A Voice Crying for Wilderness Peter Matthiessen's Writing Pleads for Preservation of Natural Landscapes and Native Peoples

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IN each of his 20 books of reportage and fiction, Peter Matthiessen converts the act of writing into a partly muscular, partly moral event. His lean prose moves firmly down the page's blank face and onward to book's end, describing perhaps how he once climbed a Himalayan summit or canoed through an Amazonian forest in search of some elusive truth. A highly honest writer, he does not commit to paper what first he has not sought, tried, and found for himself.

The tie that binds Matthiessen's fiction and nonfiction writing into one voice is the vital question of wilderness and its disappearance from both landscape and human spirit. "I try to plead for what is being lost," he explains, "so later I won't have to eulogize what might be dead."

An intersecting concern for native lands and native peoples seems to underscore all his work, whether in Peru with "The Cloud Forest" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," in Africa with "The Tree Where Man Was Born" and the forthcoming "African Silences," or, in their own way, even along the Atlantic Coast with "Far Tortuga" and "Men's Lives," his 1986 account of Long Island's dorymen.

Matthiessen makes the most of chance opportunities to travel to distant destinations. Following invitations to join a zoological expedition in Nepal, a shark hunt on the high seas, and an ethnographic field study in New Guinea, he fashioned nature travelogues that are equally literary, scientific, and personal. His highly plotted account of Stone Age tribal warfare in "Under the Mountain Wall," for instance, was admired equally by Truman Capote and academic anthropologists.

Given his reputation and higher output as a writer of nonfiction, Matthiessen surprisingly says he feels he might rather have followed his original course as a novelist. "Nonfiction started out only as a way to put bread on the table," he says. "One way or another I've done a lot of it over the years, but I'd like to keep writing fiction from now on."

"Killing Mister Watson," only his second novel published since 1965, appeared last year to great acclaim. Based on a legendary figure who lived at the turn of the century in the backwaters of the Florida Everglades, where Matthiessen spent much of his youth and often returns, the book reconstructs the testimony of semi-fictive characters who might have witnessed Watson's murder.

Writing in the preface, and aptly summing up the need for plausibility that underlies all his fiction, Matthiessen notes that "almost nothing here is history. On the other hand, there is nothing that could not have happened." The book's reliance on strong characters who speak for themselves in an indelibly regional dialect brings to mind both the experimental discourse in his previous fiction and his use of other people's keenly heard testimonials in his reportage.

THAT his 10th book of nonfiction, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," should fill a bookstore window in New York and land on the San Francisco bestseller list this month, eight years after its initial publication, is perhaps cause for wonder. That in the meantime it was forced by a bitter libel suit into a detour to the US Supreme Court, where an author's basic right to free speech was reaffirmed, is certainly cause for celebration - even from someone as serious as Matthiessen. …