The many years he has spent as our pre-eminent literary naturalist have not diminished Peter Matthiessen's enthusiasm for his work. He is still awed by "icebergs, whales, the sea and ships, circumpolar currents, geologic time, the origins and evolutionary histories of life forms, the quirks of birds, birders and explorers, antifreeze in fish blood, the blue in ice, human folly, the ozone hole and the earthly balances upset by global warming in short, the mysteries of the natural world in their endless variations, the myriad petals of creation that open up and fall away in every moment." The rare sensibility he brings to his observation, research and writing can be fully appreciated in his magnificent new book, End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica, an account of two journeys around the islands near Antarctica.
Matthiessen's astute observations of nature are informed by a vast fund of scientific information as well as the histories of early Antarctic pioneers. A passionate conservationist, he also takes time to reflect on the likelihood of exploitation of the continent's natural resources and the long-term effect of global warming.
Matthiessen was deeply affected by the expansive, unpolluted landscape of the South Pole, which is one and a half times the size of Europe and has an average elevation nearly twice as high as Asia's. Antarctica, as he points out, is "the last clean place on Earth." He has something of a problem explaining exactly why he was so attracted by the South Pole only three years after his first trip to Antarctica, he eagerly agreed to go on a second one. As he quotes what others have written on the subject, he finds himself in agreement with an explorer who speaks of a "giant force." Yes, that is part of it. He quotes an unknown person who has stated that "the ancient and indifferent ice gives up its secrets slowly." Matthiessen concludes, "thus we struggled to find words for such a wordless feeling: what draws me eludes me to the same degree, and seeking to understand it may just be the problem."Our foremost naturalist prose poet has taken us on a memorable trip.
Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a contributing editor of BookPage.