Not long ago, I decided to reread Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, having first picked it up some 20 years ago. This classic work was one of my earliest introductions to creative nonfiction, and inspired me memorably as a budding field biologist and a writer. But my second read led me into new and even more interesting philosophical territory.
For those unfamiliar with the book, The Snow Leopard chronicles Matthiessen’s journey with renowned wildlife biologist George Schaller into the remote mountains of Nepal, where Schaller set out to study the mating behavior of Himalayan blue sheep. Along the way, this gritty pair of adventurers also hoped to catch a glimpse of the rare and elusive snow leopard—an endangered wild cat native to central Asia who still finds limited refuge in some of the harshest alpine terrain on the planet.
The book is structured as a daily journal, providing an intimate portrayal of trekking across a fierce landscape few of us will ever see. Matthiessen doesn’t skip a single day in his account of a two-month trip that challenges his physical and emotional well-being, allowing himself no respite from the high-resolution lens he focuses on his own interior and exterior worlds.
Indeed, it is the merging of these two worlds that makes for such a powerful read, as the author’s prose is infused with a stirring lyricism not easily forgotten. Consider Matthiessen’s description of an isolated mountain village whose human inhabitants are in some ways as foreign and jarring to him as the landscape itself:
The rough brown buildings have wood doors and arches, and filthy Mongol faces, snot-nosed wild, laugh at the strangers from the crooked windows. Strange, heavy thumpings come from an immense stone mortar: two girls strike the grain in turn with wood pestles four feet long, keeping time with rhythmic soft sweet grunts, and two carpenters hew rude pine planks with crude adzes. Among the raffish folk of Ring-mo, dirt is worn like skin, and the children’s faces are round crusts of sores and grime.
By making us privy to such day-to-day observations, reflections, and emotional upheavals, Matthiessen invites us into a personal and uncomfortable space that more conventional nature writers don’t make available to their readers. In doing so, he entrusts us with a perspective that’s not always flattering to himself, to Schaller, or to the Sherpas and porters who escort them through the Kanjiroba Range and the Tibetan Plateau. Matthiessen’s candidness in sharing his frustrations toward his travel companions further authenticates his reportage; anyone who has ever spent extended time in the wilderness with strangers or friends knows that such prickly dynamics are, in fact, inevitable.
Added to this raw authenticity is Matthiessen’s delicate backstory about his family life—his rocky relationship with his beloved wife who recently died of cancer, his guilt about having temporarily abandoned his young son to embark on this trip with Schaller. One might be tempted to judge the author for his imperfect behavior—he’s judging himself, after all—yet who among his readership could begrudge him having such human flaws? This, to me, is another strength of Matthiessen’s writing: he may have been a capricious husband or father in some respects, but his courage to tell us so enhances his reliability as the narrator of his own story.
In the end, The Snow Leopard is less a tale about wild nature than it is about human nature. Matthiessen and Schaller failed to observe a snow leopard during their time together, and the book includes relatively little biological information about the animal itself. Despite his exhaustive efforts, the author not only comes to terms with not having seen the snow leopard, but celebrates this turn of events as a valuable spiritual lesson in accepting what is. In mock dialogue with himself, he says: “Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?”
What does it actually mean to see a snow leopard?
But in a more profound sense, Matthiessen’s book also begs the question: What does it actually mean to see a snow leopard?
On a drizzly Saturday morning in March, I boarded the Bainbridge Island ferry to downtown Seattle and caught the Number 5 bus to the Woodland Park Zoo. My husband, Robert, is a research ecologist with the Zoo’s Living Northwest program, and together we conduct carnivore research in Washington’s Cascades Range. On this particular day, however, our endeavors were limited to Woodland Park, where two documentary filmmakers were to make a presentation about their work with captive wolves. As part of their visit, Robert and I were invited to join them on a brief, behind-the-scenes tour of the Zoo.
The Number 5 was inexplicably running an hour late, so the tour was well underway by the time I rendezvoused with Robert and colleagues outside the only exhibit remaining on the tour. The group had already called upon the arctic fox, the Zoo’s resident wolf pack, and two sibling grizzly bears groggily waiting for Spring. Everyone was soaking wet by then, with the relentless rain having scared off all but the most dedicated weekend Zoo-goers.
Escorted by a veteran zookeeper, we were led behind the public viewing area into private pens where the animals can rest. After dipping our sodden shoes in a bucket of sterilization solution to prevent contamination, we proceeded to the enclosure where the guest of honor awaited us.
“This is Tom,” said the zookeeper, who affectionately raised an open palm to the cage wire separating us from a massive, cream-colored cat with sooty spots. Tom immediately responded by rubbing his side against the cage, his luxurious fur escaping the wire and making contact with the keeper. I tried to make real the mythical creature who stood before me, his presence bringing the following description from Matthiessen’s book to life:
The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur. An adult rarely weighs more than a hundred pounds or exceeds six feet in length, including the remarkable long tail, thick to the tip, used presumably for balance and for warmth […].
That tail! At first glance, I mistook Tom’s huge tail, which encircled him like a child’s plush snake as he relaxed his body into a large plastic tub, as another snow leopard—a cub, perhaps.
The zookeeper massaged Tom’s muscular shoulder, his icy-moss eyes staring placidly into the distance. Maybe he was dreaming of a faraway valley, where blue sheep grazed in the grassy shadows of glaciers; who was I to say that he was not?
Given his roots, it seemed more likely that the snow leopard was thinking about when his next meal would arrive at the cage door, or what his mate, Ellen, was up to at that moment—but this, too, would have been speculation. Here’s what I did know when I beheld those eyes that cared nothing for mine: this cat was a portal to all things wild, his DNA a container for every snow leopard who had ever wandered the high peaks of the Himalaya and beyond.
And here’s what I also know today. Although I have now been graced with the presence of a flesh-and-blood snow leopard—even touched his fur with my naked fingertip—Peter Matthiessen experienced more snow leopard-ness in the northern reaches of Nepal than I or a million other zoo-goers could possibly imagine by peering into a cage. Only among those glacial shadows, where snow leopards and sheep dance the ancient dance of predators and prey everywhere, could the true essence of their wildness be taken in through the human senses and translated to words on a page.
Thanks to the Snow Leopard Trust for allowing us to use their magnificent remote camera photos of snow leopards in the wild.
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