Also appearing in this interview:
A yellow warbler
A white shark
At first, the cab driver couldn’t find it; the empty fields to the left and the low trees to the right were covered in snow, and there was no looming Hamptons mansion at the end of the road. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else here,” he said. But then it appeared: a modest, low-slung house glimpsed through a tunnel in the trees. As we pulled into the drive, it was clear that Peter Matthiessen’s home for the last six decades wouldn’t be considered a normal home anywhere. An enormous skull—the cranium of a fin whale—was braced against a wall of the house, and clusters of other artifacts rested half-buried in the snow: driftwood, stumps, shells, small boulders, sculptures. I rang the doorbell and no one answered, and for a moment it was completely quiet: rain dripped off a row of icicles hanging from the roof. And then a kindly, deeply lined face peered through the glare in a pane of the front door.
What to say about Peter Matthiessen? There was no one quite like him: a writer and thinker, a naturalist and activist, and a fifty-year student of Zen Buddhism who, as his publicist put it, “lived so large, and so wild, for so long.” He was the only person ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction (Shadow Country, 2008) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1979), along with a bushel of medals and prizes for his elegant but unsentimental books (of which there are at least thirty), most of which concern the wild places, animals, and people “on the edge,” as he said, of the farthest parts of the globe, where pre-human landscapes and premodern pasts are (or were) still visible.
These edges are, more or less, where he spent his adult life. A précis of his travels is a bewildering list, and includes the Himalayas, the islands of the South Pacific and the Caribbean, the Mongolian steppe, Africa from the Serengeti to the Congo basin, South America from the Andes to the Amazon, the boreal forests of North America and Siberia, and a “musk ox island in the Bering Sea”—and that’s far from exhaustive. These travels would be remarkable enough, but he also cofounded the Paris Review, in 1953 (while working undercover for the nascent CIA); a few years later he was a struggling novelist and commercial fisherman using nets and dories off Long Island’s South Shore. Sixteen years after that, he was working as a labor activist with Cesar Chavez, and thirty years on, his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement(1983) resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits against him and his publisher by a former governor of South Dakota and a former FBI agent (both lost their cases). And in Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971), he followed a team of divers trying to capture the first underwater images of the animal. The resulting film, Peter Gimbel’s Blue Water, Blue Death, is credited with inspiring Jaws.
Above all, Matthiessen followed his own muse, and though he avoided repeating himself, all of his books combine his searching, acerbic intelligence with his gift for evoking landscapes and people, and all are shot through with glimpses of a reality beyond human understanding—a bit like what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” It’s a marriage of the dignified and the avant that can make his writing seem, at times, like a really good translation from another language. Both nature writing and what’s now called creative nonfiction owe him a huge debt, though his pure fiction tends to be overlooked (Far Tortuga, the experimental novel that preceded The Snow Leopard, doesn’t get the notice it deserves). His last book, the novelIn Paradise(Riverhead, 2014), probes a different edge; it takes place at a Zen meditation retreat in Auschwitz, following his own experiences there at similar retreats in the late ’90s.
Inside his house, everything was orderly, earth-toned, and wooden, both genteel and rough-hewn. Photographs of the people of the New Guinean highlands he visited in 1961 (vividly recalled in Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea), some of them taken by expedition mate Michael Rockefeller, surrounded a weathered baby grand piano; a pair of binoculars rested on its back on the piano’s lid. Smooth river stones, one of them incised with an elongated face that might be the Buddha’s, lined the sills of tall windows, among potted maidenhair ferns and a blooming Christmas cactus. In the backyard, two wooly-coated deer flecked with ice craned their necks to suck bird seed from a feeder, displacing a little cloud of cardinals and white-throated sparrows.
We sat in a cramped spare room he was using as a study, since the small outbuilding where he’d done the bulk of his writing was losing a battle with mold. He took a swivel chair beside the computer where he was working on yet another book: a memoir. It was a form he regarded with suspicion, and he was still finding its structure, which he compared to the branching leaves of giant kelp. I had to place my recorder close to him to catch his deep, conspiratorial rasp, but there was plenty it didn’t capture: he talked with his face and his hands as much as his voice, widening his eyes in surprise or crinkling them in mirth, fluttering his fingers to dismiss the encrustations of “lush writing” or opening his palms in surrender to a great line of prose. Or he enlisted all his features in sudden imitations of people or animals: an Inupiat pilot swatting a mosquito, a grizzly bear recoiling at the sight of a human, a white shark trying to swallow an outboard motor. The landscape of his creased forehead, wild eyebrows, and silver hair suggested stormy weather, but his eyes were a surprisingly mild, even innocent, blue. Only a month before his death, at the age of eighty-six, he was still clearly the man from the jacket flap of The Snow Leopard, and his memory for the smallest details of books he wrote half a century ago was ironclad. The pad of his right thumb was stained with green ink.
THE BELIEVER: So those are Michael Rockefeller’s photos on the wall out there?
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Those aren’t all Michael’s, but I can show you the ones that are. Over the doorway you can see two of the spears: there, those incredible long spears.
BLVR: They look like they mean business.
PM: They didn’t like to throw those spears right away, because they were too much trouble to make. There’s no metal at all, you know—they make them by taking these saplings into cold mountain water and scraping them with stones; that was a few weeks of work. Their technique was to use a bow and arrow until the guy was really helpless and then they would come forward and throw it. They were scared somebody from the other side would come up and run away with it!
BLVR: That book, Under the Mountain Wall, might be the strangest of all your work.
BLVR: Why did you write it in the way that you did?
PM: Well, actually, I went out there and I had no such intent at all. Remind me to go back to New Guinea, but it’s kind of like Far Tortuga. Far Tortuga came out of a fact article for the New Yorker, called “To the Miskito Bank.” I had to keep going back to Grand Cayman, partly because of the rascality of my contact down there, who was a sea captain of somewhat the same persuasions as Copm Raib [a character in Far Tortuga]. Anyhow, I piled up a lot of expense money, so it was very embarrassing for me. I came back after one year, and I went in to see [New Yorkereditor William] Shawn. And I said, “Mr. Shawn, I have your fact piece, and I think it’s going to be OK, and I just want to tell you since you spent a lot of money on my expenses”—and I pride myself on keeping my expenses low, so he knew I wasn’t gouging him—“I’m going to save my best stuff for a novel.” I said, “I’m so powerfully affected by a feeling down there that I’ll give you your fact piece, but I’m saving the best stuff back.”
And Shawn said something—and I’ve been dealing with magazines for years, and fighting with editors all the way over cuts and edits, and no pay, and whatever—but Shawn, without any hesitation at all, said [in a Shawn voice], “Mr. Matthiessen,you do what’s best for your work!”
And tears just—arced out of my eyes, you know. I was so moved and touched by that.
So I did. But then I went even further with it. I not only took stuff out for a novel, but I began to see that I didn’t want any of thefurniture of a novel. I didn’t want any “he said”s or “she said”s, ordinary similes and metaphors. Just—get all that out of there. And I think that was partly because of At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which I think is pretty well written, but it’s ornate by comparison. It’s full of metaphor and simile and, you know, lushwriting [laughs]. For Far Tortuga, I wanted it absolutely spare. Just a line of birds on the horizon.
My great question, I would say, comes from Turgenev, fromVirgin Soil. One of the characters kills himself, but he leaves a note, and the note says: “I could not simplify myself.” [Drops jaw] Boy, that’s like that Akhmatova line, the epigraph from In Paradise—
BLVR: “Something not known to anyone at all—”
PM: “—but wild in our breast for centuries.” Yes, you know. Oh![Groans as if smacked in the chest] I know that feeling so well. It’s been my great, great aim in life, simplification. Total failure.
BLVR: You wanted me to draw you back to the highlands of New Guinea.
PM: I figured if I brought the anthropologists in, then you almost automatically have to deal with the personalities involved. And there’s a great deal more complication. I hated the National Geographic style of writing, you know: “Suddenly I heard a noise behind me.” I didn’t want to write another expedition. I just wanted the sense of a pure Stone Age culture.
BLVR: Why did you go in the first place?
PM: We were trying to discover why people go to war, in a circumstance where people went to war regularly—loosely, once a week. [The men of neighboring tribes] would challenge each other and go out and fight and then take nothing; they did this just for their own pecking order or status, or whatever. And they would adjust the combat so it was fair—one side could bring in more men if the terrain was more favorable for them, for example. It was fascinating to watch it.
And the women would come up out of the trenches where they were working, and they would sit on the hillside and kinda—cheer. But the cheering was mostly jeering: “He can’t even get it up!”—you know. And they’d kill one guy, or even come close to killing him, and then—they’d go home. They didn’t have to have mass slaughter. So in a sense it was very civilized. And we found them enormously gentle and kind with their own little kids, and they were lovely with old people. They really had a very strong civic sense; they took care of people who needed help.
BLVR: What did you learn about war?
PM: It’s a simplification to say that the men went to war to maintain their dominance over the women. The men would help dig agricultural ditches because they were superb farmers. That was very heavy lifting work. But then they just preened themselves, and put bird-of-paradise plumes [in their hair], and smoked dope.