An obituary of Peter Matthiessen is properly made of chapters, not paragraphs. He lived many lives in his 86 years: explorer and traveler, editor, spiritual seeker, even sometime spy. (His connection to the CIA comes as a surprise to many, but he made no particular secret of it—and, in any event, it was a kinder, gentler CIA back then, a harbor for bookish intellectuals.) He wrote glimmering, exemplary novels—the difficult Far Tortuga, the soul-revealing and impeccably titled At Play in the Fields of the Lord—and regarded himself as a novelist foremost. He was a storyteller in any event. I once had dinner with him and Jim Harrison, not an easy man to best or even keep up with in any exchange of tales, tall or otherwise, and in a soft-spoken, thoughtful way, Peter delivered some of the most gracefully realized anecdotes I have ever had the pleasure to hear: stories of fishing and mountain walking, of Amur tigers and passenger pigeons, of restaurants in Paris and wind-whipped camps on the edge of the Himalayas.
He was all those things, and he combined all of them with an unbowed approach to death and, by all accounts, a courageous exit from this plane. But add to all that what many think of as his greatest contribution, namely, the lapidary books of nonfiction that he produced, quietly and steadily: The Tree Where Man Was Born. Wildlife in America. The Cloud Forest. The Snow Leopard, perhaps most famously of all, a classic of philosophical writing.
A sort of antecedent volume to The Snow Leopard appeared a decade later, and, though much less well known, it is characteristic of Matthiessen’s ways of thinking and writing. Nine-Headed Dragon River recounts his introduction to Zen Buddhism and his widening knowledge over the space of 13 years, leading up to his confirmation as a Buddhist teacher—for, yes, he was that too.
Matthiessen came to Zen Buddhism in 1969, he writes, through the influence of his wife, who had recently begun her own study. At first wary of Zen practice, Matthiessen, with her help, soon became a willing student; her death to cancer quickened his devotion, though it surely also drove home too pointedly the transitoriness of all things. He was all too aware of the hidden traps attendant in being a Western participant in an ancient Asian tradition: It’s not easy to cultivate nonattachment while living well and being feted as a great writer, not easy to balance the egolessness of the acolyte with the necessary ego of the artist.
He wrestled with pride, frustration, anger, and selfishness, with the struggle to continue a difficult practice when the very business of life presents a constant impediment, and he recorded his interior path as he did the places it took him: “From the train northward from Kyoto, the gray tiles of the shore villages and the gray waters of Lake Biwa turn a weary shine to the misty light. We wonder if Monk Dogen, on his way to the Snow Country in Echizen province, came this same way along the Western shore, under the steep sides of Mount Hiei, which in those days must have been mirrored in a clear blue lake.”
If you have been truly aware for even five minutes, Peter Matthiessen once observed, then you have truly lived. He was, and he did, and we can do nothing better than to look into the pages of his books once again and thank the heavens that he shared this world, and his understanding of it, with us. Journey well, Peter.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.