Blue Sheep Zen

The Snow Leopard

by Peter Matthiessen
Viking, 352 pp., $12.95

Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya

by George B. Schaller
University of Chicago Press, 425 pp., $25.00

During the fall of 1973 Peter Matthiessen accompanied George Schaller on a two-month expedition into the high mountain country of Nepal and Tibet. The land is forbidding as well as legendary for its wild beauty. The expedition was made during the onset of winter storms, in the months of October and November, because Schaller’s aim was to study the mating behavior of certain wild sheep native to the district. Blue sheep, or bharal, undergo a concentrated period of rut in late fall; their behavior at this time is not only curious in itself, but may (it seems) provide clues to a somewhat vexed question among biologists whether they are more akin to sheep or goats. A matter of secondary interest for the expedition was investigation of the snow leopard, an elusive high-altitude predator, whose diet in these parts commonly includes a certain number of blue sheep.

To go on the trip at all, let alone to complete it, obviously required an extraordinary measure of dedication. There are no roads in these areas beyond the north wall of the Himalayas, where Nepal verges on Tibet. Villages are few, vegetation scant, trails are dangerous, and blizzards regularly choke the passes, some of which are over 17,000 feet high. All supplies must be carried in by animal or human porters; both are unreliable, but the human porters more so, if possible, than the beasts. Mechanical assistance from the outside, as by airplane or helicopter, is out of the question; no medical attention is to be had for hundreds of miles in any direction. A severe frostbite, a major fracture, or an attack of appendicitis would almost certainly be fatal; sanitary conditions being what they are, dysentery is a constant possibility. Bandits are also a possibility, but policemen who can’t read official passports, or don’t believe them if they can, are on the whole a worse danger.

The book Peter Matthiessen has written about this expedition is of a kind with which we are becoming familiar lately; it is part travelogue, part autobiography, part historical discourse, and predominantly lay sermon, in the shape of a quest narrative. As with Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which included some of the same ingredients, the bias of the lay sermon is toward Zen Buddhism; and to the eye of a layman, the exposition of Buddhism seems straightforward, nicely written, but not very new. One certainly need not have slogged through the snows of Nepal to discover it. There is of course no reason to anticipate novelty in the explanation of an essentially quietist philosophy which is, by now, at least a thousand years old; but the curious reader might understandably ask whether, if he’d been in full possession of his own philosophical premises, Mr. Matthiessen would have embarked in the first place on such a strenuous and dangerous expedition. For one who is in ecstatic possession of the present, a mere change of scenery isn’t worth …

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