The Cloud Forest Essay - Critical Essays

Peter Matthiessen

Critical Evaluation

If nature books are not widely read today, one reason may be that among naturalists the scientist has taken precedence over the poet. Good nature writing is more than a process of observation, classification, and reporting, and our best natural historians from William Bartram on have infused their work with the larger vision which gives grace and wonder to the particularities of landscapes and things. But for every Henry David Thoreau, W. H. Hudson, John Burroughs, John Muir, or Rachel Carson to whom we can point, there have been scores of other writers about nature who showed themselves strong on facts but short on insight and style. The qualities of a good naturalist, like those of the good writer of travel books, are not hard to catalogue: curiosity, imagination, the power to absorb and organize facts, the ability to recreate scene and image in language, a sure hold on the world of the senses. When the naturalist and the traveler exist in the same person, the combination is a happy one.

Peter Matthiessen belongs to the select company of those who have enriched our knowledge of the wilderness and the wildlife to be found there. He is a novelist also, and a good one, and he brings to his nature writing the same sense of scene, imagination, and passion for realistic detail that we find in his fiction. Matthiessen is more than a novelist who makes nature his hobby, for there is nothing dilettantish in his method. When he writes about the wilderness and its creatures, his intelligence and his feelings are alike involved; he penetrates beneath the surfaces of things and creates an act of vision or a mood. Wildlife in America was the book in which he first demonstrated the clean skill with which he joins scientific information and illuminating perception in his spare yet evocative prose. In that forthright, disturbing book he presented the first really comprehensive survey of the endangered wildlife of forests, prairies, and waters in the diminishing unspoiled regions that are being swallowed up by industry and urbanization all the way across America. In THE CLOUD FOREST, he has ventured into an almost unmapped part of the world in order to bring back an honest and fascinating report on what he found there.

The book is beautifully structured, a traveler’s journal bringing together nature notes, descriptive sketches, and personal adventure. The long journey, covering in all some twenty thousand miles in the next five months, begins quietly enough with the departure of the M.S. Venimos from a Brooklyn pier on a cold November evening. The freighter is bound for Iquitos, Peru, a river port twenty-three hundred miles up the Amazon. Matthiessen’s destination is less certain: the Andean rain forest and the sierra, Mato Grosso, and Tierra del Fuego. Though his route may remain unplanned, his reason for the trip is clear in his mind, the desire to see the last wild terrains of the earth’s last wilderness before they are transformed by advancing civilization. Today these are to be found, except for Antarctic and the oceans, in South America. But if Matthiessen is in a hurry to reach those faraway places, the Venimos is not. The freighter follows a leisurely course that takes in the Bermudas, Haiti, the Windward Islands, Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana before it finally arrives at the Brazilian port of Belem. Along the way Matthiessen has had time to make a record of everything he sees—sea birds, weather, the marine life of the Sargasso Sea, the native life in a dozen ports of call.

Once the Venimos has begun the long voyage up the Amazon, Matthiessen is aware that he is following a course already covered by several distinguished travelers who also wrote books about their observations and experiences, the naturalist H. W. Bates in the nineteenth century, H. M. Tomlinson and Peter Fleming in this. Although...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)