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Peter Matthiessen, 1927 – 2014

I met Peter Matthiessen once when the Friends of the Library were selling books at the Koret Auditorium in 2001. Matthiessen was featured speaker at a program in the “Writers of the Land” series sponsored by the Trust for Public Lands and the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center at the San Francisco Public Library. He spoke, brilliantly, to a packed house, about our current and ongoing environmental crises and was received with wild applause. Afterward he was seated at a table signing books. I’d brought several of my own for him to sign and he graciously did so. At seventy-six he was still big, strong man, especially up close; leather-faced from a lifetime spent outdoors, lithe and lean. He was more fit than I—then forty-seven—had ever been or ever would be. He seemed to be in repose, nerveless and serene, probably a result of his Zen training, I figured. I was so awed to be in the presence of such a master that when he asked me how I wanted them signed I was quite taken aback and could only mumble ‘Just the signature is fine’ or something like that. My wife interceded and said “Make them out to ‘Byron,’ he’s just too tongue-tied to ask you himself.”

I started reading Matthiessen in the early eighties when someone, I think it was my partner in the bookstore he and I used to own, turned me on to The Snow Leopard (1978). The book was at once an adventure in the Himalayas, a quest for a glimpse of a Snow Leopard, and a meditation on grief, Buddhism and the meaning of just about everything. Typically, the adventure end of it appealed to me more than the spiritual end, but I admired how beautifully he’d pulled off the integration of his inner life (which accounts usually put me promptly to sleep) and the natural world.

After that I knocked off The Tree Where Man was Born (1972) and Sand Rivers (1981), both about his African journeys, and his landmark Wildlife in America (1959). Wildlife… is still the best book written on the history of Americans’ broken relationship with their landscape and one of the first, along with Silent Spring, to raise the alarm over the ongoing decline of our native species that continues to this day. These books stood at the confluence of two of my major obsessions; natural history and literature. They would have to be at the top of any objective list of the best nature writing America has produced. Subsequently I read most of his elegantly-written books—fiction and non-fiction—as they came out, knowing I had a special treat in store each time. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), Indian Country (1984), Men’s Lives (1988), On the River Styx and other stories (1989), Killing Mr. Watson (1990), African Silences(1991), Tigers in the Snow (2000), Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001), The End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003) and the older books—Under the Mountain Wall (1962), The Cloud Forest (1961), Blue Meridian (1971),—as I encountered them second hand. My respect for The Snow Leopard notwithstanding, my tolerance for the spiritual is very limited so I’ve steadfastly resisted Nine-headed Dragon River (1986), his account of his awakening to Zen.

It was inevitable that I would start collecting Matthiessen’s books and over the years I accumulated nice copies of nearly everything the man had written. When we moved to the city a few years back and had to cut down on the size of our libraries, I kept as much Matthiessen as space would allow. One of my prized possessions, one that I would have kept had we been rendered homeless, is the first edition Wildlife in America he signed on that day back in 2001 when he also signed my first edition of The Tree Where Man Was Born. I also kept a lovely, jacketed copy of his Shorebirds of America (1967), unfortunately a second printing but hard-to-find nonetheless. In my library are signed copies of all three of the Watson Trilogy novels that won a controversial National Book Award when Matthiessen edited them down and reworked them into the one-volume Shadow Country in 2008. I held on to a pretty beaten-up sixth printing of The Snow Leopard that normally wouldn’t warrant shelf space except that it is Jerry Garcia’s copy. I bought it from Caroline Garcia, AKA Mountain Girl, back in the early nineties. It is inscribed to Garcia: “For Jerry Garcia, My son Alex is a great admirer of your music, and I am, too. With many thanks and best regards, Peter Matthiessen.” Laid into the book is a card to Garcia from Zander Matthiessen which says, in part: “Jerry, My father is a naturalist writer who travels to some interesting places some of which you might be interested in. See if you can get 100 pgs thru this. You might like it if you’re at all into Zen…”

Naturalist, novelist, radical, conservationist, Zen master, crusader, editor, citizen of the world, Peter Matthiessen came off in his books as nearly indestructible; running off all over the world at an age where most people were in their second decade of retirement and writing about it with a limitlessly youthful brio. In person at the Koret event he seemed immortal, like some Paul Bunyan of American letters. He will join the other giants of the American literary pantheon, writers who actively and enthusiastically engaged with the world they were reporting on, rather than sitting on sidelines—Mailer, Hemingway, Algren, Thompson, Twain—and made the world accept them on their own terms instead of the other way around.

I thought of Matthiessen a lot when my wife and I finally got to Kenya and Tanzania, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, in 2006 and rode some of the same roads and gazed upon some of the same landscapes that had so inspired him. And I remembered his accounts of those travels and how they had inspired us to make the same journey. I thought of his love of Africa and all of the outdoors and of his love of wildlife, birds in particular, and the sense of adventure and wonder that came through those extraordinary books. I also thought of the sadness and anger of his final book on the subject, African Silences, which chronicled the decline of the animals and peoples of the savannah. The trip was definitely in the words of Douglas Adams, a “last chance to see” and I was glad to have Matthiessen along with me, if only in spirit and if only in my head.

It was not just in Africa but closer to home that I’ve thought of him, too. Sometimes when I’m out birding, particularly when I’m standing on some cold, drizzly, windy shore, squinting into my binoculars trying to tease something interesting out of a immense, boring flock of Willets, I think of his persistence, his intrepidity and dedication, and I steel myself to ignore the discomfort for a few more minutes, to take one more look before getting out of the weather. And sometimes it pays off; once in a while patience triumphs and there is some rarity there working the edges of the ocean along with the lowly Willets, something I’ve never seen before, and the thrill off discovery makes me shudder and smile. He is with me then, too, at that eureka! moment, that instant of discovery. He is with me, definitely and palpably, and that’s about as spiritual as it gets—for me anyway.

One Comment

  1. John Sakowicz April 10, 2014

    Lovely tribute.

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