When Matthiessen went to Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and , possibly, to glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard, he undertook his five-week trek as winter snows were sweeping into the high passes. This is a radiant and deeply moving account of a "true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart".
This is the kind of book you take with you on a backpacking trip and savor over and over. Like Desert Solitaire, or A Sand County Almanac, or Thoreau's Journals. This is a book that can't be adequately described in a review.
Anyone who has ever identified as a seeker of any kind should read it.
Beautiful, crystalline prose as rarified and miraculous as the Himalayan setting he describes.
In some ways "The Snow Leopard" represents a document of not only Peter's journey but an entire generations. Traveling to the Himalaya's, smoking pot, zen-ing out with Buddhist's monks - this was the height of hip in 1973 when Peter took the trip, and it obviously has had life-changing impact on many people. Some of this vision and lifestyle has lost its luster over the past 30 years with new generations and new values, but this book will certainly be forever a documentary of the times. Peter's descriptive powers are formidable - it can take some effort to get into his flow as the passages are dense with information, visual and encyclopedic, but if you can keep up with his energy, the reward is an unforgettable trip.
In the end though, I have to say I didn't like the narrator. He abandoned his orphaned young children to selfishly look for enlightenment. Better to have sought it in being present in his own life instead of trying to escape to the mountains.
I did get lost in some of the more technical aspects of field biology and the history of Buddhism, but mostly it was the names that turned me around and it was often helpful. The philosophy is interesting and the story compelling. Give it a try.
Where it loses points for me? Well, it might have been shelved with books on science, but despite the title there's really little here about the snow leopard and not enough really about nature. On the back of the book it's described as a "spiritual journey" and I could have used much less of the "spiritual." Matthiessen at the time considered himself a "student" of Zen Buddhism and according to the introduction would later be "ordained as a Zen priest." I could identify with the irritation of Schaller, his scientist companion, at Matthiessen's mysticism--even as Matthiessen insists Buddhism has nothing to do with the occult. He's the kind of guy that takes seriously the Yeti and Carlos Castaneda. I know for many the spiritual aspect of the book is the point--for me it was intrusive and Matthiessen's tone often hectoring. I found his attitude towards the Sherpas and porters all the more annoying because some of them shared his faith--at one point he compares amulets with one of them--and yet he displays plenty of condescension towards them--describing them more than once as "childlike." Admittedly, I don't agree with his philosophy, though after reading Thich Nhat Hanh, Thoreau and Emerson and Joseph Campbell within the last few months, I also felt as if the way Matthiessen conveyed Buddhist philosophy was trite. It was like going from reading the New Testament, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis to reading the ramblings of some narcissistic Christian television evangelist as he treks over the mountains. Add to that Matthiessen's rapturous description of his experimentation with mind-altering drugs in search of enlightenment (and his abandonment for months of his young son who had just lost his mother in search of a Buddhist lama on Crystal Mountain)--well, it was hard to tap down my disdain at times. Very, very hippie.
It was actually about a trip the author took with zoologist George Schaller. GS was going to the Himalayas to study sheep and invited Matthiessen along. The area they would be in is a place where they might spot a snow leopard. Along the way, as they hike to the area they need to be, Matthiessen describes the people in the area, as well as the religion. His focus is on Buddhism. Overall, it was o.k., but I was disappointed that it wasn't what I'd hoped.
I liked the story, the mixture of every day life trekking such a remote place and the emotions caused by this. The only nuisance are Matthiessens remarks about philosophy and science. They are nonsense. Fortunately they are rare in the book, which otherwise is very good.
"The path I followed breathlessly has faded among the stones; in spiritual ambition, I have neglected my children and done myself harm, and there is no way back. Nor has anything changed; I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations - that aching gap between what I know and what I am."
(257-258 of the Folio edition)
I shuddered reading that the first time as a single unattached 25 year-old. Now, twenty years on, it echoes still. I can't imagine that voyage after the death of a partner leaving the children for others to manage for months on end.
An immensely powerful book, perhaps in my lifetime top ten. Read it.