Peter Matthiessen, who passed away recently, had his own inimitable style of writing.
By the time I learnt that my favourite wildlife writer Peter Matthiessen was in India — he was studying the migrating cranes that gather annually in the village of Kichan, Rajasthan, for his book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes — he had already flown out of the country. I missed a chance to meet him. Now comes the news of his death at the age of 86.
Novelist, explorer and Zen monk, Peter Matthiessen became known in India after his epoch-making book Snow Leopard in 1978. Joining wildlife biologist George Schaller in his expedition to look for the rarest and most beautiful of all cats, Matthiessen trekked in the snow-bound Himalayan ranges. Though he never sighted the elusive leopard, Matthiessen’s account of travel across the Himalayas turned out to be a quest for the meaning of being, particularly the Buddhist point of view. He learnt from the sherpas and documented their wisdom. “The great sins, the sherpas say, are to pick up wildflowers or to threaten children.”
Matthiessen developed a style of nature-writing that makes the reader pause and look at the external world with all its life forms. Meticulously researching on the subject at hand, be it rhinos or turtles, he encapsulated his observation with magical descriptions. He showed that one of the purposes of a writer is to make people awake, to be alive… when he wrote about trekking in the hills, his reader trekked too. Through his lyrical prose, he passed on the essence of his experience in these searches.
In The African Silence, he wrote about his search for the pigmy elephants and The Tree Where Man was Born is a gripping account of the wildlife of East Africa. He wrote about India and its efforts to conserve wildlife in The Birds of Heaven.
There are two kinds of nature-writing. One is to write intuitively reacting to nature and its myriad forms of expression, like Thoreau, and the other is to look at wildlife from the point of view of a biologist, like George Schaller. In his works, Matthiessen effectively combined these two approaches with his imaginative literary technique. In his book on cranes, Matthiessen put down his philosophy: “One way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form, a single manifestation of the miracle of existence; if one has truly understood a crane — or a leaf or a cloud or a frog — one has understood everything.”
The most well-known of his novels is At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which is set in the Amazon with two American missionaries as the protagonists. Even when writing fiction, he remained a nature-writer nonpareil. It was made into a memorable film with the eponymous title.
However, his most plucky venture was his exploration of Zen. He began studying and practising Zen and became a monk. He set up a Zendo, a meditation centre, near his New York home. He recorded his insights in the book Nine-headed Dragon River. He acknowledged, “Anything written about Zen inevitably separates itself from Zen’s ‘instantaneous’ spirit. In using dead words to say that Zen is this or that, a separation is created and the freshness of the Zen moment is lost.” Yet he succeeded in bringing Zen as close to the reader as possible through his words.