Recalling Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen off Montauk, New York, in 2004. Photograph by Carl Safina.

Peter Matthiessen off Montauk, New York, in 2004. Photograph by Carl Safina.

Peter Matthiessen, a longtime friend and advisor to Orion, passed away one year ago on Sunday. Orion author Carl Safina, who knew Matthiessen (they are both from Long Island, New York), offers this remembrance.

I first encountered Peter Matthiessen’s writing when I was around fourteen years old. I’d get off the bus at my suburban Long Island junior high school, head to the library before class, and peruse the writing and photography in books like The Tree Where Man Was Born and Sand Rivers and try to imagine a life lived in such wondrous adventures and with such words.

Fast forward about a decade. A new girlfriend has just come back from Brazil and recommends a book that she hands to me: At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Oh, sure, I think—Peter Matthiessen. A year later I am hiking in the Himalayas and I have with me a little paperback I’ve found in a Kathmandu bookshop, used: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen.

About a decade later, while working on my first book, I recall a couple of passages from Matthiessen’s Men’s Lives. One phrase about “a New World gone prematurely old” works perfectly as a quote in a passage I am writing. My editor and I agree that it would be great if we could get an endorsement of my book from Peter Matthiessen for the back cover. I write to him, and to my delight he obliges with a postcard and a kind note about the book.

A year or so after that, I am speaking on a panel about book writing and there, also speaking, is Peter Matthiessen, the giant himself. He is tall, steady, imposing even in repose. He’d always seemed larger than life and now, here and present, he really looks larger than life.

Peter had a fierce reputation that preceded him (the word passed on mostly by editors and publishers), but in the fifteen years or so that I knew him I found him almost inexplicably kind, considerate, and gracious. When we fly-fished together here on Long Island—which is mainly what we did together—we also watched and commented on the many seabirds, sea ducks, and migrating shorebirds.

Though we loved the same place, Peter was from an earlier time and had known it differently. He seemed a kind of timeless character, an elder grown wise without growing old. Peter had sensed enduring truths and sent deep taproots into them, and through those roots he seemed to draw his own inner life. The rhythms and wisdoms in nature. The necessity of paying attention within and without. The folly of short-sightedness. He was deeply committed to Zen practice and teaching, but sufficiently committed to the world to be a vocal and much-felt proponent of justice and conservation.

As a role model, Peter was untouchable. I was always a little tongue-tied around him until the last couple of times I saw him, when I finally let myself relax in his presence. He was my hero, yet I didn’t want to idolize him. That would have been both poor form and bad for my own writing. I didn’t read absolutely everything he wrote, and what I read I didn’t equally love. I thought I sensed in his later nonfiction his own impatience with it, as though he was in a hurry to get back to shaping his novels. (Peter’s nonfiction had thrilled and inspired me, but to him, the real writing was fiction writing. Once, on the way to my boat, he began speaking of the freedom in fiction; in nonfiction he felt confined.)

Peter really was an outsized human being—equipped with an exceptionally sharp mind, a big heart, and a piercing memory, with wide experiences and deep convictions. In comment and in action, Peter stayed committed to fiercely held ideals of quality, integrity, and honesty. He disappointed some friends, he told me, by declining to provide endorsements for their books specifically because they were friends. Objectivity had a value that Peter was unwilling to let mere friendship undermine.

He practiced Zen on a spiritual plane but his pursuit of rightness was sometimes literal and material. A friend told of a time Peter was driving to Montauk in poor visibility and struck a deer. The deer ran off, but Peter could see that it had a broken leg. He pulled over, tracked the deer into the woods to where it had collapsed, and with his hands he ended its suffering.

The last time we went fishing, a day filled with the migratory energies of fishes and birds of autumn, Peter told me that being there on his home waters filled him with homesickness. Quibbling over the word, I queried whether it was more a yearning than homesickness. But Peter wasn’t one to choose words casually, or to use a word that wasn’t exactly the word he intended. Perhaps he was responding to time’s unconquerable tidal retreat. He’d known and loved a different time. We may travel a while together, but we journey alone.

Peter died of leukemia at age eighty-six at his home in Sagaponack, Long Island, on April 5, 2014. The opportunity to know Peter for about fifteen years or so was a gift in my life. I find myself thinking of him frequently, sometimes recalling the comfort of his woofy, measured voice, thinking about him when I find myself on distant shores and landscapes he chronicled in an earlier era. Sometimes I catch myself thinking of him while I’m writing, and when I do I recall again that he set a very high bar for writing sentences, working authentically and originally, living with intent, and valuing one’s time on Earth.

Carl Safina’s book The View from Lazy Point won the 2012 Orion Book Award. His seventh book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, is forthcoming in July by Henry Holt and Company. He is founding president of The Safina Center (formerly Blue Ocean Institute), and co-chairs the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Comments

  1. I’ve admired Matthiessen’s writing for at least 35 years but never wrote and told him until the fall before he passed away. A friend found his address for me.
    To my surprise, Peter responded with a postcard and asked if my home town, Cedar Key, FL was still an old fishing town.
    He had visited Cedar Key when he was writing his Killing Mr. Watson series. I was happy that I could reply that,
    Yes, we are still an old fishing village. Love his books. Admire his kindness.

  2. I discovered Peter Matthiessen when I picked up The Snow Leopard in my early twenties, over forty years ago. I had never read anything like it, and from that moment on I became a fan, always including Matthiessen on my list of favorite authors should anyone ask; one of the handful of males actually, along with Jim Harrison. What a truly rare and extraordinary writer and person was he. I feel blessed that he walked this earth and that I shared a time in space with him. How many people will that ever be said about?

  3. Peter Matthiessen’s writings have deeply affected my feelings and beliefs about nature and man’s place in it. I once took a series of meditation classes with him at the Zen Community of New York where he used his Zen name, Muryo. At one of the first classes, a new attendee, apparently upset at not being able to meet the celebrity author, complained that she had signed up for the class believing that it would be taught by Peter Matthiessen. While most of the class squirmed in discomfort, he paused for a moment and then answered in the kindest of tones and without a hint of sarcasm, “I am also known by that name.”

  4. I met Peter Matthiessen at the home of mutual friends in Dublin Ireland in the 1960s. I was very interested in oceanography and had been reading about orcas. Peter was a naturalist, of course, and was not aware of the information I had and asked me to send it to him. I corresponded with him on this topic for a while. Some ten years later, I met him for dinner in New Hampshire, where I was working on my Ph.D. in forestry, and he was picking up his son from a summer camp. He always answered my letters, usually by postcard, and was a truly extraordinary person. I value our brief interactions with which I was gifted.

  5. My high school students and I met Peter while attending the “River of Words” kick-off event at the U.S. Library of Congress in 1996. Peter was the keynote presenting on cranes of the world. His humor, deep knowledge and obvious affection for these iconic birds was highly engaging and infectious. Beginning with my reading of “Snow Leopard”, I had a profound respect for Peter, his spirituality, desire to connect with exotic landscapes and the life they support, were common ground for my personal interests. More recently, reading “The Tree Where Man Was Born” on his ramblings through the Serengeti intertwined with my connection to Tanzania where I was involved with launching a new upper level high school near Gombe N.P. Peter’s acute awareness and familiarity with the flora, fauna, and ecology was profound. His eloquent description and prosaic delivery in written expression was no less elevating than Snow Leopard. Thank you Peter for all you have contributed to our sacred planet and the life it supports!

  6. I had just finished building a wooden boat when I had the pleasure of meeting Peter at a lecture and book-signing at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami. I told him the boat was named “Hannah Smith” after a prominent character in his trilogy about the killing of Edgar Watson. Then I quoted some dialogue from his novel, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” that had stayed with me since 1965. He seemed to be pleased. It was an honor to have spent a few minutes with him.

  7. I never met Peter, but I have been moved by his writing. He left a legacy of values and wisdom. His last book, In Paradise, was intense and thought provoking, and its multiple perspectives stayed with me long after putting it down.

  8. “Snow Leopard” and “Far Tortuga” changed my life. I will always be grateful to Peter for that gift. He inspired me to see and hear and feel the world we live in.

  9. I’m currently reading The Snow Leopard and heartily endorse your views on his writing and his character. You are so lucky to have known him. His work is timeless.

  10. Life-changing events can happen in quiet moments. Mine occurred at a bookstore, when I was perusing new titles and spotted Peter Matthiessen’s “Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark.” On that day in 1971 when I began reading the book, I was making my living as a secretary. By the time I finished the book, I began to dream of making my living as a writer. I continued to sit behind a typewriter for eight more years until I could save enough money for college. I kept reading Matthiessen all the while. I did become a writer and eventually wrote to Matthiessen. By golly, he wrote back. I wrote this remembrance shortly after he died http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-books/discovering-peter-matthiessen-and-myself-20140501/.

  11. Thank you all for these fascinating remembrances of Peter Matthiessen. I wish I’d taken the trouble when he was still alive to write him to tell him how impotant his work and life were to me.
    I discovered his work when I was in my early twenties, in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which profoundly impressed me (and was a factor in my later encounter with ayahuasca in Brazil). Many years and books later, my respect and love for this man as an author and as an authentic human being grew into a feeling that was almost personal, though I never met him or saw him speak. His friendship with Zen master Bernie Glassman Roshi endeared him to me further. His life was an ongoing demonstration that the vocation of writer in our time does not have to be ego-driven, and is indeed reconcilable with spiritual awakening, something which I (and I believe, many other writers) needed an outstanding example of.

  12. I discovered Peter Matthiessen in a bookshop called Pilgrim’s Bookshop in Kathmandu in 2011. After I finished reading “Snow Leopard” , I found myself wishing Matthiessen a long, long Life. every page of “Snow Leopard” seems to have a personal message for me. I found myself sticking Posits on nearly every page and copying out sections of his work in my journal. I still haven’t fully comprehended the book and what it means to me.

  13. I read “The Snow Leopard” many many years ago, and reread it seven years ago or so.
    It is a book that I come back to from time to time.
    I am not surprised to discover this portrait of its author from the author of this article, and comments above.
    Peter Matthiessen is an inspiring man. I am happy to have known him through his writing.

  14. In preparing to write my book about Peter in the Twayne U.S. Author Series, I found him to be quite accessible and approachable. Invited for lunch with his wife, Maria, and himself, I was able to interview him at length on that occasion and on others. We lay on the beach at Sagaponack, the surf singing around us, and Peter answered my questions. At one point, being the experienced interviewer he was, Peter suggested I check the tape recorder to make sure it was working properly. I did and it was. The interview continued and when I got back in my car to continue my drive south, I decided to listen to the interview. To my chagrin and anger, I had forgotten to turn the recorder back on after making the check, so all the rest of the interview was lost. I scribbled furiously while driving, trying to recollect what had been said. Later, when I told Peter what had happened, he said not to worry. Use whatever I remembered and just send him the draft and he would be happy to correct any factual errors.

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