April 26, 2006
We drove up to Seattle yesterday evening to hear Peter Matthiessen speak at Benaroya Hall. Both my wife and I have been readers of his work for years. For those not familiar with him, he writes beautiful, thoughtful stories and accounts of the natural world, as well as complex and engrossing fiction. I’ve read At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Snow Leopard, and Tigers in the Snow. Hearing him talk about the process of writing made me want to read more.
He started with an impassioned appeal for support for continued protection of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge from oil exploitation. In it, he made an interesting point, one I’d not heard anyone make before: that this is the last place in the world with the full Pleistocene fauna (that which is still in existence) – all three North American bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou, musk ox, and birds, millions of birds from all over the world.
The core of his talk was about his career in writing. I found it interesting that a man who has written twice as many non-fiction works as fiction primarily thinks of himself as a fiction writer. He talked about some of the people he’d worked with – his first agent, his editor at the New Yorker – and some of the journeys he’d undertaken to research his stories. A good bit of the time he talked about his three volume novel about a Florida planter and murderer, Edgar Watson, and the process of researching the story over twenty years. It was interesting and entertaining evening. He came across as modest and thoughtful and funny.
He closed with a series of questions from the audience that brought the discussion around to the situation of humans on the planet, in which he described humans as a beautiful and terrible animal. That this life on this earth is a wonderful thing, but he didn’t consider himself optimistic, given our continuing destruction of each other and our shared home.