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October 21, 2008

Peter Matthiessen on Salt Spring Island

- this photo has nothing to do with this story. It's my bathroom door. Except, listening to someone like this man is like opening a door to a world that you would never otherwise have any ability to access.

Tonight I went to a talk/reading by a well-known American author named Peter Matthiessen. Of course, being who I am, I'd never heard of him because I'd never read anything by him and because, let's face it, I'm not that well read. Apparently, in 1950, he started The Paris Review. Having seen him, I intend to read as many of his books as I can.

He was hosted by the Batemans because it would seem that they have travelled together and worked on at least one environmental project together, with Robert Bateman illustrating a book that Mathiessen wrote that had to do with cranes and Birgit taking photos related to some amazing trip to Antarctica. They were both in the audience.

He told a great story about travelling to some remote part of China - Lake Poyang - to write a story on cranes in which I believe he said he was being accompanied by the publisher of the publication that he was writing it for.

He was there to find the Siberian Cranes and when they got to where the cranes were supposed to be, they discovered that the water in this largest freshwater lake in China had all but dried up. There had been a drought.

When he told the story he began laughing because, as he said, he hadn't read that part of the book for a long time and he could just picture the scene. Apparently after a rather trying trip in which he and his publisher sat in the back seat of a vehicle while the smoke of a Mr. Song and a blaring radio assaulted them the entire trip, when they finally arrived, Mr. Song informed them there were no cranes. Matthiessen so perfectly described the ping pong match between Mr. Song and himself of his question and Mr. Song's statement "No Cranes" since, as he stated, he wouldn't have even been in China if not under the impression that it was possible to see the cranes, and he was spending the money of a publication that was paying him to write on them.

It was so endearing to see an author laughing at his own writing. You could tell he was a little embarrassed but delighted and he had to stop a while to compose himself and then made some self deprecating remark about senility.

To make a long story short, the next day, they did manage to find a stream and were able to get in a boat and go on a little expedition up river. Mathiessen describes how he was scanning the shores and a long way into the distance he thought he saw something that was much bigger than the egrets he had been seeing.

He nudged his companion who looked through binoculars only to declare that what he was seeing looked to be workers in the rice fields. But, he took another look, asked his companion to take another look, and sure enough, in the end, they were able to spot all four species of cranes they had come to find with the publisher declaring the journey to be the greatest reversal of fortune he had ever experienced.

Matthiessen has just compiled the three non fiction books he had previously written into one, condensed by 400 pages, and it's called Shadow Country. It's based on a true story of a murder, in Florida, on October 24th, 1910 on an island.

But, I don't want to talk about his book. You can read it.

He also had a wonderful story about the experience of being on an icebreaker in Antarctica and how he hadn't realized previously how different Antarctica would be from the Arctic. It has mountain ranges of 15,000 - 18,000 feet he said. And because the icebreakers are mainly used by tour companies, they tend to be extremely well equipped including the young Austrian girls employed as the hosts, which brought a smile to his face.

He recalled that on the last night of the trip, the group was taken in one of two helicopters to the top of one of the icebergs and how balancing champagne in one hand, he lay on his stomach and looked down into the bluest crevasse he had ever seen. He recognized that in a split second, should the crevasse break, the ice would fall away and to him it represented the fleetingness of life in a perfect analogy. He talked about how the whiteness, the purity of the ice being what kept explorers, like Shackleton, seeking the ice. In some areas of antarctica the ice, he said, is three miles thick.

He also told a wonderful story about William Shawn, an editor at the New Yorker who had been with that magazine for 30 years and how after spending gobs of money on an article that he had been researching, Mathiessen had gone to him and said, I'm sorry to tell you this but I will write the article but I'm saving the best parts for my book. He admitted that he wasn't someone who was typically extravagant with a publication's money when they were paying him to do a story. He said he quickly added that if Mr. Shawn didn't agree with this, Mathiessen would do everything he could to pay back his expenses and Shawn could scrap the article. He then said, Shawn looked at him and said, "You do what's best for your book," and how touched he had been, what an amazing way of being to deal with which he added is no longer the case at the "corporate" New Yorker.

It's always such a privilege to listen to the lives of extraordinary people who have had such adventures.

1 comment:

Cookme said...

I'm sooooo jealous. I've been intrigued by Peter and his work since I was a girl. My parents had the coffee table version of his book "The Tree Where Man Was Born" in our living room and I loved flipping through it and imagining myself in Africa. What a treat to see him in person!