Toward the close of “The Tree Where Man Was Born,” published 50 years ago, Peter Matthiessen writes: “In a few swift days of a dry summer this ancient cave in central Africa, blackened by centuries of smoke, has become for me my own ancestral place where fifty millenniums ago, a creature not so different from myself hunched close to the first fire.”
Throughout this past year, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I have returned again and again to the lyrical prose of this handsome book, subtitled “The African Experience,” text by Peter M. and photographs by Eliot Porter. Porter’s photos are alluring and exotic: the mountain heights of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the soda lake along the base of the Rift Escarpment, flamingos winging over Lake Natron, the ghost forest of Mount Meru, elephants dusting at Amboseli, the whistling thorn trees of the Serengeti. A land so far away, and in another way, so close.
Matthiessen’s prose is not only lyrical, but an imaginative record of a storied landscape, the lives of herdsmen and aborigines, a diversity of wildlife and plant life on a continent where one feels, everywhere, “the sense of origins, of innocence and mystery.” Peter carried on to write many more books, both fiction and nonfiction — 33 in all — and of his writing William Styron said, “It is the work of a man in ecstatic contemplation of our beautiful and inexplicable planet.”
All of his work raises questions about the evolutionary role of our species and, importantly, of countless other species, our fellow travelers on this earth. These foundational questions recur in my mind — and I imagine in the minds of many — during this year of sheltering and disruption.
Peter’s travels, often on research expeditions, to New Guinea, Nepal, Australia, Alaska, the rain forests of Peru, the Amazon, in a way defined him. But for 55 years he returned to his home and writing studio in Sagaponack, a brief curlew’s flight from the Atlantic. There, as a student of Zen and eventually as Muryo Roshi, he practiced Zen with students of Buddhism for four decades.
I am fortunate to be included in a circle of people on a mission to create the Peter Matthiessen Center — a retreat space for writers, for Zen practice, and for advocates for the earth. The center will welcome naturalists, scholars, conservationists, and anyone drawn to the study of our environment, other species, mindfulness. His great friend George Schaller, biologist and fellow traveler, recently observed that our present culture is in need of hundreds of similar study centers, but we are content to start with one, to carry on the legacy of one man who spent a lifetime in search of unity and harmony for a planet that calls out now for our empathy.
In “The Tree Where Man Was Born” Matthiessen repeats a haunting song of the Nuer people of East Africa: “The wind blows wirawira. / Where does it blow? / It blows to the river . . . / Blackhair my sister, I am bewildered. / We are perplexed; / We gaze at the stars of God.” Everywhere: a sense of origins, of primal life, and of mystery.
South of the Serengeti plain, when Peter is led to view red paintings on rock and within a cave hidden in a thicket, paintings perhaps thousands of years old, he questions the Indigenous people concerning the origin. The Hadza — who “have no idea of wilderness, for they are part of it” — reply, shyly: “How can we know?”
Peter, visitor to the ancestral home of Homo sapiens, records this thought: “Our need to understand makes them uncomfortable.”
The tree where man was born is the baobab, a tree that can hold 30,000 gallons of water on reserve within walls of wood (lifesaving in drought), a tree that provides shelter in rains, fiber for thread, egg-shaped fruits rich in protein, and a silken green nut that can be pressed for oil and pounded into an edible paste. Man, say the Hadza, climbed down to earth from a baobab.
Though Peter wrote, 50 years ago, that the baobab was under siege, Adansonia digitata survives, and remarkably, a few trees have offered shade and nourishment for over 3,000 years. Known as the Tree of Life by various peoples, the baobab is perceived to be a gate to the spirit world, though this tree, both symbolic and substantial, is very firmly rooted in the only earth we know.
At the close of the book, Matthiessen, an author and roshi of great compassion and empathy, watches, as the day closes, “once more as in a dream,” as the figures of the Hadza, like “an echo of the Stone Age . . . wind in and out among black thorn and tawny twilight grass and vanish.”
As in a dream we are left with an unnamable recognition, an urgency to question our role and responsibility, and also a sense that we have witnessed something mysterious and accurate, something indelible, instructive for the future, concerning our place on this good earth.
Scott Chaskey, a poet and farmer, lives in Sag Harbor.