peter matthiessen 1927-2014
(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)
On the title page of the book on my shelf are written the words “Patrick Dean, January 1984.” The book is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and at the time I was twenty-four years old.
In the mid-80s I was fortunate enough to work at Lemuria Bookstore In Jackson, Mississippi. (I think two of the best jobs for twenty-somethings are waiting tables — which I also did — and working in a bookstore.) There I was guided by John Evans and Tom Gerald toward the best writers of both fiction and nonfiction, and there I began my interest in literature about the natural world and humans’ place in it.
If you consult any list of the best outdoor writing of the last century, Peter Matthiessen’s name is likely to be there, and The Snow Leopard is most likely to be the specific work mentioned. This masterpiece of natural history, travel, and what can be called ‘the inner journey’ follows the author and a famous wildlife biologist, George Schaller, across the Himalaya in search of “that rarest and most beautiful of cats, the snow leopard.” The Snow Leopard was the beginning of my interest in the Himalaya, mountaineering, and the history of Tibet.
I acquired several other of Matthiessen’s books while working at Lemuria, including Sand Rivers and The Tree Where Man Was Born, both about East Africa and both collaborations with photographers. I longed to go on safari as I read Matthiessen’s fascinatingly thorough accounts of African landscapes, their iconic animals, and the issues involved in human coexistence with both.
Another Matthiessen work is memorable to me because it angered me so greatly. His 1983 account, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, laid out in exhaustive, infuriating detail the history of the mistreatment of the Oglala Lakota people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by the U.S. Government in the 1970s. It left me disgusted with this shadow over the story of our nation.
Peter Matthiessen also wrote novels; his fiction trilogy on the frontier years of South Florida, including Killing Mister Watson, won the National Book Award in 2008, making him the only author ever to win the award for both fiction and nonfiction. He thought of himself, in fact, as a novelist who also wrote nonfiction, which perhaps is why his work has such intellectual and emotional power.
His writing was instrumental in helping me acquire a sense of the responsibility that the human race has not to ruin the world for its magnificent nonhuman life. There is sadness in his meticulously detailed accounts of habitat loss and senseless slaugher, as there is joy and wonder in his descriptions of plants, animals, places, in all their beauty and variety.
Peter Matthiessen died on April 5th at the age of 86. As people tend to do when someone dies, I have pulled his books out and thought about rereading them. I’m also thinking about giving his novels a try.
Mostly, I am grateful to have encountered his work and to have seen the world through his eyes.