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No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climatic change, has ever extinguished another....
Man, like the rat and the mosquito, can adapt himself to virtually all terrestrial climates, and less resourceful creatures have no choice but to make room for him during his stay on earth.
What man has done to everything from buffalo to warblers he has also done to himself. Few would call the forked eastern end of Long Island an easy place to settle. Not every bird or tree can tolerate its salt breezes, and not every man can nurture life in its fiat, sandy fields or wrench it from the sea with net or line. Yet in the skies there have always been warblers. Japanese pines flourish there. And so do humans. But for all their apparent vigor, the men and women of the East End are not so adaptable as others of the species, and they must be considered to be on the threatened list, sliding ever more rapidly toward the category of endangered, the last stop before the line peters out.
Today, as even a first-time visitor can quickly see, the East End is running short of its old constituencies—Indians, farmers and commercial fishermen. Lured by the area's beauty and its proximity to New York City, new groups have taken up residence: Wealthy anglers in glistening fiberglass craft equipped with the latest in electronics do most of the fishing; the likes of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Simon, Craig Claiborne, Dick Cavett and Steven Spielberg have homes where potatoes once grew. These newcomers have brought with them boutiques and galleries. And while they do strive to preserve their seashore—and their privacy—there is no denying that the way of the East End is changed forever.
Pay attention. BOOM!
In time with his chanting, Peter Matthiessen, who came to the East End in his 20's and at age 63 still lives there, slams a mallet against a wooden block he has bolted to a wall outside the zendo (meditation spot) he and some friends made out of a former stable next to his East End home. Inside the zendo there are black cushions, floors of burnished blond wood, straw mats, an altar decorated with wild-flowers and a stone Buddha—appropriately, it is a Japanese roadside Buddha, a guardian of wayfarers. Every morning at seven, Matthiessen dons a Buddhist monk's saffron robes and leads a meditative service. He's also likely to drop by the zendo during the day for a moment of reflection, like this one.
Pay attention. BOOM!
Zen teaches its practitioners to realize their experiences moment by moment, instead of dwelling on the past or the future. Matthiessen's warning to himself is apt: He is a traditional earthbound explorer in the space age—a man compelled to traverse mountains, islands and prairies, looking for places un-trammeled by civilization. He is a naturalist and an environmentalist, prescient and persistent in describing his planet. He is a former commercial fisherman and an insatiable touch football player, a novelist and a journalist, an intellectual radical and a Yalie, a Zen monk and the father of four children—the stepfather of two more. He keeps company with William Styron and Cesar Chavez, with Stone Age Indians and art critics. He is a prolific writer and a regular reader of more than a dozen magazines—among them, The Paris Review, of which he is a cofounder.
He is not a dilettante. "He's committed, no doubt about it," says Styron. "An extraordinarily intense involvement with the things that matter to him. Stick-to-it-iveness." So much is going on all about him, that if Matthiessen doesn't remind himself to pay attention, he may miss something. Or keel over.
Thus far, he has done neither. What he has done is write about all of it—save the touch football, which he approaches too ferociously to maintain perspective, and his alma mater, toward which he seems ambivalent. His first nonfiction contribution was Wildlife in America, a book that had its genesis in 1956, when the 29-year-old Matthiessen put a shotgun, a bedroll and some textbooks into his seaweed-green Ford sedan and set off on an extended tour of America's remaining wilderness. From that series of trips, he produced a seminal work that served as both a tribute to several fading species and a rebuke to a single thriving species—his own.