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
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.