Being a seeker these days isn't easy. Our world wants us to be certain, whatever our views, and beyond that to be consumers — leaving little room for setting out in search of potentially important personal truths. Then, too, the notion of "seeking" got something of a bad name back in the '60s and '70s, when it became so entwined with drugs and pretend or misguided teachers.
Yet at the beginning of my seventh decade I find myself pulled back to the power of the quest, feeling an urgency about confronting those big questions so easy to shelve earlier in my life. For some guideposts, I returned to a book that both inspired and troubled me years ago, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard.
A tale of seeking in the extreme, the book recounts the author's trek into the wilds of the Dolpo region of Nepal in the company of another great naturalist and adventurer, George Schaller. The two are ostensibly making the journey to learn about a rare Himalayan sheep. If they are unusually fortunate they might catch a glimpse of the most elusive animal this side of the Yeti, the snow leopard. The odds of encountering either are greatest around the Crystal Mountain Monastery, a top-of-the-world center of Tibetan Buddhism as inaccessible as any place on Earth.
As becomes immediately apparent, the author is an especially keen observer of the natural world, of the high-mountain people who make the quest possible and, most compellingly, of himself.
The rugged Matthiessen describes matter-of-factly the endless difficulties they face — weeks of unexpected monsoon rain, the frequent disappearances of essential porters, the high cliffside trails less than two feet wide. But the hardships of the trek are a stand-in for the real drama: Matthiessen has just lost his wife to cancer. His hurt and confusion are so great that he places his 8-year-old son into the care of others so he can set off for Dolpo. Why he did that, how he could be so appealing yet so selfish, was always a puzzle to me.
Clearly, Matthiessen was a seeker — a driven man who had consumed his share of drugs, who looked for wisdom in many far-flung cultures, who later turned to Zen Buddhism. But more apparent to me now is that tracking the snow leopard was a search for something essential at a time of crisis. He needed to relearn how to live in this world, how to access his crippled capacities for understanding and balance.
Selfish? No doubt. But so honest and ultimately revelatory that forgiveness comes easily — especially now that hard self-examination is so devalued, often more shell than substance. For $5,000, after all, you can take a guided trek today that follows the author's path to Crystal Mountain — his physical path, that is.
I've spent the last three years of my career in the company of a different breed of seekers, men and women on what may well be the scientific quest of the century. They are hunting for life beyond Earth, and are learning extraordinary things about our planet and the cosmos as they search. They, like Matthiessen, may never encounter their snow leopards, but that's hardly the point. It's the looking at life, and looking for life, that's important, and Matthiessen lays out plainly but elegantly why that is and why it always must be.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.