(Photo by Nina MacLaughlin.)
I asked Nina MacLaughlin to write about Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard for Monkfish Jowls. She left her job at an alt-weekly to become a carpenter. Her book about the experience forthcoming from WW Norton. She has a tumblr called Carpentrix.
Four years ago, I returned home from six weeks in Nepal and wanted to still be there instead of familiar and monochromatic Boston, so I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Nepal opened me. I did not want to lose it. The Snow Leopard kept me open a little longer.
Matthiessen writes of his journeys in the Himalayas, one on foot through the mountains, one more spiritual, both occurring at the same time. It is about seeking and finding and not finding. It’s an exploration of Buddhism and the religion in the mountains. It’s a description of the wild life in these remotest places, the wolves and sheep and falcons, the elusive snow leopard, the yeti. It’s about confronting death, “the roar of eternity” and “the great stillness.”
Traveling alone to Nepal, I’d hired a guide through an organization that provides female guides for female trekkers, and I was paired with a tiny nineteen-year-old named Gita who was gruff-voiced and quick to giggle. She spoke some English, and was so fleet and sure of foot up and down the mountains. I carried my own pack, she hers. We followed the Annapurna Base Camp circuit, eight days.
The first days were a misery, exhausting, cold. My muscles screamed. I feared my lungs might rip, my heart burst. Snot poured out of my face. My spirits were low. I ached for home, for the people I loved. I felt dismally far away from everything.
On the fourth day, it opened up. Clouds cleared, the sun shown, I felt a lightness in my step, new energy. Optimism evolved into exhilaration as we reached Annapurna Base Camp at 4120 meters. Thoughts of home dissolved. There instead: the path, the peaks, the steps, one after the next. Sacred Machapuchare, the Fish Tail peak, off-limits to climbers, jutted jagged into the sky. Annapurna South cast a cold shadow down on the teahouse at camp. The mountains rose like tidal waves all around, frightening. “They appalled me with their ‘permanence,’ with that awful and irrefutable rock-ness that seemed to intensify my sense of my own transience,” Matthiessen wrote of the mountains.
That night, despite the glory of the day, anxiety returned. The press of the thin air kept me awake and fretting. I thought about what my return home would bring. I had quit my job, put my books and bed and mugs and clothes in a storage unit in a Boston suburb, ended a romance. The life I’d known was done. I would return home to question marks. I lay bundled in my sleeping bag in the unheated room and worried about the future.
But I had to piss. I was furious as it meant exiting my bag and warmth, pushing into boots, and walking a distance to the squatters in another building. I squirmed out and wrapped my arms around myself and walked outside.
I looked up and was halted by the sky. Machapuchare glowed blueish pink in the moonlight in front of me. There have never been so many stars. The air was the clearest cold. I put my hands on my head and took the air into my lungs and listened to the silence. So high up, so far away—but suddenly I didn’t feel far away at all. I felt taken up into it all; nothing mattered. I could be blown away and disappear into the sky. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t nihilism; it was ecstasy. I laughed and tears came to my eyes. I feel foolish telling you about it now. I feel shy at the risk of sounding fruity or cliché, at not being able to do it, that moment, that feeling, justice. Matthiessen knew “how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed.”
But in The Snow Leopard he makes the attempt and I’m glad he does: “The ground whirls with its own energy, not in an alarming way but in slow spiral, and at these altitudes, in this vast space and silence, that energy pours through me, joining my body with the sun until small silvers breaths of cold, clear air, no longer mine, are lost in the mineral breathing of the mountain.”
I took a piss and cold pushed me back towards my sleeping bag and I fell asleep feeling like my whole body was smiling.
These feelings do not last, of course, as powerful as they are, or, as Matthiessen put it: “To strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.”