Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen

In September of 1972, this work was serialized in The New Yorker magazine over three issues. Only a few years before, I had discovered what some have described as the best magazine in America. The story of the peoples and the vast herds of animals in the Serengeti fascinated me and cemented forever my love of TNY. Many memories of the images from this sprawling narrative persist 35 years later.

This volume is quite a bit longer than the original article. The early chapters describe Matthiessen’s journey to the interior, along with the patchwork groups of peoples spread over millions of square miles around Lake Victoria, the Rift Valley (of Louis, Mary, and Richard Leakey fame). The author includes long sections stretching back to the origins of colonial East Africa and forward into some of the chaos and lawlessness of the end of the colonial period. His narrative captures the rhythm and flow of life on this exotic continent.

The braided histories of many tribes, clans, customs, beliefs, lifestyles, and feuds among neighbors, can be a bit confusing, but the prose is so lyrical and vivid, I never really minded the extra effort to stay with Matthiessen as he bounced over rugged, arid landscapes in his beat up Land Rover. I wanted to own a Land Rover after reading this absorbing story. Take this example from chapter two:

“Our camp was in the mountain forest, a true forest of great holy trees – the African olive, with its silver gray-green shimmering leaves and hoary twisted trunk – of wild flowers and shafts of light, cool shadows and deep humus smells, moss, ferns, glades, and the ring of unseen birds from the green clerestories. Lying back against one tree, staring up into another, I could watch the olive pigeon and the olive thrush share the black fruit for which neither bird is named; to a forest stream nearby came the paradise fly-catcher, perhaps the most striking of all birds in East Africa. Few forests are so beautiful, so silent, and here the silence is intensified by the apprehended presence of wild beasts – buffalo and elephant, rhino, lion, leopard. Because these creatures are so scarce and shy, the forest paths can be walked in peace; the only fierce animal I saw was a small squirrel pinned to a dead log by a shaft of sun, feet wide, defiant, twitching its tail in time to thin pure squeaking.” (79-80)

Wow. Prose like that rarely appears these days. Even at 400 pages, Matthiessen’s story flows quickly, but languidly through the forest. The best parts, however, involve his descriptions of the Maasai of East Africa, which most interested me then and now.

Admittedly, Matthiessen’s prose requires gaining a level of comfort. Many of the long, rambling sentences could benefit from a few more judiciously placed commas! But in the end, the journey is well worth the effort. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/7/09

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