Michael “Beaux” Mudd, 128 TCCS
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
Several years ago, I was searching for books in the local library where I was living. While searching I came across The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. I’d heard good things about the book and thoroughly enjoy non-fiction, so I decided to give the 1979 National Book Award winner for contemporary thought a read (side note: Ivan Doig’s – This House of Sky: Landscapes of the Western Wind, a finalist that same year is a must read). I must say that although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. When I stumbled upon the book several months ago while passing through Bangkok, I thought it the perfect time to try it again, to see if I connected with it more this time around. Reading for the second time, I felt a much deeper connection to the story and had a better appreciation of his journey and what he was searching for.
The Snow Leopard is an account of the author’s journey with biologist Dr. George Schaller into the Himalayas towards the Crystal Mountain Monastery to study Bharal, a cross between a sheep and a goat. While Schaller is there strictly for science, Matthiessen is on an altogether different trip. Reeling from the recent loss of his wife, he joins the adventure to seek out enlightenment, sifting through his past and contemplating his future. He paints such a vivid picture with his words of the people, landscape and everything else he encountered, that you feel as if you were there yourself. During the journey, he talks about his experience with Zen Buddhism and how it has shaped his life and his current journey. While the Bharal were the trips backing, both Matthiessen and Schaller were hoping to see the elusive Snow Leopard which was thought to be in the area and protected near the monastery.
“And only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped, like the passage of that silver bird on Dhaulagiri.” ― Peter Matthiessen, Snow Leopard
The book is classified as travel literature and natural history, and it doesn’t disappoint in either category. He is so detailed though I often found myself stepping back to take in everything he had described; it is definitely more a book to be slowly read and cherished, not rushed. I was drawn to his following of Zen Buddhism both because I myself don’t necessarily subscribe to any particular religion and the fact that I live in a Buddhist village in a predominately Buddhist country. There was something about his search for meaning and understanding that I felt I could relate to. His matter of fact way of discussing his life, both good and bad, were refreshing to me as well.
The Snow Leopard is a must read, and if you’re a PCV, I highly recommend reading the book during your service. It is the journey of a human taking stock in what his life has been and what it possibly will be—is that not exactly what many of us are doing as PCVs? PCV or not, we all have our “Snow Leopard” that we are hoping to catch even just a glimpse of. For me, the book and life events the past few years have taught me to better appreciate the journey and not just the destination. I hope if you do take the time to read the book you enjoy it as much as I did and then pass along to someone you feel will also appreciate it for what it is.