In the autumn of , 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.
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I s it possible to be an armchair Zen Buddhist? I am not alone in that belief. Matthiessen embarked on his journey in the autumn of at the invitation of the celebrated field biologist George Schaller, whose photographs of the people and places of that trail we publish for the first time. In his introductory chapter, written from notes made on the journey, Matthiessen sets out how his second wife, Deborah Love, mother to two of his four children, had died 20 months earlier, at the age of 44, from a sudden and quickly spreading cancer.
Their marriage, he notes, had been intense and sometimes strained — in the days before her diagnosis they had agreed to divorce — but they were eventually joined to the end.
She in turn had given him the rudiments of Zen Buddhism, which she taught, and which became his primary study for the remaining 40 years of his life he eventually became a Zen monk and established his home at Sagaponack on Long Island, New York, as a Zen Buddhist retreat. He tested that framework of thought for himself in the pages of The Snow Leopard , in the landscape in which the Buddha himself walked.
However, it is life with which he is concerned on his journey, in particular, the moment-by-moment effort of experiencing the here and now of the world as it is. His precise attention to describing that world is a sustaining joy of the book. A brilliant black-red beetle comes, and a husky grasshopper, rubbing its fiery legs.
All is moving, full of power, full of light. The day he had parted from his son, Matthiessen had driven him to school in the morning and tried to explain how long he would be gone on his distant quest.
In the foothills of Annapurna, he records receiving a handwritten note from his son, which runs as follows:. How are you. I am fine. But I feel a lot better since I am writing to you now. School is doing pretty well.
I hope you can make it back for Thanksgiving. Did I spell that right. PS Save my letters and bring them home so I can see if they got to you. Hugs and kisses. By By a million times for now. Love, Your sun, Alex. This letter was signed off with a drawing of a cartoon shiny sun, but its sentiments shadow the book.
Matthiessen is disturbed by that disquiet common to all compulsive travellers — in searching for his private nirvana, was he not selfishly neglecting more important responsibilities? He did not make it home for Thanksgiving. He is now 53 and works in New York as a consultant and campaigner on environmental issues; formerly he was CEO of Riverkeeper, which strives to maintain and improve the Hudson river and protect the drinking water of 9 million New Yorkers.
He has written an introduction to this new volume of The Snow Leopard in which he examines both his own relationship with the book and with his father. As he talks about the book, he tells me how he has now read it three times. But again the invitation came at a significant moment in his life. The stress had got in the way of his grieving, so the journey came as an opportunity to reconnect.
Alex took notes on every day of the trip just as Peter had done, partly, he says, so he could one day share his experiences with his young son, as his father had shared his journey with him.
At the suggestion of others — Alex does not think of himself as a writer — he is currently contemplating if he might turn those field notes into a book. His travelling companion, George Schaller, was 83 years old when he undertook the trek, but still impossibly sprightly. He is not necessarily one to dish emotionally, as it were. A few things about the trek had undeniably changed. When Matthiessen senior made the journey, there was a genuine sense of extreme remoteness.
The author had cropped his long hair short to his skull as he set out and began to walk barefoot like the Sherpas when they left paved roads. Alex notes how hi-tech gear made the journey less arduous 40 years on.
Mentally, spiritually, it was perhaps more demanding. Talking to Alex, I mention how over the years that one or two people have told me how special the book has been to them, in helping them to understand or cope with death.
In particular, my friend the writer Sonali Deraniyagala , who lost her whole family in the Sri Lankan tsunami, once told me how the book was just about the only thing she had ever known truly to comfort her. I wondered if Alex felt it to be primarily a book that encompassed grief. It is a very insightful commentary on loss. But I do think it is very sensitive to the complexities of his relationship to my mother and how it ended.
I found it very honest and unflinching in that way. He read the book in sequence with the retraced journey. Did it feel strange to read about his father missing him as a boy in those exact landscapes? It was unavoidable that in certain moments when he was talking about me or my mother or whatever… it would cause me to really intensely miss him too.
One very beautiful day, I sat above Phoksundo lake, the gateway to the Upper Dolpo, reading about him being there, and I had these very strong feelings of joy and sadness combined into one.
I tapped back into how wonderful our relationship had been — we really did have a very strong bond and friendship. He tries to appreciate, too, like his father, that any journey is itself the destination. The door to the crystal monastery, which had become the focus of his spiritual ambition, was locked when he eventually arrived through the snow.
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Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” in the Age of Climate Change
Apr 08, Minutes Buy. An unforgettable spiritual journey through the Himalayas by renowned writer Peter Matthiessen , the National Book Award-winning author of the new novel In Paradise In , Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller traveled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spiritual quest to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds, Matthiessen charts his inner path as well as his outer one, with a deepening Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence, and beauty. This Penguin Classics edition features an introduction by acclaimed travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world.
Zen and the art of following in your father’s footsteps
I s it possible to be an armchair Zen Buddhist? I am not alone in that belief. Matthiessen embarked on his journey in the autumn of at the invitation of the celebrated field biologist George Schaller, whose photographs of the people and places of that trail we publish for the first time. In his introductory chapter, written from notes made on the journey, Matthiessen sets out how his second wife, Deborah Love, mother to two of his four children, had died 20 months earlier, at the age of 44, from a sudden and quickly spreading cancer. Their marriage, he notes, had been intense and sometimes strained — in the days before her diagnosis they had agreed to divorce — but they were eventually joined to the end. She in turn had given him the rudiments of Zen Buddhism, which she taught, and which became his primary study for the remaining 40 years of his life he eventually became a Zen monk and established his home at Sagaponack on Long Island, New York, as a Zen Buddhist retreat.
Book Review: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
The Snow Leopard is a book by Peter Matthiessen. It is an account of his two-month search for the snow leopard with naturalist George Schaller in the Dolpo region on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. Schaller's original objective was to compare the mating habits of the Himalayan blue sheep the bharal with those of the common sheep of the USA, while for Matthiessen the trip was more of a spiritual exploration. Another aim was to spot the snow leopard, a predator on the bharal and a creature that was seldom seen it had only been glimpsed twice by Westerners in the previous twenty five years. A third part of the plan was to visit the Crystal Monastery and its Buddhist lama. The nature writing aspect brings echoes of the work of Alexander von Humboldt or Charles Darwin.