I’m revisiting books that have meant something to me over the years, and I can’t remember if I ever finished The Snow Leopard. I don’t think I did. But it sort of changed my life anyway.
This time I did finish it. That’s not totally easy to do; Peter Mathiessen’s most famous book, for which he won the National Book Award, is brave and deep but also dense, intensely serious. I read it the first time, or most of it, in my late 20s as a weekly newspaper editor secretly preparing to leave my job and travel in Muslim and Buddhist Asia, hoping to write a revealing personal narrative as Mathiessen did. That he could get to such depth with such economy and precision was as inspiring to me as the courage of his journey — and so I set off on a journey of my own. (I did write my book, my first one, which nobody would publish. That’s another story.)
Not long after losing his wife to cancer, Matthiessen joined the wildlife biologist George Schaller on a long, risky hike through the Himalayas in western Nepal, in late autumn with winter threatening, to explore the ancient Buddhist landscape of Dolpo beyond the mountains. Schaller hoped to learn about a rare breed of sheep, and maybe see the rarer snow leopard; Matthiessen hoped, surely, to get a good book out of the quest.
He surely did. Reading it again, the acuteness of his observation awes me as much as the depth of his phrasing. The man took incredible notes, but even more, he achieved, and conveys, incredible presence. And that in essence is what The Snow Leopard is about — the quest for true presence, genuine awareness beyond the cell of self. He almost, almost gets there. And then he has to start home. He never does see the snow leopard; but he does glimpse what he's truly searching for.
“What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments,” Matthiessen writes as he begins the journey back: “... In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us.”
So there you go. There, and back again.