I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a lecture by Peter Matthiessen a few nights ago presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures. I first met Matthiessen through his book, The Snow Leopard, an experience made unforgettable for having read the tale while traveling in the same Himalayan area in which it took place several decades prior. Now 79, the legendary writer and founder of The Paris Review still possesses a sparkling energy and an infectious smile.
Matthiessen opened with a plea for support and advocacy in the efforts to protect ANWR, making more than one crack (padded with humor) at the failings of our administration. Much of Matthiessen's writing portrays personal expeditions into wild and remote areas of the world. His deep devotion to seeing these places preserved comes through as much in his poetic writing as in his presence, which seemed to cast a sense of awe-inspiring vastness made digestible through an evident lightness of spirit.
As is now my habit, I was seeking the Worldchanging angle on the evening, and it was not hard to find. A certain realistic optimism wove its way through Matthiessen's responses to many audience questions about the peril of the natural world, perhaps best captured when someone asked whether, after all these years, his views of the relationship between humans and nature had changed:
"My view of nature and mankind has not changed ... we are an animal, a terrifying animal; we see that over and over, in the Holocaust, in Rwanda, in the way we are massive polluters of this planet ... although that doesn't mean you cannot laugh about it. I intend to laugh all the way to the box."
Of course, his laughter has never come in the absence of deeply-felt advocacy and action for the conservation and restoration of wild places. But I think he has an important point. Clearly, laughter has kept his spirits high enough and his body well enough that he can still stand before a packed auditorium and inspire action in the generations that follow him.