January 11, 1993
Laureate of The Wild
Novelist, naturalist and activist, Peter Matthiessen pursues an austere spiritual quest in his life as well as in his writing
BY PICO IYER
"He'd heard from a Mongolian ornithologist," says the writer, and you know there's only one major American novelist who could be speaking, "that there were quite a number of cranes in the eastern part of Mongolia. So we spent two weeks exploring the river systems there. There are only 15 species of crane, and seven of them are seriously endangered. And they're all very beautiful -- the biggest flying creatures on earth -- and they seem to me a wonderful metaphor. They require a lot of space, a lot of wilderness and clean water." + They are symbols of longevity. "And about half the population's on the mainland; the other half's in Japan." He smiles. "They've probably been separated for millions of years. I like that. It humbles one." ...
... Maybe so. But 17 years ago, in a talk with TIME, he used almost exactly the same words. And so one is left with the noble, and slightly poignant, image of a restless, ambitious, complex man trying and trying for simplicity. "There's a line in Turgenev," he says, "in Virgin Soil, that absolutely haunts me. It's a suicide note, and the entire note is, 'I could not simplify myself.' What an arrow through the heart!"