The Snow Leopard

I picked up The Snow Leopard while living in Alaska. It’s a good book for Alaska.

Peter Matthiessen was larger than life, and one of the great nature writers of the 20th Century. He was born in New York City in 1927, graduated from Yale in 1950, and quickly moved to Paris to become a writer. Matthiessen, along with Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton, founded The Paris Review in 1953, though Matthiessen later admitted that he created the journal as a cover for his CIA activities. By 1973 Matthiessen was an accomplished writer, but the death of his second wife from cancer had left his personal life in tatters. So he joined preeminent field biologist George Schaller in the fall of 1973 on an expedition into the Himalayas. The Snow Leopard is the story of that expedition, both its scientific and its spiritual aspects.

The goal of the expedition, at least for Schaller, was to study the mating habits of Himalayan blue sheep (or bharal). The goal of Peter Matthiessen is never particularly clear. Ostensibly, he’s along to document the expedition, and in that he does a rather mediocre job. The Snow Leopard is neither an accurate account of the scientific results of the journey, nor a compelling portrayal of the man George Schaller. It is, however, a near-perfect story of grief and longing in nature, and of a man’s search for peace and meaning in the wake of his wife’s death.

But sentimental readers beware: this story is not about the healing power of nature. It is a story about being defeated by nature. There is, to be sure, a certain peace that accompanies that defeat, but it is one that may be foreign to many Western readers, especially the peak- and trophy-baggers among us. Matthiessen conquers nothing in his journey. The peace he discovers is the peace of a man who has finally admitted he will always be at war — at war with nature, at war with death, at war with himself.

The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, won Matthiessen the National Book Award for non-fiction. Thirty years later, Matthiessen’s novel Shadow Country won the National Book Award for fiction, making him the only writer to have won the award for both fiction and non-fiction.

Good For: Cold winters that seem like they’ll never end.

Not Good For: The unexamined life.

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