By Carl Safina
If Miles Davis suddenly walked into a small cocktail party, what could a young trumpet player possibly say to him? What could I, a greenhorn writer, say to Peter Matthiessen? It was 1998. I was in my early forties, and had just published my first book. Peter was past 70; the first of his novels, Race Rock, was published in 1954. Anything I could think of saying seemed lame. Then Peter took two steps toward me and ended my dilemma: “So, Carl, when are we going fishing?”
Peter had fishing friends and birding friends and writing friends (and political enemies). His strong opinions often incited debates. We disagreed a bit about fishing policies–he’d fished commercially, and I’d advocated sharp catch limits for men he’d worked with. But I never found him unreasonable, or grudging in conceding a point. Anyway, on the broader unraveling of both civilization and the natural world, we saw eye to eye, both in anger and in hope.
Our biggest disagreement was on the value of his nonfiction work. He wrote more than 20 nonfiction books; many of them were inspirations in my youth. But Peter was clear that he was foremost a novelist, that for him fiction was both a venerable challenge and a sublime task. While working to combine his Watson trilogy into a single book–it would becomeShadow Country–he declined my repeated invitations to fly-fish, which he loved for its Zen-like form, explaining that when the fiction was coming, staying in the flow was paramount. I’d stop at his house to drop off a fish, and even in a quick hello I could see his mind pacing like a caged leopard. When Shadow Country went on to win the National Book Award, Peter, already 80, was elated and told me the award was “tremendously vindicating.” If I ever allowed myself the temerity of feeling proud of Peter Matthiessen, it was at that moment.
Though born to privilege, Peter held great affection for the grace of working and native people of all kinds, whether they inhabited local fishing boats, Indian reservations, the shadows of Amazon rainforests, or the highlands of New Guinea. Like a multivalent electron of some strange element, Peter could exist in numerous orbits in quick succession, one week being feted among the brightest literary lights and the next hanging out with fishermen or teachers or conservationists or birders. Or appearing in The New York Times or on Charlie Rose, and then in our kitchen making tamales with my girlfriend of 10 years, Patricia, whom he alone called Patty.
One day some mutual friends and their kids were visiting our home on Lazy Point, the peninsula that juts into Long Island’s Napeague Bay. Peter joined in as we pulled a beach seine and showed the kids crabs and little fishes and the delightful defense of baby puffers, which swallow water until they’re swollen like balloons. He decided to take some silversides home for the frying pan. Virtually no one eats these finger-long fish anymore; they were food in harder times. Seeing Peter, at 84, with his little bag of silversides seemed a round-trip contraction in a life that had included wide horizons and ocean battles with great swordfish and tuna. He then mentioned that he would soon leave for Mongolia to spend time with hawkers who train Golden Eagles for hunting foxes and hares. One moment Peter was in our humble circle, picking little fish out of a net on his hands and knees. The next he was out of sight, up in the widening gyre of his singular lofty life.
During that trip to Mongolia he became quite weak; upon his return he was diagnosed with leukemia. It was serious. He began that dance while continuing work on a novel set in the Nazi death camps, which–he said with certain relish–was sure to upset a lot of people. (In Paradise would be published three days after his death.)
For years Peter had never failed to end a phone call by telling me to say hi to Patty, and he and his wife, Maria, frequently opined that I “should marry this woman already.” This past January, when Patricia accompanied me to Hawaii, I did just that. Returning home, I proudly called Peter and Maria to tell them I’d finally taken their advice. “Great,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m having a chemo treatment on Tuesday, and right after that we can come to your house and take you out to dinner to celebrate.”
Peter had grumbled good-naturedly that because of his compromised immune system, his doctor had forbidden him alcohol. So when he and Maria arrived at our house for that celebratory dinner I said to him, “I’d offer you a glass of wine but…”
“I can have a little,” he replied with a wink. At the restaurant he ordered another glass. As Peter and I discussed animal communication and Yellowstone wolves, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Maria engaging Patricia in low tones.
After dinner we went back to the house briefly and said our goodbyes. Once they’d left, Patricia closed the door and said, “While you and Peter were talking, Maria told me that the chemo isn’t working anymore. That’s why Peter had a glass of wine.”
A few days later our mutual friend Andrew Sabin returned from a successful quest to see free-living snow leopards–the creatures that had so famously eluded Peter decades earlier when he wrote The Snow Leopard. It was a splendid excuse for me to phone. “That son of a gun!” Peter said, “and they saw three! ” Peter and George Schaller had trekked to 18,000 feet, he recalled, and in that cold, thin air, they were unable to get warm, day or night. “That son of a gun!” Peter said again, still attending to the world yet still inhabiting his own unique relationship with it.
Soon, after a new drug failed, Peter landed in the hospital. Several days later he returned to his beloved home, and his family gathered. When he died on April 5, a flock of blackbirds gathered noisily outside his bedroom window.
And Maria said, “A mighty tree has fallen.”