I just finished reading for the fourth time Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award-winning 1978 Buddhist-tinged classic, The Snow Leopard.
The book recounts his journey into the Himalayan Mountains during a period of extreme personal crisis. He is trekking with a biological expedition in hope of seeing the elusive snow leopard. He never sees it and in that not seeing he sees everything. He was even happy in not seeing it.
Outside of Jim Harrison’s Dalva, The Snow Leopard is the most influential book of my life.
If you are burning up in crisis or happily content, this is the book for you.
I read The Snow Leopard in 1994, 2009, 2012 and 2017. I’ve read the same paperback copy and my annotations from each reading provide me a scrawled map of where I thought I was going that particular year.
In light of recent tumultuous events, the book has fortified me with new supernatural energy and wisdom. I wield it almost as a weapon against the forces arrayed against me, chief among them, my own doubts.
What follows are my comments and salient quotations from the book. There is no order to them. This is a flow. This is a trek.
Here we go:
I always encouraged students to go on a pilgrimage and write about it. It occurs to me that my old writing lessons and prompts are teaching me new better ways of thinking. When a student is ready, a teacher appears, the Buddhist tradition says. Have I appeared to myself? Is that possible?
Doing matters more than the attainment or reward.
“In most cases it is impossible to explain to the others what has happened, for an understanding is walled off by impenetrable prejudices.” Very, very, very true.
How you do things in everyday life is your religion, that’s your practice.
“One must go one’s self to know the truth.” I am going by myself and I am discovering truth. It is a lonely but necessary journey.
The industrial revolution created a new barbarian in the West and we’ve been vandalizing the planet ever since. I think about that former girlfriend who flew to Antarctica to run a marathon so she could say she ran a marathon on all the continents.
The ability to cultivate stillness in one’s life is important. I have redefined the meaning of stillness in my life. Try watching three deer in your back yard for three hours, you’ll find stillness.
Notice small things.
“I long to let go, drift free of things, to accumulate less, depend on less, to move more simply.”
The scene on the trail at 15,000 feet where Matthiessen competes with a goldfinch for wild Cannabis seeds.
I have experienced a great death…the rebirth is underway, but I am still wearing corduroy.
“Childhood is full of mystery and promise.” I think this is why I am writing so much about Oregon City these days. There is something in this exploration of my hometown that inspires me. The way out of this story I am living is through story. Tennis will be involved as well. With wooden rackets.
Matthiessen’s writing on a beautiful river in Nepal reminded me of a journey to see the remote awesome old growth stand of Sitka spruce called the Valley of Giants. It was on this journey to the Coast Range near Siletz with a very special hard core Oregonian that I saw the upper reaches of the Siletz River and it was the most beautiful river I had ever seen, despite the massacre of clear cuts all around.
Get back to the land! Start a farm or co-op!
Matthiessen writes about the terrific struggle between clinging to something and letting it go. Clinging is not a great verb, I think. What am I still clinging to? What must I finally let go of? Is there anything left to release?
List of Let Go, Gone:
Planning for future
All my musical instruments and amps
Stewardship of Vortex I and the legacy of Oregon’s publicly-owned beaches
Matthiessen writes: “If given the chance to turn back, I would not take it.”
Ask myself this: “Given the chance to turn back, would I take it?”
No, not as I write this on April 24, 2017. I wouldn’t have learned anything. Look what I have learned? Look what the learning exposed. Look at the evanescence of my accomplishments and immature notions of friendship. I say this despite knowing the hell I’ve put my family through. We are closer than we have ever have been. We are growing stronger together.
I could change my mind on this as life unfolds.
The scene where Matthiessen writes about a, “lake that has never seen a boat.” What an image that is!
“Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells is one of the great metaphysical rock songs of all time. It popped into my mind when reading this book. Listen to it!
I need a journey of enlightenment, a physical one into the deep woods or misty mountains. Maybe not alone, however. Who would go with me? I’m tainted. Dogs don’t care.
Matthiessen rushes to judgment many times with his native porters and is deeply ashamed when he recognizes his errors. How many rushed to judge me? Do they regret this?
Koan: All these things happen to people, why did this happen to me? The very nature of a Koan, a Zen riddle, makes it unresolvable, of course, but I try to resolve it nonetheless by not even trying.
I’ve got to write my book with a crispness of a haiku. Is that possible with prose on the subject of The Registry of Sexual Offense? Let me try here: brown rubber boots, quality green rain gear, a skateboard with a Swastika , rain moving in a phalanx, a city bus, a bike seat wrapped with a plastic bag, cigarettes and hoodies in the cover of hemlocks, an errant goose flies by the empty probation office.