EARTHBOUND IN THE SPACE AGE

Peter Matthiessen explores the wild and the majestic
December 03, 1990

No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climatic change, has ever extinguished another....

Man, like the rat and the mosquito, can adapt himself to virtually all terrestrial climates, and less resourceful creatures have no choice but to make room for him during his stay on earth.
—PETER MATTHIESSEN
Wildlife in America

What man has done to everything from buffalo to warblers he has also done to himself. Few would call the forked eastern end of Long Island an easy place to settle. Not every bird or tree can tolerate its salt breezes, and not every man can nurture life in its fiat, sandy fields or wrench it from the sea with net or line. Yet in the skies there have always been warblers. Japanese pines flourish there. And so do humans. But for all their apparent vigor, the men and women of the East End are not so adaptable as others of the species, and they must be considered to be on the threatened list, sliding ever more rapidly toward the category of endangered, the last stop before the line peters out.

Today, as even a first-time visitor can quickly see, the East End is running short of its old constituencies—Indians, farmers and commercial fishermen. Lured by the area's beauty and its proximity to New York City, new groups have taken up residence: Wealthy anglers in glistening fiberglass craft equipped with the latest in electronics do most of the fishing; the likes of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Simon, Craig Claiborne, Dick Cavett and Steven Spielberg have homes where potatoes once grew. These newcomers have brought with them boutiques and galleries. And while they do strive to preserve their seashore—and their privacy—there is no denying that the way of the East End is changed forever.

Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Because your life is going very, very, very fast. Ka-BOOM!

In time with his chanting, Peter Matthiessen, who came to the East End in his 20's and at age 63 still lives there, slams a mallet against a wooden block he has bolted to a wall outside the zendo (meditation spot) he and some friends made out of a former stable next to his East End home. Inside the zendo there are black cushions, floors of burnished blond wood, straw mats, an altar decorated with wild-flowers and a stone Buddha—appropriately, it is a Japanese roadside Buddha, a guardian of wayfarers. Every morning at seven, Matthiessen dons a Buddhist monk's saffron robes and leads a meditative service. He's also likely to drop by the zendo during the day for a moment of reflection, like this one.

Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Because your life is going very, very, very fast. Ka-BOOM!

Zen teaches its practitioners to realize their experiences moment by moment, instead of dwelling on the past or the future. Matthiessen's warning to himself is apt: He is a traditional earthbound explorer in the space age—a man compelled to traverse mountains, islands and prairies, looking for places un-trammeled by civilization. He is a naturalist and an environmentalist, prescient and persistent in describing his planet. He is a former commercial fisherman and an insatiable touch football player, a novelist and a journalist, an intellectual radical and a Yalie, a Zen monk and the father of four children—the stepfather of two more. He keeps company with William Styron and Cesar Chavez, with Stone Age Indians and art critics. He is a prolific writer and a regular reader of more than a dozen magazines—among them, The Paris Review, of which he is a cofounder.

He is not a dilettante. "He's committed, no doubt about it," says Styron. "An extraordinarily intense involvement with the things that matter to him. Stick-to-it-iveness." So much is going on all about him, that if Matthiessen doesn't remind himself to pay attention, he may miss something. Or keel over.

Thus far, he has done neither. What he has done is write about all of it—save the touch football, which he approaches too ferociously to maintain perspective, and his alma mater, toward which he seems ambivalent. His first nonfiction contribution was Wildlife in America, a book that had its genesis in 1956, when the 29-year-old Matthiessen put a shotgun, a bedroll and some textbooks into his seaweed-green Ford sedan and set off on an extended tour of America's remaining wilderness. From that series of trips, he produced a seminal work that served as both a tribute to several fading species and a rebuke to a single thriving species—his own.

Since then, Matthiessen has left the East End many times for glimpses of other fragile and vanishing forms of life. In 1959, he traveled into the Amazon wilderness (The Cloud Forest). In 1961, he was in New Guinea to chronicle the Kurelu, a Stone Age people who had enjoyed an existence entirely isolated from the rest of civilization (Under the Mountain Wall). Over the next two decades he went to the Bering Sea to look at musk oxen (Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea), to California to scrutinize the United Farm Workers' movement (Sal Si Puedes), to South Africa, Madagascar and Australia to see the great white shark (Blue Meridian), back to Africa (The Tree Where Man Was Born and Sand Rivers), across the reaches of the Himalayas (The Snow Leopard, a National Book Award winner), and to Indian reservations throughout the U.S. (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country). He also has written six novels, one of which, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), is currently being made into a feature film, and the latest of which, Killing Mister Watson, was on the New York Times best-seller list this summer.

Beyond the subject matter, what makes these books so fascinating is Matthiessen's skill at wayfaring through a rich personal landscape even as his prose vividly evokes a physical one. Nowhere does he manage this more successfully than in Men's Lives, published in 1986, a book that is the culmination of almost 40 years of living by the sea. It is a saga of the surfmen and baymen of the South Fork of the East End, from the 19th-century whalers who would row out from Long Island beaches to intercept their migrating prey, to the haul-seiners equipped with out-boards and pickup trucks who work those same beaches for striped bass and, when fishing is off, rake clams and scallops—through the ice if need be. Men's Lives is as sensitive and engrossing an account as you are likely to find about a disappearing breed. This shouldn't be surprising, for Matthiessen, one of America's most relentless explorers, has a strong sense of home.

"I don't really appreciate traveling," says Matthiessen, who has navigated the rapids of the Urubamba River in Peru and has clawed his way over snow and ice-covered mountains in Nepal with his partner, George Schaller. "It's a pain in the neck. I'm not looking for thrills. I don't like physical fear. This way of life leads to tense situations, which I don't care for. I'm not that brave. All this is just part of the territory."

This paradox, the great explorer who never really cottoned to exploring, led Styron to ask, in an essay about his friend, "From what sprang this amazing obsession to plant one's feet upon the most exotic quarters of the earth, to traverse festering swamps, to scale the aching heights of implausible mountains?"

Matthiessen thinks for a moment when that question is posed to him and answers, "I wanted to see wild creatures, wild places, people, life unspoiled by pollution. I've always had a longing for that primeval place, a primordial yearning for the lost paradise." He sounds distinctly like Moon, a main character in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about missionaries and mercenaries, set in South America. Of Moon, a mercenary, Matthiessen wrote, "For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or a future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day."

Matthiessen was born to a wealthy New York City family and was educated in some of this country's, and Europe's, finest schools. Yet despite the frequent scholarly references in his writing, he displays an indifference to his patrician roots. He favors desert boots, threadbare chambray shirts and, generally speaking, the company of unpublic men in unpublic places.

He has spent a lifetime probing the primal. In The Cloud Forest he surveyed the Amazon and wrote, "Man has literally scratched the surface of this enormous world, which recedes and approaches endlessly as the ship moves through it. It is difficult to accept that a wilderness of this dimension still exists...."

Matthiessen is of necessity a generalist. Before he wrote Wildlife in America his training as a naturalist consisted mainly of a childhood fancy for snakes and birds and a couple of college science courses. But he was born with an unblinking eye that takes in all—cruel and beautiful alike—and a willingness to express either enchantment or outrage in vivid terms. And to varying degrees each subsequent expedition has worked this way. He trusts his wonder and intuition to familiarize himself with his subject, no matter how exotic or obscure it might be. He specializes in themes rather than in particular flora or fauna. He can tell you a good deal about the day-to-day life of turtles and auks and snow leopards, but what makes him unusual is his ability to celebrate natural beauty and to fulminate against those who threaten it.

"People care so little, are so disrespectful of the beautiful places," Matthiessen says. "There is a wistful sense of loss, of nights when you can't see the stars anymore, parts of the world where you can't even see the horizon. It's heartbreaking. One of the great attractions of this country is that it's so wild, so various. Yet there's not much marshland these days, the water and air are being razed, and I find all that very sad. In the spring, I used to count 15 or 16 species of warblers near home; now I count three. These are components of my life that my children will never see. President Bush is so celebrated for his grandchildren. If he really loved them he'd be fighting all this like a tiger."

Matthiessen is perhaps most wistful in the face of natural grandeur reduced, kings deprived of their kingdoms. Of African lions, he wrote in The Tree Where Man Was Born, "...for all their prosperity there was a sense of doom about the lions. The males, especially, seemed too big, and they walked too slowly between feast and famine, as if in some dim intuition that the time of the great predators was running out."

A portrait of Weaklekek, the greatest of New Guinea's Stone Age warriors, in Under the Mountain Wall, is likewise rendered in twilight: "He was proud of the old ways, proud that his own people went on as they always had since the time of Nopu. But from the Waro [outsiders] changes in the land had come, brought by the wind: a strange blue flower had rooted in the fields and in an old oak by Homuak there was a yellow stinging bee.... The blue flower and the yellow bee did not belong in the akuni world and had no name."

The East End watermen are also among the soon to be vanquished. "...they are fishermen because their fathers and their grandfathers were fishermen," wrote Matthiessen, who spent three years financing his fiction by working as a haul-seiner and by running his own commercial fishing boat, "it's in their blood, there's nothing to be done about it; that this is not only their livelihood but their way of life—this is where they belong—and that they will stay on the water as long as they can put food on the family table."

As impressive as Matthiessen's passion is the time he has spent observing the world, perhaps partly explained by his affinity for Zen. Matthiessen found that Zen helped him cope with the loss of his second wife, Deborah, to cancer, in 1972. Shortly after her death, he set off for the Himalayas with Schaller to look for the snow leopard, one of the rarest and most beautiful creatures on earth. He never found more than the leopard's scat, but he did find something else. "Zen lends perspective on the familiar," he says. "All it really does is teach you to pay attention, to see without moral judgments, to appreciate the direct experience." It's no surprise to learn that his Zen name translates, roughly, to "Without Boundaries."

"Since Deborah died at 44, I've felt that every year for me since that age has been a gift," says Matthiessen. "I've never been bored one day in my life. I could fill 500 years with no problem."

Yet if Matthiessen goes through the act of exploring without moral judgment, he serves up plenty of it when it comes time to put his thoughts into print. Whether he is considering the plight of Chicano farm workers, the African gazelle or Native Americans, Matthiessen's allegiances are never hidden and never ambiguous. For some, this makes him a less credible reporter. In his New York Times review of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, defense attorney Alan Dershowitz called Matthiessen's arguments on behalf of Leonard Peltier, an Indian convicted of murder on the basis of supposedly extorted testimony, as "utterly unconvincing—indeed embarrassingly sophomoric." Dershowitz, who is also a Harvard law professor, dismissed Matthiessen as "a good-hearted na‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤f."

"I believe in grit and passion," Matthiessen says brusquely. "If you don't get mad and put feeling into things, those things are dead. Look, I care about saying I'm for the Native American people."

Writer John Hersey, an acquaintance of Matthiessen's, says, "In writing so well about these problems and losses, Peter's not just writing about ecological problems but about the values society's losing." This is why when Matthiessen went to find the snow leopard he wrote about the need for Asian wildlife sanctuaries, and why when he went to talk to Cesar Chavez he ended up discussing environmental pollution.

Twenty-one years ago, in Sal Si Puedes, Matthiessen anticipated the vast change of attitude that society would demonstrate about the environment when he wrote, "Before this century is done, there will be an evolution in our values and the values of human society...." Today, when environmentalism is chic and the endangered earth makes the cover of weekly newsmagazines, he says, "I haven't a poor opinion of man. Man is the most extraordinary animal created. I think you can have a high opinion of man and be honest about man's priorities. We're an immensely active, intelligent, greedy creature. We don't know how to stop, how to manage our intelligence. Other animals simply adapt to their environment. Our intelligence seems to have outpaced our sense of place in the universe, and the result is that we're enormously dangerous.

"We talk about acid rain and the greenhouse effect, but these things are all corollaries of the fact that there are just too many of us. I think this is a great world, right now. Great and terrible. In a way I wouldn't have it different. Life is so full of delight, color and mystery. I just think of how it might be if we could have everyone enjoy it."

And so Matthiessen keeps returning "like the tides," as he says, to "my locus," six acres on the East End, where he strives, as he always has, to maintain a civilized way of life. It's an enviable home: from the slender stretch of beach to the tangled green horse pastures, where the touch-football skirmishes are a matter of principle each weekend, to the muddy wallow that he is laboring to make into a pond, to the copious flower beds he has built with his third wife, Maria. It is a difficult place to leave. Yet in the converted child's playhouse where he writes and in the living room where he relaxes, a visitor sees clues that Matthiessen's next expedition could begin at a moment's notice.

The house is a repository of curious objects. A generous windowsill in Matthiessen's office holds a white shark's tooth, a New Guinean nose ornament made of human bone; a sculptured section of an ancient gray and black Tibetan wall, part of an immense Indian ocean snail, dolls made by Hopi Indians and a stone marriage bracelet from the Ivory Coast. On the wall are several buttons that read FREE LEONARD PELTIER, as well as a homemade banner given to Matthiessen by Chavez.

The living room is the second wing of Matthiessen's private museum. An Amazon headdress made with monkey skin, human hair and macaw feathers hangs on a wall near a lizard-shaped New Guinean hunting horn. There are weapons: bows, arrows and axes. And artwork: everything from sketches of birds to Japanese paintings to Franz Kline abstractions. And photographs: an entire wall of large black-and-white shots of New Guinean tribesmen, in full-feathered splendor, charging across battlefields, plus one photo of a smiling Kurelu woman. The office and living room are good places in which to work, relax and entertain.

Last year Matthiessen went to Montana to see grizzly bears. Self-taught naturalist Doug Peacock had invited him to come see them up close, and Matthiessen was thrilled. "I've seen grizzlies in Canada," he said, "and at Yellowstone, but always under safe conditions. I've never seen them on the hoof, a few yards away. Peacock's specialty is getting close to them." Maria was not thrilled.

It did seem a bit foolhardy—particularly since Matthiessen at the time was limping badly because of a touch-football injury—but Maria did not argue. She knew that bringing the sight of the grizzly back with him to Long Island was a mission that cut much deeper than a macho explorer's test of fate. After all, 30 years ago her husband wrote, "No one who has ever seen a grizzly will dispute its title; shambling, rooting or frozen against a hillside, fur roughened by the wind, it stirs the heart. For many of us the great grizzly will always represent a wild, legendary America somewhere to the north and west which we were born too late ever to see."

Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Pay attention. BOOM!
Because your life is going very, very, very fast. Ka-BOOM!

PHOTOMARIO RUIZDespite his many wanderings, Matthiessen's roots remain in Long Island. PHOTOPEABODY MUSEUM/HARVARD UNIVERSITYIn New Guinea, Matthiessen recorded a Stone Age tribe's warrior life-style. PHOTOGEORGE SCHALLERPersonal tragedy and the chance to sight a snow leopard inspired a trip to Nepal in 1973.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)