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Peter Matthiessen  

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George Schaller  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
16 Aug 1999

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NPR/NGS
¿GEOGRAPHIC CENTURY¿
LOG OF PETER MATTHIESSEN - FOR PIECE ON SCHALLER
STUDIO 2D (PM AT WPBX IN LONG ISLAND)
AUGUST 16, 1999
INTERVIEWED BY DON SMITH

1:42 PM - ¿Peter Matthiessen¿

DS - going on another trip with him

PM - incorrect

2:00 DS - from your time with him on the road with him in Nepal - what kind of person is he? What does he look like?

2:10 PM - George is medium tall and rangy, bony and strong. He has been lugging telescopes and cameras around in difficult places. He is in very good shape - he stays in good shape.

2:28 DS - that is pretty much necessary for what he does

2:31 PM - well, it is so necessary in fact that he told me once while we were in Nepal that he doesn¿t do any contact sports - he doesn¿t ski or do anything like that bc his legs are so valuable to him. He can not afford to injure a leg.

2:51 DS - it sounds like someone who is dedicated to an extraordinary degree to what he does.

PM - Indeed, George has very much - has his eye on the ball

DS - he is famously on the solitary side -wouldn¿t you say?

3:08 PM - He is - kind of a loner, yeah, I guess so in general manner. Somebody asked me one time what our social life was like, and being a little bit that way myself we didn¿t need a great social contact. We would have breakfast and talk and have some coffee and then we would set off for the days treking north and we would often be a half mile apart looking at different things. We felt no need to be on top of each other. We always we glad to see each other at meals, but you know in the evening we would compare notes and talked, but we hardly ever chattered.

3:55 DS - he is not an extremely chatty person I guess -

3:59 PM - chatty would not describe him - no.

4;01 DS - do you suppose those traits are bc he is a naturalist - come to be that way - prefer the wilderness to civilization or do you suppose that he was like that before and that is why he became a naturalist.

4: 15 PM: I think the latter would be far more likely. I know many naturalist who are very chatty indeed

DS - but he does seem to prefer the wilderness to civilization

4:27 PM - he does. I think he likes that - he likes that silence - he likes being alone is his own head. I think like many people he is introspective and he prefers his own company certainly to chatter and to most of the conversational intercourse of the streets and the offices

4:48 DS - he has done so much pioneering work in different areas of animal behavior and study he has written so prolifically - but one thing I am realyl curious about - he is not anywhere near as famous as a person - say - like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. Do you have any ideas how that comes to be?

5:08 PM - I think if you are a woman and you are studying wildlife you are apt to be more famous than a man doing the same work. I think the media pick up on that, you know, much faster. I think that Dian Fossey also came to a violent end and then Jane being there - the social life of the chimps - that appealed to people, so she got the coverage in Nat Geo and other places that Schaller - in fact I can¿t think of any male naturalist except perhaps Cousteau, and Cousteau had a big publicity machine going there - I think Schaller has a normal amount. I think Schaller is very well known and for very good reason. He is very well known by his peers and in his field and that is where he wants to be. He is not a media darling in any way.

DS- How would you appraise him as a writer.

6:10 PM - he is a very good writer - he writes far better than most scientists that I have read

DS- he was actually writing haiku at one point

6:26 PM - well, he wasn¿t really. I got him to write haiku bc he ran out of reading material but I was rather surprised - I was writing haiku myself and I liked his haiku better than mine. And I used a few of George¿s haiku in my book - but none of my own.

6:45 DS - so you would say he was pretty good at haiku

6:48 PM - I say he was base on the 3 or 4 or 6 that he did, yeah

DS- no I guess, the essence of haiku is somewhat elliptical and hard to define¿.

PM - DOESN¿T WANT TO DEFINE¿../

7;24 DS - well, his range of interests are so broad he studies gorillas, ¿.and birds

PM - well they are all large mammals. I think he is interested in birds is peripheral. Well, he had a raven - ¿.

DS - he has worked in many parts of the world, but he seems to be especially drawn to Asia. Do you have any feeling for how that comes about?

7:59 PM - I think by the time - he worked in Africa for a number of years - he worked with the gorilla - he worked in the Serengetti for quite a long time and I think what he felt was - I think he felt there was a chance of working from a conservation point of view rather than field biology. Bc field biology today includes conservation - it has to - you just can¿t go out and do pure research in the field. If you want to go out and study a species you better find out if the species is going to be there 10 years from now. And I think he felt that there was more opportunity to do interesting good work where it was most need in Asia rather than Africa. There were a lot of people in Africa - a lot of very good people too. But I think he has always been kind of pioneer and saw some wonderful regions that had not been investigated. 8;51

8;52 DS- and during your trip with him you found him a good traveling companion.

8:58 PM - very, yeah. Very competent and very responsible and very intelligent.

9:19 - DS - how did you first meet him

9:27 PM - yeah- I was working out in the Serengetti too - I was invited out there by John Owen who ran the Tanzanian Natl parks and George at that time was working at the Serengetti Research Institute, and so I met all the scientists there. He was particularly hospitable with me - they all were really. But George was - he is married to a delightful woman, Kaye, and George and Kaye had me over a lot and I spent a lot of time in the field with George - I just enjoyed - we did a lot of ??? things. And he actually let me take part - you know we would work these transepts on the plane and so forth- so, that was most instructive. And also, he was my first experience of working in the field with a field biologist and since that time I have worked with quite a number of them, but George was the first and he sort of began my education which he continued in Nepal. 10:33

DS - were you surprised when he asked you to go along on that expedition in 1972?

10:40 PM - the one in Nepal? Well, he tells me know - George is a stickler for the truth of the facts or whatever. I thought he had invited me - but no no he said I invited myself. That is George for you - he is not going to let you get away with that - (laughter)

10:58 DS - let me just ask you one more thing - as you say you have had a lot of exposure to field biologist and you have done a considerable amount of writing - how would you put Dr. Schaller into perspective? How would you appraise his work - what he has done - at the end of his career what do you suppose people will say about him?

11:27 PM - well, I know what I will say about him. He is an excellent field researcher, and excellent biologist, etc, but a lot of people are that - I think more than that, the fact that he is a good writer has really opened up that world to a lot of people to who might not have been exposed to it otherwise - so he has been, in addition to everything else, a great communicator. It seems paradoxical bc we are talking about him not being very talkative and not being - well, so forth, but in his books he is very eloquent. But also bc more and more and more as time goes on he has looked into the conservation aspects of his works. So you can really say that George - that a lot of the parks that have been gazetted - set aside in Nepal, China and other places, you know I think are really his inspiration and I think it is really for that that in the end is going to separate him from many other field biologists. A lot of them are doing that now - but George kind of led the way - you know he really was innovated in that way. 12:36

DS - asks him what he is involved in now¿¿

PM - focusing on the Siberian tiger and the cranes of the world¿..

END OF INTERVIEW 14:22

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