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3 - Les rencontres de l’humain et du non humain dans la littérature de voyage / Human and Nonhuman Encounters in the Fiction of Travel

A Different Kind of Hunt: Image Hunting in Three Travel Stories

Céline Rolland Nabuco
p. 169-187


Nous proposons de rapprocher trois récits, en partie autobiographiques, de Peter Matthiessen, Doug Peacock et Alan Tennant, auteurs américains de la période contemporaine. Dans ces textes, l'aventure tient de la quête. L'enjeu premier consiste à tenter de rencontrer, ou du moins d'entrevoir, un animal sauvage : ours grizzly, léopard des neiges, faucon pélerin. Le récit relate une ascension périlleuse, dans l'Himalaya, les Rocheuses ou encore à travers le ciel américain, donnant lieu à une entreprise de découverte de soi, à travers la chasse scopique d'un animal farouche. Le motif indien de la vision quest est présent, puisque le narrateur cherche à saisir une image du non-humain qui semble interdite et sacrée. La dialectique du régime scopique transforme le chasseur, et le contact avec une altérité non humaine permet à l'explorateur de reconnaître en lui-même une part indomptable et prédatrice. D'autre part, nous nous intéressons au mouvement de l'ascension, dirigée par l'animal. Nous observons ainsi un geste d'humilité, par lequel l'explorateur reconnaît les limites de sa puissance et de sa volonté, et s'en remet à son autre, l'animal. La quête se greffe sur une exploration scientifique dont elle emprunte le mode opératoire ; l'entreprise spirituelle tient ainsi à la fois de la recherche écologiste et de la chasse : nous réfléchissons aux enjeux de cette articulation.

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  • 1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays [1836], New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
  • 2 Herman Melville, Moby Dick, [1851] New York: Longman, 2007.
  • 3 The story of On the Wing has been bought by National Geographic Feature Films to be made into a mov (...)

1In this article we intend to compare three narratives of exploration by highlighting some common characteristics that we find worth analysing: they appear to be emblematic of what we might call "a typical hunting story." We have chosen the following texts: The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978), Grizzly Years, Doug Peacock (1990) and On the Wing: to the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon, Alan Tennant (2004) and we shall briefly remind the reader of their authors' careers as they seem to represent an American vision of the writer seen as both a poet, a spiritual seeker of invisible truths, and a naturalist. This tradition stems from the Puritan way of writing about New England, looking for signs of God in nature and reading the landscape like a text, but it also originates in American Romanticism, symbolism and transcendentalism, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature1 or Herman Melville's Moby Dick,2 to name but a few emblematic examples. Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014), the author of The Snow Leopard, was a naturalist who explored many remote regions and wrote about his travels both in non fiction and in novels. Doug Peacock (1942–), the author of Grizzly Years, subtitled "in search of the American wilderness," was the model for Edward Abbey's character George Hayduke in his famous novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Peacock is indeed an ecologist activist; like his friend and mentor Abbey, he is also a naturalist, a writer and a photographer. For a time, as he explains in Grizzly Years, he used his pictures of grizzlies in the wild to finance his life among bears in the Rockies. When he came back from Vietnam, he took to the wild areas of the American West, he explored deserts and mountains, then devoted his energy to defending the endangered species of the grizzly bear. As for Alan Tennant (1943– ), a renowned specialist of reptilian biology who wrote field guides on snakes, he became famous as a naturalist with his guidebook The Guadalupe Mountains of Texas, published in 1980. Far from being just a scholar, he does not shy away from direct experience and derives part of his expertise from regularly participating in hunting life as a safari guide.3

2The three personal narratives under study share a thematic and symbolic specificity that sets them somewhat apart in nature writing as a genre, considering how much the underlying motif of hunting structures them. Of course, they may also be read as stories of adventure, in which a man chases a wild animal in its own milieu. In each case, the dynamics of exploration may be compared to that of hunting, even if the catching and killing of a prey is not the goal motivating the adventure. Instead, the exploration becomes a form of visual hunting, and the adventurer tries to catch a glimpse of an elusive animal, following its tracks in the wild. The three texts we have determined to study describe the narrator's metaphorical hunt for an image that is rare if not impossible to obtain, or that eventually proves to be just a phantasmagoria, a shifting illusion.

3First, it seems fitting to ask what the three narrators are looking for or trying to escape from, and why it is, in all three cases, a predator that they are pursuing. Is it of significance that this animal—a leopard, a falcon and a grizzly—should be traditionnally seen as a fierce predator? We intend to examine the difference between the first motivation of the explorer and the real interest that he eventually found through the exploration. What do the exploration and the mountains bring to the writer–hunter?

4It seems that the three accounts we have chosen for our study do not develop a hunt stricto sensu, but the narratives' dynamics retain the double nature or the double structure of the typical hunting story, in which two targets are envisioned at the same time, while the hunter embodies two personas, the one looking for a prey, and the other searching for something far more elusive, and we will try to see how this double perspective is articulated in a narrative of exploration.

The Snow Leopard: a spiritual essay

5To begin with, in Peter Matthiessen's literary record, hiking through the highest mountain range in the world is undertaken as a means to achieve a spiritual pilgrimage. Matthiessen introduces himself as a student of Zen philosophy, venturing on the land of the Buddha, and he insists on this religious motivation in the early stages of the exploration: "Like the tea houses and the broad stepping-stones that are built into the hills, the rest walls impart a blessedness to this landscape, as if we had wandered into a lost country of the golden age (The Snow Leopard 14)."  Here, we understand how the hike is a journey back in time, away from modern civilization: the explorer becomes an archeologist, searching for ruins, signs and remains of a "golden age."

6Later on, Matthiessen marvels recurrently on the contrast between the fixity of stones, the permanence of light and the impressions drawn by flitting movements: "The fire–colored dragonflies in the early autumn air, the bent backs in bright reds and yellows, the gleam of the black cattle and grain stubble, the fresh green of the paddies and the sparkling river—over everything lies an immortal light, like transparent silver." (The Snow Leopard 14) The explorer feels that the mountain provides a bridge to access the past; for instance he believes he can hear "whispers of a paradisal age." (The Snow Leopard 14) Then he goes on to recount the life of the Buddha, and he relishes the idea that he can breathe the same air as the Buddha did: "Fig trees and the smoke of peasant fires, the greensward and gaunt cattle, white egrets and jungle crows are still seen on the Ganges Plain where Sakyamuni passed his life." (The Snow Leopard 14)

7The departure also means the possibility for Matthiessen to overcome the grief caused by his wife's sudden and premature death: the reader is soon informed indeed that Deborah Love died not long before the exploration began; logically enough, the text is imbued with images of death (on his way to the mountains, he crosses paths with a dying man in whom he recognizes the personification of death: “I nod to Death in passing”, The Snow Leopard 11) though we should immediately stress Matthiessen's feat in turning his sorrow into a quest for life. He makes the reader feel how much he yearns for life, how he wants to embrace all forms of life to regain his own, as in this passage when he confronts human misery and discovers that an impression of beauty and peacefulness may stem from the contact with people harrassed by want and pain:

Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dots on the women's foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile—that is the greatest miracle of all. In the heat and stench and shriek of Varanasi, where in fiery sunrise swallows fly like departing spirits over the vast silent river, one delights in the smile of a blind girl being led, of a Hindu gentleman in white turban gazing benignly at the bus driver who reviles him, of a flute-playing beggar boy, of a slow old woman pouring holy water from Ganga, the River, onto a stone elephant daubed red. (The Snow Leopard 10)

  • 4 "Buddhists believe that life is both endless and subject to impermanence, suffering and uncertainty (...)

8The hunting aspect of the narrative has to do with the desire to see a snow leopard, an animal so fierce and well–camouflaged that catching a glimpse of it is extremely rare. It is significant that Matthiessen never gets to see the object of his desire, the elusive leopard. The final message thus ties up with the Buddhist conceptions of life4 and is echoed along the way in the haikus written by Zen masters that the narrator recalls as models of ambiguity in the form of simplicity.

9This hunt for the leopard comes as the sublimized version of the official hunt of the expedition: the leader of the expedition, biologist George Schaller, is carrying out investigations on the bharal, or "blue sheep," a wild goat that he supposes is a hybrid evolution from goat and sheep. For all its rarity, the bharal is thus associated with the goat, a common animal, whereas the whiteness of snow in the leopard's name traditionally epitomizes purity.

10However, very soon Matthiessen explains that what he wants to achieve is a direct and thorough experience of the mountain, more than merely seeing a snow leopard: "I would like to reach the Crystal Monastery, I would like to see a snow leopard, but if I do not, that is all right, too. In this moment there are birds—red-billed choughs, those queer small crows of the high places, and a small buteo, black against the heavens, and southbound finches bounding down the wind, in their wake a sprinkling of song." (The Snow Leopard 88) Accommodating to the idea of missing the animal seems to help the narrator to accommodate to his grief; this shows through in the sentence when the impossible vision of the leopard is replaced by a magnified vision of common birds. At the end of the journey, this idea is rephrased: "Maybe it's better if there are some things that we don't see." (The Snow Leopard 247).

11Dizzy from a want of oxygen and vertigo, the narrator explains his physical need to focus on details if he is to keep going; this constraining magnified perception turns into a cause for pleasure and reflection: "It helps to pay minute attention to details: a shard of rose quartz, a cinammon fern with spores, a companionable mound of pony dung. When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things." (The Snow Leopard 88)

12There is a striking common point in between the three accounts under study in this analysis. Each time, the reader becomes aware that two parallel quests are at stake, that the narrative of exploration uncovers a double hunt, as it were: there is an official expedition, accredited by a national institution: acknowledged and authorized by the university or the army, and legitimated by science. The narrator thus depends on the overt enterprise for money, the practical realization of his own quest that is a covert quest: this quest is not clearly explained in fact; it is both hard to put into words and it is hidden because it seems to go almost contrary at times to the official project. The narrator's personal endeavour seems grafted onto the official expedition: the narrator is taking advantage of a pre-exisiting project and he is sometimes seen as an opportunist, if not a parasite.

13Matthiessen does respect the leader of the expedition, the biologist Dr George Schaller, but he does not always understand him or his unique motivation, and Matthiessen keeps a distance: for instance, he never calls his partner by his full name in the narrative, although the two men are equals, peers and even friends. Instead of using the first name we would expect, Matthiessen refers to the scientist by the initials GS, as if to warn us against Schaller's shallow-seeming persona and to suggest the limitations of his scientific vision of the mountains. Schaller is known today as a lifelong naturalist who won many scientific prizes: he's a specialist, an expert in wildlife: Matthiessen is rather close to that definition too, but he stresses the differences between them, to suggest they have different approaches, for example on page 24, Matthiessen seems closer to the sherpas' view of a mountain trip: "How easy it feels to be superfluous on this expedition, in no haste and without gainful destination–gnaskor, or "going around places", as pilgrimages are described in Tibet. GS is back there harrying the porters, who overlook no opportunity to rest [...] GS will not really be at ease until he reaches the land of the blue sheep and the snow leopard. "Once the data starts coming in," he said in Kathmandu, "I don't care about much else; I feel I'm justifying my existence." The generic word "data" is repeated by Schaller, when the reader would expect a more subjective term, for example, right after the first sight of the blue sheep, Schaller exclaims: "the first data in a month and a half!" This laconic statement contrasts with Matthiessen's impressionistic and theatrical depiction of the bharal:

A pale form jumps across a gully, followed quickly by six more; the animals move up a steep slope to a haze of green between the rocks and snow. I watch them climb until, at snow line, they are swept up and consumed by clouds that have rushed up the valley from the south: this wonderful silver-blue-gray creature is the bharal, the blue sheep of the Himalaya–in Tibetan, na–that we have come so far to see. (The Snow Leopard 90)

14Matthiessen describes his partner's attitude as "singlemindedness," (The Snow Leopard 55) a word that echoes the figure of the mad hunter emblematized by Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Matthiessen underlines the scientist's obsession with the object of his hunt, the rut of the bharal, an obsession that renders him impervious to the many beauties of the landscape: "Beneath GS's stern control are gleams of anger" (The Snow Leopard 33). This truncated vision is the butt of Matthiessen's moral condemnation: "the retreat from wonder" is, in the eyes of the narrator/Matthiessen, "a debasement of our vision", a generalized statement that sounds like a sin, all the more so as it has ecological consequences, what Matthiessen calls "the befouling of the earth."

  • 5 Callan Wink, "Fly-Fishing Confidential" in Men's Journal,

15According to Callan Wink, a Montana journalist and fishing guide, in an article he wrote to tell about his experience of guiding Jim Harrison and Peter Matthiessen on a fly-fishing trip, The Snow Leopard is "a treatise on spirituality cloacked in a damn good Himalayan adventure story."5 Indeed, in this narrative, we find the arch ingredients of the adventure tale of a risky exploration in a wild mountain land, together with a narrative of introspection and even a religious pilgrimage: the final destination of the journey is a locus of Buddhist faith named "the Crystal Monastery." (The Snow Leopard 85) Besides, the book is dedicated to three Zen priests who were Matthiessen's spiritual guides. What is interesting is how the two orientations of the text combine and merge. In this adventure, the nonhuman can be found both in the animals, real but elusive, such as the bharal and the snow leopard, or fantasmatic animals like the yeti, and also in the meta-physical forces pulling the cords of one's life and mind: death, love and awe, the will to experiment one's physical limits. In this sense, the quotation of Rainer Maria Rilke at the threshold of the narrative puts the idea of encounter with the nonhuman at the forefront: "This is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter." (The Snow Leopard, epigraph)

  • 6 John Steinbeck, The Log from The Sea of Cortez [1951], London: Penguin Books, 2002.

16On the one hand, we recognize the expected work of a naturalist, that is, a scientific record of nature seen through supposedly objective scientific eyes, a "log" as Pico Iyer has it in the introduction, probably referring to Steinbeck's account of the boat expedition with marine biologist Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez,6 but beneath this cover runs a more personal, subjective and even spiritual or mystical enterprise: Pico Iyer explains in the introduction:

  • 7 The Snow Leopard, introduction by Pico Iyer, xviii.

The Snow Leopard begins, as many scientific logs do, with a map, and it ends with a set of scholarly notes and an index. [...] Yet even as the reader feels every pebble on the journey, and takes in every precisely recorded altitude and temperature, she catches, perhaps, the sound of a different kind of journey beginning to unfold just beneath the surface. The book is clearly crafted by a journalist of the old school [...] and yet in those same sentences it is being written by a seasoned novelist, whose job is clearly to transcribe the nature within us as well as without and, in fact, to see how the two are linked. 7

  • 8 Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

17As in Moby Dick,8 the story offers a double perspective, two visions of the mountains are proposed, and two very different kinds of hunt are at stake in the narrative.

  • 9 "Nirvana is the eternal state of being where Karma and Samsara no longer exist. It represents the e (...)

18The narrator—who voices the Ishmael-like vision of the mountain—is walking barefoot for a while, and it reads as if this direct contact to the mountain ground enhanced his perception of the landscape. His sensitivity expresses an artistic vision, as he remarks on the colours of the landscape: "Pine, rhododendron, barberry. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates." However, the scientific gaze is also present through details of the flora and fauna, with their Latin names: "Eyes to the ground, I can admire a cocoa-colored wood frog and the pale lavender-blue winged blossoms of the orchid tree (Bauhinia)." (The Snow Leopard 21) The end of the depiction focuses on a prosaic detail that allows for a humorous stroke: "and the warm loaf left by a buffalo, deposited calmly from the look of it and even, perhaps, in contemplation." (Ibid.). This shows the narrator's intention to transcribe the full scope of reality as it appears, and not as it is fantasized, an idea in keeping with the Buddhist notion of samsara versus nirvana that the narrator explains in the text.9

19The figure of the child and, paradoxically, of the hunter, represent an innocence we have lost: To Matthiessen, the young child at play, immersed in the physical world around him, stands as a model of relationship to the mountain. The child perceives the mountain not as a separate landscape but as a milieu in which he belongs. Matthiessen associates the model of the child with that of the primitive hunter:

The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things [...] letting all light and phenomena pour through [...] like the Aurignacian hunter, who became the deer he drew on the cave wall, there was no "self" to separate him from the bird or flower. The same spontaneous identity with the object is achieved in the bold sumi painting of Japan—a strong expression of Zen culture, since to become one with whatever one does is a true realization of The Way. (The Snow Leopard 39)

20This passage shows an original fusion between three paradigms: the romantic ideal of the innocent child, the Buddhist ideal of unity between man and his surroundings, and the fantasy of metamorphosis that is a universal characteristic of the hunter's desire.

21Matthiessen's human and nonhuman encounters eventually delineate another definition of mankind, another way to live as a human. Moreover he suggests he believes in the yeti, a creature between the human and the nonhuman, which illustrates another conception of the human. This anthropomorphic view of a nonhuman creature is shared by Doug Peacock who sometimes identifies with the grizzly bears he follows through the mountains of the United States. In Peacock's text, just as in The Snow Leopard, the presence of the nonhuman encourages the narrator to reshape his definition of mankind.

Grizzly Years: a political manifesto

  • 10 This quote appears on the backcover of the Owl Books edition which we are using: Henry Holt and Com (...)
  • 11 Ibid.

22Grizzly Years, published in 1990, was voted one of "The 100 Best Adventure Books of All Time" by National Geographic Adventure magazine, and yet, as Terry Tempest Williams put it in a review,10 this "adventure book" is not just that, in the sense that it is not only about action and danger. It is also "a genre of literature written for the soul."11

23According to his long-time friend Jim Harrison, the author of the collection of stories Brown Dog (2010), "Doug Peacock has written about his grizzly bears with a passionate and unguarded heart. Grizzly Years is ultimately a love story about a man who returns from war shorn of his soul, and recovers his soul through his efforts to study and protect the grandest predator on earth, Ursus horribilis."12  Here we see how Harrison shows the grandeur of love for an animal whose Latin name says it is the arch enemy. Giving the taxonomic term taken from Latin is a device that is also used by Alan Tennant when he refers to the peregerine falcon. He plays with the same paradox when he calls the falcon Amelia and tells how she seduced him like a femme fatale: the Latin name sets her at a distance and presents the animal like a scientific object whilst the animal is also made to appear human.

  • 13 Jim Harrison, Wolf, a false memoir, New York: Grove Press, 1971.

24Doug Peacock's adventure with the grizzlies of the Rocky Mountains is an attempt at escaping from his traumatic memories of the war in Vietnam. It is an individual quest, in which Peacock reminds us of Swanson, the narrator in Jim Harrison's novel Wolf.13 In both cases, the adventure in the wilderness is a romantic endeavour that is colored by a Freudian conception of man's divided consciousness, a romantic trip through which a man is trying to heal his psychological wounds, alone in the woods, by shedding his aching memories through retrospection, discarding his superego and uniting with nature. Like the snow leopard for Matthiessen, the wolf is more the image of mystery than a real goal for Harrison's narrator, who loses himself in the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. During the first exploration that Peacock undertakes, his goal is no more realistic and defined, and the grizzly comes as an afterthought or a bonus: "I was aware that I was after something–that this trip was part of a larger quest of some kind. [...] Maybe I would even see a grizzly" (Peacock 46). Here, the use of the modal confirms what the two adverbs suggest: it is all very improbable and the vision remains at a distance.

25The personal search triggers the exploration but then it becomes something else: for Peacock it is also a very political endeavour. Indeed, Peacock intends to save the grizzly species in this area of the United States. Besides, Peacok's ambition is not limited to his own redemption or even to protecting bears: it is the whole nation he claims to save through his commitment to wilderness. For example, he draws a comparison between Yellowstone National Park and Vietnam, showing that in both places the American authorities are trying to cover up their army's exactions. The same silence prevails on the bear killings operated for obscure reasons by the Park's own rangers as silence prevails on the reasons why the soldiers had to kill civilians in Vietnam. The character of Gage voices this parallelism:

The way I feel about camping and about grizzlies–I seem to approach these things like warfare–has its origins back in South-east Asia in 1968 and, a few years later, in Yellowstone National Park, especially 1973, the year Gage visited. Gage had decided to investigate the rumors that rangers were killing bears. [...] an insulated environment had been created by the Park Service–which heard who it wanted to hear. I witnessed a larger such system in Asia [...]. Our Republic, Gage thought, was troubled; we had lies in Vietnam, during Watergate, and in our oldest national park: the Park Service was lying to us, and maybe themselves, about the number of bears in and around Yellowstone, the living representation of paradise in the national mind. (Doug Peacock, Grizzly Years 84)

  • 14 Thomas McGuane, The Sporting Club [1968], New York: Vintage Contemporaries, Random House, 1996.

26This mirroring device reminds us of the use of a fictitious microcosm in Thomas McGuane's 1968 novel The Sporting Club,14 in which America's criminal behaviour in Vietnam reverberates at home through sportsmen's decadent acts in their own reservation, "an insulated environment" just like the Yellowstone.

27In the following excerpt, Peacock explains how he has come to see himself as a political activist; his camera work functions as a way to fix and preserve, thus reversing the usual dynamics of the hunter's shooting at his target to kill the prey. However the paragraph suggests an ambivalent projection onto the colonial mind which compares the wildlife photographer Peacock to the painter George Catlin (1796–1872) who represented the Indians at a time when they were believed to be "a vanishing race," like the grizzly. The ambivalence also springs from the suggested analogy between the act of shooting grizzlies on film and that of the Khmer Rouge shooting at civilians, though the parallelism is subverted to say the contrary: that the photographer aims at saving instead of murdering:

Gage's gift of the camera gave me a chance to publicize the grizzlies' situation and to make a record of their lives. I dragged the camera out into the hills and collected movie footage, feeling not unlike an early nineteenth-century ethnographer heading up the Missouri in the spring of 1837, when smallpox hit the Mandan villages, to record the vanishing ceremonies of a dying culture; [...] after years of wandering, I acquired a project: to attempt to assemble a collective portrait, perhaps the last, of the grizzlies south of Canada. I began my work in the Yellowstone backcountry on April 17, 1975. Later, I realized that was the day the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh and began the killing. From my slightly twisted point of view, preserving grizzlies was a radical idea; it meant putting the brakes on a world gone mad. (Grizzly Years 85)

28Grizzly Years is a collection of autobiographic essays spanning the two decades (1968–1988) Peacock spent in the mountains following the grizzlies in their yearly migrations. The passages describing Peacock's exploration of the Rockies are interpolated with passages recounting the GI's exploration of the jungle in Vietnam, the same comparative and metaphoric device that structures Michael Cimino's movie The Deer Hunter, and Norman Mailer's novella Why are we in Vietnam? Grizzly Years starts with a striking text in italics, that appears again at page 61 and that describes a determining encounter between the narrator and a grizzly bear, indeed the encounter is determining to such a degree that Peacock writes: "I did not know that the force of that encounter would shape my life for decades to come." The reader is reminded of the man-to-bear struggle in William Faulkner's text, "The Bear" (1935/1942) while this threshold also highlights the conversion of the hunter, a conversion that is brought about by the exchange of a meaningful gaze, as in other texts by Jim Harrison, Gerald Vizenor or David Carpenter to name but a few. Peacock invests the man–bear encounter with a spiritual meaning:

The big bear stopped thirty feet in front of me. [...] I peered down the gun barrel into the dull red eyes of the huge grizzly. [...] We stared at each other for what might have been seconds but felt like hours. I knew once again that I was not going to pull the trigger. My shooting days were over. [...] I felt something pass between us. The grizzly slowly turned away [...].
I felt my life had been touched by enormous power and mystery. (
Grizzly Years, prologue and 61)

  • 15 Yannick Haenel, Tiens ferme ta Couronne, Gallimard, prix Médicis 2017.
  • 16 Tiens ferme ta couronne, 18.
  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 Haenel refers to Parmenides' notion of alèthéia and explains this idea that the truth is impossible (...)
  • 19 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque rien, Paris: Seuil, 1980, 25: "La lueur tim (...)

29The slow motion retreat of the beast recalls a climactic scene in Cimino's film, The Deer Hunter (1979), when Mike, the veteran hunter refrains from shooting the deer which he holds clearly in the scope of his rifle. This scene has been commented upon by the French writer Yannick Haenel in his prize-winning novel Tiens ferme ta couronne15 (2017): Haenel's narrator Jean Deichel sees the deer's fixing gaze like an elusive lightning stroke of truth.16 He concludes that the deer is nothing but "the fate of literature, its mystical incarnation"17 (Haenel, 2017, 18, my translation). Truth and literature are equated and they are suddenly displayed in a moment of epiphany that cannot last more than the duration of a heartbeat.18 This fugitive epiphany can perhaps be better felt or understood if we think of Jankélévitch's reflexion on the apparition–disparition and the entrevision,19 for example when he refers to "the shy vanishing glimmer, the lightning-instant, silence, allusive signs: this is how the most important things in life choose to let themselves be known. It is not an easy thing to catch the very doubtflul glimmer, or to understand its meaning. This glimmer is the twinkling glow of the in-between-vision in which the unknown can at once be recognized" (Jankélévitch, 1980 25, my translation).

30In Grizzly Years, this defining encounter is in fact also a reverberation of a human encounter in Vietnam, between Peacock and a Vietcong in a cave: the narrator recalls how he first assumes that the Vietcong is alive. The encounter does not take place for there is nothing but a corpse, which Peacock believes saved his life but may also have prevented the opportunity for a real encounter between arch enemies. It seems that the former GI has been trying to recreate at home the conditions for such a missed encounter with The Enemy. Peacock gives some other elements for an answer to the question as to why he chose tosearch out, study and defend the awesome grizzlies, among all the other wild creatures of the Rockies:

My friend Gage, who was here with me when I stumbled on the first den on the mountainside, could find humility before nature in his backyard. I cannot: I need to confront several large, fierce animals who sometimes make meat of man to help recall the total concentration of the hunter. Then the old rusty senses, dulled by urban excesses, spring back to life, probing the shadows for shapes, sounds, and smells. Sometimes I am graced by a new insight into myself, a new combination of thoughts, a metaphor that knocks on the door of mystery? (Grizzly Years 7)

31Here, Peacock confesses that he looks for the threat that the grizzly's presence means for any man, in order to become a hunter. As a hunter, he can be born again, and retrieve a part of himself which he lost in the war. This image of a rebirth is reminiscent of the Buddhist background in Matthiessen's story (and the belief in reincarnation). It shows through an acceleration in the rhythm; the alliterations evoke a running animal, surpised by a hunter in the wild. The last sentence, through the idea of novelty and the image of knocking on a closed door, conveys a sense of liberation: the narrator awakes to his life and retrieves his own self through the shock of danger. Later on in the text, he insists on the need to be roused from a sleep-like state through several senses, sight and hearing at least:

I needed to encounter something – a spectacle on the magnitude of a sky blackened by a single flock of passenger pigeons flying over, or the sight of sixty million buffalo stomping through the High Plains. (Grizzly Years 23)

  • 20 Jim Harrison, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, New York: Grove Atlantic, 2000.

32This need for something "big" enough to put the past at bay does not preclude an attention to small detail, on the contrary: "My physical senses were honed even sharper than they had been during my jungle days. I looked closely at bundles of pine needles disturbed on the forest floor. I heard the secrets passed by flapping ravens and smelled, when the wind blew right, the fetor of damp bear fur floating down the trails" (Grizzly Years, 57). The senses are solicited and the hunter turns into a sort of super-man whose abilities to read nature and understand his environment are augmented, so that the invisible becomes visible and the secrets are revealed to the hunter. This reminds us of the main character in Jim Harrison's novella "The Beast God Forgot to Invent": a modest and even mediocre man becomes endowed with a superhuman gift to understand animals after he has suffered a traumatic car accident.20

  • 21 Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence, a life in fishing. [1999] "Some Remarks", introduction p. xv, (...)

33"Sitting in a major mountain storm in search of what some people regard as the fiercest animal on the continent instills a certain humility, an attitude that pries open in me a surprising receptiveness" (Grizzly Years 57). This echoes with what another American nature writer—and fellow sportsman—Thomas McGuane, wrote about his vocation as a fisherman. Indeed, like Peacock, McGuane shows how looking for prey or at least for the image of a prey turns him into an animal predator and endows him with a superior sense of sight, a superhuman vision, that of a predator: "As we passed high banks, I saw claw marks ten feet off the ground where the bears had feasted on cliff swallow nestlings. [...] Early on, I decided that fishing would be my way of looking at the world."21

34Nonetheless, the wounded veteran of Grizzly Years does need to confront the image of the enemy so as to transform enmity into understanding. This implicit intention shows through for example in the use of the phrases "Grizzly country" and "Indian country" and "enemy territory" indifferently along the narrative: it seems as if the grizzly has come to represent the Vietcong, in a kind of obvious displacement, to fill Peacok's need for mutual recognition and even forgiving.

35If the bear is "used" by Peacock to fulfill a sort of catharsis, as Matthiessen focuses on the leopard to exorcise his grief, Alan Tennant could be said to "use" the falcon to heal some personal wounds too; this shows through in a text where Tennant recalls a traumatic hunting episode in his youth. This painful memory works as a catalyst and Tennant suggests how he experienced the hunting episode of his childhood as an existential event which prompts, years later, his passion for falcons and his love-chase for the peregrine Amelia.

On the Wing: an existential excursion

  • 22 On the Wing has been compared to Jack Kerouac's On the Road in some reviews, for example in the Dal (...)

36There are several reasons for Alan Tennant's narrator to venture on a trip following a peregrine falcon. At first, he follows her to participate in the bird's legendary freedom and to take a kind of moral example from the peregrine falcon's enduring will to keep flying no matter how. Thus, the text belongs to the genre of the road novel, especially so, as the road in question has not been traced on any map.22 The voyage is also motivated by a desire to discover the mystery of a migration that has taken place forever, it seems, and thus, the exploration becomes partly a scientific investigation. The mission consists in radio-tracking the bird's move along an ancient route that remains mysterious for scientists. Besides, the explorers try to prove that it is our human pollution that explains why the species is dying out.

  • 23 Glenway Wescott, The Pilgrim Hawk: a love story, New York: New York Review Books, 1940.

37The narrator also suggests how he wants to follow the falcon Amelia because he recognizes himself in the animal, which is reminiscent of the modernist novel The Pilgrim Hawk, a Love Story23 by American writer Glenway Wescott (1901-1987). Tennant projects himself on the falcon for its fierce independence but also for its desire to go back home, at all costs:

With no companion, guided only by the ancestral memory she somehow carried within, our little hawk was staking her life. Nothing like the abstract idea of migration that I'd imagined, it was humbling even to be a spectator to the mortal intensity of what the tiny, determined speck below was doing. On that sunny coastal morning she was committing every ounce of will and spark of force that flowed inside her to a race toward home.. (On the Wing 110)

38Here, as in Peacock's text, a sense of humility is highlighted. The hunter is awed by the prey's intensity in its race, so that the hunt becomes an existential experience, and the prey, a model. On his website, Tennant explains how he sees the peregrine as "the ultimate raptor"24 and how he faces the falcon's migration as an image of his own quest to get back to the place of childhood while, at the same time, the peregrine embodies rebellion against the father figure. In the following excerpt taken from the author's website, Tennant tells about an episode in his youth when his father had to meet the gaze of his agonizing prey. The father is made to appear like a brute and, on this occasion, like a murderer, but the bird fights back. It is meaningful that the boy should most vividly remember the bird's gaze at the instant of this violent encounter:

When I was twelve, my Dad shot a hawk. Knocked it out of a tree at a hundred yards with an iron-sight Remington 22. My Dad, brother and I scrambled out of our canoe, but when my father stooped to pick up his prize, the hawk's eyes flamed back to life and it scythed a pair of long black talons all the way through both sides of his hand. He screamed and ripped out the claws but, even injured, the hawk was ready to fight again.
Nothing had ever stood up to my Dad. Not Blackie, his Angus bull; certainly not my brother or me. That sort of fearlessness–combined with falcons' matchless aerial skills–was what made them icons of reckless valor to each of the many societies that, for thousands of years, revered them.
And that's what that red-tail did for me. Standing on that long-ago riverbank, with all the determination of boyhood I resolved to keep its fierce golden eyes flashing forever in my sight.

39Here, we see that Tennant's existential crisis, while he recognizes his own rage in the birds'eyes, may be an apt reason why he later decides to follow a falcon in the sky. This crisis fixes the boy's desire to break free from authority; the phrasing "to keep its eyes in my sight" lays emphasis on the double position of the boy, hunter and prey, both a man keeping a vivid image of freedom as a model, and a bird-man, partly metamorphosed into the animal he hunts for, and who sees with the bird's eyes. Still, the exploration, like Matthiessen's journey, is also a spiritual adventure: the narrator reminds us how the peregrine falcon has always been revered as a god. Besides, the very space of the sky cannot but contribute to giving a sense of religious elevation to the explorers.

40Let us note indeed that the exploration is each time oriented upwards: the hikers climb higher and higher up the mountain or even rising up in the sky above the mountain range, in the case of Tennant's account in On the Wing: he flies in a Cessna with a veteran pilot following the signal that is radiotransmitted by a peregrine falcon on its migration route. As for Matthiessen, he quotes Ovid's Metamorphoses to stress this aspiration to climb upward: "All other creatures look down toward the earth, but man was given a face so that he might turn his eyes toward the stars and his gaze upon the sky" (The Snow Leopard 7).

41Just as Matthiessen successfully strives to express a wide range of manners to perceive and write about the mountainscape, from abstraction to prosaic detail, Peacock and Tennant offer us with several ways to approach their exploration. The three of them share a preoccupied sense that the predator they are pursuing is in danger, and that they should write about its case to warn us: giving up on the grizzly or the peregrine has implications for all of us, not only ecological but moral and spiritual.

42While Tennant concentrates on the peregrine falcon as a model of determination and freedom which he admires, the leopard offers Matthiessen a lesson on wisdom and the importance of dealing with reality as it is; Peacock's grizzlies help him through a form of ambivalent identification, as they are both victims and prisoners, but at the same time through rejection, as the grizzly represents danger, violence and the ghosts of the war in Vietnam.

43Matthiessen draws a parallel between his search for "a new way of seeing," through drugs and zen practice, with the quest of the poet which he identifies with the quest of a shaman: he established a continuum between the traditional hunter, the jaguar-shaman, the Buddhist's search for "the Way" and his own mobilization on the mountain path towards the snow leopard. Through the word "animism," Matthiessen shows the common point between Tibetan spirituality, Sufi mysticism and the American Indian's vision of the world, a conception of man's place in the world he subscribes to. This resonates with the American naturalist and philosopher David Abram's warning about our loss of a direct bond with our natural surroundings, and also with what he calls the breath of things in The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animals. As Matthiessen did in the epigraph to The Snow Leopard, David Abram quotes Rainer Maria Rilke in the epigraph to the last part of his essay The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Rilke's lines emphasize the fear of separation with the world that is expressed by Matthiessen: "Ah, not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition, shut out from the law of the stars. The inner–what is it? If not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming" (Abram 1996, 261). This is Abram's comment on this quote:

we seem today so estranged from the stars, so utterly cut off from the world of hawk and otter and stone. This book has traced some of the ways whereby the human mind came to renounce its sensuous bearings, isolating itself from the other animals and the animate earth. By writing these pages I have hoped, as well, to renew some of those bearings, to begin to recall and reestablish the rootedness of human awareness in the larger ecology. (Abram 1996, 261)

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ABRAM, David, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-than-human World, New York: Random House, 1996.

ABRAM, David, Becoming Animal, an Earthly Cosmology, New York: Penguin, Random House, 2010.

CARPENTER, David, A Hunter's Confession, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010.

CIMINO, Michael, The Deer Hunter, Paris: Carlotta Films, 1978.

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, Nature and Selected Essays [1836], New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

FAULKNER, William, Go Down, Moses, "The Bear", New York: Random House, 1942.

FREUD, Sigmund, Introduction à la Psychanalyse [1917], Paris : Payot Poche, 2004.

HAENEL, Yannick, Tiens ferme ta couronne; Paris: Gallimard, 2017.

HARRISON, Jim, Wolf [1971], New York: Delta, 1981.

JANKÉLÉVITCH, Vladimir, Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le presque rien, Paris : Seuil, 1981.

JAWORSKI, Philippe, Melville. Le Désert et l'Empire, Paris: Presses de l'Ecole Normale, éditions rue d'Ulm, 1986.

LACAN, Jacques, Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Séminaire, XI. Paris: Seuil, 1973.

MAILER, Norman, Why are we in Vietnam? [1967], New York: Picador, 2000.

MATTHIESSEN, Peter, The Snow Leopard [1978], London: Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, 2008.

MCGUANE, Thomas, The Longest Silence, A Life in Fishing [1999], New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 2001.

MELVILLE, Herman, Moby Dick; or, The Whale [1851], New York: Longman, 2007 (Longman Critical Edition).

MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice, Le Visible et l'Invisible, Paris: Gallimard, 1964.


PEACOCK, Doug, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Owl Books, 1990.

STEINBECK, John, The Log from The Sea of Cortez [1951], Penguin Books, 2002.

TENNANT, Alan, On the Wing: to the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

WESCOTT, Glenway, The Pilgrim Hawk: a love story [1940], New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2011.

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1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays [1836], New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

2 Herman Melville, Moby Dick, [1851] New York: Longman, 2007.

3 The story of On the Wing has been bought by National Geographic Feature Films to be made into a movie starring Robert Redford in the role of George Vose, the pilot who accompanies Tennant in his transcontinental flight above America ;, accessed on October 5th 2016.

4 "Buddhists believe that life is both endless and subject to impermanence, suffering and uncertainty. Existence is endless because individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering throughout many lives. It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering." Article "Buddhism at a Glance," consulted online on July 13th, 2018:

5 Callan Wink, "Fly-Fishing Confidential" in Men's Journal, .

6 John Steinbeck, The Log from The Sea of Cortez [1951], London: Penguin Books, 2002.

7 The Snow Leopard, introduction by Pico Iyer, xviii.

8 Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

9 "Nirvana is the eternal state of being where Karma and Samsara no longer exist. It represents the end of desire, suffering and individual consciousness. Until Nirvana is reached through enlightenment, the cycle of Samsara is repeated over and over." Accessed online on June 29th, 2018.

10 This quote appears on the backcover of the Owl Books edition which we are using: Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1990.

11 Ibid.

12 This remark appears on the page devoted to the text on Doug Peacock's website:, accessed online on September, the 14th, 2016.

13 Jim Harrison, Wolf, a false memoir, New York: Grove Press, 1971.

14 Thomas McGuane, The Sporting Club [1968], New York: Vintage Contemporaries, Random House, 1996.

15 Yannick Haenel, Tiens ferme ta Couronne, Gallimard, prix Médicis 2017.

16 Tiens ferme ta couronne, 18.

17 Ibid.

18 Haenel refers to Parmenides' notion of alèthéia and explains this idea that the truth is impossible to fix, it can only be accessed through a short moment of veiling/unveiling or apparition/disparition: Tiens ferme ta couronne, 18.

19 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque rien, Paris: Seuil, 1980, 25: "La lueur timide et fugitive, l'instant-éclair, le silence, les signes évasifs - c'est sous cette forme que choisissent de se faire connaître les choses les plus importantes de la vie. Il n'est pas facile de surprendre la lueur infiniment douteuse, ni d'en comprendre le sens. Cette lueur est la lumière clignotante de l'entrevision dans laquelle le méconnu soudainement se reconnaît."

20 Jim Harrison, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, New York: Grove Atlantic, 2000.

21 Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence, a life in fishing. [1999] "Some Remarks", introduction p. xv, Vintage Books, New York: Random House, 2001.

22 On the Wing has been compared to Jack Kerouac's On the Road in some reviews, for example in the Dallas Morning New, 2010, September 3rd.

23 Glenway Wescott, The Pilgrim Hawk: a love story, New York: New York Review Books, 1940.



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Bibliographical reference

Céline Rolland Nabuco, A Different Kind of Hunt: Image Hunting in Three Travel StoriesCaliban, 59 | 2018, 169-187.

Electronic reference

Céline Rolland Nabuco, A Different Kind of Hunt: Image Hunting in Three Travel StoriesCaliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Céline Rolland Nabuco

Collège La Source, Rilly.
Céline ROLLAND NABUCO enseigne l'anglais. Agrégée, elle a soutenu une thèse sur la chasse à partir d’un corpus de littérature américaine. Elle s'intéresse aux représentations de la chasse en Amérique dans la littérature, ainsi qu'au cinéma et dans la photographie ; elle a publié des articles sur l'écriture de Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane et Russell Banks, et sur le regard prédateur au cinéma, à travers le thème de la chasse.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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