Eating with Literary Giant Peter Matthiessen
In his new book, ‘The Traveling Feast,’ award-winning writer Rick Bass travels the country cooking for his favorite authors.
On the phone, one of my greatest literary heroes, Peter Matthiessen, had sounded weak, fatigued, rocked. He said he was still working every day, still writing, but that he got tired. The chemo treatments were hard—a new and intense regimen, twice a week—and he’d also been getting a fair number of visitors, tiring in itself. I promised we wouldn’t stay long, if he would indulge my request, which was that I and a mentee—a beginning writer, as I once was—would bring him a meal, serve it, visit, then leave.
It was an indulgence, I told him, partly about wanting to honor him, but also partly about feeding my own need. He laughed, said something like “I know that,” and told us to come on. He said he wanted soup—and maybe a salad, he added, warming to the idea, and then, before our conversation ended, asked for bread. Not a bad appetite for an eighty-six-year-old man who’d been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia back in the fall, and was undergoing rigorous chemotherapy.
So I brought a food processor in my checked baggage to New York. I was traveling with Erin Halcomb, a student of mine, a wonderful nonfiction writer who will be one of the voices of the future. She is a sawyer and a weasel live-trapper for the U.S. Forest Service. I met her several years ago, at a workshop taught by Terry Tempest Williams in Montana’s Centennial Mountains. I believe in her, as folks once dared to believe in me, and I want her to meet as many of my mentors as possible.
We fix the meal the night before—a soup of fresh-dug parsnips (tarragon, butter, garlic, vermouth) with a rich morel cream, as well as a little avocado salad with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. On the drive out from a friend’s house in Brooklyn I stand in a field somewhere on Long Island speaking to workers digging holes in the ground, and hold my bright white sheets of paper fluttering with the directions Peter gave me, and read the words to the workers as though the pages hold verse, or the text of some document of near-biblical importance, and the men send us on our way with some general arm-waving. At last we reach Sagaponack. Peter told me the house was at the end of the road and we’d recognize it from the whale skull on the porch, and sure enough it’s there, looking like a damned dinosaur fossil: tilted upright, house-tall, gray and pitted rather than desert-white, ossified and somber.
Carrying our wares now in one large cardboard box, we approach his house as if preparing to enter an enchanted cottage. The tiled porch is still in shadow on this first day of spring, the small hedge-bound yard sunlit, and the cold wind stirs the dry oak leaves of last year. Birds—sparrows, mostly—blow past like the leaves themselves, veering as if tumbling, wingflashes and pale bellies glinting. What’s it like to have two younger people, acolytes, show up, not unlike the birds that flock, year after year, to the feeder?
We knock lightly on the French double doors, and wait. It’s been almost ten years since I’ve seen Peter, back at the revel, or wake, for George Plimpton, with whom Peter co-founded the Paris Review, a magazine George published for fifty years, until his death. While it’s not true to say that Peter hasn’t aged, he’s aged less than I have. He moves down his hallway on the other side of the glass carefully—more considered than casual—but with focus, presence, intent. A good day, then, maybe a great day.
He opens the door with an elegant, friendly manner. He seems surprised we showed up, and it occurs to me that perhaps in his long life, and his many adventures, he has nonetheless never had anyone materialize at his door wanting to cook him a meal.
“Come in,” he says, giving me a handshake and then an embrace, and a courtly handshake to Erin. “I’m hungry, I was waiting on you, I was just about to eat something.”
He says this without judgment or criticism, only with a slight marveling, it seems, that we arrived in the nick of time, the just-right moment to stay his hand—the fork already lifted, perhaps—and, unless I am imagining this, pleased, and a little surprised, by his appetite after so arduous a treatment. He wastes no time in leading us toward the kitchen.
Was it really thirty-eight years ago now that he was tromping in the Himalaya, hale and strong and healthy, if anguished, in The Snow Leopard? No small number of us read this book as very young men and women—often living in the American white-bread suburbs—and, shall we be direct, had our shit blown away by its blend of naturalism, science, adventure, passion, and spiritualism, set in those higher mountains in the world, a region that, in the 1970s, was arguably still the world’s greatest physical and metaphysical wilderness. Readers can enter his work from any direction and become lost, in the best way, changed forever.
Where to begin with the work of a writer this capacious? So wide-ranging are his interests, beyond any possible horizon, that on paper it would be difficult for the structure to hold a straight chronological telling. He went to Paris as a young man, fell in love with the city as well as with a woman, a woman who also loved Paris, and he got a job with the CIA that allowed him to live and work there, which he did, in the 1950s—echoing the powerful literary generation that had preceded him there.
“It took me about a year,” he says of his work with the CIA, “to realize what I was being asked to do, and that I didn’t like it”—being untruthful to the people upon whom he was gathering information. “It drove me to the left,” he says. “I realized I had to quit.”
From that act of integrity—forsaking the pleasures of Paris for a matter of principle—it seems that wherever he went, no matter the subject or issue, it was for him as if a shining path of rightness was visible to him, like a shining silver stream or river in the darkness, and at each opportunity, each choice, he took it. During the publication process of his first-ever accepted piece in The New Yorker, a story about the mayor of Orleans being murdered by his wife, Peter so disagreed with legendary editor William Shawn that he sent “a strongly worded letter” asking Shawn to kill the piece rather than publish it with the recommended edits. Such cheek! A compromise was achieved, the piece was published, the ship of his career was launched into the surf.
Is he secretly attracted to tussles?
“No,” he protests, spreading his hands as if in defense, “I’m actually quite cuddly.” He laughs. “I can be ferocious,” he adds, as if the two words are the most natural pairing in the world.
You can recognize both that ferocious integrity and his genius if you read only one of his books, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, his magnificent nonfiction account of the 1975 killing of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. Peter says that Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of those killings, still stays in touch with him all these years later. While he has deep compassion for the federal agents slain at Pine Ridge, Peter is convinced that Peltier was framed. Although Peltier has been serving consecutive life terms since his conviction forty years ago, he continues to hope, based on Peter’s work, for amnesty.
When Peltier heard of Peter’s illness, he understandably became concerned about the consequences to his own life should Peter not recover. Laughing a little, Peter tells us that Leonard cried out, most plaintively, “Don’t leave me, Peter!” Here, too, is one of the great stories of American publishing, another typical path of Matthiessen’s literary and artistic integrity: first in investigating with such exhaustive detail (thanks in part, perhaps, to his training with the CIA), and then in defending not just the book’s veracity but himself against a $37 million lawsuit that resulted in the book’s publication being tied up in court for nine years.
What humming energy circulates in his great skull, and why? More than with any of my other heroes, he has demonstrated, modeled, a life of artistic as well as political integrity, writing whatever his heart desires, in whatever manner he wishes. There are so many moving parts to the magic that has always been his life. He has followed that shining path sometimes through Amazonian swamps (The Cloud Forest), sometimes across Africa (Sand Rivers), and at other times into New Guinea (Under the Mountain Wall). Shadow Country, his great American novel in trilogy, was written from its Everglades setting. He talks about his days as a commercial fisherman. He was raising a family, had a wife and children, and had to get down to business, he says, writing about the only thing he knew well back then, fishing, which resulted in the masterly Far Tortuga. The quality of his work is matched only by the extraordinary length of his career, and because of the breadth of his mind—his curiosities and passions leading him to wildly different subjects—he is claimed by diverse tribes of readers. There is a feeling that he belongs to everyone.
The light in the kitchen is lovely. Peter tells us that the house previously belonged to a photographer who studied with Richard Avedon—that he liked it for all its windows, and the light. The work finishing the meal is done. The color of the soup, a pale yet rich orange, matches the mid-afternoon winter light that’s reaching through all those windows. Birds swirl past in the cold light and wind. Peter’s wife, Maria, has arrived, just in time, carrying bags, and we all sit down at our leisure.
The dollop of morel cream dropped into the middle of the soup perches beautifully, does not dilute or wander. We can see the little golden-brown morel nuggets inside each dollop, and slowly we stir the cream deeper into the soup, then taste it. It’s perfect—one of the best winter soups I’ve ever tasted, if I may say so—and it occurs to me, here on the first day of spring, we are pretty much in the high-noon balance of things—very near the precise time scientists have pinpointed when the tilt and cant and turn of things is such that we can say exactly that winter is behind us and spring has arrived.
Erin is telling Peter about the ruddy ducks we saw in the inlet beneath the bridge near Peter’s house. As soon as we began crossing the bridge and Erin spotted them bobbing along in the cold wind and bright sun, I knew she’d left this world and was connected to the ducks; that they would be all she could see or hear and there would be no room in her mind for anything else.
We stopped on the bridge and she looked down upon the ducks as if channeling from them the essence of life: the very life force that would allow her to go forward, into the world. I was envious and happy. It was a glimpse at one of the reasons I’m betting on her and giving myself over to this mentoring. If she wanted to sit on this bridge for an hour or more in her duck-trance, who was I, as her mentor, to disrupt that? Peter himself would surely concur, I thought. Writing may or may not be able to be taught. But being a writer—which is to say, growing the unguarded heart, and inhabiting the exhilarating layer of atmosphere just above us as well as the sometimes frightening subsurface barely a spade’s stroke beneath us—this can be taught, or at least encouraged.
I was reminded of the story of the Buddhist master who left a novitiate alone in a monastery for several days. A blizzard pushed through, and there was nothing for warmth. In desperation, the student burned a sacred table or chair, I forget which, and upon discovering this, the master was very pleased; the lesson of impermanence had been learned, along with several others. Erin gazed down on the ducks for only a few minutes before emerging from her reverie, and then we continued on down the road, toward Peter, our holy man, who would be pleased, I thought, to know the ducks were there.
Erin has a question for Peter. Isn’t it true, she asks, that non-fiction requires merely or mainly the yeoman ability to work each day and be dogged, committed, like a farrier, whereas fiction is more about courage, and greatness of soul? It’s a paraphrase, I notice, of something I once told her when she asked me a similar question, and internally I find myself freezing midstride, like a busted, bandy-striped cartoon burglar with a pillowcase of cash on his back, illuminated with a single beam of spotlight glare. What if the maestro says, “Hell no, that’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard”?
Peter’s head tips slightly downward, and he appears to be examining the idea with the practiced elegance of a raccoon turning a freshwater mussel over and over in his paws.
“Yes,” he says, and he looks right at Erin with laser eyes of the palest blue, holds her gaze.
“You’ve got to be ferocious. With novels you’ve got to be willing to be completely obsessed and committed, and for a long time.”
And though he does not say it, another part of it seems obvious to me—you have to not care what anybody thinks. Or perhaps, if you know what others will think, to move stubbornly in the opposite direction, unencumbered by crowds. From The Snow Leopard:
I go slowly down the mountain, falling well behind the rest, in no hurry to get back to that dark camp. Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat, despite the loss of three thousand feet of altitude that will have to be so painfully regained, despite the gloomy canyon and uncertain weather and ill humor of my friend, and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.
Suddenly my heart swells, feels like it’s doubling in size, my arms and legs incandesce with a fizzing in my blood, a feeling like light entering my veins, there is connection through me between future and past, as if by electric circuitry, and I know that my vision for this project is not harebrained or indulgent. My passion is somehow almost perfectly transferable. A thing that I love from the way-back has passed through me and been handed to a traveler in the way-future. Despite such a significant bridge of time—more than half a century’s distance between them—two people whom I believe in know each other now. It’s working. We have crossed over the low pass, the saddle, and are looking down into untrammeled territory where we’ve never been.
But just as quickly, time surges. It runs away from us. As we talk and ask questions and tell stories, the small clock within me whirs, as if tiny flecks of metal are being shaved from the cogs and gears of that internal mechanism. How ironic that when I conceived of this project, these meals, I mistakenly and romantically envisioned standing long leisurely hours in the kitchens of my heroes, maybe sipping highballs while the afternoon sun lengthened gold toward the sweet and perfect summer dinner hour.
Around the corner from where we are eating in the kitchen is an entire wall framed with photographs, not of Peter being given awards, but pictures from Papua New Guinea, where he participated in a tribal civil war. The quality of the photographs is astonishing—high art of indigenous people in loincloths and bead necklaces running at each other with lances and bows and arrows, their bodies and faces war-painted.
“Go look at them,” Peter urges us. Thinking back on his life, I think. All the many wars.
As if inhabiting a ghost mansion, we do. These were fantastically stylized, full-blown choreographed wars in which everyone fights, but in which once a warrior has been killed, all hostilities cease. The ultimate ceremony. An evolutionary adaptation for extremely small clans and communities.
At last, as we’re cleaning up the dishes, Peter craters. He had indicated earlier that two hours would likely be his energy level. We went two hours and eleven minutes, then two hours and seventeen minutes. He’s absolutely got to go lie down. “Just five minutes,” he explains. His manners and bearing are neither apologetic nor hurried, but they possess an element of regret, and some mild frustration, though not despair. In the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, he takes his leave, and Erin and Maria and I work quickly, efficiently, putting away leftovers, the three of us rotating without getting in each other’s way, in the pleasure of a kitchen area that is just the right size, while Peter is already around the corner now, headed for a brief lying-down period with the focus of an athlete making a kick for the finish line: working only to reach the end, give it your all, run hard through the tape.
A short while later, as Erin and I wait in the study, we can hear Maria in the next room running through the answering machine’s many messages, a litany of conferences, festivals, and various environmental benefits requesting that Peter fly to wherever they are and give keynote talks to support their causes. How to say “No thank you” or “I can’t” or “I have to rest”? Another question for my mentor, but time is running out, has run out.
Peter reappears, resurrected, ready, rested. Where did he go, in those ten or fifteen minutes, while the clock melted? To the other side of the world and back? He still looks elegant. Wherever he went, it helped. We’ve asked for a picture, and gentleman that he is, he settles into his chair, books on the shelf behind him, and dons his mask—the restrained smile, the steady look of portraiture—and for a moment I feel an awful sense of leave-taking. Look, the moment of the meal is slipping away, look, we are no longer dwelling intimately and at depth—snap, snap—look, I am ruining the thing I love.
I’m chastened, but Peter is forgiving. The clock on the wall is moving at its regular pace again. It’s time to go, past time to go—there are now just a few traces of shadows out in the yard.
Timing is one of the key elements of graciousness, and where my clumsy impulse, having overstayed, is to dash—to minimize the error—Peter’s more elegant way is to effect a leisurely farewell.
For some reason he turns the conversation not to goodbyes but instead to wolverines and fishers, asking if we have ever seen any, out west. Funny he should ask: Erin tells him about her seasonal work doing research on mustelids, and, revived by his little rest, Peter leans forward, the two of them trading stories of fisher cats. As earlier, during the meal, my heart-swelling sense of what is passing between these generations returns. It makes me think, strangely, of the Bering Strait, and the way in which, during brief windows of time, there has been a passageway from Asia to the Americas, or vice versa: as if, for but a single day, geologically speaking, a gate would swing open, and great and powerful things, new beings and new ways, could flow from one place to another while the earth kept ceaselessly spinning.
The talk of fishers leads to a discussion of the few animals in the world that Peter hasn’t seen. “I’ve never seen a right whale,” he says, but a biologist friend of his has offered to take him up in a plane next spring, says he knows where they can be found at that time of year, and Peter’s looking forward to it, like a young boy just starting out in the world. He talks about things he wants to show us when we come back, things we can do when we have more time. Fishing, maybe. A beach walk.
We emerge onto the porch and stand next to the whale skull. I can’t help wondering how many more stories would spill from Peter if we could stay longer. As if on cue, he embarks on the saga of the skull, not as if the events of it had happened but a blink ago, still within the shell of this one man’s life, but as if they had occurred centuries, even millennia, ago—as if he were not the whale skull’s discoverer, but merely its interpreter.
One night, long ago, the skull presented itself to him while he was walking along the shore. He saw it from a long distance away, and from that vantage it must have looked not like a whale at all, but instead a large dinghy, the wreckage of some immense rowboat from decades ago. The skull was upside down, a leaden garden of wet, dense sand packed into the cavities where once a magnificent brain had carried for thousands of miles untold manner of thoughts, observations, and, surely, the most powerful emotions, traveling almost always beneath the surface, where skippers and sanderlings wheeled and whirled.
Peter says he knew the same tide that had brought the great skull to shore—tumbling and sloshing slowly beneath the rough waves like a single die being rolled across the ocean floor—would, in the next tide, or the next, take it back, or, worse, bury it beneath tonnages of the next tide’s sand. And so he hurried home and got a cable, pounded a stake into the dunes, and fastened one end of the cable to the stake and the other to the skull, to mark its location and hold it in place until he could return with the equipment required for its excavation and retrieval.
Again the image that comes to me is of a young boy excited by and for and in the world.
That’s pretty much how it turned out, he says. Sure enough, the tide buried it, but he was able to follow his cable down into the depths of the sand—as if he had hooked the skull while fishing or trawling—and then fasten the cable to a truck, which dragged it farther up onto shore, to safety. Then, with the assistance of others, he loaded its heft into the back of the truck and drove it home.
Some writers hang deer or elk skulls on the walls of their porches, or place the bleached skulls of caribou or buffalo in their gardens; Peter has a giant whale skull the size of a dinosaur, lurking, looming in the shadows, and seeming, somehow, if you look at it just right, to still be thinking its enormous thoughts.
What, I wonder, did the various parts of the whale weigh? How much the caudal fins, how much the great broad flukes of the tail, how much the tongue, how much the heart? What are all the parts that make up the ponderous sum, and what immensity of years and near-infinitude of miles once passed through this great mammal’s lungs, back in the years of its living, before it became lithified and but a talisman, a monument to the deep?
Peter is rejuvenated from that briefest of rests. He seems to be in his forties again, not eighty-six and buffeted by cancer. He accompanies us farther out onto that sunny, breezy porch and, before we part, leads us past his and Maria’s little garden, out to his Zendo.
He pushes open the old wooden door and in the little foyer we slip off our shoes and then peer inside at the mats, the long bare stark meditating space—the splendid nothingness of it. As might be imagined, it is a space filled with ghosts, fine ghosts, an air dense with sweetness and stillness. Peter smiles his little smile, watches us stand there drinking it in, not saying anything, just breathing the different air. Our three hearts slow to beat as one. The deep galvanic pulse comes from one place, owning us and sharing us.
I don’t know how long we stand there like that, but then it is time to go.
Excerpted from THE TRAVELING FEAST Copyright © 2018 by Rick Bass. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.