Renowned writer and activist Peter Matthiessen talks about local filmmaker Jeff Sewald's new documentary about him. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Renowned writer and activist Peter Matthiessen talks about local filmmaker Jeff Sewald's new documentary about him.

Renowned writer and activist Peter Matthiessen talks about local filmmaker Jeff Sewald's new documentary about him.
Photo by Subhankar Banerjee
Peter Matthiessen in the Arctic.

Few American writers have as diverse a resume as does Peter Matthiessen. In 1953, the Yale grad co-founded the Paris Review (famously, during his brief period of employment by the fledgling CIA). He went on to a dizzingly varied career as a novelist and nonfiction writer, world traveler and activist. He's also a Zen priest.

Matthiessen has published 10 novels, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord (about missionaries and indigenous peoples in South America). Last year's National Book Award winner was Matthiessen's Shadow Country, an epic novel unifying the books of his "Watson" trilogy, about the violent life of a storied 19th-century settler on Florida's Gulf Coast.

His nonfiction ouevre ranges from stunningly lyrical nature writing and accounts of sojourns among Stone Age tribes to ripping-yarn Amazonian adventures and groundbreaking journalism. Wildlife in America (1959), his look at species decline, predated Rachel Carson's Silent Spring by three years and, with it, helped spark the modern environmental movement. In 1983's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, he investigated the shooting of two FBI agents at North Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which had resulted in a life sentence for activist Leonard Peltier. The book, which took up Peltier's cause, sparked a landmark libel suit that kept it off shelves for eight years. (Matthiessen and his publisher finally won.) Matthiessen's best-known book is probably The Snow Leopard, a spiritually infused account of hiking the Himalayas.

Matthiessen, 81, visits Pittsburgh for the first time in a decade for the April 15 local-premiere screening of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries. It's an admiring and smartly made new hour-long PBS documentary about him by Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Jeff Sewald, produced by WQED. The national broadcast premiere is April 24.

Matthiessen spoke with CP from his home in Sagaponack, New York.


In No Boundaries, it's asserted that your writing is typically elegiac. Why is that?
Because there's so much disappearing. If you look at The New York Times today, on the editorial page, there's one about a new list of birds that are disappearing and declining. So there's an awful lot going, which is very precious to me. I think we will not be forgiven by our heirs for the carelessness about habitat and so forth, about these living things that are going down the tubes.

The theme goes back at least to Wildlife in America.
That was kind of a cry, to say, "Hey, watch, look what we're doing." That came out at more or less the same time as Silent Spring. ... Rachel Carson and I are on the same page. I didn't know her, but she's a wonderful writer.

How was your book received, in the late '50s?
The reaction was pretty good. That book got wonderful reviews. And it's in the permanent library in the White House.

Have we made environmental progress since the late '50s?
Actually there's been quite a lot of progress. There's been legislation. There's been a greening of the whole public attitude.

How so?
I've been working in the Arctic in recent years. The only way you can get [to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] is by light plane that'll land you on a river someplace. You either believe what the oil companies [who want to drill there] tell you, that it's a desert, or you learn about it and you realize it's anything but a desert: It's the last stronghold of Ice Age animals. All three [species of] bears, and everything.

And I saw a poll [in which Americans] overwhelmingly wanted that refuge saved, even though they couldn't get there. Just the whole idea that there was one roadless, beautiful place, absolutely a wildlife Mecca. That the public wanted to keep it, I thought was an extremely healthy sign. I'm not sure that would have been true when Wildlife in America was written.

But unfortunately, we won a battle or two but we're losing the war. The species are still disappearing, the wetlands are still disappearing at a terrible rate. So overall, it's not good.

In No Boundaries, you say your characters "don't step off the page, they step out of the landscape." But it seems harder to have an ethic of place in these days of urban sprawl.
I'm afraid that's true. Some of my Zen students -- we had a meditation this morning -- they gave me a map of where my house is here, one taken from the air straight above, and the houses in this section of the village, and it's just appalling. I can make a few small red circles to indicate the houses that were here when I got here, in '59. It's just amazing. There's still a very pretty village at its heart. It's just been developed.

What must people understand about how ecosystems work?
There's a paragraph in the first two or three pages in Wildlife in America that kind of sums up -- that was my message back in 1959, and it's my message still. [It reads, in part: "The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoliation of a continent which we once confused with progress. ... Forests, soil, water, and wildlife are mutually interdependent, and the ruin of one element will mean, in the end, the ruin of them all."]

What needs to happen?
As in most cases, the species has to be near extinction, like the polar bear, or we have to have a calamity. And there's gonna of course be a great big calamity, I think, related to global warming -- or, to another pending disaster that people don't talk about much, but I think the shortage of fresh water, drinkable water is gonna be something. We're gonna have millions of people who are really deprived of water. And that will wake up the public.

The wildlife will not be the first consideration at all. I'm afraid that's always what it takes. It takes a disaster to get people off their butt.

What are you reading lately?
I always sort of mix it up. I'm reading a book called SuperSense [by Bruce Hood]. It's about the supernatural -- about people's ingrained need for the supernatural, which would include all religions, and of course the quirky wild weird stuff too. I'm also reading that new book by Roberto Bolaño [2666]. A great, enormous book. I've loved other books of his, so I'm reading that. It's a monster!

And I love the New York Review [of Books], not just because they publish my stuff. ... But I just think it's the most intelligent, or best, most literate publication. And I agree with the politics and so forth.

How do you like No Boundaries?
I think it's a very generous film. I admired the photography and Jeff was very easy to work with -- actually his whole crew was.

Will you speak at the screening?
I'm going to do question and answer. ... The film is all about me. Anything I [could] say is me, me, me. And you can only take so much of that!


Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries screens at 7 p.m. Wed., April 15; a question-and-answer with Matthiessen and filmmaker Jeff Sewald follows. Eddy Theatre, Chatham University campus, Shadyside. Free. Reservations at 412-365-1125