A Personal Note on Peter Matthiessen,
Who Wrote Eloquently of the Natural World

8 April 2014

For an editor, the prospect of working with Peter Matthiessen was intimidating. He was one of our finest writers, and he wrote with such poetic precision and lyrical grace that at first it felt presumptuous to propose any changes to his writing at all. That feeling was heightened by his strong physical presence — an odd mix of Manhattan patrician, rugged outdoorsman, and Zen priest (all of which he was). And yet when I worked as Matthiessen’s editor on several magazine articles in the 1990s, it was an immensely satisfying experience. He listened Zen-like, carefully considering all my editing suggestions (with him,
Peter Matthiessen
Getty Images
Peter Matthiessen
they were suggestions only), and to my delight, accepted almost all of them. To me, he proved an old editor’s maxim — the best writers are the most appreciative of constructive editing.

Peter Matthiessen died last Saturday at the age of 86, near the Long Island, New York, waters he so loved to fish. He was the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1979) and fiction (Shadow Country, 2008). He disdained being labeled a nature writer, and he was, of course, much more than that. But few authors have ever written as beautifully about nature or captured so well the essence of fully experiencing the natural world.

In re-reading Matthiessen these last few days, I was struck by how well his writing has held up over the decades. In his classic Wilderness in America, published in 1959, he wrote about the loss of species in a way that seems as though it could have been part of today’s debate about the Anthropocene:

Species appear, and left behind by a changing earth, they disappear forever, and there is a certain solace in the inexorable. But until man, the highest predator, evolved, the process of extinction was a slow one. No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climactic change, has ever extinguished another.

And in The Snow Leopard, his unflinching account of a journey to the remote Himalaya, he describes his own spiritual quest, shifting masterfully between the mystical and earthly realms:

The sun pours a fine golden mist into the Bheri Valley, warming my back as I climb the trail through rhododendron wood and shining oak. A boy in a sky-colored cap overtakes me and is gone, leaving a strange shadow in the air. He makes me shiver; I don’t want him to look back. I never had a sky-blue cap, I never saw his face, yet this boy who vanishes into the trees is the same as me.

The pass is no higher than 13,000 feet, and there is little snow. I am hobbled by a sharp pain in one knee, and favoring it excites some odd pains elsewhere, and so I am grateful that the descent on the far side is the most gradual path we have yet walked in Nepal, following round forest rims of four wild valleys before emerging on a hogback ridge. From the ridge, the path turns steeply down to a pretty village with old prayer walls, by a river. This warm season is the season of a dream, not quite like any autumn I have known. I smell fresh frog mud at the rivulets, and sweet chicken dung in sunny heaps, out of the wind, and woodsmoke and the acid smell of rotting leaves — the smells of childhood morning days that tug at my heart.

— Roger Cohn, Editor, Yale Environment 360


Donate to Yale Environment 360