Morris, now of Seattle, remembers being chased by the young bear, who wanted to play, though she didn’t.

Morris also remembers a day when the young bear “got mad” and trashed the cabin.

“He opened the refrigerator and rummaged around and then he found flour and threw it around all over the kitchen,” she recalled. “He wanted HIS food – the fruits and vegetables and sorghum that Uncle Irving fed him.”

When Petite returned, he looked around tolerantly and said, “Oh, I’d better get his food together for him.”

In “The Elderberry Tree” (Doubleday, 1964), Petite wrote of a pack rat which moved into his cabin.

At night, she noisily dragged and dropped trophies she had brought inside, carrying them in and out of her hiding places over his bed.

Her treasures included an unbroken Japanese tea set, sardine cans and a cracked sunshade, as well as sticks and branches. Some mornings, if he was out of dry kindling to start the fire, Petite stood on a chair and raided her stash of twigs.

Of course, Petite had plenty of room on his ranch and in his heart for not-so-wild life, too.

In “Life on Tiger Mountain” (Doubleday, 1966), he tells of a sow he called “Ungodly” moving in. If the cabin door was open, she went in. If it wasn’t, she forced it. Petite would then oblige her by scratching under her chin.

Petite was known locally for his goats, said his nephew Mike Petite, who lived there as a child and who now lives with his children on what was part of the original property.

“He must have had 50 goats in the barn,” said Mike. He also remembered a goat which was raised in the cabin.

Petite milked many of the goats in the cabin during winter weather.

When a neighbor went into the service in WWII, he left his goats with Petite, who combined the herds.

Sue Morris remembered Petite letting them forage up Tiger Mountain and calling them back home in the evening.

“He would just call them and they would all come!” she said.

Petite enjoyed times with his nephews and nieces. They would go up to what they called “Big Falls” on their creek.

They went to a bench behind the falls, or slid down rocks below into a pool to swim. Mister B sometimes joined them there.

Morris remembers taking naps in the cabin with “Man,” an orphaned deer raised by Petite.

She would wake to see “those big, brown eyes peering” at her. The deer was “just like a dog,” she said. “He panted like a dog and even chased cars.”

Petite grew a big garden, picked wild blackberries, canned cherries and peaches and made jam every year.

When his ranch income was not enough, he made and sold fence posts, hop poles and shakes from downed lumber and snags left behind on his land.

He substituted as a mail carrier on Issaquah Rural Route 2 and free-lanced for the Seattle Times.

He wrote articles on composting and recycling, among other topics, as well as four books about life on his mountain, and another about a boat trip to Alaska.

He filled his books with stories of possums, coyotes, birds and the lessons of nature learned from the land in every season. He was sometimes called a local Thoreau — after the famous American writer Henry David Thoreau — a title Morris said he would have enjoyed.

In 1984 Petite moved further away from population growth and development to the Colville Indian Reservation, where he lived for 20 more years. Mister B had been killed by hunters early on and Man, the deer, with a full head of antlers, had been driven in the back of Petite’s car to the Woodland Park Zoo.

A great niece, Sara Petite of San Diego, is a singer-songwriter whose debut CD “Tiger Mountain” contains three songs written for her Tiger Mountain grandmother, Jacqueline Petite, Irving’s sister-in-law.

A ballad “Uncle Irving” seems to express the affection and sometimes amusement his family felt for Petite’s way of life.

The refrain goes: “I know you don’t believe me/But Uncle Irving said,/“That chicken house is freezing cold!/Now there’s chickens in the bed.”

The Issaquah History Museums has several copies of Irving Petite’s books, now out of print, in the archives at the Gilman Town Hall.

Some copies are available through various online sources and in King County libraries.

Petite died in his sleep Nov. 27 in Keller, a town on the Colville Indian Reservation in Ferry County. He was 84.

Joan Newman is a docent at the Issaquah History Museums