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Nicholas Dawidoff
December 03, 1990
Peter Matthiessen explores the wild and the majestic
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December 03, 1990

Earthbound In The Space Age

Peter Matthiessen explores the wild and the majestic

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Since then, Matthiessen has left the East End many times for glimpses of other fragile and vanishing forms of life. In 1959, he traveled into the Amazon wilderness (The Cloud Forest). In 1961, he was in New Guinea to chronicle the Kurelu, a Stone Age people who had enjoyed an existence entirely isolated from the rest of civilization (Under the Mountain Wall). Over the next two decades he went to the Bering Sea to look at musk oxen (Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea), to California to scrutinize the United Farm Workers' movement (Sal Si Puedes), to South Africa, Madagascar and Australia to see the great white shark (Blue Meridian), back to Africa (The Tree Where Man Was Born and Sand Rivers), across the reaches of the Himalayas (The Snow Leopard, a National Book Award winner), and to Indian reservations throughout the U.S. (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country). He also has written six novels, one of which, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), is currently being made into a feature film, and the latest of which, Killing Mister Watson, was on the New York Times best-seller list this summer.

Beyond the subject matter, what makes these books so fascinating is Matthiessen's skill at wayfaring through a rich personal landscape even as his prose vividly evokes a physical one. Nowhere does he manage this more successfully than in Men's Lives, published in 1986, a book that is the culmination of almost 40 years of living by the sea. It is a saga of the surfmen and baymen of the South Fork of the East End, from the 19th-century whalers who would row out from Long Island beaches to intercept their migrating prey, to the haul-seiners equipped with out-boards and pickup trucks who work those same beaches for striped bass and, when fishing is off, rake clams and scallops—through the ice if need be. Men's Lives is as sensitive and engrossing an account as you are likely to find about a disappearing breed. This shouldn't be surprising, for Matthiessen, one of America's most relentless explorers, has a strong sense of home.

"I don't really appreciate traveling," says Matthiessen, who has navigated the rapids of the Urubamba River in Peru and has clawed his way over snow and ice-covered mountains in Nepal with his partner, George Schaller. "It's a pain in the neck. I'm not looking for thrills. I don't like physical fear. This way of life leads to tense situations, which I don't care for. I'm not that brave. All this is just part of the territory."

This paradox, the great explorer who never really cottoned to exploring, led Styron to ask, in an essay about his friend, "From what sprang this amazing obsession to plant one's feet upon the most exotic quarters of the earth, to traverse festering swamps, to scale the aching heights of implausible mountains?"

Matthiessen thinks for a moment when that question is posed to him and answers, "I wanted to see wild creatures, wild places, people, life unspoiled by pollution. I've always had a longing for that primeval place, a primordial yearning for the lost paradise." He sounds distinctly like Moon, a main character in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about missionaries and mercenaries, set in South America. Of Moon, a mercenary, Matthiessen wrote, "For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or a future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day."

Matthiessen was born to a wealthy New York City family and was educated in some of this country's, and Europe's, finest schools. Yet despite the frequent scholarly references in his writing, he displays an indifference to his patrician roots. He favors desert boots, threadbare chambray shirts and, generally speaking, the company of unpublic men in unpublic places.

He has spent a lifetime probing the primal. In The Cloud Forest he surveyed the Amazon and wrote, "Man has literally scratched the surface of this enormous world, which recedes and approaches endlessly as the ship moves through it. It is difficult to accept that a wilderness of this dimension still exists...."

Matthiessen is of necessity a generalist. Before he wrote Wildlife in America his training as a naturalist consisted mainly of a childhood fancy for snakes and birds and a couple of college science courses. But he was born with an unblinking eye that takes in all—cruel and beautiful alike—and a willingness to express either enchantment or outrage in vivid terms. And to varying degrees each subsequent expedition has worked this way. He trusts his wonder and intuition to familiarize himself with his subject, no matter how exotic or obscure it might be. He specializes in themes rather than in particular flora or fauna. He can tell you a good deal about the day-to-day life of turtles and auks and snow leopards, but what makes him unusual is his ability to celebrate natural beauty and to fulminate against those who threaten it.

"People care so little, are so disrespectful of the beautiful places," Matthiessen says. "There is a wistful sense of loss, of nights when you can't see the stars anymore, parts of the world where you can't even see the horizon. It's heartbreaking. One of the great attractions of this country is that it's so wild, so various. Yet there's not much marshland these days, the water and air are being razed, and I find all that very sad. In the spring, I used to count 15 or 16 species of warblers near home; now I count three. These are components of my life that my children will never see. President Bush is so celebrated for his grandchildren. If he really loved them he'd be fighting all this like a tiger."

Matthiessen is perhaps most wistful in the face of natural grandeur reduced, kings deprived of their kingdoms. Of African lions, he wrote in The Tree Where Man Was Born, "...for all their prosperity there was a sense of doom about the lions. The males, especially, seemed too big, and they walked too slowly between feast and famine, as if in some dim intuition that the time of the great predators was running out."

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