In writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen’s beloved nonfiction work The Snow Leopard, we’re transported to the far-away land of the Himalayas, as he joins biologist George Schaller on a quest to study the rare blue sheep of that region. Both Schaller and Matthiessen hope to catch a glance of the elusive and near-mythic snow leopard, as well, as it stalks and hides among the hills and valleys of this harsh terrain.
The book traces, in detail, their journey and their struggles over a more than two-month period in late 1973 in this remote part of the world that, back then, was largely unknown and unexplored by Westerners. And while it indeed catalogues their trek through cold and ice and through high altitudes that left them breathless, this book is also much more than a pure travel or adventure story.
Matthiessen’s wife, the poet Deborah Love, had died just months earlier from cancer. As a couple, they’d begun a quest of their own into Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. So, in addition to the physical nature of his journey through Nepal and the Tibetan region near China, Matthiessen was on a spiritual journey, as well, in this land of ancient Buddhist temples and practices. He left behind his 8-year old son to make this trip, where he hoped he might find some true understanding into the impermanence and ever-changing nature of reality.
Just as the actual hiking and camping for months in the desolate, high cold left Matthiessen exhausted and dirty, so too did his soul-searching. Though he was inspired by the many of the calm attitudes of the Sherpas and porters around him, all of whom came from that area, he nonetheless struggled with his own dark feelings of anger and frustration. It’s not easy to climb mountains, and it’s not easy to plumb the troubled depths of your heart, either. This book, which won the National Book Award, beautifully bounces back and forth between these extremes, which is why it still resonates today.
Matthiessen, who died last year at age 86, was fascinating. The only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction, he also started The Paris Review, in part as cover for his work spying for the C.I.A. in Paris in the early 1950s. He would go on to establish himself as an early conservationist and free thinker, turning out work that reflected this larger view of the world during his long career. If you’re new to him, The Snow Leopard is a good start.
— LouAnn Lofton, email@example.com
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