14 Apr

Part Two: A Tribute to Peter Matthiessen – Friend, Naturalist and Novelist of ‘The Snow Leopard’


Last week, upon learning of the passing of naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen, Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program Executive Director, Dr. Tom McCarthy, shared his reflections on the profound impact that Matthiessen had on the field of conservation and the inspiration he provided for admirers of the snow leopard and wildlife around the world. Matthiessen was known for a rich volume of works, including the groundbreaking book, The Snow Leopard, which recounted his two-month expedition in 1973 with Panthera’s Vice President Dr. George Schaller into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep, and possibly glimpse the elusive snow leopard. Here, we share a letter from Dr. Schaller on his travel, work and friendship with Matthiessen, from the African Serengeti to the mountains of the Himalayas, and beyond.

I first heard of Peter Matthiessen’s death while in Ecuador to ascertain the status of jaguars for Panthera. Indeed, I write this note in the city of Quito between trips to the Amazon rainforest, the place of Peter’s great novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. The large cats have bound us in friendship since the late 1960’s when Peter visited the Serengeti National Park where I was studying lions. As we traversed the plains and woodlands, I was impressed by his ardent interest and the extraordinary care with which he wrote at length in his journal. Later, he published on his East African travels in the book The Tree Where Man Was Born, an account of scientific precision - intensely realistic yet with quiet passion - in which he described his meeting lions, elephants and other creatures, including field biologists.

We remained in contact during the next few years. In 1973, I was planning another journey to the Himalaya in Nepal to study high-altitude wildlife, particularly the phantom of the peaks, the snow leopard. Peter asked to join me and I readily agreed. As a Zen Buddhist, Peter wanted to become familiar with Tibetan Buddhism. Together we trekked for three weeks, with our Sherpa co-workers and at times recalcitrant porters, over the high Himalayan passes to a small monastery in the folds of the hills, at the base of the Crystal Mountain. It was a tough trip through leech-infested forests and over snow-covered passes into another world. I was on a scientific quest, whereas Peter was more on a pilgrimage, combining an outward and inward journey.

“I climb through the grey daybreak worlds towards the light,” as he later wrote. We settled into a mud hut near the monastery. I studied the behavior of blue sheep, traced the tracks of snow leopards and observed the occasional wolf pack on a hunt. Peter joined me at times and together we gazed on the peaks where “all is moving, full of power, full of light.” But often Peter sought solitude and meditation. The lama was in seclusion at the monastery, where we later met and told him of our scientific and spiritual goals.

Our trek became the basis for Peter’s book, The Snow Leopard. It melds feelings and landscape with vitality and insight, paying homage to the snow leopard’s ghostly presence and the beauty of its realm in a way that touches the heart. It has drawn the attention of the world to this mysterious cat, and has become a classic which still inspires readers.

Nepal created the Shey-Phoksumdo National Park soon after our visit. The area remains as Peter saw it. A reincarnation of the old lama now occupies the monastery, just as the spirit of Peter with his many friends and admirers will continue to live for generations to come.

Dr. George B. Schaller
Vice President, Panthera
April 10, 2014
Quito, Ecuador