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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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A portrait of Weaklekek, the greatest of New Guinea's Stone Age warriors, in Under the Mountain Wall, is likewise rendered in twilight: "He was proud of the old ways, proud that his own people went on as they always had since the time of Nopu. But from the Waro [outsiders] changes in the land had come, brought by the wind: a strange blue flower had rooted in the fields and in an old oak by Homuak there was a yellow stinging bee.... The blue flower and the yellow bee did not belong in the akuni world and had no name."

The East End watermen are also among the soon to be vanquished. "...they are fishermen because their fathers and their grandfathers were fishermen," wrote Matthiessen, who spent three years financing his fiction by working as a haul-seiner and by running his own commercial fishing boat, "it's in their blood, there's nothing to be done about it; that this is not only their livelihood but their way of life—this is where they belong—and that they will stay on the water as long as they can put food on the family table."

As impressive as Matthiessen's passion is the time he has spent observing the world, perhaps partly explained by his affinity for Zen. Matthiessen found that Zen helped him cope with the loss of his second wife, Deborah, to cancer, in 1972. Shortly after her death, he set off for the Himalayas with Schaller to look for the snow leopard, one of the rarest and most beautiful creatures on earth. He never found more than the leopard's scat, but he did find something else. "Zen lends perspective on the familiar," he says. "All it really does is teach you to pay attention, to see without moral judgments, to appreciate the direct experience." It's no surprise to learn that his Zen name translates, roughly, to "Without Boundaries."

"Since Deborah died at 44, I've felt that every year for me since that age has been a gift," says Matthiessen. "I've never been bored one day in my life. I could fill 500 years with no problem."

Yet if Matthiessen goes through the act of exploring without moral judgment, he serves up plenty of it when it comes time to put his thoughts into print. Whether he is considering the plight of Chicano farm workers, the African gazelle or Native Americans, Matthiessen's allegiances are never hidden and never ambiguous. For some, this makes him a less credible reporter. In his New York Times review of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, defense attorney Alan Dershowitz called Matthiessen's arguments on behalf of Leonard Peltier, an Indian convicted of murder on the basis of supposedly extorted testimony, as "utterly unconvincing—indeed embarrassingly sophomoric." Dershowitz, who is also a Harvard law professor, dismissed Matthiessen as "a good-hearted naïf."

"I believe in grit and passion," Matthiessen says brusquely. "If you don't get mad and put feeling into things, those things are dead. Look, I care about saying I'm for the Native American people."

Writer John Hersey, an acquaintance of Matthiessen's, says, "In writing so well about these problems and losses, Peter's not just writing about ecological problems but about the values society's losing." This is why when Matthiessen went to find the snow leopard he wrote about the need for Asian wildlife sanctuaries, and why when he went to talk to Cesar Chavez he ended up discussing environmental pollution.

Twenty-one years ago, in Sal Si Puedes, Matthiessen anticipated the vast change of attitude that society would demonstrate about the environment when he wrote, "Before this century is done, there will be an evolution in our values and the values of human society...." Today, when environmentalism is chic and the endangered earth makes the cover of weekly newsmagazines, he says, "I haven't a poor opinion of man. Man is the most extraordinary animal created. I think you can have a high opinion of man and be honest about man's priorities. We're an immensely active, intelligent, greedy creature. We don't know how to stop, how to manage our intelligence. Other animals simply adapt to their environment. Our intelligence seems to have outpaced our sense of place in the universe, and the result is that we're enormously dangerous.

"We talk about acid rain and the greenhouse effect, but these things are all corollaries of the fact that there are just too many of us. I think this is a great world, right now. Great and terrible. In a way I wouldn't have it different. Life is so full of delight, color and mystery. I just think of how it might be if we could have everyone enjoy it."

And so Matthiessen keeps returning "like the tides," as he says, to "my locus," six acres on the East End, where he strives, as he always has, to maintain a civilized way of life. It's an enviable home: from the slender stretch of beach to the tangled green horse pastures, where the touch-football skirmishes are a matter of principle each weekend, to the muddy wallow that he is laboring to make into a pond, to the copious flower beds he has built with his third wife, Maria. It is a difficult place to leave. Yet in the converted child's playhouse where he writes and in the living room where he relaxes, a visitor sees clues that Matthiessen's next expedition could begin at a moment's notice.

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