Remembering Peter Matthiessen, Visionary Naturalist and Literary Mentor
April 11, 2014
Peter Matthiessen was a mentor and model to me in the early seventies, when I was dropping back in after the mind-blowing sixties. I had lived in the New Hampshire woods with my “old lady,” and there, as my mother put it, “nature hit me,” which was not surprising, as I come from a family of Russian explorers, naturalists, and natural scientists. My dream to become the next great poet in the great tradition, the next T. S. Eliot, had morphed into wanting to be the next Bob Dylan, and that dream too had run its course.
In 1971, I came obsessed with birds, and was making watercolors of them and keying them out in the Peterson field guide, and taking copious notes in my journals. Writing about nature, having read Wordsworth, Yeats, Cowper, Frost, and other poets who wrote so beautifully about their natural surroundings, came naturally. Having been on the Harvard Lampoon, when in New York I would usually visit George W. S. Trow, the Lampoon’s editor-in-chief two classes ahead of me who was now writing for the Talk of the Town and producing long elegant profiles at the old New Yorker’s Dickensian offices at 25 West 43rd Street. Trow introduced me to the finely crafted literary journalism of John McPhee, who also wrote beautifully about nature in his portrait of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, for instance.
I don’t know if Trow turned me on to Matthiessen, but he became even more my new role model than McPhee. I sent him my first book, Florida Ramble, which was full of ecstatic nature writing, Florida being my first venture into even the semitropics. And he wrote back that it was lovely, but in places “too cute,” though he didn’t specify where those places were. There were a few phrases where my editor at Harper & Row—a native New Yorker who didn’t have an ear for the way crackers in rural Florida talk—while getting into the spirit of this twenty-five year old kid who is cruising around the Sunshine State in an old convertible with his dog Willie and talking to everybody and soaking the splendor of everything and having a great old time, did a few tweaks that were, I thought, too cute. I now realize that there was a basic difference between me and Matthiessen. He took himself seriously as a literary lion, and became one. He wrote fiction as well, which I have never been tempted to do, but which a writer who took himself seriously pretty much had to do in those days. Literary journalism was a hybrid genre that was developed at The New Yorker starting in the thirties, and forty years later had reached its apogee in McPhee. The New Yorker was also publishing Matthiessen’s exploration and nature writing. He wrote exquisitely about birds, though some of his descriptions I found a little too Victorian, like the “tidy buttocks” of the Machiguenga, or forging through “a madding crowd” after getting off the ferry in Kinshasa. It was only later that he connected with tribal people and understood the horrors they had suffered under colonialism and that we are all basically the same, that human nature has not changed much in thousands of years. I wince at some of the early stuff I wrote, about the pygmies of the Ituri Forest, for instance, how out to lunch and condescending I was, now that I have come to know what wonderful and acutely aware and intelligent people the Efé and Bambuti are.
Around this time, I actually met Peter. I was the resident naturalist at a wildlife sanctuary in Mount Kisco, New York, and he did a reading at Seven Springs, Eugene Meyer’s estate, which had been given to Yale, which Peter was an alumnus of. Peter read from The Snow Leopard, which he was in the process of writing. He was marvelous looking, with his long craggy patrician face and prominent brow ridge like John Kerry, and extremely reserved to the point of stuffiness. A real Yalie. I was everything Peter wasn’t: I grew up in the sixties and, being descended from Nikolai Gogol and the last of the wandering White Russians, as I was starting to think of myself, had a sense of humor and of the absurd, which Peter seemed to lack. And I kept going where angels feared to tread and lapsing into the vernacular, which constitutes the richness of any culture’s language. And when I got the tropics I totally immersed myself in a way that Peter never did, to the point of marrying a Brazilian woman and becoming fluent on Portuguese and becoming a pretty decent bossa nova and samba guitar player. I was more like George Plimpton, also a ’Poonie, and one of the pillars of The Paris Review, which Peter had founded with—I didn’t realize till I read his obit in the New York Times—bucks from the CIA, which he was an undercover operative for, which was very Yalie. He was supposed to gather intelligence on the American writers and other radicals in Paris, but never delivered any, I gather, and instead became their friend and one of them. The fact that he came of age in the fifties, and I in the sixties, fifteen years later, made a huge difference in the way our lives played out. If I had grown up in his cohort, I would probably have been a lot more like him. Plus he grew up on the water, and I grew up climbing mountains. Nevertheless, and despite our differences, he remained an inspiration.
In 1975, I spent nine game-changing months in the Amazon for a book I had contracted to write for Sierra Club Books. One of the books I read in preparation was Peter’s The Cloud Forest, written when he was young and green like me. He told me the scariest and stupidest thing he ever did was his descent of the Urubamba River in a balsa raft. He and his buddies barely escaped being sucked into the giant whirpool known as the Pongo de Mainique, where the Urubamba, having raced down a narrow straight sluice, descending thousands of feet for the last ten miles, slams into the final wall of the Andes, generating this furious whirlpool from which water spurts out through a slit in the rock wall, giving rise to the Ucayali River, the next section of the Amazon River. I was planning to shoot the pongo, but had to cancel after coming within an inch of dying way up in the Andes from blackwater fever contracted from some Yanomamö Indians on the Brazil-Venezuela border two weeks earlier. When I came back to America, I found that my second book, a cultural and natural history of Westchester County, New York, had been taken by The New Yorker. Its editor was to be the legendary Robert Bingham, the editor of McPhee and Matthiessen, my two heroes. I remember in 1979 the excitement when Bingham was preparing The Snow Leopard for publication. It was a marvelous book, the most truthful travelogue I had ever read, showing how when you are out there, in the Territory, far from any familiar cultural referents, there is always a second track, an internal monologue. You keep rerunning the regrettable events in your life up till then in a kind of waking trance. My Amazon book came out and I gave talks and demonstrated the use of the blowgun at several natural history museums, the Explorer’s Club, and the Harvard Club (across whose great hall I shot a dart into the huge full-length portrait of Teddy Roosevelt).
Peter was kind enough to recommend me to replace him as the keystone speaker at a conference Michigan State University was hosting on environment and development in Africa and South America. We may have interacted several times after that, but not in any way significant enough to remember. So maybe my insights into Peter are of limited value. I only met him once. I can’t say that I really knew him, except through his writing. But he was a huge influence on me when I was emerging as a writer, and one of the heavies of his generation. It is said that when an old man dies, a huge library burns. A lot of knowledge and wisdom dies with this extraordinary man who really traveled the world and saw and told us about things that don’t exist anymore. I think it is safe to say, there will never be a writer like him.
Alex Shoumatoff is a former staff writer at The New Yorker and is currently a senior contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Well-known for his literary journalism, nature and environmental writing, Shoumatoff is the author of The Rivers Amazon, Russian Blood, In Southern Light, and The World Is Burning, among other books, and editor of DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, dedicated to making people care about the world's fast-disappearing natural and cultural diversity. His book on the impacts of palm oil plantations on the indigenous people and animals of Borneo is forthcoming from Beacon Press.