“…solitude cultivates a strange mood.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in Wind, Sand, and Stars
In 2006 I read in subways, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and coffee shops. By headlamp, on the clock, under the radar, I read when I should have been doing other things and when I had nothing better to do. Some of these literary endeavors resulted in false starts or apathetic desertions, but others left me still thinking many months after turning the final page. Two from the past year deserve special mention: Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939).
I read Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard on a recommendation, and it was the kind of book that made me want to write for ten hours a day for the next fifty years…in hopes of achieving a single page as smooth as any one of these. The Snow Leopard is the journal-style account of the writer’s trek through the Dolpo region of the Nepalese Himalaya, which also borders Tibet. Matthiessen sets out through the mountains with zoologist George Schaller to study blue sheep, but it is the elusive snow leopard—or what the snow leopard symbolizes—that Matthiessen desires. Still grieving the loss of his wife to cancer in the previous year, the writer’s journey is as much spiritual as it is physical, and Mathiessen expertly achieves a layering of the personal story with the telling of a place. Correction: Matthiessen absolutely nails it, and I read it gnashing my teeth over the high standard he sets for writers who try to do the same.
Equally moving, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars was originally published in French in 1937 under the title Terre des Hommes, which means “Earth of Humanity.” In addition to being a writer, A.S.E. was an aviation pioneer, flying for Aéropostale on dangerous missions over the Sahara and into the Andes. Adventurous and philosophical, A.S.E.’s writing brings us into a world where fallen comrades, stellar navigation, plane crashes, and survival treks are business as usual. Living dangerously, A.S.E. disappeared in 1944 for reasons which were unknown until 2004 when French investigators confirmed that they had pulled the wreckage of his plane from a seabed off the coast of Marseille. I read Wind, Sand, and Stars wanting to know more about this man, whom I had only known as the author of Le Petit Prince, but he and the life that he describes remain a beautiful mystery.
A little of the loveliness:
“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”—A.S.E.
“…this earth that is our home is yet in truth a wandering star.”—A.S.E.
“The sense of having one’s life needs at hand, of traveling light, brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being.” –pm
“I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun.” –pm
on watching his beloved Sherpa walk away:
“…I stare after him as he withdraws into the dusk. It is not so much that this man and I are friends. Rather, there is a thread between us, like the black thread of a live nerve; there is something unfinished, and he knows it, too.” –pm
Landscape: on top of the bottom of the world