When I see the name Peter Matthiessen the first thing I think of is a recording of his voice on my telephone ten years ago. I knew he would be passing nearby and had invited him to see what we were doing in Patagonia. His message was a very warm decline of the invitation.
In addition to triggering that memory, M.R. O’Connor’s essay below reminds me that my family’s subscription to the New Yorker began in 1978, possibly with the late March issue in which Peter Matthiessen’s article about the snow leopard appeared. I can trace my interest in conservation back to that, and perhaps this accounts for why that magazine has been arriving weekly for me in the mail ever since. In the meantime this interest has exposed me to books like the one to the right. Which is as good a reason as anyway to make this link the 2018 coda (for me) on this platform:
In the autumn of 1973, the naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen and the zoologist George Schaller set out on a gruelling trek into the Himalayas. They were headed toward the Dolpo region of the Tibetan plateau. Schaller wanted to study Himalayan blue sheep; Matthiessen hoped to see a snow leopard—a large, majestic cat with fur the color of smoke. Snow leopards, which belong to the genus Panthera, inhabit some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, and their camouflage is so perfectly tuned that they appear ethereal, as though made from storm clouds. Two of them feature on the Tibetan flag of independence, representing harmony between the temporal and spiritual planes.
For Matthiessen, a serious student of Zen Buddhism, the expedition wasn’t strictly scientific. It was also a pilgrimage during which he would seek to break “the burdensome armor of the ego,” perceiving his “true nature.” After it was published, in 1978—first, in part, in The New Yorker, then as a book—“The Snow Leopard,” his account of the trip, won two National Book Awards, becoming both a naturalist and a spiritual classic. It overflows with crystalline descriptions of animals and mountains: “The golden birds fall from the morning sun like blowing sparks that drop away and are extinguished in the dark,” Matthiessen writes. But it’s also an austere Buddhist memoir in which the snow leopard is as alluring and mysterious as enlightenment itself. Continue reading