In Remembrance: Peter MatthiessenPosted by on April 6, 2014
I read The Snow Leopard in my dorm room, ignoring my other assignments. I brought it with me in my pack as I headed to the forest, hiking into the colder winds of autumn. I would stop off the trail and read slowly.
“Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”
“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not…”
Just a few weeks ago, I finished reading Matthiessen’s classic, yet lesser-known natural history Wildlife in America.
“The true wilderness—the great woods and clear rivers, the wild swamps and grassy plains which once were the wonder of the world—has largely been despoiled …” Matthiessen writes in Wildlife in America. Above all else, this is a sad history, capturing the destruction that tore through the American wilderness, and portraying the species that once flourished before the destruction. Matthiessen writes about the time when the gray wolf and cougars lived freely in the east coast forests, when one poet called New England “a waste and howling wilderness.”
He was writing Wildlife in America in 1959, before the environmental protection movement, at a time when many had not fully realized the full magnitude of habitats lost and species vanished. Critics have said he was a “throwback,” a soul from an earlier time. But here he was writing ahead of his time — three years before Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring.
Saturday night, before I went to bed, I saw that Matthiessen had died at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.
Matthiessen is the only writer to win the National Book Award (Shadow Country) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard). His nonfiction is poetic. His fiction well-researched. According to a profile on Matthiessen than ran this weekend in the New York Times, Matthiessen claimed he was a fiction writer above anything else, but his editor at Viking Press called his nonfiction “stupendous.” At its core, his fiction and nonfiction are not any different. His writing is narrative, descriptive, courageous. Both have brought light to us. A light that will remain for this reader.