Death and Grieving in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

“I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind- whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.”

page 159

The Snow Leopard (1978), could be criticized as misleading since this is not a book about the mysterious Leopard of the high altitudes of the Himalayas. The purpose of the expedition about which Peter Matthiessen (1927-1914) writes was to record the mating proclivities of the bharal, a rare blue sheep/goat of the Himalayans. Certainly, titles are important as they give the reader an idea of what to expect when they open the cover and begin to give their time over to the words on the page. It is quite possible, a title such as “The Blue Bharal’s Mating Habits” would have captured the actual reason for Matthiessen journeying to Inner Dolpo with the noted field biologist George Schaller (but then, George Schaller probably wrote that article.). While Matthiessen is not on the expedition as an expert biologist interested in blue bharal, he does, nonetheless, take excellent notes and proves himself to be a competent field biologist at the side of Schaller. Matthiessen’s book, however, is more than an expedition record. The beauty of the title, for those wondering about the Snow Leopard, is that while the Snow Leopard was not the purpose of the expedition, it does reflect Peter Matthiessen’s presence on the expedition, and it gives the book a spaciousness for Matthiessen to work out his grief, a grief which he suffers on several planes.

The elusive Snow Leopard is like a misty fog surrounding and softening both the arduous task of reaching approximately 18,000 feet to reach Inner Dolpo, and the painful memories of Matthiessen’s wife who had recently died of brain cancer. The rare and beautiful leopard also serves as a trope for the reality which Matthiessen is striving so hard to describe and to live. It is indeed elusive to live out the precepts of Buddhism, which he finds imbued in the actions of the Sherpas, especially one called, Tukten:

“Yet their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake — it is the task, not the employer, that is served. As Buddhists they know that the doing matters more than the attainment of reward, that to serve in this selfless way is to be free. Because of their belief in Karma — the principle of cause and effect that permeates Buddhism and Hinduism (and Christianity, for that matter: as ye sow, so shall ye reap) — they are tolerant and unjudgmental, knowing that bad acts will receive their due without the intervention of the victim.”

page 30-31

Their journey begins in Pokhara.

Matthiessen has the patience and humility of a devoted Buddhist and, one cannot deny his journalist eye as he sifts through all the sights he sees and tries to make peace with much of the poverty he witnesses. In the end, he is quite gentle as he finds hope in small things: a smile, a tikka dot,

“Brown eyes observe us as we pass. Confronted with the pain of Asia, one cannot look and cannot turn away. In India, human misery seems so pervasive that one takes in only stray details: a warped leg or a dead eye, a sick pariah dog eating withered grass, an ancient woman lifting her sari to move her shrunken bowels by the road. Yet in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dot on the women’s foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile — that is the greatest miracle of all. In the heat and stench and shriek of Varanasi, where in fiery sunrise swallows fly like departing spirits over the vast silent river, one delights in the smile of a blind girl being led, of a Hindu gentleman in white turban gazing benignly at the bus driver who reviles him, of a flute-playing beggar boy, of a slow old woman pouring holy water from Ganga, the River, onto a stone elephant daubed red.”

page 10

To be sure, to catch a glimpse of the Snow Leopard is an unspoken goal or desire of both men, even if it is tangential to the expedition. But to see it in its wildness; to catch of glimpse and be grateful; or maybe not even catch a glimpse, and to be grateful still, is the way Matthiessen, as a Buddhist practitioner comes to view it after meeting with the Lama of the Crystal Mountain, who, according to Matthiessen “appears to be a very happy man” despite his isolation and physical deterioration. He walks away recalling the fierceness of his own teacher, Soen Roshi, and so the two worlds are brought together through the teaching.

“In its wholehearted acceptance of what is, this is just what Soen Roshi might have said: I feel as if he had struck me in the chest. I thank him, bow, go softly down the mountain: under my parka, folded prayer flag glows. Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain, and blue sheep dancing on the snow — it’s quite enough!

Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?”

page 242


In part, this book reads like an anthropologist’s record of a dizzying journey through territory unknown or little known to man. Everything is carefully reported: the difficulties of hiring porters to carry the loads; the snow blindness suffered by those who have lived all their lives in the mountains, but still forget to cover their eyes; the constant walking off of human resources due to fatigue and fear and even laziness; and the danger of the ascent. Peter Matthiessen is detailed and determined in his narration of the journey. He tries to be honest in his feelings and allows us to watch as he observes himself being angry or disgusted or even callous.

Alongside the daily journal of annoyances and surprises, Peter Matthiessen shares a deeper explanation for his presence on the expedition, his wife’s recent death. Trying to work out his grief he not only relates some intimate moments of her dying — the bowl he bought for her in Geneva, but never gave to her until she lay dying in the hospital (pgs. 73-74) — but too he works through his grief by instructing us on Buddhism and sharing the Koan he was given by his teacher before he left “All the peaks are covered with snow — why is this one bare?” (pg. 252)

Oddly, it all seems in sync as he stands, sometimes alone, before the immensity of the Himalayas and replays scenes from his past or gives us little lessons in the Four Noble Truths or the Vedas (pg 15 &16). He is honest while maintaining his individual privacy and that of his late wife and their son who was eight at the time.

And while it would be easy to judge Mattheissen as an uncaring father who had abandoned his son during a difficult period of mourning, there is in his voice a seriousness that never diminishes and as such gives one the sense that his destination has always been, home. Matthiessen never forgets his son, never allows himself to feel less guilty, and most of all the reader understands that Mattheissen is in pain. This immense journey turns out to be the very opposite of avoidance, which is what one might commonly deduce from the surface details. It is not a way to avoid, but rather to be with his pain in order that he could eventually be with his family. Peter Matthiessen actually does what most people do not do: he gives himself time and space to grieve.

Solitude is written into the pages of this book. You can hear the snow crunching under boots, and the heavy breathing from hours of hiking. Matthiessen does not speak the language of the porters and they speak little English. He is essentially alone. Most days are spent walking, carrying, climbing, spying bharal, and when George Schaller and Matthiessen do get together in the evening they spend the time writing out their notes with not much conversation between them. “Though we talk little here, I am never lonely; I am returned into myself” (228). And so what you begin to see is a man in his small tent, and his wet sleeping bag, who finds courage through Buddhism to speak of death, his fears of it; his wife’s death; and finally, the death he is witnessing as he watches the wild places of the world disappear. There is a grieving attached to the search for the Leopard itself. It is the loss of the elusiveness of the snow leopard and the inaccessibility of the Himalayas.

“For a time I watch the coming of the night. A bat chitters and stars loom, and somewhere on the far side of this earth, the sun is burning. Soon Mars appears over the dark split in the northern mountains where the Tarap River comes down from the Land of Dolpo, and in the snug warmth of my sleeping bag, I float under the round bowl of the heavens. Above is the glistening galaxy of childhood, now hidden in the Western world by air pollution and the glare of artificial light; for my children’s children, the power, peace and healing of the night will be obliterated.”

page 115

By the end of the book, the beginning of the mating season for the blue sheep/goat bharal has been recorded, and although Matthiessen has to leave before George Schaller, we find that the bharal are not as important as where they are located and the difficulties in finding them. It is the journey that takes Matthiessen and Schaller into deep solitude only to be confronted with the awful awareness that a wildness in the world is slowly going extinct. And with this wildness we must ask, what about solitude? what about silence? what about man? Matthiessen writes in the very beginning of The Snow Leopard:

Especially in India and Pakistan, the hoofed animals are rapidly disappearing, due to destruction of habitat by subsistence agriculture, overcutting of the forests, overgrazing by the scraggy hordes of domestic animals, erosion, flood — the whole dismal cycle of events that accompanies overcrowding by human beings.

page 12

“Overcrowding of human beings” assisted by technology. At one point they encounter another expedition that is heavily dependent upon technology. There is no need for porters when the food gets flown in to camp. Matthiessen relates how Schaller bristles at what amounts to technology replacing the need for humans to pay attention. And so, the first sight of the snow leopard, the glimpse of what has always been elusive, is the beginning of the end of the mystery. The snow leopard will become increasingly seen through a remote eye (I). With easy access to the mystery the Buddha and his precepts are “obliterated” by the “overcrowding.” In the end, it is the night that sustains us in that it is the cradle of mystery.

When Matthiessen finally leaves the expedition he descends and finds himself in a hotel looking into a face he does not know. Imagine, he has not seen his face for several months. He laughs, but we also are painfully aware that this is the laugh that produced Isaac; the laugh of Abraham and Sarah. It is the laugh of the Buddha. The laugh of God. The laugh that is also a cry. The losses seem to have piled up. But, strangely, they are lighter than before the journey. We grieve the loss of the elephants and the tiger and the rhinoceros in the Nepal lowlands, and for Matthiessen’s wife, and his child who is alone, and for the Snow Leopard whose elusive nature is no match for our technology, and in the end, we grieve for the slow extinction of solitude, wilder places, and the night. In the end, we grieve for all sentient beings.


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