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Off the Beaten Path: The journeys we make

Posted: April 11, 2014 - 12:01am

On April 5, Peter Matthiessen, a writer and adventurer best known for his book “The Snow Leopard,” died at age 86 at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He wrote more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, explored and studied wild places around the world, worked as a CIA agent, co-founded The Paris Review and was a pioneer user of psychedelic substances before evolving into a student of Buddhism and a Zen priest.

The subjects of his books vary widely, but most revolve around natural history and our relationship with the environment. He offers thoughtful accounts on everything from traveling through East Africa, to green sea turtle hunting, to exploring the Amazon, to the rapid disappearance of wildlife around the world, to a Floridian murderer and farmer, to Long Island fishermen, to Lake Baikal, to an expedition to film great white sharks underwater for the first time, to a New Guinea tribe that still lived in a similar manner to the Stone Age, to Native American rights, to Cesar Chavez and farm worker’s rights, to the Inuit and muskox of Nunivak Island, to Rachel Carson ... the list goes on. He is the only person to win National Book Awards for fiction and nonfiction. His last work, a novel entitled “In Paradise,” confronts the Holocaust and was published three days after his death.

I was skeptical of Matthiessen the first time I picked up a copy of “The Snow Leopard” at the Friends of the Library book store. If I ran out of books, had nothing else to do and was bored, I’d try reading it.

This happened twice.

Both times I lost interest after a dozen pages or so. I carried it with me on wilderness trips, commercial fishing jobs and across the country in my backpack. The cover fell off. I spilled coffee on it and soaked it in rain and ocean. If a lab tested it, it’d probably find blood from all five species of Pacific salmon, halibut and black-tail deer on it.

One by one, the back pages began falling out.

A few years ago, I ran out of books to read. I dug around in my backpack and discovered my copy of “The Snow Leopard” caked in dirt, spruce needles and crushed Chex mix.

Opening it for the third time, I became entranced by the slow and vivid travelogue. In the book, Matthiessen accompanies famed biologist and writer George Schaller on a scientific and spiritual pilgrimage through the Himalayas, in search of blue sheep and the elusive and endangered snow leopard.

By the time I finished reading, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, my scalp tingled and my skin was crawling. Those are sure signs of lice or scabies, usually, but in this case they were the aftershocks of profoundly good literature.

Each time I look at a map, our planet seems a little smaller. We can get on a plane and fly around the world in less than 48 hours. A float down the Congo River, cycling across Europe and Asia, and skiing across Antarctica seem strangely possible. It’s hard not to get excited and curious about faraway places, other cultures and beautiful landscapes.

For all his adventures, Peter Matthiessen taught me that great exploration can be done in whatever moment I find myself. I frequently forget this — I can’t help fantasize about stand-up paddle boarding down the Nile River while being chased by crocodiles, angry hippos and bandits — but I think it’s true.

Jaguars don’t have to rip our flesh, vertical faces of mountains don’t have to be scaled and jungles full of angry monkeys don’t have to be traversed in order to have a meaningful experience in nature or a deeper understanding of one’s self.

There are plenty of other ways to accomplish this.

Plant and tend a garden, go for a walk in the woods, hunt and fish for your meat, paint landscapes, take up wildlife photography, write about your experiences, pick a wild animal and try to learn everything about it, enjoy a sunset, read one of Matthiessen’s books ... the list goes on.

The world may be getting smaller, but there’s still plenty of room for discovery.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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