In September 1976, Peter Matthiessen took me aside at a family wedding in Seattle. He was forty-nine and at the acme of his ambidextrous literary powers. Far Tortuga, his finest novel, about a doomed voyage of turtle hunters, had been published the year before, and his next book, set in the Himalayas, would be The Snow Leopard, his finest work of nonfiction.
I had mentioned to Peter that my wife and I were headed for Vancouver, B.C., on a short vacation. Looking at me meaningfully, my uncle said that while we were in Vancouver we should go to a private screening of a film that he would arrange for us. The brief footage, he explained, showed a sasquatch or what was believed to be a sasquatch walking in the woods of northern California.
I was surprised, for I had no inkling of his interest in Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot: the large, hairy, hominoid creature reputed by some not very reputable people to lurk in the forests of the Northwest. Sensitive to scoffers, Peter had told almost no one about his fascination with Bigfoot. Indeed, he could have told me, but did not, that earlier in the summer, while driving in the backcountry investigating reports of Bigfoot, he’d seen a tall, bipedal figure run across the road and disappear into the trees.
I took my uncle’s instruction without question. The night after arriving in Vancouver–fittingly a foggy night, rain streaking the lampposts on dark, unfamiliar streets–my wife and I took a taxi to an address in a modest residential neighborhood. A stocky, crewcut man in a plaid lumberjack shirt opened the door. He was René Dahinden, an experienced woodsman who had considerable stature within the variegated Bigfoot community. Constantly on call, he examined tracks and debriefed people who claimed to have seen the mysterious animal. The gimlet-eyed Dahinden was just the sort of expert to reassure Peter Matthiessen–experienced in the woods himself, an avid observer with zoological training, and nobody’s fool–that his fascination with the creature was not misplaced.
Dahinden took us to a bright, plain room in his basement, where a projector and screen had been set up. He had recently acquired the famous footage shot by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, which remains the single best piece of evidence that sasquatches might be real. The 16-mm film was shot in 1967 near Bluff Creek, California, by two Bigfoot hunters. Representations of Bigfoot that are purveyed in the popular media today consciously or unconsciously mimic the tall, apelike figure captured by the shaky film. Sixty to eighty feet from the camera, the creature looks over its shoulder as it strides from left to right. Arms swinging, it crosses a sandbar in a creek bed and steps lightly over a clot of logs. Although the thing clearly is fleeing, its baleful look suggests that it is quite prepared to turn around.
My wife and I left Dahinden’s house quietly, feeling confused. How could it not be a guy in a gorilla suit? I don’t recall talking with Peter about the film clip. He and I never spoke of Bigfoot again; he must have sensed my skepticism. Occasionally I wondered about this quirky manifestation of his naturalist’s curiosity, his Zen-tinged musing about sasquatches and their cousins the yeti. Wary to the end, Peter never published anything substantive about them, but he clearly intended to. He labored on a Bigfoot book on and off for some thirty years. It was the last work on his desk when he died, in 2014. When I review his richly rendered writing through the darkling lens of Sasquatch, nothing reads the same to me because the creature colored everything he believed about the natural world. Most of all he longed for Bigfoot to be true.
Peter Matthiessen’s Bigfoot fancy took root in the mountains of Nepal in 1973. He had trekked to the snow-streaked scarp of the Tibetan plateau with the zoologist George Schaller. Schaller’s purpose was to the study the rare bharal, the Himalayan blue sheep, and Matthiessen’s was to salve his grief for the loss of his second wife, Deborah. Deborah, who had introduced him to Zen Buddhism, had died of cancer the previous winter. In The Snow Leopard the elusive, eponymous cat emerges as the symbol of Matthiessen’s quest. He never succeeds in catching sight of a snow leopard. But rather than being disappointed, “Isn’t that wonderful?” Matthiessen the Zen oblate writes.
A third creature has a small, persistent presence in the book: the yeti. Schaller, though he stipulates that “at least ninety-five percent of the yeti material is nonsense,” examines a plaster cast of a track in Kathmandu and offers the opinion that yetis could exist, and might well. Matthiessen writes that the upright, reddish-and-black-haired yetis are familiar animals to Sherpa villagers, albeit fearsome to encounter, even though the yeti is dismissed in the West as “the abominable snowman.” Matthiessen challenges the scientific skeptics: “But as with the sasquatch of the vast rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, the case against the existence of the yeti–entirely speculative, and necessarily based on the assumptions of foolishness or mendacity in many observers of good reputation–is even less ‘scientific’ than the evidence that it exists.”
A few pages later, near a creek in a pregnantly shaded canyon, he sees a “dark shape” jump behind a boulder, “much too big for a red panda, too covert for a musk deer, too dark for wolf or leopard, and much quicker than a bear.” He goes on, “With binoculars I stare for a long time at the mute boulder, feeling the presence of unknown life behind it, but all is still, there is only the sun and morning mountainside, the pouring water.” All day he mulls over the incident. Reason tells him he probably glimpsed a musk deer. But “it is hard to put away the thought of yeti.” Revisiting that thought in later years, Matthiessen would speak of his putative yeti sighting without ever mentioning his possible Bigfoot sighting.
Though Bigfoot and kindred creatures still roam late-night TV, the pursuit of them is not as serious as it once was. The 1970s were the prime time for Sasquatch, as well-funded investigators took up the hunt on the heels of the Patterson-Gimlin film. Reports of sightings and plaster impressions of cartoonishly large tracks passed back and forth, along with not a little backbiting and rivalry among the sleuths. René Dahinden, for one, was scathing about the mistakes and hoaxes that bedeviled the field. Matthiessen, though still at work on The Snow Leopard, decided to stick his toe into the water. His practice was to fund a new project by way of a magazine assignment, usually for The New Yorker. He met with William Shawn, the magazine’s editor. Though dubious, Shawn agreed to cover the expenses for Matthiessen’s first reporting trip to the West.
In 1978 a symposium was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver titled Sasquatch and Related Phenomena. Academics and journalists, as well as run-of-the-mill sasquatch buffs, attended. Matthiessen was there too, the most high-profile writer present, but if he was on assignment, he did not publish anything. He met Peter Byrne, the tweedy dean of the investigators, and the two began a correspondence. Now ninety-three, Byrne is still in the hunt. He recalls Matthiessen as very pleasant and courteous. “Peter expressed great interest in the possibility of their [sasquatches’] existence,” he said. “I thought he’d go out into the bush and join the work. I thought he’d come out and write something. It’s a pity he didn’t.” This was a typical misreading; Matthiessen was more ardent and committed than he let on, even within the Sasquatch fraternity.
The conference’s official finding was that it was not possible to dismiss all the evidence of Bigfoot as a hoax. Since no carcasses or skeletons had turned up, and since the tracks and photos were inconclusive, there could not be positive findings. Still, as the scientists’ maxim goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Even today, no proof having materialized, the agnostic Schaller will not say that Bigfoot and the yeti do not exist. He wrote to me: “Any large mammal leaves feces which DNA can identify to species and individual. So far searches have been brief and rather haphazard, not focused and determined over a period of at least months. So I hope the searches will continue.”
In addition to his sporadic, private probes, Matthiessen collected books about the creatures. His Bigfoot shelf eventually held more than two dozen volumes, including a couple of books on paleontology. For it would become his argument, nodding to evolutionary biology, that the sasquatches might be a relic species of hominoid. There were plenty of offshoot hominoids in the fossil record. Rare and skittish, the animals may have been able to hang on in remote areas of Asia and North America.
One of the books in his special collection was an anthology of essays titled The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism. The essays explored primitivism in European culture and literature. Primitivism was embodied in the “wild man,” who was both a myth and an anthropological entity. Ursine men–Linnaeus classified them as Homo sapiens ferus–were said to prowl the edges of civilization. Always living alone, they dressed in animal skins or straw and had a giant’s strength and sexual potency. In pre-Freudian societies the wild man served a negative social function when he appeared in furry caricatures at folk festivals, reifying the repressed wants and forbidden behaviors of the town. But the discovery of real wild men in the Americas, fascinating to Europeans for their novelty and savagery, caused their mythical wild man to collapse, like Spenser’s Orgoglio. A pale-skinned version was put on the stage as Caliban.
That was the thrust of the anthology, and it must have resonated with my uncle, who by the late 1970s had spent twenty years seeking wildness in New Guinea, the Amazon, East Africa, and other far-flung places. Increasingly he expressed anger and sadness that the wilderness was being chopped up, its animals exterminated, its native peoples abused. Until he journeyed to Nepal, the sasquatch and yeti were absent from Matthiessen’s books, yet a predilection for something like Bigfoot–an unconquerable natural force or being–quivers like a compass needle seeking north.
The Tree Where Man Was Born, for instance, his 1972 book on East Africa, contains the best descriptive prose Matthiessen ever produced. Perfectly distilled adjectives offset the nobby nomenclature of the geography, peoples, animals, and plants. Matthiessen writes of the Masai people, Nuer, Dinka, Hadza, and so on, with an ethnographer’s eye, but all the while he wistfully evokes the Dorobo. Mysterious hunter-gatherers, the Dorobo were said to live, if they were still extant, on the margins of the present tribal boundaries, even underground. The book concludes with a vision of the outcast Dorobo, a people he never meets.
The Tree Where Man Was Born treats seriously the African legends–for example, of animals that are inhabited by human spirits, “cults of leopard-men and lion-men who kill with their claws.” To Matthiessen the tales are not mere superstition: “These events have a reality in the ancestral intuition of mankind that cannot be dismissed simply because it cannot be explained.” His favorite story is about a marauding hyena that, when finally it is killed, is found on the ground as a human corpse. The story is “mythic and rings true, whether or not it actually took place.”
A shape-shifting wildness pervades his novels too. Here may be permitted a bit of psychologizing. Think of the vagabond Lewis Moon, the half-Cheyenne, half-white protagonist of At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1966), who goes native in the Amazon, and Edgar Watson, the murderous tycoon of the swamps and principal character of Matthiessen’s Florida novels, starting with Killing Mr. Watson (1990) and culminating with Shadow Country (2008). These two uninhibited men relying on their instincts are not Peter Matthiessen, but they are “natural men,” the kind of individuals he admired.
In Race Rock (1954), Matthiessen’s first novel (which he thought better forgotten), the symbolism is more explicit and the wild part is assigned to a character named Cady Shipman. Cady, short for Caleb (Caliban?), could have stepped out of the pages of Jack London. He’s an ex-Marine who knows the ways of the striped bass and deer, fishes and shoots effortlessly, and harbors violent feelings, especially toward his overtly cultivated friends. The major female character, Evelyn (Eve) Murray, longs to be possessed by a natural man apart from her moneyed set: “She had imagined many times the scene of the act, it was always near the sea, in the wind and sand, and the possessor bore always–she had not realized this at first–an unmistakable likeness to Cady Shipman.”
The wildness of Bigfoot seemed to crystallize Matthiessen’s longings about himself. Matthiessen was dissatisfied with his affluent upbringing and the easy privileges of his education. He envied men living close to the earth. Zen Buddhism notwithstanding, his own interior nature was unbridled, and he sometimes feared it would run away with him. Simultaneously his heart went out to the natural world, which badly needed a champion. Although Matthiessen himself could not save a wild place or wild people from destruction, Sasquatch might, through its spiritual power. The younger novelist Howard Norman was one of the few friends Matthiessen talked to about the significance of the creatures. When I asked Norman to tell me more, he replied, “I would need to take my time and write carefully to you. This subject, I think, needs to be dealt with carefully because Peter as you know thought about Yeti, etc., zoologically rather than as some sort of spiritual projection.” Actually I think that Matthiessen toggled between the two themes, the spiritual and zoological, without resolving which might shape a book.
In the early 1980s Matthiessen’s conception of Bigfoot was guided by a man named Craig Carpenter. Carpenter, who claimed Mohawk ancestry and had many contacts on Native American reservations, began to take Matthiessen around, introducing him to more traditionally inclined Indians. Among other things Carpenter was a curator of legends about Sasquatch. The term comes from the coastal peoples of the Northwest, but numerous other Western tribes have a Big Man figure in their traditions. Perhaps because his investigations in the Pacific forests had not borne fruit, Matthiessen sought a more measured, abstract sense of Bigfoot, a creature framed by Indian myths and also by occasional portentous sightings on native lands.
The indigenous communities in the West were going through a period of consciousness-raising and political ferment. Native pride was running high. The American Indian Movement (AIM), a group of activists, had had an armed standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. An AIM leader, Leonard Peltier, was convicted of murder after two FBI agents were killed in a shootout. Dropping the astringent, dispassionate voice of Far Tortuga and The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen wrote a series of magazine articles about white Americans’ longstanding prejudice toward and outright swindling of Native Americans in their fragmented homeland. The dispatches were collected in a book, Indian Country, published in 1984 and dedicated to Carpenter. A more controversial book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which centered on the doings at Wounded Knee and the alleged “railroading” of Leonard Peltier, had been published the year before, but the tendentious, six-hundred-page work was immediately pulled from bookstores because of libel litigation. Not until 1989, the libel cases having been dismissed by the Supreme Court, did Crazy Horse become available again.
What had all this to do with Bigfoot? Although Matthiessen had gone into Indian country looking for Sasquatch, once there he was exposed to grave injustices, which wrenched his writing in another direction. That the tail may have wagged the dog can be seen in the introduction to In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. “My travels with Indians,” Matthiessen explains, “began some years ago with the discovery that most traditional communities in North America know of a messenger who appears in evil times as a warning from the Creator that man’s disrespect for his sacred instructions has upset the harmony and balance of existence; some say that the messenger comes in sign of a great destroying fire that will purify the world of the disruption and pollution of earth, air, water, and all living things. He has strong spirit powers and sometimes takes the form of a huge hairy man; in recent years this primordial being has appeared near Indian communities from the northern Plains to far northern Alberta and throughout the Pacific Northwest.”
Matthiessen goes on to link Indians’ sadness about their dispossession to stories of the Big Man’s reappearances. In a meeting with Matthiessen in California, a Lakota Sioux man reports rumors of the apocalypse, “when the moon will turn red and the sun will turn blue,” and the Lakota will regain their proper place at the center of existence. When Matthiessen arrives at traditional Lakota territory in the Dakotas, he hears that the Big Man was sighted not long previously at a place called Little Eagle. Some people recognized the creature as a chthonic being, formerly buried by a flood and now reemerged, perhaps because of uranium mining and its pollution. Others who were given over to drink were frightened by the apparition and shot at the Big Man, not knowing what they did. At Pine Ridge, where Matthiessen’s Indian initiation, as it were, ends, the Big Man’s reappearance is seen as a response to the incarceration of Peltier. Thereafter, with one exception, the creature is not mentioned again and a long political narrative consumes the book. Matthiessen notes that the night before the controversial shoot-out, three Indian teens at the site heard a large, heavy-footed creature walking on the stones of a creek.
Matthiessen in the late 1980s returned to fiction with his Watson novels, but he continued to research Bigfoot on the side. He liked to vacation in the West in the summertime and ramble about. He’d go fly fishing in Montana with the novelist Jim Harrison. At an ecology institute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Matthiessen met John Mionczynski, a free-spirited musician, wilderness guide, and big-game biologist. They cautiously traded accounts of their personal brushes with Bigfoot. Mionczynski, who was twenty years Matthiessen’s junior, found much to admire in the writer. “He was such a deep thinker,” Mionczynski said. “I appreciated his insights on Zen and meditation. He was so good at explaining the reality of that. I consider him a teacher and mentor.”
Mionczynski worked part time on a university ethnography project collecting legends and stories from Native Americans. He would bring Matthiessen along on trips to the reservations, and they’d ask the elders about the Big Man. A tale they heard at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming deeply intrigued the two investigators. Some time back a young woman on the reservation claimed to have been abducted and raped by a big hairy man. When the woman became pregnant, the tribe sent her away to Jemez Pueblo, a reservation of another tribe in New Mexico. There she gave birth to a boy who turned out to be not normal. He was sickly but also muscular. “He was not good to look at,” said Mionczynski, “what you used to a call a retarded child. At thirteen or fourteen years old he died.” Reportedly the boy was buried in a mission graveyard on the pueblo, and his mother returned to her tribe in Wyoming. A mystery turned on the boy’s grave, which had been lost or moved–what had happened to it? Mionczynski would telephone Matthiessen at his home on eastern Long Island with updates on this and other Bigfoot puzzles.
Entering his sixties, Matthiessen was preoccupied with the Watson novels. Over the course of two decades he published three and then pulled them apart and consolidated them in a fourth, the National Book Award–winning Shadow Country. Although during these years he traveled to research books about tigers and cranes, his best nonfiction work was behind him. The Bigfoot notes and drafts simmered on the back burner, neither fiction nor nonfiction. He was simply unsure. He would put himself on the line for an environmental or political cause and incur a risk, he allowed, to his literary reputation, but he would not be called a crackpot or dupe. Once at a small dinner of friends in the Hamptons, a guest told a story about seeing a green light from a UFO, which he had decided upon reflection to be a laser. The man was astonished when Matthiessen spoke up and declared that he had once seen a sasquatch run across the road into the trees. Matthiessen’s wife (he had remarried) tried to stop him from giving the details, but “he was determined to do so,” the guest said. The creature had jumped a tangle of stumps and logs with the ease of a deer.
Matthiessen always felt on firmer ground with the yeti, or mehti, as he now called it, a better transliteration. In May 1992, he returned to remote Nepal at the invitation of the photographer Thomas Laird. Instead of walking, the party went by air and horseback into the wild region of Lo, where Laird took pictures of brightly clad villagers, barren landscapes, and little-known Buddhist monasteries. Matthiessen provided the text for a coffee-table book, East of Lo Monthang, published by Shambhala/Timeless Books. In it, on a fourteen-thousand-foot-high plateau, my intrepid uncle savors a bit of bread and sweetened tea, “and in this way, keeping my own counsel, I celebrate my wonderful luck at finding myself on this eminence in the clear mountain air of Central Asia and the good fortune that permits me to lead such a wayward life. I am sixty-five years old this very day.”