Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The Snow Leopard
In 1973, author Peter Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller set out for Nepal, hiking hundreds of miles through mountain passes with a varying team of Sherpas and porters.
The MacGuffin (as the Hollywood folks like to say) or the thing that sets the story in motion is the pair’s quest to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep found at the upper altitudes of Nepal.
The duo also hopes to see an even rarer creature that inhabits those mountainsides and is often found near the blue sheep – the elusive snow leopard, said to be so stealthy, you could be mere yards from it and not see or hear it.
But the book of the journey, The Snow Leopard, also is something of a spiritual quest for the author. Matthiessen hopes to visit the revered Lama of Shey, who resides at Crystal Mountain.
So, with all these elements, we have our premise and the quest begins. There are all kinds of adventures and hardships along the way. The journey is perilous – Matthiessen, at times, is forced to cross narrow ridges on his hands and knees, facing drop-offs of hundreds of feet down sheer mountain cliffs, should he stumble. The adventurers must tackle with all the elements that have beset travelers in this part of the world since the beginning of time – high altitudes, extreme cold, tricky weather, a hardscrabble landscape and much more. Nepal is one of those places where you can get frostbit and sunburn on the same day.
But the quest really simply gets the story going. The real story is the personal journey of its author. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, is an introspective writer and makes all manner of wise philosophical observations along the way. This is where the absurd comes in. (Zen and the absurd, we’ve noticed, have various things in common, like brothers.)
There is the idea of acceptance, of taking the world as it is. He finds and admires this trait in his Sherpas. “So open, so without defense, therefore so free,” he writes “accepting like the variable airs the large and small events of every day.”
And in other passages, he makes these observations again and again. (“That happy go lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.”)
But he, too, finds acceptance... and in this acceptance, happiness. “I feel calm, and ready to accept whatever comes, and therefore happy.”
The struggles on the mountain slopes are interesting, too… The mountains test him in every way and he struggles with various emotions. On such a perilous trek, the travelers often seem to have death perched on their shoulders.
Faced with certain death if he makes a wrong move on the mountain slopes, Matthiessen finds peace in the absurd, in the idea that what happens doesn’t matter, that it’s not really important. He even quotes Camus at one point, in talking about his own leap into the absurd. This, he writes, “means not recklessness but acceptance, not passivity but nonattachment.”
There is also a focus on the here and now, which goes hand in hand with absurdity…
“Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is. And surely this is the paradise of children, that they are at rest in the present, like frogs or rabbits.”
Focusing on the here and now also opens up new possibilities and pleasures. As Matthiessen writes: “When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.”
Time also loses meaning on the long trek through the mountains, leading to more absurd conclusions:
“I have long since lost track of the day of the week, and the great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from a future century. It is not so much that we are going back in time as that time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning. I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space.”
He is quite alert to the screens we use to hide the absurdity of our existence. And that seeing this means being open to “the experience that individual existence, ego, the ‘reality’ of matter and phenomena are no more than fleeting and illusory arrangements of molecules. The weary self of masks and screens, defenses, preconceptions, and opinions that, propped up by ideas and words, imagines itself to be some sort of entity (in a society of like entities) may suddenly fall away, dissolve into formless flux where concepts such as “death” and “life,” “time” and “space,” “past” and “future” have no meaning.”
It’s a merry, meditative sort of book and a much-loved classic full of worthy wisdom. We thought we’d share these snippets with you, to give you a taste of the book.
And what of the quest? What of the snow leopard? We won’t give it away…
Posted by Inigo Montoya at 10:41 AM