The Return of ‘The Snow Leopard’

The Snow Leopard is an account of an expedition high into the seldom-seen Himalayan land of Inner Dolpo, to record the habits of the bharal, or rare Himalayan blue sheep, and, if possible, in passing to glimpse the famously shy and evasive snow leopard. The book, which is just being reissued by Penguin Classics, begins, as most scientific logs do, with a precise map, and ends with scholarly notes and an index. The leader of the climb is the eminent field biologist George Schaller (here known as “GS”) and with him travel various local porters and Sherpas and the writer who records the trip, Peter Matthiessen. The author, a “naturalist, explorer,” as his bio has it, takes pains to note every “cocoa-coloured wood frog” the travelers pass, and the “pale lavender-blue winged blossoms of the orchid tree (Bauhinia).” He records altitudes and temperatures and the history and geography of every region he visits. The human habitations he describes are, typically, full of “vacant children, listless adults, bent dogs and thin chickens in a litter of sagging shacks and rubble, mud, weeds, stagnant ditches….”

Yet even as it makes us feel every pebble and rag on the tough journey, The Snow Leopard is the record of a different kind of ascent as well, which the reader catches as a silent current pulsing just beneath the lines. “I climb on through grey daybreak worlds towards the light,” its author tells us at one moment, and a little later he is in a world of “snow and silence, wind and blue.” The journey is clearly to places inward as well as up, and as the author climbs and climbs toward his final way-station, at 18,000 feet, near the Crystal Mountain, he seems so to disappear inside the vastness of the scene around him—the sharpened skies, the deep blue silences, the elegant clarity of a world of snow and rock—that it begins to feel as if those forces are speaking as much as he does. “The earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.” The book is written, you begin to sense, by a serious self-taught scientist (who spent most of a year driving around his country and producing a near-definitive book, Wildlife in America ). But it is also written, in the same breath, by a Zen student who will later become a priest, whose business it is to see past all the projections and delusions of the mind to the hard rock of unvarnished reality. It is written by a seasoned journalist of the old school whose range is so great that he can light up the paths he is taking by referring to Blake and Heisenberg and Sufi and Native American lore, drawing his epigraphs from a Hindu priest, a modern lama, Hesse and Rilke and Ovid; but it is, in those same sentences, being written by a novelist who seeks to track the nature within us as well as without, and, indeed, to link the two.…

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