Peter Matthiessen (2010 [1978]) The Snow Leopard.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is a holy book, one of those books you could read again and again, but probably won’t. It was reprinted as a Vintage Classic for a new generation of readers. I got called me a book snob, online. It irked me, at first. Readings what I do. I’m one of the clichéd, if I’ve nothing to read, I’ll read the ingredients of the sauce bottle kinda guy. I even read poetry, but I don’t put it on my chips very often.  But honestly, I’m a book snob. I give myself reasons. Starting with because I’m getting older and there are only so many books I can read. Usually, I forget books as soon as I read them, but The Snow Leopard leaves an imprint of something remembered. There’s something pure and wise in the writing. George Orwell suggested good writing was like looking through a pane of glass. Great writing holds up a mirror to the soul.

The Zen expression of Matthiessen’s beloved second wife ‘D’ ‘No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place’ is matched by the words of his transcribed diary of a journey outward and inward that rings true and pure.

‘Expect nothing,’ Matthiessen’s guru, Eldo Rosh,i had warned him on the day he left. He had also held his wife’s left hand and Matthiessen had held her right hand as she died and they chanted and renewed their Buddhist vows.

Matthiessen’s quest is renewal and if fate brings it, to see the fabled snow leopard, which only two Westerners had seen (until tens of millions viewed it on David Atttenborough’s Planet Earth, sipping tea and letting Digestive crumbs settle on the cushion, but that’s a different story).

Matthiessen carries his ego and his fate with him as a tortoise carries its shell. Roshi’s advice to be ‘light, light, light’ was for both the inner and outer journey.  The great sins for his Sherpas, carriers and guides on his journey Westward, Nothward and up At Crystal Mountain was ‘do not pick wild flowers and do not threaten children’. I like these dictums.

‘The sherpas are of the famous mountain tribe of north-east Nepal, near Namche Bazzar, whose men accompany the ascents of the great peaks: they are Buddhist herders who have come down in recent centuries out of eastern Tibet—sherpa is a Tibetan word for ‘easterner’…

Porters are mostly local men of uncertain occupation and unsteadfast habit, notorious for giving trouble’.

GS, his European travelling companion, sets out on a different goal, to study the autumnal rutting habit of the Bharal, Himalayan blue sheep, to determine whether they were archetypal ‘strange sheep’ or goat in the Land of Dolopo. All but closed to Westerners. With the coming snows and the clock ticking there is a limited window of opportunity in which GS the zoologist and Matthiessen, the biologist, are both primed as much for failure as success. They are an odd couple, who in their different ways shun human company. Yet, they seek the distant companionship and understanding of each other. A different kind of love.

They are short of money and their time window is dictated by heavy snow and the whims of district officials and police. And Matthiesen is 56 years old and does not have the mountain lungs of the porters or sherpas. Physically, he’s not up to it. He’s travelling heavy, rather than light. After over a week of walking in heavy rain they’ve not got as far as they hoped. Everything takes longer.  

‘All the way to heaven is heaven,’ as Saint Catherine of Sienna observed after three years of silence. As Mathiessen and his travelling companions gets away from civilization there are moments of grace.

But the obverse of this, all the way to hell is hell, as they come down, literally and metaphysically.

‘My knees and feet and back are sore, and all my gear is wet. I wear my last dry socks upside down so that the hole in the heal sits on top of my foot; these underpants ripped, must be worn backwards.’

We know, of course, Matthiessen’s quest to see and experience close contact with the snow leopard is doomed, but more cherished spiritual attainment, is putting his battered life in order. He promised his son he’d be home soon, home for Halloween. He knew it was a lie. But needs must.  

Needs always must. Unless you are the Rimpoche, ‘precious one’ and High Lama of Shay, Crystal Monastery. Sitting on his stone terrace facing the Crystal Mountain. Matthiessen hadn’t recognised him when they first met, seeing only a crippled old monk curing clothes in some awful goat-brain mixture. He’s here the second time by invitation. Served sun-dried green yak cheese in a coarse powder, with tsampa and buttered tea, called so-cha served in blue china cups in the mountain sunshine by Takla, the acolyte of Rimpoche. It’s heaven.

Matthiessen politely enquires about the Rimpoche’s isolation, especially with his twisted legs and arthritic bones which make it difficult of the High Lama to get about.

The High Lama, laughs, infectiously.

‘Of course I am happy here. It’s wonderful. Especially when I have no choice.’

The lesson Matthiessen takes from his meeting is acceptance.

Have you seen the snow leopard?

No! Isn’t is wonderful.

But as Matthiessen comes back down to earth, it isn’t so wonderful. All the way to heaven is heaven. All the way to hell is hell. Read on – and ponder.

unwriterly advice

https://unsplash.com/@olga_konono

In the bestseller written by Elizabeth Strout called My Name is Lucy Barton, the protagonist idealises another writer called Sarah Payne. That’s a long sentence. I’ll break it down.

Elizabeth Strout is Lucy Barton is Sarah Payne. ‘All life amazes me,’ is the last line in the book. And in the Buddhist world we all are each other (until we reject the illusion of Suchness and reach the shore of Nirvana, which isn’t really a shore and isn’t really Nirvaha, but the Great Void, which isn’t nothingness, or much of suchness either).

Elizabeth Strout >Lucy Barton> Sarah Payne (all writers, fictional and real).

Here’s the advice from one of them, or all of them. Take it with a lump of suchness.

‘And I think sometimes of Sarah Payne…how exhausted she became, teaching. And I think how she spoke of the fact that we only have one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is.’  

Writers that teach aren’t writers that write. In a way they’re second class. Writers that can’t write, teach, sutra.  More than that, teaching leaches the goodness out of Sarah Payne’s (pain’s) soul, so she can’t write. Discuss?

In terms of economics that’s true. The economic cost of doing something is not doing something else. When we do one thing, we can’t do the other. Although, of course, our bookshelves groan with learned professors. Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and  Umberto Eco, for example, that teach and write. That’s the exception to the rule argument.

Is it an exception or is it a rule?

Nobody has asked me to teach and nobody asks me to write. But usually when I read a novel in which the protagonist is a writer or librarian (Stephen King’s protagonists are often writers) then I groan.

This ties in with the one story I continually write and rewrite. And in these fictional worlds none of my protagonists are writers. For a good example of a writer that continually writes the same story, his characters having different haircuts – think Irvine Welsh after Trainspotting. And he’s not even Welsh. He’s Scottish like me and tends to write about characters that think writers are well up themselves and should come down and get fucking at it. And I’m not even a fan of Irvine Welsh, I prefer Stephen King. And I’m not a fan of him either. The problem of being a writer talking about writing is to most folk it’s fucking boring and shows a lack of imagination. I’m a connoisseur because all I do is write and read stuff. I’m an exception to the rule, which isn’t a rule.  

The historian and writer Robert A. Caro nailed it when he was talking about writing and farming and how you need to pick up the vocabulary and live it to appreciate it fully. There are two ways of learning, lived experience or reading about it. I tend towards the latter. Writers have their noses pressed against a keyboard. If you want to talk about  The Snow Leopard live it like Peter Matthiessen and your vocabulary will be rich as buffalo shit, or watch David Attenborough and leave extreme environments to other writers that are less desk-bound.

If we only have one story, I’ve not perfected it yet. Maybe I never will, not in this lifetime. The secret of good writing is the secret of bad writing. You need to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again until you move on to a higher plane and realise none of it matters. And you must carry this secret into your next story.

Here’s Lucy Barton pondering the nature of time.

I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless as a writer. And I think how I did not go visit my brother and sister and my parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There was never enough time, and then later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me…

The ultimate truth in Buddhahood is understanding and appreciating the permanent nature of eternity. The starting point is self. Arthur Miller was willing to concede that Timebends and all things may fall away, but he was going to write about them anyway. His one true story, was many storied.  

‘What writer makes money?’ Lucy Barton asks.

Certainly not me. Or 99% of other writers. I guess it’s an occupation that’s not an occupation, that’s doomed to failure for the masses.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.’ Philip Larkin writes This Be The Verse.

Lucy Barton writes about writing about her family. ‘I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw them too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, “But you don’t even like them.”

Any writer knows, nice people are boring. Their great secret is they’ve got nothing to hide. Molla tells Lucy Barton what we already know. For every Jesus we need a Judas.  

‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You only have one.’

Molla hasn’t got a secret. Lucy Barton has, she’s a writer.

A writer’s job is the same as Buddah’s, to hold every moment and to let it go, simultaneously. Here is Lucy Barton watching her dad, inhabiting him.

I remember only watching my father’s face so high above me, and I saw his lips become reddish with that candied apple that he ate because he had to…

And I remember this: he was interested in what he was watching. He had an interest in it.

Pay attention. Here’s Sarah Payne the writer giving Lucy Barton some advice about writing what you want to write, but the real advice comes at the end after rallying against stupid people that fail to understand.

‘Never ever defend your work.’   

It seems counterintuitive, but even a fool you don’t like can point out you’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet. In my writing it happens to me all the time. Insight is not a closed gate, but a gate you must leave open. Pay attention to your faults. Then with good karma you may not repeat them indefinitely. It’s nothing personal.

At the end of all lifetimes is the question a disgruntled admirer asks Sarah Payne.

He said, “What is your job as a writer of fiction?”

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

Amen. Go forth and multiply words.  

Climate Change: The Facts, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, presented by Sir David Attenborough, produced and directed by Serena Davies.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00049b1/climate-change-the-facts

The facts are global warming is taking place now and the concerted action to limit it 1.5 degrees centigrade by reducing fossil fuel emissions, which was agreed by the Paris Accord, 2015, looks highly unlikely to happen.

‘What we do now will profoundly affect the next thousand years,’ David Attenborough tells us.

Fossil fuel companies have already been working hard to smear the science behind global warming. They employed the same tactics used by tobacco firms to dispute that smoking was bad for your health. And their propaganda has been highly successful. The moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, for example, withdrew from the Paris Accord and denied there was such a thing as global warming. America, as you’d expect, has the highest carbon emissions in the world.  Paradoxically, those countries that produce the least carbon emissions, in the equator, for example, are likely to experience drought and mass starvation.

Not only can we expect mass species extinction in land and sea. Attenborough in his programmes has shown it is already happening. Coral, for example, bleaching and dying. Species dependent on this underwater ‘rainforest’ dying. With warmer oceans we can also expect an increase in wildfires, Antarctica to melt, sea levels to rise, increased severity of hurricanes and tsunamis and storm surges. Apart from modelling, we’re not really sure how this will play out. What we do know is that all the methane locked in the ground will bubble up and lead to a vicious circle of ever increasing temperatures.

Professor Tim Lenton’s model predicts that with three to six degrees and runaway global warming taking place we can expect about 600 million people to become refugees. Let’s round it up to a billion or more. How we treat refugees now does not bode well.

The question of how we can turn a vicious circle of inaction, greed and ineptitude into a virtuous circle of carbon capture and the eradication of fossil fuel from our energy diet is not convincing.

The one clear cause of global warming is mankind.

The solution depends on mankind working together. It means rewriting the history books and the rich sharing with the poor and the lion lying down with the donkey. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis comes into effect here. Everything we do is connected. Our planet, our blue planet, doesn’t really care what we do. It’s a self-regulating system and since we can’t regulate ourself it will send out shocks and reminders. It will not be ignored. We keep hearing the same thing, no pain, no gain. The earlier we act the less costly will be the costs of climate change. Our children and our children’s children will pick up the tab. I guess we’ll have sucked the life out of the planet and it will have sucked the life out of us and them by then.  Climate change is the most important fact of our time. You can stand with the moron’s moron or you can stand with the ninety-nine percent of scientists that agree it is happening and it is happening now.   We need more than consensus. We need action now. What we’ve had is inaction and drag-back to the status quo. Conservatism has never been so stupid. Do nothing and die. Do something radical for your children. And their children’s children.

Dynasties BBC 1, BBC iPlayer.

Blue Planet II, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, Presenter David Attenborough.

Television Programme of the year – Planet Earth II

Book of the year. Peter Wadhams (2016) A Farewell to Ice. A Report From the Arctic.