April 10, 2014, by H. Emerson Blake
When we received word that Peter Matthiessen, a longtime friend and advisor to Orion, died on Saturday, I was reminded of a night in March 1999, when Peter was presented with the John Hay Award (an annual award that Orion once presented to writers). The award ceremony took place in Easthampton, New York, and was attended by writers, conservationists, Peter’s family and friends, and Orion staff members. As part of the award there was a colloquium devoted to discussing Peter’s work, then a dinner, and then an after-dinner reception.
It was also the day of the first fight between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, which another Orion staff member and I wanted to watch. Halfway through the after-dinner reception, Robert and I disappeared quietly through a side door of the reception hall and decamped to a sports bar across the street where we found the fight being broadcast. We knew it did not reflect terrifically on us that we were choosing to watch a boxing match over being in the same room with Peter Matthiessen, but we really wanted to see the fight. And we were sure no one would notice.
The fight was entering the tenth round when a tall man materialized next to us and took his place in front of the television. Robert and I looked over. It was Peter. Peter looked over and saw us. We all blinked. In having abandoned the reception, it was unclear who was more in the wrong: the people who were supposed to be celebrating another person, or the person who himself was being celebrated. After a moment, Peter, in his utterly distinctive voice, said, “I really wanted to see the fight.” Robert said, “So did we.” With that we turned our attention back to the television and watched the rest of the fight, which some readers will remember was awarded by decision, pointlessly, to Holyfield. When the fight was over we all walked back to the reception hall.
Peter Matthiessen was the kind of person who could equally enjoy boxing and birdwatching. As a writer, he was able to seamlessly knit environment, Native Americans, sailing, human rights, and fishermen into narratives that engaged vastly disparate readerships. For me, Peter’s book The Snow Leopard, and its fusion of adventure, science, and spiritual quest, changed what I expected for myself and from my life. Mostly, Peter was just a hell of a writer whose skill and versatility were matched by few modern writers. We will do well to remember his appetite for life, his hunger for justice, and his vision for a wilder world.
H. Emerson Blake is the editor-in-chief of Orion.