Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before. Matthiesen’s narrative follows his expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book.
The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home. These he puts away to read once safely down. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘Good news too would be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present…’ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).
Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference and his musings on commonalities would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. A description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect its head while ramming other males ends with this observation: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….'(Matthiesen, 2010, p.229)
Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature that he craves to see during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching. Humour, often at his own expense, is frequent. Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.
Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London