It is the reader, I suspect, and not the author that determines what is the subject of Peter Mathieson's captivating thirty-year old book, The Snow Leopard. It is variously a travelogue (on which the author accompanies a famed naturalist to study the Nepalese wild blue sheep), a tale of spiritual search (for Mathieson lost his wife to cancer shortly before setting off), or an exploration of the natural beauty of a last wildnerness. The one thing it is not about is the creature that provides its title – for the secretive snow leopard is never seen.
For markontour, mostly readingThe Snow Leopard at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet and still getting daily flashbacks to the book at least a month after reluctantly finishing the last page, it was all about the majesty of mountains and a certain kind of welcome solitude.
Certainly nothing much happens. The landscape through which Mathieson treks is mostly barren, unforgiving and awaiting a fast-approaching winter. Yet seclusion and a careful pace, plus a mind trained to seek clarity, makes him alive to all its slowly-revealed wonder, relayed in the book in attention capturing prose, such as the time, high in the peaks, he is captured by the gaze of a lizard basking on a rock:
“the stone on which the lizard lies was under the sea when lizards first came into being, and now the flood is wearing it away, to return it once again into the oceans.”
Often he simply glories in being away from the tumult of modern civilisation: “I have the universe all to myself. The universe has me all to itself.”
On occasion this induces almost ecstatic emotional highs: “I cross a bridge where the torrent swings from the east wall to the west, digging ever deepr into stone to form its gorge, and continue down the moutnain in long bounds, carried on waves of gratitude and mirth. My life and work, my children, loves and friendships, past and present – all seem marvellous, full of marvel.“
Mathieson is not the only one gaining a rocky mountain high – the lame Bhuddist priest he encounters guarding a temple, but living in abject poverty and isolation, responds when asked about his state of mind: “Of course I am happy here! It's wonderful!” – casting his arms wide to the sky and snow-covered mountains.
There are also lows – Mathieson is, after all, running away from loss and perceived failure in the hope of a life-changing salvation that is not always in reach. At his nadir he self-flagellates in his diary: “I have neglected my children, done myself harm and there is no way back. Nor has anything changed; I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations – that aching gap between what I know and what I am.“
While there is little page-turning adventure, The Snow Leopard does provide a compelling mystery in the form of an enigmatic sherpa, Tukten. Of terrible reputation amongst his peers, Tutken neverthelss slowly reveals himself to be something more much more than a drunk debasing himself by taking on lowly porter duties for beer money: “From the beginning this leopard-eyed saint has outworked and outwalked us all; not once have I seen him downhearted or tired..On the steepest slopes, pausing to rest, he talks to whoever is at hand, his soft deep voice as soothing and pervasive as the is the southern wind. All animals and wayfarers are Tukten's friends and listen to him carefully, yet rarely he speaks except when spoken to, and never seems to speak too much; without obtruding he becomes the centre of each situation, so naturally does he belong where the moment finds him.”
For the religiously ignorant, like markontour, the reader also learns a lot about Bhuddism. That a human's existence is inseparable from sorrow and the cause of suffering is craving. Peace is attained by dedicated attention to one's understanding, intention and action, achieved through meditation. Doing matters more than reward (although that does come in the form of positive karma). Ecstasy is identification with all existence. Eastern thought is non-linear, something Einstein identified with, saying that his most important break-throughs had been the result of intuition.
There are scant few people in the narrative and yet a strong sense is conveyed of a life and culture that will not exist for much longer: “One day human beings will despair of grinding out subsistence on high cold plateaus, and the last of an old Tibetan culture will blow away among the stones and ruins.”
But let's finish with the mountains. There are lots of mountains and plenty of nature in The Snow Leopard, including a rare chance to observe a full-blooded wolf-pack hunt: “In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings. The sheep's flanks quake, and the wolves are panting; otherwise, all is still, as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together. Then I breathe, and the mountain breathes, setting the world in motion again.”
And somewhere on the mountain-side, the leopard listens. Magical, life-affirming stuff.