Discovering Peter Matthiessen—and Myself

Travel Books: Lynne Friedmann never thought she could make a life as a science writer. Then she read "Blue Meridian."

05.02.14 | 12:08 PM ET

Peter MatthiessenPeter Matthiessen, 1991 (Wikimedia Commons)

Life-changing events can happen in quiet moments. Mine occurred at a bookstore, when I was perusing new titles and spotted Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark by Peter Matthiessen.

I’d never heard of the author, but I was instantly drawn to the topic. As a child, I’d loved watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” on TV. I was smitten by all things science, but hadn’t gone to college. I grew up in a blue-collar family and never thought I could.

On the day in 1971 when I began reading “Blue Meridian,” I was making my living as a secretary typing crime reports in a Los Angeles Police Department detective bureau.

By the time I finished the book, I began to dream of making my living as a science writer.

In “Blue Meridian,” I found writing that allowed me to experience what it was like to scuba dive among sharks in the blood-warm waters off South Africa:

When water and body temperatures are so nearly the same, the skin seems to dissolve; I drifted in solution with the sea. In the sensory deprivation of the underwater world - no taste, no smell, no sound - the wild scene had the ring of hallucination.  The spectral creatures came and went, cruising toward the cage and scraping past with lightless eyes.

The prospect of a new life had me giddy with excitement but also sobered by the reality facing me. Knowing I would have to finance college myself, I continued to sit behind a typewriter for eight more years. I began taking general education courses at night. I also read more Matthiessen: “Wildlife in America,” “The Tree Where Many Was Born,” “Sand Rivers,” “Far Tortuga,” “At Play in the Field of the Lord” and, of course, “The Snow Leopard.”

The books ignited my imagination.

Finally, I quit my job and became a full-time student studying marine biology and journalism. When I graduated in 1983, the high-tech boom and nascent biotechnology industry afforded tremendous opportunities for writers who also understood technology. I haven’t looked back.

Since then, I’ve written about everything from astrophysics to zoology and have rubbed elbows with some of the greatest scientists of our time. Following Matthiessen’s lead, I’ve also traveled the world, sleeping in the dirt of six continents and leaving footprints in Patagonia, the Arctic Circle, the Himalayas and beyond.

One day, I wrote Matthiessen a letter, and by golly, he wrote back.

My husband and I were wending our way through a parking lot after enjoying an evening of theater early last month when I checked my email. That’s when I saw the news: “Peter Matthiessen Dead.” There aren’t many subject lines that make me gasp. This one did.

Matthiessen’s final book, “In Paradise,” was officially released three days later. I added it to my collection. And once again, I thought back to that day in 1971 when Peter Matthiessen changed my life.

Lynne Friedmann

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11 Comments for Discovering Peter Matthiessen—and Myself

Merry Maisel 05.02.14 | 1:53 PM ET

I’m also a science writer—it ran in the family—and I’ve never had a better colleague than Lynne Friedmann. As a science writer as well as a travel writer, she is always interesting, always giving her readers extraordinary insights into the story, gifts they may usually expect but rarely get, unless they’re reading one of her stories. Lynne has also been a teacher, and students in her UCSD Extension science writing courses are now working in the field and making their way, as she has, to the top. I think she has given back the inspiration she got from Peter Matthiessen, a hundredfold. Peter Matthiessen had a life worth celebrating, and Lynne celebrates it in the best possible way.

Jennifer Buckner 05.02.14 | 6:39 PM ET

What inspires each of us on our career paths makes a fascinating read. Thanks Lynne for sharing yours. I’ve made a note to search for Peter Matthiessen next time I am at Barnes & Noble.

Alta Hester 05.04.14 | 3:43 AM ET

I only learned of Peter Matthiessen when reading of his death and the publication of “In Paradise.”  Thanks to reading Lynne Friedman’s article, I feel that she has become a guide for me to to become a reader of Matthiessen’s work.  I also appreciate the story of Lynne’s progression from typing for others to being the science writer she has become.

Teresa Barth 05.05.14 | 6:29 PM ET

Such a nice remembrance and I glad you made contact with Peter before his death.

Cindy Simpson 05.05.14 | 8:49 PM ET

Books and the people that write them can be such an inspiration without even realizing it! Look how Peter helped shape your very interesting career and life in the world of science. Bravo to you Lynne!

Leslie C Shiner 05.07.14 | 12:25 AM ET

What a fascinating story. It’s ignited my imagination too! Thank you Ms. Friedman for your beautiful remembrance.

Kathleen Murray 05.07.14 | 10:59 AM ET

This is an inspiring story that I’ll share my grandchildren and their friends.

Kristy 05.08.14 | 10:05 PM ET

This is one of the articles that I read that inspires me to fulfill my passion. Love it!

atombilisim2el 05.29.14 | 9:58 AM ET

very well prepared. Time spent on menial thanks.

kurumsal seo 05.29.14 | 10:00 AM ET

Such a very nice remembrance   and I glad you made contact   with Peter before his death.

Scott 06.22.14 | 11:30 AM ET

In the late spring of 1979 I took my first international trip.  I was the photographer and alternate boatman for an attempted first descent of the Pampas River, in the Andean foothills ten hours NW of Cuzco.  The suggested reading list included books on natural history, history, etc . . . the only one I read was Matthiessen’s “Cloud Forest”.

Peter was with me in Nepal, three years later, as I headed up the Kali Gandaki toward Jomsom, “The Snow Leopard” country . . .

“Nine Headed Dragon River” was consumed during an 8000 miles American Road trip.

I heard him read in Portland from “Bird of Heaven.”

News of his death caused me to slump.  He filled his time and space on earth wonderfully.  I will miss him

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