From the Himalayas to the Victorian alps

I figure for most people the name Peter Matthiessen will mean nothing at all. For the record he was a writer – among many other things –  who lived a full, fascinating and very rich life. He died a couple of weeks ago nearing 90; the linked article is excellent overview of an exceptional life.

For me the name Peter Matthiessen meant quite a lot. I like his prose, but was not a compulsive reader. His books are things I would eventually sidle up to, and there are a few I’ve yet to do that. I’m impressed by well lived lives. That’s the point of it I think, if any such thing exists. For me Matthiessen lived a model life in many ways – full of incident, abounding with unexpected variety, rich, curious and challenging in all the best ways. It was the sort of life I’d happily call my own.

Whenever I think of him there is one very personal recollection that comes to mind. This story I think is very typical of the relationship between writer and devoted reader. The writer sets it down and puts it out there. Though he writes for an audience I think it’s a very personal journey. The reader picks up the book and on rare and special occasions it becomes his journey too, along other pathways. There’s a dynamic interaction between the words on the page and the person that reads them, which often leads the reader down unexpected byways.

It must have been nearly 20 years ago when I went on a hunting trip with my step-father and step-brother to the foothills around Whitfield. It was a disastrous trip. We were there to hunt deer. We had a well-provisioned campsite near a stream in the middle of the bush and at the foot of a steep, thickly vegetated hill. From the moment we got there to the moment we left it rained.

It rained so much that the little stream broke its banks and flooded the surrounding area. The rain drained down the hill to our campsite. The ground underfoot was sodden and spongy as the rain fell incessantly, sometimes harder, but never leaving off. Both my step-father and step-brother became ill with stomach complaints, the worst possible thing in such circumstances – though hardly surprising. We ventured out of camp but few times.

I remember sitting by the fire in the shelter of a tarp stretched out between trees. The rain fell on all sides. It was cold and grey and miserable and I was dressed in winter clothes keeping warm by the glowing logs of the fire. I read.

Before leaving home I had thrown into my pack a book I had picked up in a second-hand bookshop – The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. Part of the mystique of this memory is that inside the front cover was an ink stamp signifying this book had once been in a Kathmandu bookshop. I remember looking at that stamp and imagining how it had made its way from so far away into my hands. I pictured a lone traveller in the Himalayas browsing the rudimentary bookstore searching for something to read as he trekked through the Nepalese wilderness. This he found and purchased, and no doubt read as he saw things I can only fantasise about. Eventually he had stuffed the book back in his pack and returned home to Melbourne, and at some time later had taken the book to the local second-hand shop to sell. Now it was mine.

It was an apt feat of imagination. Had it been a straight narrative it would not have resonated the same. As it happens though Matthiessen was heavily influenced by Zen, and this story about the search for the rarely seen Snow Leopard in the foothills of the Himalayas was steeped in that. There was a spirituality to the story that fused with the mysterious provenance of this paperback, and which reading in the rain-sodden Victorian Alps seemed like a circle closed – or closing.

I spent days reading that book by the fire, lured along by the quest to find this mythical beast, by the alluring prose and the undercurrent of Zen philosophy I warmed to. In between, while the others rested in their sickbeds, I would walk in the rain, hiking up the nearby hill. The rain pattered down on my hood, it dripped from the branches and leaves. I heaved myself up the hill looking about me. I was happy to see a deer and had no need to put a bullet through one. All I saw though were the rub marks on the cherry trees, the bark rubbed raw and hanging in strips from the red wood.

It was no surprise that eventually we cut our trip short. The rain didn’t let up, and though I was perfectly healthy the others were in a bad way. We drove back to Melbourne and the weather cleared as we neared town. I had finished reading my book, and still have it – the Kathmandu stamp inside, a crust of dried mud on the cover from when I had dropped it. Such are memories,



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