My copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is as tattered as a book can be and still hold together enough to be called a book. It is the record of a kind of Zen pilgrimage into one of the most remote parts of the Himalayas, undertaken for many reasons, but among them, the hope of glimpsing the rarest of big cats.
I’ve read the book I don’t know how many times, used it when teaching writing (reading and writing being inseparable activities in my mind), and been carried away each time by the way the writing echoes the landscape — the crystalline purity of the air; the heady sense of transcendence; the ruthless clarity of perspective on life “down below”; the sound of silence at altitude. If you have ever been alone early morning in high mountains and heard the silence ringing, you will know this is no metaphor: it does, it rings, as though the whole world were vibrating with the energy of its own existence.
Matthiessen never sees the snow leopard, and the last line of his book — “Have you seen the snow leopard?” “No.” — is one I treasure. The idea of the snow leopard as simply not seeable works for me in a suitably Zen kind of way: the more you search for something elusive, the less likely you are to find it. The snow leopard will reveal itself if and when it pleases.
But I have just checked back in the book itself, and that is not the last line. And though my copy is well marked, as all my favorite books, I can’t find the line, and now am not sure it’s even there.
Yet last night I saw a snow leopard. More than one. Several.
Sometimes the most magical things happen in the most mundane way. I had somehow ‘paused’ my printer and couldn’t figure out how to unpause it. A paused printer is no great deal, but still, it was annoying me, so rather than sit in my study and be annoyed, I closed everything up, began making dinner, and idly turned on the TV, which was set to Mute. The public-television station came up, and on it, a ‘Nature’ program. Yawn. I went on slicing things, then glanced up at the screen and saw a very large feline nosing up to a remote camera, nuzzling and pawing at it, breathing on the lens. A spotted feline. With snow underfoot, and stark, craggy mountains all around. And I stood very still, as though the feline and I were in the same space, and thought “Nah, that can’t be a snow leopard — you never get to see snow leopards.”
I unmuted the TV, dropped the knife, and kind of glided toward the floor in front of the set. A totally obsessed film crew had apparently spent months on end at 15,000 feet in the Himalayas trying to track the creatures, They’d laid remote cameras at multiple points along intersecting ravines and had reached the Matthiessen point of zero expectation. Which was, of course, when the snow leopards appeared. And very calmly, without big hoo-has, without chest-pounding or yee-ha-ing or ain’t-we-great or anything like that, the crew quietly and, well, reverently recorded them.
I watched open-mouthed, hardly daring to breathe, as a male sprayed his territory. As a female found the ‘spraying stone’ and rubbed herself against it. As the male returned and scented the female. And then, this time on a manned camera and live film, as the female climbed up a high ridge to make her mating call; as her howls echoed down through the ravines, calling the male to her; as he slunk up the ridge toward her; as they nuzzled and rubbed against each other with a kind of ineffable gentleness; and then, as they finally mated — exactly as one dreams snow leopards should mate, silhouetted against the high blue sky.
I sat completely rapt until the program ended, and then became aware of the big goofy grin on my face. A beatific grin. And on the floor beside me, my tabby-Persian cross, a miniature version of the big cats, similarly colored but with stripes instead of spots, may have been grinning too. She’d sat up and pricked her ears, eyes eager and muscles tensed as the female leopard began her mating call, then paced back and forth before the television set, all excited, it seemed, by the idea of attracting her own huge slink of a leopard.
I checked on the PBS site this morning, and found that the film is called ‘Silent Roar’ — I don’t know why, since I missed the first half — but you can read about it here, and scroll down on this Snow Leopard Conservancy page to find some video, including a short clip of the two leopards mating.
There is a coda. This morning my friend and IT guru Olivier reset my computer, which is when I remembered that the system I am now using, Mac OS X, is called Snow Leopard. I swore I would never ever sound like a Mac convert, but whether you call this coincidence or synchronicity (or most likely, simply the mind making connections where it would have made none before), it feels like confirmation of my decision to switch from my old PC.
So yes, I saw the snow leopard. But no, I didn’t really. The leopard was on TV, and I was in my houseboat in Seattle, and that is why I stay with that line that may or may not be in Peter Matthiessen’s magnificent book — and why this is my favorite photo of the snow leopard: just the shadow, and the snow, and the mountains, and the sky.