Key West Literary Seminar

January 17-20, 2002

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Panelist - Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen

Photograph © Kaye Studios

PETER MATTHIESSEN is a naturalist and explorer whose many works of nonfiction include The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and The Snow Leopard, which won it. In his most recent book, The Birds of Heaven, which will be released by Farrar, Straus & Giroux later this year, Matthiessen has woven together journeys in search of the fifteen species of cranes in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. As he tracks them (and their declining numbers) in the company of scientists, conservationists, and regional people encountered along the way, he captures the dilemmas of a planet in ecological crisis, and the deeper loss to humankind if these beautiful and imposing creatures are allowed to disappear.

Matthiessen is the recipient of the 1999 Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (a $250,000 award). "Peter Matthiessen in his life and work represents an inspiring example of a non-scientist who not only appreciates the awesome beauty and challenges of our physical world but also understands its profound complexities," said Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation. "His genius in sharing that understanding with others has enriched the lives of readers, making him a deserving winner of the Heinz Award."

Matthiessen was born in New York City in 1927 and had sold his first short story by the time he graduated from Yale University in 1950. The following year, he was a founder of The Paris Review. From 1953 to 1956, he worked as a commercial fisherman and as captain of a charter fishing boat out of Montauk, while he completed his second novel. With a lifelong passion for the wild, Matthiessen has explored endangered natural environments and human cultures threatened by encroaching technology, producing many published accounts of his travels. His most recent travels have taken him to Siberia, Korea, Australia, Bali, India, South Africa, and Antarctica. His most recent book Tigers in the Snow presents an account of the effort to save the Siberian tiger from extinction.

Matthiessen's oeuvre also includes nine novels, a book of short stories and an account of a spiritual pilgrimage to Japan. Matthiessen has also written three books about Indian people: At Play in the Fields of the Lord (filmed in 1991--a stunning drama about the fate of a tribe of Amazonian Indians); In The Spirit of Crazy Horse (centering on Leonard Peltier, a prominent figure in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s) and Indian Country. Other works of nonfiction include The Cloud Forest and Under the Mountain Wall (which together received an Award of Merit from the National Institute of Arts and Letters to which he was elected in 1974).

Matthiessen's most recent novel, Bone By Bone, the third of a trilogy of novels about southwest Florida in the early part of this century, was published by Random House in 2000.

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