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Adventure, Travel, and Discovery - January 2006 Key West Literary Seminar

Peter Matthiessen
Adventure, Travel, and Discovery - January 2006 Key West Literary Seminar

"I like to hear and smell the countryside, the land my characters inhabit. I don't want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape."

Peter Matthiessen
Zen pervades the man's writing. From earlier works like The Snow Leopard (1978), which won him the National Book Award, to his most recent Ends of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003), Peter Matthiessen's writings are infused with metaphysical and philosophical explorations of what life is.

Not what life is, but what life is. Distilled further, it is not even life that Peter seeks to chronicle. Rather, it is the is -ness of it.

"Is. Is. Is," he proclaims, chuckling, in his commentary on the famous Haiku by Bassho, in Zen and the Writers Life (his two tape series from a previous workshop).

"Old pond
 Frog jumps in

"Is," Peter adds, having transformed the old Haiku into a Zen teaching. "Is. Is. Is," he muses. And then he laughs softly.

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen has been equally driven, all his life, by the beck of distant places and the call to write. He has produced more than twenty-one major works—seven books of fiction and fourteen of non-fiction.

His themes attend to the passing of indigenous cultures, biodiversity, species survival and loss, the adventure of travel, and he is a perpetual traveler treading that old and unrelenting path of personal transformation. He is a pilgrim seeking, and he shares his quest. Through it all he continues to challenge his readers.

In his life's pilgrimage, journeying to the ends of the Earth and the inner reaches of his soul, he has traversed remote and intimate landscapes and the beasts and demons that inhabit them. He has chronicled the natural history and threats to the survival of endangered species everywhere. He is passionate about elephants and crocodiles and rhinos and gorillas—all in decline—and he often uses wildlife as metaphor, as he does in writing about the lions on the Serengeti Plains, the Snow Leopards in Nepal, and tigers in the snow in Siberia. He comments on illusory songbirds and the being-ness of cranes. He is equally attentive to dew drops glistening in cloud forests, and he is also an irascible thorn in the sides of Empire.

Ever seen a cloud forest? A Thar sheep? A Manchurian crane dancing? Better hurry...

"Like many people on many continents, I care profoundly about cranes and tigers," Peter wrote, in The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes , "not only as magnificent and stirring creatures but as heralds and symbols of all that is being lost... If one has truly understood a crane—or a leaf or a cloud or a frog—one has understood everything."

Behind the language Peter has chosen to express the impermanence of the universe, and the wheels of life and death spinning the natural systems of the Earth into oblivion, there might well lie a seething rage at all that is unjust in the world. A lifelong activist, Peter has been driven by the immediacy of what he has seen (and often the outrage of it) and—bearing witness—he has translated his experience into a very personal and compassionate and constant action.

Through it all, Peter explores the omnipotent "OM" of the universe.

Perhaps no book better captures Peter's mindful outrage than his testimonial to the injustice served on Native Americans in his recounting of the story of the secret FBI wars against Leonard Pelletier and the Ogala Lakota. In The Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) he shatters the veneers of a huge and official government deception, challenging conventional wisdom and—more poignant still—the mythologies of freedom and democracy in America. The book was pulled from the shelves of stores and libraries after FBI agents and a former governor of South Dakota, William Janklow, filed a libel suit for $49 million. It reappeared, after seven years of legal battles and the longest-running libel suit in American history. Leonard Peltier, of course, remains imprisoned.

In his Ends of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003), Peter decries the new U.S. Administration, "unabashedly indifferent to the environment, social justice, and the welfare of future generations..."

He is a vigilant spokesman on the energy imbalance, critiquing the stubborn refusal of the entrenched fossil fuels industry to make room for modern alternative technologies.

In both fiction and non-fiction, Peter is perpetually at odds with the political economies of genocide and the beastliness of any "civilization" that makes such inequities possible. He has written on war and corruption, on the evisceration of Tibet, on global climate mayhem and the propaganda that attends it. The characters of his novels embody the frailties and follies and humor and courage of the human condition.

Still there is that pervasive Zen-ness to his work.

"The quest must have something to do with a lifelong need, not to simplify my life—though I need that too—but to 'simplify my self'...," he writes. Commenting on his pilgrimage to behold the emperor penguin, the sentiment translates to his greater beingness.

"I am quite content with the material simplicity of shipboard life... I fill my lungs with the ocean emptiness, and the pure wind circling the Earth... To the degree that I am able to let go of mind and body and escape all boundaries, I soar with (ocean birds) in the unity of being."
Taken from www.bearingwitnessjournal.com/story.htm?story=VKVXJI

Read more at www.albany.edu/writers-inst/matsnsa.html
and at www.bookpage.com/0002bp/peter_matthiessen.html

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