The Many Lives of Peter Matthiessen
Credit: Photograph by John Midgley

"I'm trying to write a memoir in case...." Peter Matthiessen said, leaning forward in his armchair and leaving the obvious unspoken. "I don't think I'm going to have time to do it."

Matthiessen, who died April 6, at the age of 86, was never the sort of writer who worried about giving away an ending. A student of Zen Buddhism for nearly half his life, he focused more on the journey than the destination; his most celebrated novel, which took 30 years to complete, began with the murder of its central character. The first time we spoke, in March, his own death was approaching, and the master storyteller had been sifting through the bits and pieces of his extraordinary life, hoping to shape the epilogue of his own narrative. Though Matthiessen always preferred to be known for his fiction, he foresaw that obituaries would celebrate his achievements as an environmentalist and a chronicler of the outdoors.

Such accolades were indeed forthcoming, and they were accurate. They were also insufficient. Matthiessen may have seen a first-rate novelist staring back when he looked in the mirror, but he was also looking at America's greatest nature writer since Thoreau.

The circumstances of our first conversation, six weeks before he died, were cordial but commercial. He had a new novel coming out, about a man wrestling with the meaning of death, and he was happy to talk about it and anything else. Matthiessen's failing health was by then an open secret. He was deep into chemotherapy for advanced leukemia, and his publisher sent a message as I was driving toward Matthiessen's home on Long Island, requesting that I purchase a bottle of Purell, since the writer's low white-cell count had left his immune system severely compromised.

A late winter storm had dumped a fresh blanket of snow, so as I pulled into Matthiessen's driveway, it wasn't difficult to imagine what his modest-for-the-Hamptons six-acre compound had looked like when he'd purchased it for $35,000 in 1958, back when the shopping needs of local residents – mostly fishermen and potato farmers – could be met by a combination gas station and general store. The main house was flanked by two smaller buildings that reflected two facets of his complex personality. One was the cottage where he wrote more than two dozen books, including the existential travel classic The Snow Leopard and the doorstop novel Shadow Country. Matthiessen won the National Book Award for each, the only author to win in both fiction and nonfiction. The other building was his Zendo, a meditation space where Matthiessen, a roshi (senior teacher) in Zen Buddhism, gave regular instruction to several students.

We sat shoeless in his airy, sunny living room, which he had long ago refashioned out of a barn. The dashing world traveler and liberal gadfly of the 1960s and '70s had aged gracefully into a white-haired grandpa, a wise owl dressed for comfort in a souvenir fleece from the 2006 U.S. Open. He was in a wistful mood. Matthiessen's distinctive voice, one part old New York money and one part NFL Films narrator, had taken on a light rasp in recent years. "These are old buildings, and they weren't very well built, though I like the atmosphere," he said, looking up at the high ceiling he'd had reinforced with the central fireplace next to his chair.

As in any long-inhabited space, we were in the presence of ghosts. With an ink-stained finger, Matthiessen pointed to the spot where, on a winter day like today half a century ago, a girlfriend trapped inside by a snowdrift had opened the barn doors, gunned her Buick, and blasted out – poom! The striking black-and-white photos above the piano were from a long-ago expedition to Papua New Guinea; some were taken by Michael Rockefeller, the wealthy scion who mysteriously vanished during the same excursion and is believed to have been eaten by cannibals. On that trip, Matthiessen witnessed – and meticulously chronicled – the slow death of a native boy who had been speared repeatedly in an ambush from a rival tribe.

Time had softened the "ice-blue eyes" that Matthiessen admitted he once used as a weapon to ward off strangers who threatened to invade his privacy. Friends I'd asked to describe him tended to use the same words: intense, driven, loyal, curious. "He's been my favorite American writer for almost 40 years now," said the novelist Jim Harrison, who is himself a perennial contender for this country's preeminent living writer. "He has tremendous range. I don't know of anyone who comes close. I'm a little startled they haven't given him the Nobel Prize."

I didn't know as I sat with Matthiessen that the memoir would never be completed – a loss for readers, since Matthiessen had managed to work for the CIA, against the FBI, and with some of the most familiar names in literature, film, and politics. It was obvious, though, that the writer who half a century ago helped ignite modern environmentalism with the words "the finality of extinction is awesome, and not unrelated to the finality of eternity" had been deeply moved by the mundane process of organizing his personal papers for posterity. The Buddha may have taught that to seek enlightenment is to learn to accept things as they are, but that didn't mean a pilgrim wasn't allowed the occasional glance backward to look in awe at the path he had traveled.

Or, as Matthiessen put it, his hands folded contentedly in his lap, "Man, I've stuffed a lot of life into those 86 years."