Monday, December 10, 2012
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
I first heard of this book a few weeks back on an NPR show about books with a sense of place, books that make you want to go somewhere. As I often do when I listen to shows like this, I made a long list of books I wanted to read. Why I chose this one? I really can't say. Perhaps I was being a bit smug as I read the reviews. Some of the reviews expressed frustration that it was slow, that there wasn't much action, that the title of the book was so misleading because he never even saw the snow leopard. The smugness I describe comes from thinking that I hadn't even read the book, but I knew these readers were missing the point. More probably, they weren't ready for the book, and perhaps, definitely even, I was.
There really aren't words for the beautifully descriptive writing that fills this book. I don't think this would have been possible without his scientific/nature background. He knows so many different plants and flora, and animals. His relationship with light and dark and how that affects every day, every moment is enlightening. His attention to detail and his ability to communicate what he sees and feels is nothing short of a miracle. Rather than finish with a feeling of knowing the entire region he traveled around, I felt in touch with very specific steps he took; one step in one thousand. I felt this over and over.
I have rarely loved poetry. I attribute this to a lack of patience mostly, but in my less confident moments, I can attribute to an unfeeling self or a less than average intellectual capacity for the medium. Or perhaps never the right teacher. This is not technically a poetry book. I would describe it as a poetic memoir. I had gone through a phase of needing to read fast paced books, and I had read 4 or 5 in a row, very uncommon for me. So I knew I was ready to slow down, and could absorb at least part of what the book had to offer. I did read it slowly, sometimes only a page or two a night. There were insights, quotes to remember with every reading and I never lost patience with the book. Often, I start these books but don't have the patience to finish. I put them aside, and eventually pick them up later. As with almost every book I read, I hate it to end. So I stop reading and start another book, and get really into the next book. And then I go back and finish, replete with the knowledge that when I am sad the book is over, I have another one already started. Well, I really couldn't do that with this book; I couldn't stand to be away from it long enough to get involved in another book.
Some of the reviews on Goodreads give nothing but quotes. This approach works very well with The Snow Leopard. I have perused these this morning and will continue to do so. One can turn to practically any page for a good quote, or lesson for living.
There is a lesson, a moment, a connection on literally every page of this book. I can't begin in a quick review to illuminate my learnings. I will settle for an example from the end of the book, since I just finished it last night. Towards the end of his journey, he has several descriptions of, not mood swings exactly, but of being aware, content, able to fully realize his learnings of his physical and mental pilgrimage. And then the next day, or even the next moment, falling right back into his former thinking and ways - discontent and frustration. This expression, this truth, was a monumental discovery and validation for me. Often I am so hard on myself for not recognizing or living in a way that I have strived towards, and I spend so much time beating myself up about making these mistakes after I know better. The next time this happens, I will refer to one of these passages towards the end - I'll finish with one example.
"A change is taking place, some painful growth, as in a snake during the shedding of it's skin-dull, irritable, without appetite, dragging about the stale shreds of a former life, near blinded by the old dead scale on the new eye. It is difficult to adjust because I do not know who is adjusting; I am no longer that old person, and not yet the new."