In 1972 the naturalist writer and novelist Peter Matthiessen joined an expedition to go deep into the Nepalese Himalayas with biologist George Schaller to study the bharal, an ancestor of both sheep and goats, and to perhaps catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. Matthiessen’s book is in essence a diary of the arduous trek into the deep mountain wilderness beginning in late September and ending near the beginning of December. This is not an Into Thin Air account of a trek gone bad. Matthiessen and his group all survive, although conditions prove arduous, and the book contains no cliffhangers. Instead, it’s a description of the land, plants, animals, people, and culture of the region. If this was not enough—and it’s quite a lot—it’s also a reflection by Matthiessen on himself and his life. He undertakes this journey less than a year after the death of his wife from cancer, and he recounts their relationship in life and death.
Matthiessen’s writing in The Snow Leopard (1978, 294 p.) is spare, concise, and yet detailed. Through the journey we learn a great deal about Matthiessen’s present and past. Matthiessen spares neither his environment nor himself as he reports about both about his surroundings and his own thoughts. Mathiessen is a student and practitioner of Zen Buddhism and his prose style reflects this clear, clean aesthetic. This serves him and his readers well because he’s also going deep into the culture of Tibetan Buddhism, a culture steeped in detailed mythology and symbolism that contrasts markedly with the sparse Zen aesthetic. Despite this contrast, Matthiessen’s sympathy for Tibetan Buddhism and the surrounding culture remains palpable.
By the end of the journey and the book, the fact that Matthiessen observed only signs of the snow leopard’s presence and never any direct observation does not concern us (or him). We understand that this outcome is fitting. Matthiessen’s own journey and ours remain incomplete. We struggle with emotions, with failures, and with coming to grips with the now. We can think of Matthiessen’s book as a meditation: detailed, observant, honest—one that combines mindfulness and insight. Like the mountains that he describes, one leaves the book with a sense of awe at what Mathiessen has accomplished using only the humble tool of prose. Matthiessen won the National Book Award for Cotemporary Thought for this masterpiece in 1979 and for Nonfiction on 1980 with the publication of the paperback edition, and reading it now almost a quarter of a century later, it still merits it accolades.
Cross-blogged in Steve's View from Abroad.