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A Brief Tribute To Peter Matthiessen

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The great travel writer and author, Peter Matthiessen, died while I was in Ladakh.  I found out the news during a brief moment of internet access  during one night in Leh, between two strenuous weeks in the mountains on our search for one of the most spectacular and enigmatic wild cats in the world, the Snow Leopard.

Last year, during my expedition to far western Tibet, I bought a copy of  Matthiessen’s best known book “The Snow Leopard” in Kathmandu, with the intention that I I’d read it on my trip.  After all, Mark was on a pre-planned expedition in search of Snow Leopards at the exact same time that I had mine planned in Tibet.  In fact, at one point of our trips we were less than 100km from each other.  Mark was in Ladakh and I was just over the border in such a remote part of western China, few western tourists even know about it, much less travel there.  Only the heavily militarised border between India and China separated us and stopped me from the temptation to jump in a raft and flow with the Indus towards Mark.  After all he was just down stream on his first Snow Leopard search.

Due to the strenuous nature of my expedition in Tibet, I never got a chance to read “The Snow Leopard”.  When I returned,  Mark told me he had  became so enthralled with the mini-Tibet that is Ladakh that he asked me if I would join him on another trip there.  I accepted and in March we returned.  I took my copy of Matthiessen’s book with me.

Matthiessen went to Dolpo in search of Snow Leopards.  He accompanied the naturalist George Schaller on expedition for two months, principally to study the Caprivi species of the Tibetan Plateau but also, if they were lucky, they hoped to see a wild Snow Leopard.

Reading “The Snow Leopard” while I accompanied Mark in our search for them, I found so much resonated with our journey that I took notes.  As I pondered Matthiessen’s musings of his trip with a great naturalist, I physically journeyed through Ladakh with my partner, a recognised world expert in Palaearctic birds.  The similarities of the pairings were striking.

Foremost in those similarities is an acute awareness and endless curiosity for everything pertaining to the natural world.  Mark and I are both quiet walkers and we notice.  We look for varieties of plants we’ve never encountered, try to identify found feathers, enjoy the questions that certain animal behaviours evoke and other joys that crop up between two people who have a strong connection to their surroundings through a passionate interest of our natural world and the people in it.    I don’t think Mark or I will ever have our curiosity satisfied.  Materially this manifests itself in our combined bowerbird tendency of collecting things. Between us we have enough items from our respective expeditions to fill our own natural history museum and charge an entrance fee!

Matthiessen was also tempted to take something from his journey as a souvenir yet whether or not he actually took something home from his journey in Dolpo is not certain.  I imagine he would have returned home with at least a silk kata, the sheer and beautiful Tibetan scarves that are given to guests during their journeys in Tibet.

During his journey in Dolpo, Matthiessen assisted Schaller in his observations of wild Blue Sheep, a species we encountered in large numbers during our trip in Ladakh.

In another strange coincidence, our visit to the Snow Leopard Conservancy of India took place directly after the visit of Panthera, an organisation dedicated to conserving the world’s great wild cats where Schaller is the vice president.

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Like Matthiessen, I also spent a great deal of my twenties engrossed in Buddhism. Although I never ventured into as many Zen learnings as he, I read many books on Tibetan Buddhism with an aim to emulate as much of those lessons in my day to day life.  Reading “The Snow Leopard” the main highlights for me appeared when Matthiessen combined his love and observations of the natural world with his buddhist musings.  In that vein I’d like to share with you some of his thoughts that remained with me long after I read them in a remote and frozen valley of the western Himalaya.

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“The mountains have no meaning.  They are meaning.  The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist as I do myself, yet the mountains exist simply, which I do not”

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“There is so much that enchants me in this spare, silent space that I move softly so as not to break a spell”

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“I have the universe all to myself.  The universe has me all to itself”

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“Prayer flags and bells confide spiritual longings to the winds”

Matthiessen wrote many other books that I now feel compelled to explore.  After reading “The Snow Leopard” during our search for them I was tremendously saddened by the news of his passing.  So I’d like to devote some of my sightings to his memory.  I hope his words and spirit will echo through the Himalaya with the call of the Shadow, one of the world’s most elusive wild cats, for many years to come.

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