The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
Originally published: 1978
Genres: Travel literature, Natural history
Awards: National Book Award for Contemporary Thought, National Book Award for General Nonfiction (Paperback)
Description: In the autumn of 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen set out in the company of zoologist George Schaller on a hike that would take them 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, “the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth.” Their voyage was in quest of one of the world’s most elusive big cats, the snow leopard of high Asia, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical; Schaller was one of only two Westerners known to have seen a snow leopard in the wild since 1950.
Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is rightly regarded as a classic of modern nature writing. Guiding his readers through steep-walled canyons and over tall mountains, Matthiessen offers a narrative that is shot through with metaphor and mysticism, and his arduous search for the snow leopard becomes a vehicle for reflections on all manner of matters of life and death. In the process, The Snow Leopard evolves from an already exquisite book of natural history and travel into a grand, Buddhist-tinged parable of our search for meaning. By the end of their expedition, having seen wolves, foxes, rare mountain sheep, and other denizens of the Himalayas, and having seen many signs of the snow leopard but not the cat itself, Schaller muses, “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.”
Purchase: Amazon Books
Hungry for a good adventure book, my search led me to Peter Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard. This book lived on a personal reading list of mine for months, and has consistently shown up on multiple reading list searches of all time great adventure reads. Following the lead of those lists, led me to both fiction and non-fiction books. Something about the reality of The Snow Leopard, caught my imagination.
Matthiessen is master story teller, so you are sucked in the building of his narrative and his details of the experience. You are left with the harsh beauty of his quest for meaning and the rare glimpse into a mysterious land and people. Though Matthiessen didn’t come face to face the snow leopard, he saw undeniable signs of the ghost cat’s presence, some only moments after. He ties a strong parallel between finding the elusive snow leopard and life’s meaning. Though we may never see the leopard or completely understand life’s meaning, there points evidence that both exist.
Reading The Snow Leopard, satisfied my hunger for an adventure story. The reporting of real life situations and the transparency with which he wrote the book, left me with more than just the satisfaction of a good story. It left me with an appreciation for my faith and a desire to see more of the mysterious world I live in. In this age of information, so readily available, there is still mystery in the world. Though we can click on a button and be transported, with images and video, to remote places, it will never beat the experience of getting there. Nor can it beat the experience of being there.