Dec 082018
 

I stumbled across a reference to The Snow Leopard a year and a half ago reading something somewhere about Buddhism. I bought a copy, read it, read it again, and have continued to read it, a bit here a bit there, right up to the present day. That is a long time to spend with a book, and yet it remains as fresh to me, as extraordinarily beautiful, and as deeply moving as it did when I first picked it up.

The story it tells is simple enough. Matthiessen and his friend GS, a wildlife biologist renowned for his field research, hike from Katmandu in Nepal up (and up and up) into a remote region of the Tibetan Himalayas to observe the rut of a little understood mountain goat. If they are fortunate, they also hope to see one of the elusive snow leopards known to live in the mountains. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, would like to visit the aging Llama of the Crystal Monastery as well. Weather threatens them continually on the ascent and both supplies and the porters to carry them are limited, but the men eventually make it to Inner Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, much later than planned but in time for the rut. GS studies the goats; Matthiessen visits the monastery. The men then descend back down into the world of the lower altitudes.

Within the frame of this simple story, Matthiessen experiences something that feels like the entirety of a life and his writing evokes that experience anew each time I read it. In this the book echoes Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps.

The foundation here is a spare taut prose with breadth and sweep enough to capture an immense natural world while also remaining grounded enough to read as the language of a particular man and of his mind’s workings. The writing is always stunningly concrete even as he moves within deeply philosophical considerations of love, death, family, friendship, the nature of reality, and the existence of the self. His mind is strong, energetic, even stubborn yet also (amazingly) open, pliable, and generous.

I’ve spent eighteen months with Matthiessen’s book, and I’m certain he was a difficult and imperfect person, but as strange as it is to say, I suspect that many of the people who knew him fell in love with him and that, if I had, I would have as well.

Sep 072016
 

The woods on Mont St. Hillaire have darkened and dulled to the hard green of late summer. They are ready now to crack apart into the bright yellow and brilliant orange of Fall. And so it is in the fields below.

The hay has been cut, the scrub tilled under, the manure thrown down. Dry corn rustles in the breeze, and here and there, lime has been spread across freshly turned soil, dusty and white, an early echo of late autumn snow.

In my neighbor’s garden, tomatoes dangle from the leafless stalks of wilted plants, gloriously fat and gloriously red. A pumpkin vine, clutching a trellis, props improbable fruit high into the air.

And the ducks fly overhead. And the river runs cool and clear.

 September 7, 2016  Moments Tagged with: ,  Comments Off on September Morning
Jul 232016
 

H Is for HawkIt’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as unsettling as this one.

Things start off in familiar territory: a death pushes the author to pull back into themselves and into nature. The descriptions of landscape are run through with tree names and cloud names and bird names that I don’t know and that provoke the kind of envy that the best nature writing often does. I want to know these names and to see these distinctions within “tree” and “cloud” and “bird” that I’m currently blind to. Falconry is romantic and fascinating and the fact that the author has spent her life learning and practicing it is exciting. The only distractions here are the detours into T. H. White’s efforts to train his own hawk. They feel awkward and I petulantly wish they’d stop: he is not a pleasant figure and his misery and his miserable efforts are so less interesting than MacDonald’s work training her own hawk, Mabel. I want more descriptions of hedgerows and underbrush.

But then slowly things go off the rails and I realize I am not in the book I thought I was. MacDonald is not a literary monk from the wild world of deep feelings sending the rest of us reports laden with small nuggets of wisdom to be underlined and quoted. Neither is Mabel a symbol or guide. She’s a bird, and she can’t do anything to keep MacDonald from tumbling out of control.

And MacDonald does tumble out of control, losing her job, her home. She stops talking to friends and family. Day after day after day, she runs through fields and woods with Mabel hunting and killing rabbits, killing pheasant. The text holds things together for a long time, but by the mid-point it’s clear that our guide in this story, the woman with the names of trees and birds at her fingertips, is losing herself to darkness, and she’s bringing us with her.

Miraculously, the book ends in a better place with feet unsteadily but certainly on the ground. Beauty and light are seeping back into the sky, but things aren’t the same. We’ve read an account of deep wounds closing into aching scars. There’s beauty in the history they hold, but it is an earthy, difficult beauty that smells faintly of the grave. And it’s caught under my nails.

 July 23, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,  Comments Off on H is for Hawk