Friday, March 23, 2012

George Schaller's "Stones of Silence": Book Review

This naturalist accompanied Peter Matthiessen on his trek chronicled in "The Snow Leopard." What George Schaller adds to the account is much more about not only the leopard, which eludes his sight even as he tracks its traces. but the varied wild sheep and goats of high peaks and dry ravines. The Nepalese border with Tibet attracts him but so do the horned and hoofed hidden animals among the Hindu Kush, the Karakorum, the Nilgiri Hills and High Range, Chitral, and the Salt and Chiltan Ranges of the subcontinent. The scope is wider than the subtitled "journeys in the Himalaya." Six years' study results in a book that will entice both armchair travelers and those intrigued by wildlife.

While the detail of the animals studied may be more than a casual reader expects, this is not a travel account so much as the tale of an encounter with such animals, and what they convey to the one watching and waiting for them in such desolate and threatened realms.

It's often a sobering account. Free of most of the spiritual tinge of his comrade's eloquent version, Schaller prefers a stoic, more stolid perspective. He admits when at the Shey monastery where Matthiessen sought to see the snow leopard his own moment of transcendence: "There is no ultimate knowing. Beyond the facts, beyond science, is a domain of cloud, the universe of the mind, ever expanding as the universe itself." (243) Yet, this passes too, and he knows how "such reflections recur in high and lonely places."

These gain his greatest attention. Those more populated and dessicated elicit more disdain. He wearies of his fellows, and seeks solitude. "The character of a region has much to do with the character of the person describing it, for we see our own heart in a landscape." He connects his melancholy with his preference for the wild: "a wilderness becomes not just an entity but a state of imagination." (32)

He warns against romanticism, and does not forget "the violence that lurks among the peaks, and the cold." (63) In the Hindu Kush or the highlands of lower India, as well as the Himalayas, Dr. Schaller seeks out isolation. He drops down from one range too hastily, and looks "back at the lonely peaks. then at the huts and fields below where people groped their whole lives away, the raw contrast between the two filled me with sadness and anxiety." (69) He traps himself between fellowship and freedom, but he knows how he must return to humanity from that which "could never be more than a passing phase, and that other which is a part of human existence."

Conservation, this in the 1970s, impels Schaller to help jumpstart the founding of a national park in the Hunza region, which he tries to downplay but which represents his practical command of insight and organization (he shows as in his ascent to Shey later on a fierce determination) to win his cause. While the ungenerous area depresses him, he manages to make it better when he leaves it. This journey is full of such ups and downs, and it's a level-headed report of the sightings he makes as much as a chronicle of his meetings and adventures. Many cold nights in sleeping bags attest to his endurance.

The mountains may be moist or dry, but they tend to be scraped free of much vegetation, even as this may show the hand of man and not nature as the preserves shrink for habitats amidst an always-increasing population, often in sensitive political as well as environmental zones. "The mountains gave man soil, provided him with food, and stored his water, but he has taken almost everything, leaving the earth's bones bare. The snow leopard might well serve as symbol of man's commitment to the natural world." (50) I read this wondering how this predicament might have altered since. (Amazon US 3-14-2012, "pi" day.)

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