The Snow Leopard
by Peter Matthiessen
The Viking Press
I read The Snow Leopard as my life was going a bit pear-shaped—my first full-time job in three years, which I loved, was unexpectedly ending after only a few months, though nobody could say exactly when or how; my younger sister was ill and required emergency brain surgery; I had just placed an offer on my first house and was panicking equally about the cost and the commitment. I felt unmoored and unsteadied, like I was outside my body trying to find my way back in.
Peter Matthiessen must have felt similarly uprooted when, in the wake of his wife’s death, he agreed to leave his eight-year-old son with friends in the States and join his friend, the field biologist George Schaller, in a slow winter trek across the Himalayas, ostensibly to study the bharal, or blue sheep, near the Crystal Mountain Monastery in Tibet. The bharal’s rutting season lasts from roughly November through January, necessitating that they journey through cold, difficult conditions. This was 1973, when Schaller and Matthiessen would be lucky to maintain irregular written correspondence with anybody outside the frozen bubble of their expedition.
The eponymous snow leopard is barely mentioned until about halfway through the book, and although Matthiessen’s writing is enjoyable and well-crafted from the beginning, I wasn’t completely seduced until this relatively straightforward description:
The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur… It has enormous paws and a short-faced heraldic head, like a leopard of myth; it is bold and agile in the hunt, and capable of terrific leaps…
With those few sentences, Matthiessen’s motivations snap into focus. Bharal are the primary food source for the snow leopard, and by closing in on the blue sheep’s habitat, Matthiessen inches toward the barest possibility of spotting a snow leopard—there were perhaps only six of the frosty-eyed cats near Crystal Mountain, and Schaller was the only Westerner at the time to have seen one. It becomes Matthiessen’s singular purpose to glimpse one of the notoriously furtive felines, even at risk of breaking his promise to his son to be home by Thanksgiving.
The snow leopard is an easy emblem for the hole Matthiessen is trying to fill, though it’s less easy to determine just what he had been emptied of. He writes extensively about his search for clarity, through ten years of experimenting with acid, working with spiritual teachers and texts, and watching his wife die from cancer.
Perhaps we all go on this kind of spiritual journey—and maybe that’s why this book is as much a mirror as a memoir—even if ours doesn’t take us to the Himalayas in winter. Mine has a more mundane beginning than acid trips and Zen Buddhism: I grew up in a conservative Catholic household in Texas, a semi-regular churchgoer and a sometimes-believer. After my falling out with the Catholic Church, which was probably inevitable after fourteen years of Catholic education and twenty of half-blind belief, I made a hard left into the arms of science. She was happy to have me.
But I can still recall my first religious experience, though it wasn’t some richly perfumed ritual at the hands of the Catholic Church: It was via an ordinary house cat on the street I grew up on. I was four or five years old, I was biking along the sidewalk, and I fell. It was nothing more serious than a skinned knee, but the bike was cumbersome and I was scared. A gray or brown tabby padded out to the sidewalk where I was crying. It purred and rubbed up against my bruised legs, and I calmed down and walked my bike back home.
That memory—and some wisp of belief that maybe, maybe, that tabby was some kind of guardian angel—was all I needed to open up to the more heraldic cat Matthiessen seeks. Spiritual needs don’t disappear when the church loses another of her sheep, but they’re not easy to acknowledge. I need for things to make sense, and, by design, religion defies logic—it requires faith.
The first philosophy course I took in college was simply called “God.” I signed up mostly to get it over with. It was taught by a professor whose online bio says that he “displayed Gnostic tendencies from an early age” (I suspect he may be touched with the same “crazy wisdom” that Matthiessen sees in Tukten, one of the Sherpas). We read The Book of Job, The Upanishads, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and The Bhagavad Gita. The class was an awakening for me, an explosive intellectual journey and spiritual rumination, and I soon declared philosophy as my major and embarked on what I imagined to be the search for Truth.
Matthiessen mentions most of those texts at the beginning of The Snow Leopard as part of his pre-Himalayan journey. I thought about my philosophy professor and the journey he set me on when I was barely eighteen. I thought of the person who had recommended the book to me—he told me it was his favorite book, which is usually all it takes to compel me to read something, and how he said that he envied me being able to read it for the first time.
I thought of my own life going topsy-turvy, as lives do, and my need for an anchor. If this review is more about me than about a Himalayan expedition, it’s because the real triumph of this book—and what it’s really about—is accepting, at least for a moment, Matthiessen as your teacher. You’re in good hands: Matthiessen observes the physical and the spiritual with equal lucidity and detail. Like the mountains he climbs, he’s suspended between some higher truth and the need to stay grounded.
And so as his journey began on the page, so began some lighter version of my own spiritual quest, taking me back to where it had begun, sort of. Maybe not to the days of real religious belief or childlike spiritualism, but back to when I had more trust in life and in simple events—like a tabby cat appearing from nowhere just when I needed it, or a college philosophy course. Matthiessen calls it “that happy-go-lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life.”
It’s too much to say that Matthiessen made me believe in God again, or even that I’ll now go off on an earnest search of my own snow leopard. But maybe it’s enough that it initiated a spiritual reflection, or an understanding of the trope that it’s about the journey, not the destination. About two-thirds of the way through the book, before the expedition is complete, Matthiessen finally realizes that his own journey isn’t really about a cat:
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn’t that wonderful?
Not incidentally, the first thing I did when I finished The Snow Leopard was start it over again. Behold the jewel in the heart of the lotus!
Laura M. Browning lives in Chicago, where she writes about the arts and the environment, but rarely the spiritual.