The Snow Leopard
Author: Peter Matthiessen
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2008 (1978)
Genre: Nonfiction/ scientific log/travel
Paperback Edition with Introduction by Pico Iyer, and maps, 316 pages
Source: Personal copy

This summer I am reading Peter Matthiessen’s classic nonfiction The Snow Leopard, first published in 1978 and winner that year of the National Book Award. I have been a fan of his fiction for a number of years. I was especially taken with his trilogy set in southwest Florida in its early years of white settlement. The three titles Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone were revised by Matthiessen and republished not many years ago under the title Shadow Country. The Snow Leopard is quite a different book and because it is so well known, I have long meant to read it. Now I am deep into this log of a climb in the Himalayas.

In this telling of a search in the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare snow leopard, the reader climbs and climbs, trekking through rock and slush with wet sore feet. Little remains dry. The Tamangs go barefoot so their sneakers may be sold later. At the point I now find the group, the clouds lift revealing a place to camp at 12,500 feet. There are ever more heights to climb.

There is constant description of the terrain, always stunning. There are maps and I am surprised to learn of the many groups of different peoples who are part of the expedition. As they trek, they are accompanied by skilled mountaineering Sherpas, porters, Tamangs, hill people of Mongol origins, Tibetians, Gurangs and Magars, also inhabitants of Nepal from ancient times. How these peoples fit together and the parts they play in the journey this reader is still learning. It can be as confusing as the sentence in which they are listed. But among other things, I read to find out more about them. The intrepid, stern and decisive George Schaller, an eminent field biologist and apparently a long-time acquaintance of Matthiessen, leads the pilgrimage.

The language may be the most beautiful I have ever read in non-fiction, a constant poem to the people and the region. The opening sentence of the previous day begins thus: “In the clear night, bright stars descend all the way to the horizon, and before dawn, a band of black appears beyond the peaks, as if one could see past earth’s horizon into outer space.” And a bit later “With the first sun rays we come down into still forest of gnarled birch and dark stiff firs. Through light filtered by the straying lichens, a silver bird flies to a cedar, fanning crimsoned wing on sunny bark.” The text is dense but alluring.

I cannot imagine that I will not keep on with the reading. This book promises beauty and suspense. Along the way Matthiessen shares personal information. He died in spring of 2014 and is aptly described as a naturalist and author. I urge you to sample his writings.

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