The Istafahan Bowl
A Memoirby Peter Matthiessen
In the clear night, bright stars descend all the way to the horizon, and before dawn, a band of black appears beyond the peaks, as if one could see past earth’s horizon into outer space. The circle of silver peaks turns pink, then a fresh white as the sun ignites Churen Himal, 24,158 feet high, and Putha Hiunchuli, just four hundred feet below. The air is ringing. GS declares that in eastern Nepal, under Mount Everest, he saw nothing to match the prospect from this aerie, all but encircled by great pinnacles of ice.
The mountain sky is bare—wind, wind, and cold. Because of the cold, the Tamangs squashed into the Sherpas’ tent, but in the night gusts, the tent collapsed, and at daybreak all are singing from beneath it. Now, half-naked in the brittle air, the Tamangs hunch barefoot at the fire, kneading tsampa and humming softly in the smoke; they remind me of young Machiguenga Indians at the Andean river campfires of long ago. Jang-bu and Gyaltsen, with new porters, must have stopped somewhere on the south side of the pass; because of the cold, we break camp quickly and continue down the north side without waiting.
From deep in the earth, the roar of the river rises. The rhododendron leaves along the precipice are burnished silver, but night still fills the steep ravines where southbound migrants descend at day to feed and rest. The golden birds fall from the morning sun like blowing sparks that drop away and are extinguished in the dark.
With the first sun rays we come down into still forest of gnarled birch and dark stiff firs. Through light filtered by the straying lichens, a silver bird flies to a cedar, fanning crimsoned wings on the sunny bark. Then it is gone, leaving behind a vague longing, a sad emptiness.
The path continues down into the oaks. A thousand feet below is a mountain meadow, and here by a herdsman’s shed of stone, we wait for Jang-bu. I sit back in straw and dung warmth against the sunny stones. A brilliant black-red beetle comes, and a husky grasshopper, rubbing its fiery legs. A crow flaps to a cedar by the river, and the crow’s wings, too, are filled with the hard silver light of the Himalaya. “Wherever you go, the crow shows up, sooner or later,” GS remarks, “and of all the crows, I like the raven best. In Alaska, at forty below, no sign of life—and there’s the raven!” (GS had a pet raven while attending the University of Alaska, and this bird brought about his first encounter with the girl who became his wife: her attention was drawn to a man shouting at the sky, commanding an unseen raven to come back.)
With its crows and river willows and snow mountains all around, this bowl might be in western North America. D would have loved these mountains. As a girl, my wife had spent much of her time in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and later in the Alps in southern France; she always wished to see the Himalaya.
When I was a child I rode my horse to the top of the mountain where the sun shone down on me, and the valley green in meadow grass lay far below. I looked to the sky and waited, filled with longing. Nothing sounded. In sorrow I lay down on the earth, my arms outstretched to hug it. O Earth, warm and just right, everything just right, the shape of bark, and smell of grass, and sound of leaves brushing the wind, I wanted to be just right too.
But no voice tells me I am and I rise from the mute ground and get on the horse and ride back down the mountain.
Lovely in person and in spirit, a gifted writer and wonderful teacher with a passionate, inquiring mind, exceptionally intelligent and kind—such was the view of all who knew her well. One friend remarked, “She has no mud on her soul.” Yet at times, there was an above-life quality as if she were practicing for the day when the higher state that she aspired to must come. To live with a saint is not difficult, for a saint makes no comparisons, but saintlike aspiration presents problems. I found her goodness maddening, and behaved badly. My days with D were tainted with remorse; I could not abide myself when near her, and therefore took advantage of my work to absent myself on expeditions all around the world—once I went away for seven months. Yet love was there, half-understood, never quite finished; the end of respect that puts relationships to death did not occur.