Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen ranks high on the favorite list of not only non-fiction readers, but writers as well.  My first encounter with Peter came in the form of a book I choose for the title: The Snow Leopard.  I have always loved the big cats, and snow leopards were early on my favorite.  Sadly, Matthiessen died on April 5, 2014.  In a strange coincidence, I heard an interview with Peter on the radio on Friday, April 5.  The host, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, mentioned he was suffering from Leukemia, and they aired an interview from a few years ago.

The publication of Peter Matthiessen's final novel In Paradise came only days after his death at the age of 86.  Matthiessen was a naturalist, as well as writer, a spy, and a Buddhist monk.  His fiction and nonfiction books were often inspired by his travels to remote corners of the globe. In addition to Snow Leopard, he wrote Men's Lives, and Far Tortuga, and The Tree Where Man was Born, an interesting study of the Masai tribes of East Africa.  Peter, along with George Plimpton and Harold L. Humes, founded the noted literary magazine, The Paris Review.  Zen Buddhism provided the central tenets of his life and greatly influenced his writing.

The Snow Leopard, which recalls Mattheissen’s 1973 trek to the Himalayas to see the elusive cat, opened a whole new world of nature writing and provided the seed for my interest in the philosophy of Buddhism. His prose is as gentle and relaxing as a Buddhist monk softly murmuring his prayers.  A good example is in the Prologue to Snow Leopard, he writes, “In late September of 1973, I set out with [the zoologist George Schaller] on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and north along the Kali Gandaki River, then west and north again, around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba, two hundred fifty miles or more to the land of the Dolpo, on the Tibetan Plateau.”  … I knew [George] first in 1969, in the Serengeti Plain of East Africa … When I saw him next, … in 1972,  he had started a survey of wild sheep and goats and their near relatives the goat-antelopes.  He wondered if I might like to join him the following year on an expedition to northwest Nepal, near the frontier of Tibet, to study the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep,” which were plentiful and protected by the Crystal Monastery. … where bharal were numerous, there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard” (3). 

This introduction filled me with wonder and curiosity.  Before the days of computers, I created a list of animals, and names of places, mountains and rivers.  I spent an afternoon in the local library pouring over books, to try and capture a glimpse of what Peter saw on this “mythic journey.”

Along with his vivid descriptions, he genously sprinkles philosophical musings.  In true Buddhist form, the journey has far more importance that the destination.  He wrote about his “own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of ‘free life,’ traveling light, without clining to or despising, in calm acceptance of everything that comes, free because without defenses, free not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense if the Tibetan Buddhist’s ‘crazy wisdom,’ of Camus’s ‘leap into the absurd’ that occurs within a life of limitations” (112).

Over the years, I have heard many a writer praise the non-fiction of Peter Matthiessen.  Many of them aspire to writing something which approaches his powers of description.  Ironically, Mattheissen preferred writing fiction, and only, -- as he said in an interview on Fresh Air—wrote non-fiction to pay the bills.”  For lovers of animals, nature, adventure, and philosophical musings, The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen will provide many enjoyable hours in a comfortable chair.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/9/14

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