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The Snow Leopard Paperback – September 1, 2006
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In the autumn of 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen set out in the company of zoologist George Schaller on a hike that would take them 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, "the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth." Their voyage was in quest of one of the world's most elusive big cats, the snow leopard of high Asia, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical; Schaller was one of only two Westerners known to have seen a snow leopard in the wild since 1950.
Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is rightly regarded as a classic of modern nature writing. Guiding his readers through steep-walled canyons and over tall mountains, Matthiessen offers a narrative that is shot through with metaphor and mysticism, and his arduous search for the snow leopard becomes a vehicle for reflections on all manner of matters of life and death. In the process, The Snow Leopard evolves from an already exquisite book of natural history and travel into a grand, Buddhist-tinged parable of our search for meaning. By the end of their expedition, having seen wolves, foxes, rare mountain sheep, and other denizens of the Himalayas, and having seen many signs of the snow leopard but not the cat itself, Schaller muses, "We've seen so much, maybe it's better if there are some things that we don't see."
That sentiment, as well as the sense of wonder at the world's beauty that pervades Matthiessen's book, ought to inform any journey into the wild. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A beautiful book, and worthy of the mountains he is among" -- Paul Theroux "What began as a practical search for the rare snow leopard, revered Buddhist emblem, developed into a quest for the meaning of Being. An enjoyable combination of mountaineering and mysticism" Observer "It's a tale of an inner struggle for calm, and would be an inspiring and sustaining desert island companion" -- Emily Barr "As much the chronicle of an inner journey as it is the learned recording of an unfamiliar territory...a timeless account" Independent "An evocative account of a remote and timeless place and its people" Sunday Times
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The Snow Leopard is a famous book that recounts the author’s 1973 journey to the remote mountains of Nepal with field biologist George Schaller, who went to study the Himalayan blue sheep. Matthiessen went along for several reasons, for the high altitude flora and fauna, the most elusive of which is the snow leopard, and for spiritual reasons having to do with a pilgrimage to the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain, as well as a more personal quest to understand reality and suffering, prompted by the recent loss of his wife to cancer.
I read this book slowly, partly due to my recent schedule but mainly to savor the words, as seemed best upon my encounter with them. The related journey is a combination of sheer arduous traveling, a Buddhist history of the region, a seeker’s inner path, a traveler’s account of the lives of the people living there, and as usual with this writer, lyrical descriptions of the natural world in its many forms.
Like the mountain journey itself, the passages move up and down with the landscape, changing with the weather and the reader’s mind, finding footholds in different areas of interest, holding true in sparkling moments of transcendence that balance more mundane points in other spots. There are wonderful observations of locals, both human and animal, and the inner struggles of a spiritual man who rises and falls in his attempts at betterment. Written as daily journal entries, the accumulation of the details of hardship and progress and doubt and beauty and loss began to gather within this reader and alter his perceptions in ways both subtle and profound.
In most ways this journey is no longer possible, in all likelihood not politically feasible, while the region itself is no longer as remote as it was forty years ago, not to mention the fact that many readers would not relish or even be capable of the physical demands. Here then is an opportunity to experience something of this incredible undertaking and feel this mystical, ethereal high country – in a staggering and moving accomplishment.
Here are two passages to illustrate the reflective and physical aspects of the journey.
When I watch blue sheep, I must watch blue sheep, not be thinking about sex, danger, or the present, for this present – even while I think of it – is gone.
In the cold wind, the track is icy even at midday, yet one cannot wander to the side without plunging through the crust. The regular slow step that works best on steep mountainsides is difficult; I slip and clamber. Far above, a train of yaks makes dark curves on the shining ice; soon a second herd overtakes me, the twine-soled herders strolling up the icy incline with hands clasped behind their backs, grunting and whistling at the heaving animals.
"In the early light, the rock shadows on the snow are sharp; in the tension between light and dark is the power of the universe. This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence. Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror."