Saturday, January 11, 2020

Some Thoughts on The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen


Peter Matthiessen writes with at a level above most travel writers, or most writers period. In his quest to find the rare and elusive Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, he takes us on the physical journey but also weaves in a second journey of the spiritual. Matthiessen was also a former CIA officer, naturalist, zen teacher, and co-founder of the Paris Review. His observations on time and spirit of place are enough to make the reader seriously contemplate conversion to the zen way. His developed zen sensibility makes for insightful observations of time written in almost a prose-poetry.

A critic once asked Beethoven to explain one of his pieces and Beethoven simply sat down and played the piece for him. Likewise, there are elements of Matthiessen that are better shown than explained. Here are a few favorites:

"Wind flows snow from the pristine points that glisten in the light and there are magic colors in the clouds that sail across the peaks on high blue journeys."

The spell of silence on this place is a warning no man belongs here."

"At dawn, the camp is visited by ravens. Then a cold sun rises to the rim of the white world, bringing a light wind."

"On river islands, winter ice has stilled the prayer wheels but under the bridge the water deep, gray, and swift hurrying away to the great [plain]."

"On the bluff, I pay my last respects."

"Yak dug burns with a hot, clear flame that is almost without smoke, and in these mountains, above the tree line, it is worth its weight in almost anything."

"To be so delighted with a pile of crap."

"In these mountains, we have fallen behind history."

1 comment:

  1. “That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain—that is enough.”

    It is a miracle when a book is life-changing. I can say that of Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard”. It is wonderful, beautiful, insightful.

    Some background: following his wife’s death, Matthiessen accepted the offer of a zoologist friend to join an expedition to study blue sheep in the remote Himalayas of Nepal. The author and his wife were both Buddhists and he had a secondary goal of visiting a legendary monastery that few Westerners get access to. And he hoped to glimpse the elusive titular cat. His primary goal though was catharsis, dealing with mourning.

    The book is amazingly multifaceted. It is a travelogue, scientific journal, elegy, philosophical treatise, and even a danger-fraught adventure. It succeeds on all levels. Matthiessen shows his chops as a writer; it is also a good read!

    This book initiated my study of Buddhism. I return to it whenever I feel a need to center myself. It never disappoints.