What do we hope to find when we search for a snow leopard?


Biologically speaking, the sperm whale belongs to the genus Physete, to the family of Physeteridae, and to this magnificent group of aquatic mammals properly called Cetaceans. In literary matters, however, it belongs, indisputably, to Herman Melville. Some other fiction and non-fiction writers have achieved a feat like theirs, forging an alternate taxonomy whereby they become permanently associated with a particular creature. So, one could say that the mongoose belongs to Rudyard Kipling, the mockingbird to Harper Lee, the lobster to David Foster Wallace, the cockroach to Kafka, the spider to EB White and the snake to the one who wrote Genesis.

In this sense, the snow leopard, which clearly does not belong to anyone, belongs to Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen, who died in 2014, was also the man of many other associations: novelist, travel writer, environmentalist, co-founder of The Parisian review, Zen Buddhist, CIA secret agent But he sealed his connection to one of nature’s most elusive animals in 1978, with the publication of “The Snow Leopard”, which first appeared in part in this magazine and won two National Book Awards, one for the now defunct category of contemporary thought, one for general non-fiction. Despite the title of the book, the snow leopard is almost entirely absent from its pages, weak and fleeting like a paw print in the snow. Matthiessen devotes about as many paragraphs to him as to the yeti, and of these two mysterious alpine animals, he thinks he sees only the imagination.

And yet “The Snow Leopard” manages to give the impression of being subtly but fundamentally about its stated subject matter, albeit in a chimerical way – part literal, part figurative, like a creature transforming in mid -path in a thought. Even scholars writing about snow leopards regularly cite Matthiessen’s book, while general interest writers, perhaps acknowledging that a flag had been planted on particularly high and difficult ground, have mostly looked elsewhere for their stories. . But now comes the Parisian writer Sylvain Tesson with “The Art of Patience”, its title a necessary accommodation for an apparently unwelcome predecessor: in French, the language in which it was written, Tesson’s book, like that of Matthiessen, simply bears the name of the animal.

“The Art of Patience,” which has been skillfully translated by Frank Wynne, is not a tribute to its precursor, to put it mildly. We understand why Tesson wants to put some distance between him and Matthiessen, whose book hovers over a large part of nature’s writing, huge and motionless like Annapurna. Yet this new book echoes the previous one in countless ways. Like Matthiessen, Tesson faces the other side of his forties, feeling his age and his physical limitations. Like Matthiessen, he hopes his trip will help him settle into a new way of being: Zen, in the original book; the more secular “art of patience” in this one. Like Matthiessen, he is a sort of figure of Watson, companion throughout his adventure of a more informed character: in his case, Vincent Munier, a French wildlife photographer; for Matthiessen, George Schaller, one of the world’s foremost field biologists. Finally, Shard’s interest in the snow leopard, like that of Matthiessen, is intertwined, disturbingly, with grief and women.

Even where these books diverge, the effect is less to set the novel apart than to create a study in contrasts. In the field of nature writing, Matthiessen works mainly in the tradition of the spiritual pilgrim, while Shard writes in the tradition of the discontented misanthrope. Together, they raise this age-old question of our relationship with nature. But they also suggest a more recent problem: As the wilderness becomes increasingly threatened and impoverished, in what ways and for what purposes are we supposed to write about it?

It is easy to understand the allure of the snow leopard. On the one hand, even in the photographs, it is magnificent to see: a pale green eye, a pale gray of fur, speckled with dark rosettes like the resurrected ghost of a jaguar. His muzzle is huge, his paws huge, his XXXXL tail, also useful for maintaining balance in steep terrain and wrapping around his body like a blanket to protect himself from the cold during the nap – which he can well do. allow to do, as he is a literal top predator, undisputed overlord of the roof of the world, reigning since three million BC His kingdom encompasses some of the most storied and least accessible lands on the planet, from the Hindu Kush in the Himalayas, from Siberia to Mongolia to Bhutan. For a certain type of person (and I am one of them) this combination of felines and high mountain is thrilling, with the animal and its context conspiring to suggest some sort of extreme, untouchable savagery.

Rarity further contributes to this mystique: of all the big cats, the snow leopard is one of the rarest. Maybe there are four thousand adults left, or maybe two thousand; in any case, they are devilishly difficult to spot. Photographs of tigers date back to at least 1891, but the earliest known photo of a snow leopard was taken in 1970, by George Schaller, the then traveling companion of Peter Matthiessen, one of only two Westerners to have laid eyes on the creature in the wild. The designs of snow leopards, however, are ancient and appear throughout the heraldic iconography of Central Asia, from the coat of arms of the Tatars to the official seal of the city of Samarqand. In some of these images, the beast is rendered with wings, which seems appropriate, given that snow leopards regularly reach heights much higher than usual eagles and hawks.

All of this – the remoteness, the rarity, the altitude, the stealth – presents a problem for anyone hoping to meet a snow leopard. This is the kind of challenge Matthiessen was not ready to resist. By the time he set out to find the creature, he had already traveled a lot, in New Guinea, in the Serengeti, in the Bering Sea, in Patagonia. So when Schaller invited him to travel to an area of ​​Nepal known as Inner Dolpo, in the heart of the Himalayas, in order to study the bharal sheep and possibly spot a snow leopard, Matthiessen jumped in. on the occasion.

The resulting book takes on journal form, beginning September 28, 1973 and ending December 1 – a risky time of year to roam the local mountains, dictated not by comfort or safety but by season. of the loves of sheep. With Schaller and a group of Sherpas and porters, Matthiessen walks about two hundred and fifty miles, and his book, accordingly, takes the literary equivalent of a step. It’s the right speed to record your surroundings, which is Matthiessen’s strong point; he is a marvelous observer, convincing without being flashy, and at best his prose has the documentary force of the first film sequences. He notes a hawk on a cliff, how “it leans down as the sun goes down, the feathers of the neck lift in the wind”; he watches a cloudy day “a pine forest drifts in puffs of mist”. Some of his most striking revelations are the smaller ones. Stopping to admire a lizard basking on a rock fifteen thousand feet in the air in mid-November, he writes that, “for the first time in my life, I have apprehended the sheer heat of our star” – how bad the sun must be. so that its light crosses ninety-three million kilometers of freezing cold, but still suffices to warm the two creatures sharing this mountain side.

But Matthiessen is looking for deeper ideas than those of his trip. One night, he meets a biologist who asks him why he is crossing such inhospitable terrain if he has no work to do in the area. “I shrugged my shoulders uncomfortably,” writes Matthiessen:

Caricature by Roz Chast

To say that I was interested in blue sheep or snow leopards, or even distant lamaseries, was not an answer to his question, even if it was all true; to say I was on a pilgrimage seemed silly and vague, but in a way it was also true. And so I admitted that I didn’t know. How would I say that I wanted to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown. . . ?


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