The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

The winter solstice is still ahead of me but it has been freezing and I am dreading the next four months of short, cold days and long, cold nights. I have a buffalo hide on my bed that makes me feel like a pioneer and I snuggle under it to read the winter away. I love the book The Snow Leopard, but I wish I’d chosen a book about the Tropics. Author Peter Matthiessen’s melancholy account of his trek through the Himalaya with his leaky tent and snow-sodden sneakers only makes me feel colder, and also unadventurous and guilty.

The drawing above is what I keep in the book for a book mark. It was drawn by a young man I met during my second reading of the book in January 1992. I was living on McAllister Street in San Francisco, making a spinach salad in the kitchen of my third story apartment when I heard the sound of breaking glass. I looked down the light well and saw flames reaching up to the second story. I called 9-1-1 and grabbed my purse, the book, my great grandmother’s antique Holy Family picture in its oval frame with bubble glass and a goosedown comforter I had just spent most of my meager pay check on and descended the stairs to the street.

Everyone in the neighborhood was on the street, watching the fire and the fire fighters. I met a young couple and they surprisingly and kindly offered to let me sleep on a futon in their living room three buildings down from mine. The young woman in the couple was engaged in a crane folding project–she was Japanese, and in the tradition of the culture, was folding 1,000 gold cranes for her wedding. She taught me how to fold them, and I helped her fold many cranes over the few evenings I stayed there. The couple’s roommate was the handsome young man who drew the drawing for me as we talked about The Snow Leopard and folded cranes. Funny enough, many years later Matthiessen wrote a fantastic book about cranes called, Birds of Heaven.

I’m not sure why I was so enraptured by this book on my first and second readings of it, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reading the comments from other writers on the front pages and back cover of my old paperback I see that everyone else was enamored of it too. But this reading it seems maudlin and a little repetitive. The fact that Matthiessen left his wife and child so often and for so long to do his writing that necessitated travel to exotic locales doesn’t seem as cool to me as it did in my 20s and early 30s. He was an extraordinary person, but the way I look at it now is–why be married and father four children just to keep leaving? It’s so unfair to the woman and kids.

I guess I am in a mood. At age 58, I have lost the passion for righteous causes. I was never a big protester or rabble rouser, but I really respected those that were. Now, however, I see the futility in getting too wrapped up in a righteous cause in our short lifetime. For example, I tried to read Mattheissen’s enormous tome, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which I bought following a lecture of his I attended. I was so bored by it I had to give it away. It was thick as a brick and to me, not worth packing when I moved up to Napa Valley from San Francisco. Matthiessen spent four years in and out of court in a lawsuit over that book. Was it worth it? I don’t know how you keep up your passion for someone else’s (Leonard Peltier) situation over the years it took to write the book and the years it took to fight for it. I wonder how much or how little time he spent with his third wife or any of his children during those years.

The Snow Leopard is about a journey Matthiessen takes with a naturalist to study some sheep in the Himalaya that may be related to other goats and antelope somewhere else–Africa I think. Even then, in 1973, there is evidence of climate change, deforestation, changing paths of rivers due to landslides caused by the deforestation which is caused by over population in areas too barren to support that much human life. I was reminded that the Gobi and Sahara were created out of similar situations. All of which kind of makes me feel better about where we are now–it’s where we have always been. Like the song says, “Same as it ever was.” Something like the Black Plague or Covid will step in and take another chunk out of us.

As I kept reading on cold late autumn days, nearly the same season Matthiessen was wandering in, I fell more and more under the book’s spell. Matthiessen was one of those writers who could use the simplest words–silver, bitter, hard, cold–over and over without being at all boring and in fact is very poetical. The palette of the Himalaya is very spare, so he mentions white, grey, blue and silver on almost every page. Occasionally something green (lichen), red (the base of a stupa) or yellow (rancid yak butter) adds more color to the descriptions.

There are mountains covered in snow, water, rocks and here and there some simple dwellings. There are lots of birds, a few species of mammals and several people. There’s plenty of dung, and dung is fantastic for improving ones traction on the ice underfoot or, when dry, is essential as fuel. The characters of the sherpa, porters and other native people are deceptively simple. The strong, singing but later sick and silent Dawa, the careless, light hearted Karma, the hard-working, honest and steadfast cook, Phu Tsering, and the inscrutable Tukten who somehow has a bad reputation but behaves like the saint Matthiessen aspires to become, living only in the present moment.

Near the end of the book Matthiessen admits he is looking forward to being clean and comfortable again and to a more varied diet. These longings start to take him out of the present moment and it is sad for him to realize that when he descends from the mountains his old life and all the distractions will come rushing back at him; he may only move a tiny bit further on his spiritual path, even after such an arduous trip. But then, his level of discipline in his spiritual practice is at the point that gains are very subtle. Some days I feel like I’ve made a tremendous leap forward in my practice or my understanding, but that is because I have so far to go and so little mental and spiritual discipline.

I was surprised to find that I had not marked up my old paperback as is my usual custom with spiritual or self-help literature that I resonate with, but finally near the end of the book I had drawn thin red lines down a few key passages and I’ll end the report by quoting them below.

Mattheissen writes about returning to civilization after his odyssey: “It is crucial to emerge gradually from such a chrysalis, drying new wings in the sun’s quiet, like a butterfly, to avoid a sudden tearing of the spirit….Far from celebrating my great journey I feel mutilated, murderous: I am in a fury of dark energies with no control at all on my short temper.”

“‘Expect nothing,’ Eido Roshi had warned me on the day I left. And I meant to go lightly into the light and silence of the Himalaya, without ambition of attainment. Now I am spent. The path that I followed breathlessly has faded among stones; in spiritual ambition I have neglected my children and done myself harm and there is no way back. Nor has anything changed: I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations–that aching gap between what I know and what I am. I have lost the flow of things and gone awry, sticking out from the unwinding spiral of my life like a bent spring. For all the exhilaration, splendor and “success” of the journey to the Crystal Mountain, a great chance has been missed and I have failed. I will perform the work of my parenthood, my work, my friendships, my Zen practice, but all hopes, acts and travels have been blighted. I look forward to nothing.”

Obviously Matthiessen was judging himself as harshly as a reader might. But he writes a bit later, “I have convinced myself that sudden loss of altitude is the main clue to my veering moods. A change is taking place, some painful growth, as in a snake during the shedding of its skin–dull, irritable, without appetite, dragging about the stale shreds of its former life, near blinded by the old, dead scale on the new eye. It is difficult to adjust because I don’t know who is adjusting; I am no longer the old person and not yet the new.”

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