Thursday, January 15, 2009

Matthiessen's writing rooted in his loves and life

By Lashonda Stinson Curry
Staff writer

Published: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 10:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 10:38 a.m.
Peter Matthiessen wears many hats and writes about them all.


When: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Thelma Boltin Center, 516 NE 2nd Ave., Gainesville

Cost: Free

Information: Contact Steve Robitaille at (352) 395-5304 or

The award-winning author is a naturalist, environmental activist, world explorer and Zen teacher.

Since the 1950s, Matthiessen has penned more than 30 highly acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction that are rooted in what he loves and how he lives. The subjects of his books range from wildlife to Native American studies to the exotic and threatened parts of the world.

A few of his books have even brought him to Florida, and this week he returns.

Santa Fe College and The Florida Humanities Council is hosting "An Evening With Peter Matthiessen" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Thelma Boltin Center, 516 NE 2nd Ave. Sante Fe College English professor Steve Robitaille said Matthiessen, founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review, will read from his latest book "Shadow Country" and hopefully talk about his other diverse works.

In the 1990s, Matthiessen, 81, wrote the fiction novels "Killing Mr. Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone," based on accounts of Everglades sugar planter Edgar J. Watson's death in 1910. Recently he reworked the trilogy of novels into one epic story, "Shadow Country." Watson is a legendary figure in Florida history, notoriously known for his ruthless and violent behavior.

The book recently won the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction, which was his second win.

Although the backdrop of the book is in the Everglades, a lot of the story also happens in the Fort White/Lake City/Ichetucknee region, where Watson's family relocated after the 1910 slaying of Watson. This literary glimpse into Florida is just one of many connections Matthiessen has formed with the state in this longtime career.

Robitaille was introduced to the author when he read 1978's "The Snow Leopard," which chronicles Matthiessen's 250-mile trek across the Himalayan Mountains with wildlife biologist George Schaller in which he embraces Buddhism. Decades later, Matthiessen was ordained a Buddhist monk. The nonfiction work earned Matthiessen his first National Book Award in 1979. His 1965 "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" was nominated for a National Book Award and was made into a movie in 1991. (Many of his nonfiction stories have been serialized in The New Yorker.)

In the late 1980s, Robitaille got a chance to meet Matthiessen when he produced and wrote a documentary on Archie Carr, the late University of Florida professor who was a nature writer and leading sea turtle expert. During his research, Robitaille found Carr's classic on sea turtles, "The Windward Road," had impacted many writers, including Matthiessen. In fact, Matthiessen's 1974 novel "Far Tortuga" was inspired by reading Carr's book.

Robitaille decided to honor Carr with a celebration at Sante Fe so he invited Matthiessen and other writers to attend the event and be interviewed for the documentary titled "Archie Carr: In Praise of Wild Florida." At the event, Matthiessen read passages from "Far Tortuga." In a New York Times review of the book, Robert Stone called Matthiessen a "unique and masterful visionary artist."

When Matthiessen arrived in Gainesville for the event, Robitaille and his now wife invited him to have dinner at a log cabin Robitaille had on NW 16th Avenue. Robitaille was going to pick Matthiessen up from his hotel, which was near the UF campus.

"He said, ‘Oh, no. I'll walk,' " recalled Robitaille, who described the author as one of the world's greatest walkers.

During dinner Matthiessen talked about the book he was working on, which was one of the Watson novels featured in "Shadow Country." At that time, Robitaille said, the writer was going door to door in the Lake City/Fort White area looking for relatives of Watson.

"He was spending lots of time trying to track down the North Florida Watson's kin, many of whom were reluctant to speak with him long after the death of their infamous relative," he said.

This was also the time Matthiessen and his publisher were being sued for libel after the publication of "In The Spirit of Crazy Horse," which documented the American Indian Movement's struggle with the U.S. government and the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. In the mid-1970s, Peltier was convicted of murdering two FBI agents and sentenced to life in prison.

The day following the dinner, Robitaille interviewed Matthiessen for the documentary in the cabin and later at Persimmon Point at Paynes Prairie.

"It's quite a vista, and I knew he would love that walk because he had traveled to Africa extensively. ... He said it looked like the savannahs of Africa. There were lots of alligators out there, too, and he said he hadn't seen so many alligators since he was in Africa," Robitaille said.

Robitaille hopes he can make a return trip to the prairie with Matthiessen. He would love to take him on the La Chua Trail to experience the "stunning" sight of the more than 8,000 sandhill cranes there right now.

Robitaille and Matthiessen worked together again after the Carr project. About five years ago, Matthiessen produced the Emmy-winning series for the Florida Museum of Natural History called "Expedition Florida." Around this time, Matthiessen was working on "The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes." For the last chapter, he wanted to include the birth of a rare whooping crane chick that was happening in Kissimmee. Robitaille was planning to record the historic birth for a segment on whopping cranes for the series' second film, "Wild Heart of Florida." In the end, Matthiessen got the perfect ending to his book, and Robitaille's segment captured the birth and included an appearance by Matthiessen.

"It was really very wonderful," Robitaille said about the birth and Matthiessen being in the film.

The whooping cranes segment went on to become a finalist at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming, one of the biggest wildlife film festivals in the country.

Robitaille's latest project is the reason for Matthiessen's return to Gainesville. After six years of research, Robitaille produced "Natural Florida: In Word, Image & Deed" for the Florida Defenders of the Environment. The interactive CD-ROM, which spans 500 years of Florida history, contains several hundred works from writers, artists, novelists, essayists, poets, musicians, photographers and architects who have been inspired by Florida's natural beauty. Excerpts from "Shadow Country" are featured on the disc.

Matthiessen and Robitaille participated in two FDE programs this past week in South Florida about environmental education and to mark the release of "Natural Florida." Robitaille decided to take advantage of Matthiessen's visit by asking him to make an appearance in Gainesville. He agreed, and with help from a Florida Humanities Council grant, the college organized the event.

Robitaille said in knowing and working with Matthiessen over the last 20 years, he has learned a lot from him.

"What I admire most about him is that he seems to live a fully managed integrated life," Robitaille said. "He has managed to blend his social activism, artistic creativity and spiritual life together, and all of his works, whether fiction or nonfiction, have some element of all of that."

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