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Fictionist: A Tribute to Peter Matthiessen

We honor the late writer, naturalist and longtime Sagaponack resident with a piece from his son, Alex, as well as the first chapter of his final work, the novel In Paradise, introduced by Taylor Plimpton.

Fictionist is a collection of inspiring literary pieces that—much like George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen’s venerable literary journal, The Paris Review—just can’t be truly appreciated on an iPad screen. When news broke in April that Matthiessen, the great writer, naturalist, Zen priest, longtime Sagaponack resident and contributor to our Holiday/Winter 2013 issue, had passed away, it was only appropriate we devote our Memorial Day edition to him. 

Peter and Alex Matthiessen at Peter’s home in Sagaponack

Photo by William Abranowicz/Art & Commerce

Matthiessen’s final work, the novel In Paradise

At Peace, In Harmony
An ode to Matthiessen from his son, Alex Matthiessen

These are three passages I read aloud at my father’s burial ceremony. He was buried in Sagaponack, where he lived for the last five decades, on a crisp spring morning with his family—immediate and extended—and several senior Zen monks gathered round.

“Untitled” by Walt Whitman
Come, said my Soul,
Such verses for my Body let
us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after death
invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates
the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth’s soil, trees,
winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas’d smile I may keep on,
Ever and ever yet the verses owning
–as, first, I here and now
Signing for Soul and Body, set to
them my name,
Walt Whitman.

The Whitman poem struck me as an elegant ode to the marriage of body and soul in the shared task of writing—one as essential to the creative process as the other. It also suggests to me a writer’s quest for permanence and legacy, which my father did, and all writers and artists do, hope to achieve—an immortality of sorts unavailable to most of the rest of us.

An excerpt from the essay “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says,—he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.

I chose this passage of Emerson’s essay entitled “Nature” because it seemed to aptly capture my father’s views about our relationship to the natural environment, including the idea that those who are truly awake and “alive,” as most children are, can not help but interact with nature in their daily lives, such that it fully informs who they are and how they treat the world around them. Emerson’s words wonderfully describe how a person connected to nature tends to be more balanced and in harmony with himself and the planet’s other occupants; likewise that nature’s splendor and beauty help insulate him from his greatest sorrows.

Dad was an environmentalist and humanist. He deplored what has happened to the East End, with the opulent wealth and desecration of the landscape—and the loss of species, culture and traditional livelihoods that has gone with it. He lamented that while he used to see over 20 species of warblers each spring as they “stopped over” during their migration north, in recent years he was only seeing a few of the more common species. It troubled him to know that his 6-acre sanctuary, much of which he and my stepmother deliberately kept wild as a refuge for birds and wildlife, will likely be replaced with the requisite McMansion, pool, tennis court and finely manicured lawns—a sterile and inhospitable environment for wild creatures, many of which will continue their ineluctable march toward extirpation or,
finally, extinction.

As a Buddhist, he also understood the impermanence of things. Nonetheless, I hope that those who appreciate his writing and commitment to protecting the environment will, in his honor, seek to understand what we have on the East End and do their best to preserve their little pieces of paradise, and the area as a whole, in as much of a natural state as possible.

Ojibwa Indian Poem
Sometimes I go about pitying myself
And all the while I am being carried across the sky
By beautiful clouds.

This Ojibwa poem was one of my father’s favorites; he cited it in his book, Nine Headed Dragon River, and often when giving readings. I never had the chance to ask him why this poem resonated with him so deeply, but know that it was rooted in his Zen practice.

The notion is simple, I think. So many of us dwell on our longings and the regrets and suffering that are a natural and inevitable part of human life, and thus forget to look up and remember that the natural world around us is inherently beautiful
and bountiful and will help liberate us if we just pay attention!

My father, like many, struggled with sorrow. Yet he understood that life—and the highly sophisticated and complex ecological systems that sustain us—is a miracle. And he understood that the natural world offers us a way to stay present and to get out of our heads and our own way.

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