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Stones of Silence

Stones of Silence, by George B. Schaller. New York: Viking Press, 1980. 292 pages, 14 color plates, maps and illustrations. Price $15.95.

Why should mountaineers read about a zoologist’s scrambles in the Himalaya? Dr. George Schaller’s narrative offers no first ascents or daring feats, yet it transcends all the Himalayan chronicles this reviewer has read in terms of re-enacting the truths of human experience in the greatest of the earth’s ranges.

A mountaineer’s perception is all too often limited to achieving a specific goal in the here and now. An explorer usually forgets to tell his readers that the blank on his map was not unknown to all men in all time. Schaller, however, seeks to understand the behavior of creatures “born of the Pleistocene, at home among pulsating glaciers and wind-flayed rocks.” Mountain sheep, snow leopards, and Alpine Clubbers all fit this definition, which is quoted from the final paragraph of Mountain Mon- archs, Schaller’s 1977 scholarly treatise of his same journeys. The last sentence provides title and direction for his present book:

For epochs to come the peaks will still pierce the lonely vistas, but when the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags and the last markhor has stood on a promontory, his ruff waving in the breeze, a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence.

Schaller and the Himalaya came together in Alaska. While an undergraduate at the University in Fairbanks, he accepted the invitation of a guest lecturer to go on a summer climbing trip in 1954. Schaller and Heinrich Harrer made the first ascent of Mount Drum, a major peak in the Wrangell Range. Fresh from his seven years in Tibet, Harrer whetted Schaller’s desire to explore the Himalaya.

Between 1969 and 1975 Schaller logged more days in the Himalayan outback than any western mountaineer. He made a rough survey of the status and distribution of mammals throughout the length of the range, and focused on the first serious behavioral studies of Asian mountain sheep and goats.

Peter Matthiessen joined Schaller on one of these treks and wrote a national bestseller, The Snow Leopard. The exquisite prose of individual passages in this work fails to deliver the concrete messages of Stones. Matthiessen, title notwithstanding, never saw a snow leopard and interpreted the Himalaya through a haze of Zen Buddhism clearly rooted in the East—the East Coast of the United States, that is. This harsh sounding conclusion is not given flippantly. The book gave me an increasing feeling of uneasiness, a feeling that it was at odds with my own Himalayan experiences. Timidly at first, I began questioning Himalayan adventurers about their reactions to it. To my great surprise, most were unable to finish it, and set it down with a feeling of discontent. The control group in my informal survey, readers who had not been to the Himalaya, were far more likely to have finished the book and to have received their complement of upbeat mystical glee.

Readers of Stones who have spent time in the Himalaya gave me an entirely different consensus. They usually finished the book and commented how accurately it reflected their own experience. Schaller had been able to take their own realities as a starting point, then deepen their appreciation for time and the evolution of life in these high mountains- His description of a real meeting with a snow leopard is no less poetic than the best of Matthiessen’s musings:

As we watched each other the clouds descended once more, entombing us and bringing more snow. Perhaps sensing that I meant her no harm, she sat up. Though more snow capped her head and shoulders, she remained silent and still, seemingly impervious to the elements. Wisps of clouds swirled around, transforming her into a ghost creature, part myth and part reality. Balanced precariously on a ledge and bitterly cold, I too stayed, unwilling to disrupt the moment. One often has empathy with animals, but rarely and unexpectedly one attains a state beyond the subjective and fleetingly almost seems to become what one beholds; here, in this snowbound valley of the Hindu Kush, I briefly achieved such intimacy. Then the snow fell more thickly, and, dreamlike, the cat slipped away as if she had never been.

A meeting with the climbers of the 1975 American K2 Expedition is described with similar insight:

Some climbers are Captain Ahabs in search of their Moby Dicks, tragic heroes, somehow flawed by the standards of our society, which with monomania pursue an icy summit as if it were the great white whale. But most climbers are Ishmaels. They partake in the quest but without need to give their all to the sterile heights. Who were Ahabs, who were Ishmaels on this American team whose path had so accidentally crossed mine?

After Schaller has led the reader through a long series of potential Shangri-las, his message becomes unequivocally clear. There is no Shangri-la. The future for most Himalayan large mammals is desperately bleak. Mountain meadows appear to provide plenty of summer range for exotic wild sheep and goats, but the lower valleys, where they must forage for the long winters, are almost universally populated and grazed. Habitat destruction affects the future of more trophy Marco Polo sheep than does hunting. And the greater predators, of course, are dependent upon the existence of their prey. Particularly poignant is Schaller’s time warp of a barren village in the mountains of Pakistan. His trained eye sees beyond a “desolate scene … the product of a desperate aridity,” and into a not- so-distant past:

Here and there stunted acacias have been cut and left to dry, to be picked up later and sold for firewood … Herds of black-haired goats, thin bony creatures, scour the terrain … Had man not misused this land for thousands of years, I would be driving through woodland, with wild asses standing in the broad-crowned shade of acacias and cheetah stalking unsuspecting Indian gazelle through swards of golden grass. Perhaps down by the river a pride of lions would be resting after the night’s hunt. The forests are gone now, the rivers dry except after a downpour, and the lion, cheetah, and asses are dead. Only a few gazelle remain. No wonder the land seems lonely as one drives toward the distant hills, trailing a funnel of red dust made incandescent by the sun.

By his insights and rich prose, Schaller has escaped the role of most environmental doomsayers, who subject their poor readers to an ocean of negativity. This is the story of one man’s quest to discover. He realizes that his audience is not, for the most part, familiar with his modes of travel or the cultures he has lived amidst. Unlike Matthiessen, he does not choose to overplay his hand. Like a good novelist, he pays close attention to daily rituals and the small details of his experience. Reactions, feelings, and a historical perspective outweigh expressions of unified metaphysical idealism. As René Daumal wrote in Mount Analogue, “A good stew is worth more than a false philosophy.” Schaller has given us an overflowing bowl of gourmet Himalayan goulash.

Galen Rowell