Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

Far away eastward, far below, the Marsa River opens out into Lake Phewa, near Pokhara, which glints in the sunset of the foothills. There are no roads west of Pokhara, which is the last outpost of the modern world; in one day’s walk, we are a century away.

After a few aborted attempts to read Peter Matthiessen’s’ most popular ‘The Snow Leopard’, the lock-down gave me at last the time and space needed to join the famous author-adventurer-conservationist on his trek into the thin air of the Tibetan mountain-range.

In the last months of 1973, Matthiessen teamed up with the legendary naturalist George Schaller for a trip to the Dolpa region in western Nepal. The reason for the expedition was that Schaller wanted to study the Bharal, the Himalayan Blue sheep. His intention was to find out if the animal was more a goat than a sheep. Or if it was someting different altogether, a proto-sheep or a proto-goat, a common ancestor to both. The lama (Spiritual Master) of the Shey gompa (monastery) had in the past, and in his capra-philic wisdom, protected these beautiful animals. The result was that the Bharal were still very abundant in the wider area around the Gompa. And this in turn attracted wolves and even the elusive and therefore mythical snow leopard.

While the study of the sheepish goats would not offer sufficient attraction to an adventurer, such as Matthiessen, the long walk in fact offered many more excitements. The hope of glimpsing the Snow Leopard, this near mythic beast, was reason enough for the entire journey. But, even if that was very unlikely, the journey would still unwind along such wonders as the Blue Lake, the Saldang, the Crystal mountain and the Shey Phoksundo. For Matthiessen, a keen student of Zen, it would also allow him to practice his new acquired knowledge in the very environment where Buddhism had its cradle. It would even allow him to personally meet a famous Lama. Matthiessen from the start understood that he had embarked on a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.

The book ‘The Snow Leopard' recounts, in the form of a realistic travelling journal (with dates, maps and all), the long walk, Peter Matthiessen undertook, towards the Tibetan monastery hidden high up in the Himalayan Mountain range. It is a faithful recollection of the three-month tour, a genuine expedition with Sherpa’s, carriers, yaks and all. The long trek, in a snowy, cold and unforgiving mountainous area has its hidden and not so hidden dangers. The travelers are mentally and physically challenged to the extreme and find themselves more than once on the brink of life threatening situations. But the book is more than just a description of an arduous trek. Matthiessen elegantly mixes the journal entries of the expedition’s progress with digressions on what preoccupies his mind and lyrical descriptions of a sublime nature.

The long and lonely walks on the interminable paths leading around and finally up the mountain liberate the mind for long bouts of introspections. Mentally, Matthiessen was not in the best of shapes for such a trip. Feelings of guilt, sadness and uselessness seep into his mind as he grows tired and encounters more and more obstacles on his way. Confronted with the overwhelming sublime vistas of the mountain range, emotions wash over him and bring him to tears. A year earlier Matthiessen lost his second wife to cancer. Memories of her last days grieve him and feelings of guilt of leaving his orphaned children behind constantly besiege him. Like anyone who has chosen to live an independent life, it comes at the cost of doubts and remorse.

Matthiessen who is a Zen apprentice, constantly switches, whenever possible, to his concentration, introspection and Shikantaza exercises. He commits his feelings and doings unadorned to the pages and from all this honest introspection and self-explaining rambling appears a real man of life and blood. And maybe it is all a bit too honest. The narrator at times comes over as arrogant, egotistical and impatient with the ways of the locals. He is aware of it though and writes down how he regrets it. Matthiessen can never entirely shed his American-Ivy League upbringings. He likes to indulge in the ways of the locals but when confronted with their dangerous or unhealthy lives he turns away in a reflex of self-protection. In the preparation of his earlier book, Far Tortuga, he joined a crew of fisherman but when he experiences their true living conditions, he bails out without finishing the voyage. In the Snow Leopard, on his way back, he constantly outdistances his travelling companions (who carry his stuff) in an impatient grumbling pace. At each camp-fire he then regrets his attitude. One cannot but compare it to Eric Newby’s attitude to the locals in the Hindu Kush. How more humane, with its mix of mock-attitude and self-depreciation.

Matthiessen, an ecologist, is mostly interested in nature and wildlife around him. The writer has but a mere descriptive eye for the man-made wonders he sees; when he visits for example the age-old monastery lost between the peaks of the mountain range...

Then he (The Lama) enters the little prayer room that looks out over the snows through its bright blue window. On the walls of the prayer room hang two fine thangkas, or cloth paintings, and the altar wall has figures in both brass and bronze of Karma-pa, the founder of this subsect, (…). On both sides are shelves of ancient scrolls, or ‘books’, as well as thangkas (the old thangkas on the wall are in poor repair, and these rolled-up ones must be even more decrepit). The walls all around are crowded with frescoes and religious paintings, and each corner is cluttered with old treasures, all but lost in musty darkness.

It is a pity. One can only regret that Robert Byron, Chatwin or Norman Douglas are not around to elaborate further and illuminate us with their comments on the architecture of the impressive shey’s and the significance of the old thangkas displayed in the decrepit vaults of the ancient monasteries and anchoretic dungeons.

Matthiessen regularly interrupts the narration of his progress, to tell us about his experimentations with hallucinogens, the story of Siddhartha, how Asian cosmology compares with the findings of ‘modern’ physics and so on. Together with the Kathmandu scenery (his second visit) the book is basically a wrap-up of all the subjects an entire generation of hippy youth gobbled up in the last ten years preceding this book. Rather than giving the book a generous and nostalgic gloss fifty years later, one must conclude that the Snow Leopard, despite its scope, has not aged very well on all levels. At times, it is a bit boring. I suspect the Snow Leopard is one of those cult books that, in the words of journalist H. Anderson, lost their Cool’.

Matthiessen belongs to that post-war generation of writers - adventurers - discoverers who through their books, and to finance their lifestyle, contributed to open a pristine world to a larger public. They are then surprised and lament that the vanguard of encroaching commercial tribes and their reader-adepts following in their wake have destroyed the very wonders they described. They then turn into fierce environmentalist and defenders of the local communities and set-up half efficient organizations to protect what is been destroyed. Alas, all is business. And the Shey Phoksundo National Park, so magisterially described, is no exception. The internet shows that we now can book Snow leopard tours and Matthiessen tours to follow on the steps of the famous writer. Rafting those wild rivers is an option and bungee jumping over the Bhote Koshi River is a must. Matthiessen's son has lately reenacted with his father erstwhile companion Schaller, the trip all over again; walking in his dad's steps. His introduction contributes to the marketing of the Folio society’s beautiful edition of The Snow Leopard, including Schaller's original pictures. Images that are scandalously missing in my first signed edition.

As said Matthiessen is most entertaining when he describes wildlife around him. The shape of the valleys and mountains create natural amphitheater that allows a wide theatrical overview of the surrounding valleys and mounts. Matthiessen and Schaller can follow a flock of Bharal’s chased by a pack of wolves and cheer when an animal is caught or escapes by daring jumps. Schaller confesses that he has never been able to follow so well an entire chase in his long career.

We suspect that the writer is motivated by more than mere scientific interest, when he describes the kinky rutting behavior of the sporting blue sheep: male mounting male, dipping their snouts in the urine streams of the females. Both Matthiessen and Schaller exult whenever there is another ‘beautiful’ penis - lick.

There are a few true nuggets of amused wonder to be found among the 340 pages of the book.

The Nepal government takes yeti seriously, and there is a strict law against killing them. But one of the Arun Valley scientists has a permit to collect one of these creatures, and I asked him what he would do if, one fine morning, a yeti presented itself within fair range; it seemed to me that this decision should not wait for the event. The biologist was unsettled by the question; he had not made this hard decision, or if he had, was not at peace with it.

Cut away a few of the introspective ramblings 
in Matthiessen book and you are left with a wonderfully narrated voyage in the most sublime environments this planet can show. Fortunately for the reader, the overwhelming beauty abounds in 'The Snow Leopard’. The descriptions of the beautiful vistas, the gorgeous natural phenomenon’s and the animal sightings take the overhand from the introspective brooding in the second part of the book. The writing is beautiful too. Matthiessen’s Zen stuff works like John Ruskin’s ‘drawing advice’; to make one stop the time and take in the details’. Matthiessens spiritual exercises help him to 'see the world more clearly and to live with a deeper sense of presence. This and the wonderful trip he does (and of which we are a bit jealous) remains the major attraction of the book. It is not likely to disappear soon.

The trail follows the south bank of the Ghustang, a wild torrent off the Dhaulagiri glacier that cascades down over the rust-colored boulders through a forest of great evergreens, merging farther to the west with the Uttar Ganga and the lower Bheri. Where bamboo appears, four thousand feet below our Dhaulagiri camp, a log bridge crosses the torrent and a trail climbs an open, grassy slope of stolid oaks and lithe wild olives that dance in the silver breeze of the afternoon.