The Many Lives of Peter Matthiessen
Credit: Photograph by John Midgley
"I'd better feed those birds before they die," said Maria Matthiessen, looking out onto the snow-covered garden. Tanzania-born and Swahili-speaking, the third Mrs. Matthiessen is delightfully blunt and supremely organized; Peter made clear that we could continue talking only until the moment Maria said lunch was ready. A few weeks later, he told me proudly that Maria had recently gained some fame of her own, as the star of a This American Life episode devoted to her ironclad list of seven topics a person should never, ever discuss: dietary preferences, menstrual status, how you slept, contents of dreams, minor maladies, money, and, above all, what she called "route talk," or how someone got from point A to point B. Years after one egregious violation, she still hadn't entirely forgiven Robert Redford for the time he droned on endlessly about the circuitous course he had driven to their house.

Like Maria, Peter Matthiessen did not do things halfheartedly. The first time he tried Zen meditation, he sat cross-legged for two straight days, 12 hours a day, "weeping in pure shock during the rest periods," he later recalled. Four years ago, at age 82, wondering if he'd joined the ranks of fading American writers who didn't realize they'd "lost a step," he decided to float the Class V rapids of the Kitchen Sink portion of Bear Trap Canyon in Montana, a stretch where at least eight rafters have died over the past quarter-century. The ethereal clarity of his prose was achieved through obsessive pruning and rewriting. (When I asked him about the Zen koan made famous as the epigraph to J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories – "We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?" – Matthiessen couldn't resist trimming excess verbiage. "It's really the sound of one hand," he said. "The clapping is extra.") Unsatisfied with the published results after spending 20 years completing his fictional trilogy about a murder in the Florida Everglades, Matthiessen ignored Jim Harrison's advice to move on, and devoted another decade to combining the three well-reviewed books into Shadow Country. Critics compared the revised novel, generally considered a masterpiece, to William Faulkner's best work. Matthiessen's friend and sometime editor Steve Byers recalled sitting next to him on a flight home from Banff in 2003 and watching Matthiessen pull out a hard copy of End of the Earth, his slim book about Antarctic wildlife that Byers had just published after much back and forth with the author.

"He starts going through the book with a red pencil," Byers remembered. "And when we get off the plane, he hands it to me and says, 'I want these changes made for the next edition.' Any other writer who even bothered to look might have found a mistake or two. Peter must have made 200 changes, moving entire paragraphs in some cases. Of course, I went ballistic. But when I got home and looked at it, I was damned if he hadn't made a very good book much better."

Matthiessen brought the same level of attention to his fascination with the outdoors. He spent hours as a boy observing the activity at his mother's bird feeder. "She got all the winter birds you would get in those days – not anymore," he said. In Connecticut, he and his brother, who later became a marine biologist, collected so many copperheads that they opened a viewing gallery for their friends. His father taught him to shoot and, especially, to fish; Matthiessen wrote a hunting and fishing column for the Yale newspaper. After returning from Paris, he sought solitude on eastern Long Island, then popular with artists lured by cheap rents. For three summers he worked as a commercial fisherman, slowly winning over his suspicious neighbors and learning the skills of seine-hauling and scalloping. He ran his own charter boat, the Merlin, out of Montauk, writing fiction in the winters. He recalled those years as some of the most satisfying of his life. Matthiessen never stopped fishing. He made annual trips to Montana to fly-cast on the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. Weeks before he died, he was weighing the possibility of making the journey again this summer. He even maintained an old fisherman's devotion to secrecy. "I went clamming with him once, to a particularly good spot, and he practically blindfolded me," said Salter.

In 1956, the 29-year-old Matthiessen departed Long Island in a Ford convertible carrying little more than a sleeping bag, a shotgun, and an armload of books. His marriage to his first wife had fallen apart, professional fishing had lost its allure, and his good friend and neighbor, the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, had, in a fit of drunken rage, driven his Oldsmobile off the Springs Fireplace Road in East Hampton, killing himself and a female passenger.

Over the next several months, Matthiessen traveled around the country, stopping at state and national parks, interviewing and corresponding with rangers and naturalists. The book he wrote upon returning, 1959's Wildlife in America, was unlike anything he had yet written, and unlike any conservation book that had appeared before: a gut-punch combination of politics, history, bird-watching, and polemic that made clear as no previous writer had that the American wilderness was shrinking and that Americans were overdrawn on our supposedly boundless natural resources.

"Peter was there very early on with Wildlife in America, before many were paying attention," said Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature is credited with launching wide awareness of climate change. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, three years after Wildlife in America, is often cited as the foundational text of the modern environmental movement. "Right when the rest of America was full steam ahead with 'progress,' Peter was sounding an early warning on the cost," McKibben said. "Imagine the prescience that takes."

Over the next two decades, Matthiessen wrote two classic novels: At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a thriller that pits a Christian missionary who wishes to convert a tribe of jungle natives against a mercenary who wants to kill them, was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie that almost captured the book's slow-building sense of inescapable ruination. The incantatory Far Tortuga, which reads like a cross between Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and James Joyce's Ulysses, took him 12 years to finish. The book is written largely as unattributed dialogue in an island patois that Matthiessen absorbed over numerous visits to the Caribbean. He also wrote several deeply reported nonfiction books. These would cement his reputation as a nature writer, taking him across the vast but shrinking Amazon jungle in The Cloud Forest and through much of Africa in The Tree Where Man Was Born, widely considered among his finest works.

Matthiessen always felt obliged to write about what he called "social justice," such as the plight of migrant workers and Native Americans. Nowhere was this more evident than in his investigative report In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which examines the killing of two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Upon its release in 1983, Matthiessen and his publishers were sued for libel by South Dakota's governor and an FBI agent. Matthiessen eventually won, after seven years and $3 million in legal fees for his publisher. "He's still in the slammer," Matthiessen said when asked about alleged killer Leonard Peltier. "They keep moving him around." Matthiessen's book made Peltier a controversial hero of the far left. Until the end, Matthiessen continued to fight to get Peltier out of prison, attending his parole hearings in Pennsylvania and writing frequently about his situation.

Matthiessen's books, while widely divergent in their subject matter, tend to explore the same themes repeatedly: the exploitation of the poor by the rich and humanity's tragic stewardship of the natural world. An undercurrent of eulogy runs through his body of work. The son of Manhattan almost never wrote about urban environments, preferring to paint endangered landscapes so deftly that they became characters in his stories. In his last book, In Paradise, the protagonist foresees the day when even the pastures surrounding a concentration camp become more valuable as real estate than as reminders of humanity's capacity for evil.

"What can I say – I tend to write dark," Matthiessen said with a shrug.

I asked him how he felt about the current state of the environment. "It's the old cliché: You win the skirmishes and you lose the war," he said. "We may win a water battle here and an air battle there. All those things are wonderful." And the war? "There are too many of us. We're not talking about population anymore; have you noticed that? It's too intractable. We're not going to stop overpopulating. We're just a crazed species destroying our habitat." He recalled a day years ago when his neighbor Kurt Vonnegut slapped a sticker on his truck: "A typical Vonnegut-ism, it said, your planet's immune system is trying to get rid of you. Absolutely on the button."

To the end, Matthiessen saw his urge to speak for the powerless as a necessary counterbalance to the sort of privilege he'd enjoyed as a child. In his hospital room not long before he went home to die, Matthiessen, who hadn't spoken for days, noticed a nurse busily performing her duties in the corner. In a quiet but clear voice, he suddenly said, "Look at this poor woman, how hard she's working."