Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before.
Matthiesen has joined an expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend, G.S., to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book. Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and his changing observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature he craves to glimpse during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching.
As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation.
The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home but he puts these away, unopened. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).
Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. In his description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect their heads while ramming other males, he muses: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….’ (Matthiesen, 2010, p.229).
And humour, often at his own expense, is frequent.
‘October 25 …. Parts of the ledge have fallen away, and the gaps are bridged by flimsy scaffoldings of saplings. Certain sections are so narrow and precarious that more than once my legs refuse to move, and my heart beats so that I feel sick. One horrid stretch, lacking the smallest handhold in the wall, round a windy point of cliff that is one hundred feet or more above the rocks at lake edge, and this I navigate on hands and knees…
The sherpas come, and…GS appears, moving as steadily as the rest; I am glad the cliff corner hid my ignominious advance on hands and knees. Squeezing by, G.S. remarks, “This is first really interesting stretch of trail we’ve had so far.” How easy it would be to push him over.’ (Matthiessen, 2010, pp141-142).
Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.
Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London.