When Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month, we lost not only a great writer but one of our most eloquent and passionate advocates for the natural world.
An author of books both fiction and non, and the only writer to win the National Book Award for both, Matthiessen held fiction in higher regard, although his fact-based works greatly outnumbered his novels. In a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, a publication he cofounded, he compared nonfiction writing to “fashioning a cabinet.”
“It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture,” he said. “Captive to facts—or predetermined forms—it cannot fly.”
I humbly disagree. Consider a moment from 1978’s The Snow Leopard, in which Matthiessen pauses early in his ascent of the Tibetan Plateau. “In the clean air and absence of all sound, of even the simplest machinery,” he writes, “in the warmth and harmony and seeming plenty, come whispers of a paradisal age.” That’s an observation that makes the spirit and imagination soar.
In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen accompanies field biologist George Schaller into the Himalayas to track rutting bharal, or blue sheep, in hopes of observing the rare, titular, great cat. But for Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism whose second wife died of cancer soon before the trip, the journey is spiritual as well as physical:
Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.”
His travels and his works, both literary and nonfiction, spanned the globe and are informed by a deep affection for and awe of nature and its wild inhabitants. In 1971’s Blue Meridian, in which Matthiessen details efforts to film the great white shark, he writes of listening to the calls of whales, “No word conveys the eeriness of whale song, tuned by the ages to a purity beyond refining, a sound that man should hear each morning to remind him of the morning of the world.”
Matthiessen also understood the shifting cultural and societal views of nature and wildlife. In his 2000 book Tigers in the Snow, Matthiessen describes endeavors to save the Siberian tiger, a magnificent animal and key predator whose numbers have been decimated by poaching and encroaching civilization. The native Tungus of eastern Russia considered the tiger a near-deity and referred to it as “Grandfather” and “Old Man.” The indigenous Udege and Nanai tribes called it “Amba,” or god of the forest; Matthiessen notes that “it was only the white strangers—the Russians—who translated that word as ‘devil.’” (Russia, Matthiessen adds, is “a country of resolute folly like our own.”)
Although Buddhism views anger as an obstacle to enlightenment, Matthiessen was capable of writing with righteous rage. In his final nonfiction book, 2003’s End of the Earth, which chronicles his voyages to Antarctica, Matthiessen discusses the terrifying, man-made impacts of climate change and rants against a “U.S. administration unabashedly indifferent to the environment, social justice, and the welfare of future generations.” He chides policymakers who have “confused the economy with corporate profit” and lambastes our “obsolete oil addiction.”
But he also brings his frustrations into focus with Zen-like clarity:
It seems unfortunate that an essay on Antarctica and its geologic history, its wildlife, environment, and climate, should have to deal with such seemingly unrelated matters as environmental deregulation and geopolitics, atmospheric pollution, and responsible leadership or its fatal lack. But increasingly on our diminished planet all challenges and problems are interwoven and finally inseparable. One cannot fully resolve one in isolation from the others, and none can be separated any longer from the welfare and future of our fragile habitat.”
We may have lost Peter Matthiessen the man, but we have not lost—and still, I hope, have time to gain from—his perspective, his observations, his love for life and for the planet we inhabit.
“Life begins before a soul is born and commences once again with the act of dying,” he writes in The Tree Where Man was Born (1972), “and as in the Afro-Asian symbol of the snake of eternity swallowing its tail, all is in flux, all comes full circle, with no beginning and no end.”