if its too loud, turn it down

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A pocket audio guide to Peter Matthiessen, E.J. Watson and "Shadow Country"

(click here to skip down to the audio section)

"I don't go looking for trouble...but when trouble comes to me, why, I take care of it."

Sounds like something Clint Eastwood would say in a spaghetti western. Instead, it was uttered by an even more mysterious and enigmatic bad-ass named E.J. Watson, the real-life main character of Peter Matthiessen's epic book entitled "Shadow Country - A New Rendering of the Watson Legend". It truly is the Great American Novel. It consumes you, makes you want to know more...stays with you long after you've finished reading it.

EJ Watson

A rare photo of E.J. Watson himself,
from the PBS documentary "No Boundaries"

E.J. Watson so fascinated Matthiessen that he devoted 30 years (more than a third of his life) to researching, writing, and imagining the Watson character and the myth that surrounded him. Originally, Matthiessen published the story as three separate books, dubbed "The Watson Trilogy" in the 90s. But he was never quite satisfied with it, so he took 10 years to completely re-write it, and published "Shadow Country" in 2008. The book is classified as a work of fiction, but as Matthiessen says, "it's the closest to the truth that anybody's ever come." Unconcerned with plot, Matthiessen kills Watson off in the first few pages of the book, and spends the remainder of the 900-some pages discovering just who this E.J. Watson guy is. Ultimately Matthiessen wanted to answer the very first question he ever had about Watson...why a large group of Watson's neighbors — who admitted they genuinely liked and admired him — felt they needed to kill him with a barrage of bullets. Thirty-three bullets to be exact, not counting buckshot...and the ones that missed.

E.J. Watson's various monikers speak to his diverse personality. His given name was Edgar Artemis Watson, born 1855 in Edgefield County, South Carolina (which Matthiessen claims is the most violent county in American history) where he grew up under the thumb of an abusive, drunken father. Fleeing his father, Watson left home early and bounced between North Florida and the "Nations" of Oklahoma. He developed a reputation as a killer when he was tried (but acquitted) in Oklahoma for the murder of the female outlaw Belle Starr. He later escaped from jail, and likely a lynching, where he was being held on suspicion of horse theivery — a crime considered worse than murder in those days. He fled to the primitive, sparsely-populated wilderness of southwest Florida known as 10,000 Islands, where he changed his name to E.J. ("Jack") Watson, ostensibly to seperate himself from his past. 10,000 Islands (now part of the Florida Everglades National Park) was a haven for outsiders, deserters and men on the run from the law. It was truly a frontier land, even well into the 20th century. A character in the book calls 10,000 Islands "the ass end of hell." Even today, the Florida Everglades and the adjacent 10,000 Islands and Big Cypress is the largest roadless area in the lower 48.

In Southwest Florida, Watson painstakingly hacked out a 40-acre sugarcane farm from the dense mangrove and shell soil, and built a very successful cane syrup business from scratch. His sugarcane farming methods are believed to be the foundation of Florida's large sugarcane industry today. In this frontier land, where he became known as "Planter Watson", he changed his reputation from that of an outlaw to one of a hard-working, entreprenurial businessman who was well-liked and well-respected among his neighbors, associates and, uh...quite a few women. He had three wives (not all at the same time), and a number of other mistresses. He was ruggedly handsome, intelligent (known for quoting Shakespeare), had an affable personality, was very generous, could tell a great story, and had a real sense of humor. People just plain liked him.

Chatham Bend

The house at Chatham Bend, where bad, bad things happened. The Watson Place - the only house ever built in the Everglades - ultimately burned down in the mid-1940s. It is rumored that the National Park Service itself torched it. Photo from the book "Totch: A Life in the Everglades".

But Watson still had a dark side. He was a heavy drinker with an explosive temper, and considering he was unusually tall, unusually strong and had icy cold blue eyes...he seems like the kind of guy you wouldn't want to mess with. As one character describes him, "He looked like God, and he looked like Satan and he looked like Uncle Sam...all three at once!" He always dressed well, even when he was at work in the fields. Kept a pistol in his pocket at all times and was known to be a deadeye shot with any firearm. Legend has it Watson killed dozens of people who crossed him, though Matthiessen (who's obviously done by far the most exhaustive research on Watson) isn't so generous. He says, "I couldn't seperate him from about seven [killings]". One legend is of the "Watson Payday" where he employed folks — usually loners and drifters — for an entire season of cane growing, and after the harvest when they went to get paid they got killed instead. Not quite the reward they'd hoped for! It was through rumors like this that he earned his most infamous nickname, "Bloody Watson." In one interview, Matthiessen relates how when researching Watson, he came across a family in New York (need to verify) who used to tell their children "now you get to bed, or Mr. Watson's gonna git ya!" Nice parents. But it speaks to the power of the mythical "Bloody Watson"...he became the quintessential boogyman. He was both good and evil, charismatic and dangerous. I can see why Matthiessen would want to solve the enigma of the Watson character. When asked how Matthiessen filled in the gaps of what was known about Watson, he says "I put myself in him." So what we get is a synthesis of the real person of Watson, with elements of the author himself.

The other important character in "Shadow Country" is the land itself. Two common threads in all of Matthiessen's books (not that I've read them all, this is just what he says) are "marginalized people, places and creatures" and "the frayed relationship humans and nature." While not terribly hospitable to people (except the natives), the Everglades hosted a rich and diverse ecosystem of birds, fish, reptiles and other wildlife, and Calusa (now extinct), Seminole and Mikasuki indians who had been there for thousands of years. But commercial fishing and hunting wreaked havoc on the land, and the federal government itself nearly destroyed it entirely by undertaking a massive wetland drainage program in the late 1800s. Three bloody Seminole Wars were fought there between the natives and the US Army, though the indians were never actually subverted. Matthiessen's descriptions of the land and it's trials are a major element in the book, and are in fact a metaphor for the checkered past of the United States as a whole. His alchemy with words sets a sense of place in my mind like no other book has ever done.

Chatham Bend Map

The approximate location of Watson's cane farm, Chatham Bend
(click to view in larger map)

For his massive 30-year undertaking, Matthiessen won the 2008 National Book Award. It was his second National Book Award — his first was for "The Snow Leopard" in 1978. He is one of the few authors to win the award for both fiction and non-fiction books.

Similar to Matthiessen's obsession with the character of Watson, I'm fascinated with Matthiessen himself. I find Matthiessen's story every bit as intriguing as Watson's.

Matthiessen developed his love for nature and wild animals at an early age, having grown up in rural Connecticut (as a child he kept a den of copperhead snakes as pets). He and his brother roamed the Connecticut backcountry hiking, fishing and birding. For school, he boarded and later went to Yale where he presumably cut his chops as a writer. Matthiessen then went on to serve in the Navy in WWII. Afterwards — and this is where it gets interesting — he was recruited by the CIA and sent to Paris to spy on what the CIA deemed to be Communist threats. As cover he began the famous literary magazine, "The Paris Review" with his childhood friend George Plimpton. As cover! Matthiessen calls his 2-year stint with the CIA "the only adventure I've ever regretted." He very obviously does not like to talk about it. He says he quit because he found himself more in line with those who he was trying to spy on than his employers.

He later became a commercial fisherman, then a charter boat captain, and also tried to make a living as a fiction writer. But, by this time he was married with kids and was having a hard time paying the bills. He soon discovered that non-fiction was the way to go for making money. He got hooked up with an editor at the New Yorker who liked his work, and that launched his writing career in earnest.

In total, Matthiessen's written 30-plus books, both fiction and non-fiction. Although he is most well-known for his non-fiction (i.e. "The Snow Leopard"), he is very clear that his heart is in fiction writing. He says he did non-fiction "to pay the bills" and doesn't like writing it because, "you're stuck with the facts...or should be, anyway." His books are usually well-received critically, though he's had only two New York Times bestsellers in his career, "Far Tortuga" and "Killing Mister Watson" (the first book of the "Watson Trilogy").

Not unlike his buddy E.J. Watson, Matthiessen is nothing if not diverse himself. In addition to a successful writing career, Matthiessen is also well-known as an explorer, a political activist, environmentalist, an expert birder, and a Zen Rōshi. His spiritual path that led to Zen Buddhism began in the 60s, when he and his then-wife (who later died of cancer) were heavily into experimental drugs, particularly LSD. To this day he claims that if properly prepared, LSD can offer deep insight into one's mind (he does not still use LSD). Searching for non-checmically-induced methods to achieve altered states of consciousness, he and his wife eventually discovered Zen Buddhism in the 70s, which he still practices and teaches today.

Quick Addendum: More Everglades Reading

Totch: A Life in the Everglades

Totch: A Life in the Everglades: Essential Everglades reading.

I recently came across a book called "Totch: A Life in the Everglades" which I highly recommend after you've finished reading Shadow Country and/or The Watson Trilogy. It's an autobiography of a gentleman called Loren "Totch" Brown, who was born Chokoloskee, FL in 1920, and spent his life in the 10,000 islands. The book provides additional context about the region, and corroborates alot of the facts in Matthiessen's Watson writings. He personally knew several characters in the book like Luscious Watson, The Smallwoods...Watson's good friend C.G. McKinney was his grandfather. He even lived at the Watson Place on Chatham Bend for a while during the Great Depression. He can attest to the blood stains in the house. Totch himself could easily had been a character in Shadow Country if he'd have been born earlier. He was a farmer, fisherman, gator poacher and drug runner. He was a real Florida outlaw, and has the stories to prove it.

Audio of Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

I've found the best way to get into the mind of Peter Matthiessen is to listen to him talk. Preferably, on my iPod. So, for myself, and any other Matthiessen fans who'd like to partake, I've compiled a complete set of Peter Matthiessen interview/lecture/monologue mp3s for your iPod listening pleasure. Many of these were ripped from video (with WireTap), and in those cases I included the link to the video in case you want to watch that as well, which you should.

Listening to Matthiessen speak is a unique experience. At 82 years of age, he has a deep, wise, gravelly voice...you can almost hear the Zen within it. Some of the topics covered in the interviews are repetitive, he appears to have had "talking points" when making the media rounds promoting his books (mostly "Shadow Country"). However, there are distinct nuggets of goodness in each and every one. No interview is exactly the same as another. If you listen to all of these, you'll end up feeling like you know him pretty well.

As serene as he comes across, an interesting thing I discovered is that he is also somewhat of a crank (his words). He is an exceedingly private person. Dislikes it when people recognize him in public and hates it when devotees of his writing visit his house. Virtually nothing is known about his Tanzanian-born second wife, and he rarely mentions her in interviews. When sitting on planes, the first thing he does is give his seat-mate a icy cold look as if to say "I am not chatty." He also says being a Zen Rōshi does not preclude him from feeling rage about what he perceives as injustices. He speaks quite strongly against George Bush, Big Oil, the FBI (who actually sued him) and various other people or organizations that antagonize the causes he's invested himself in.

The files are in the order of the most recent first. I've included a brief synopsis of the forum and topic for each mp3 below. I also bolded the ones I think are of particular interest. Enjoy the words of one of America's most gifted and prolific living authors!

Forum : WPSU Conversations at Penn State - Author's Reflections
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 56:16
Air Date: Thursday, January 21, 2010
Description : This one's interesting because it doesn't talk much about Shadow Country. He talks about his life and the highlights include his 2-year stint as a spy for the CIA, his LSD usage with his first wife, and his path to Zen.

Forum : 2008 National Book Awards
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 10:32
Air Date: February 2, 2009
Description : Gail Godwin presents the 2008 National Book Award in Fiction to Peter Matthiessen, for "Shadow Country." Eric Bogosian introduces Godwin.

Forum : PBS NewsHour's "Art Beat" segment
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 14:12
Air Date: December 31, 2008
Description : Jeffery Brown interviews Matthiessen, mostly about Shadow Country. Matthiessen also reads from his book. I included both segments in the audio.

Forum : Salt Lake City Public Library
Media : Article | MP3 (right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as"
Stream :
Length : 1:43:41
Air Date: November 13, 2008
Description : Peter Matthiessen and photographer Subhankar Banerjee talk about their collaboration on the Arctic. Unless you're REALLY into the arctic, skip right to Matthiessen, who comes in at 38:10. Skip to 51:00 if you want to get right to the "Shadow Country" material. A very good segment because he reads quite a bit from the book, it's interesting to hear him speaking the character's parts in the southern vernacular.

Forum : KUER RadioWest (NPR)
Media : Article | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 52:02
Air Date: November 12, 2008
Description : Doug Fabrizio talks with Peter Matthiessen about "revealing the world through words"

Forum : WBUR's "On Point" (NPR)
Media : MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 45:18
Air Date: Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Description : Tom Ashbrook talks with Peter Matthiessen about "The Snow Leopard", Zen and environmental issues. Very little about Watson. Has a nice call-in portion except for the first call, she's a fruitcake.

Forum : Leonard Lopate Show WNYC (NPR)
Media : Article | MP3 (right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as"
Stream :
Length : 21:34
Air Date: Monday, June 09, 2008
Description : Leonard Lopate interviews Peter Matthiessen mostly about Shadow Country. A great place to start if you haven't read it yet.

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 22:04
Air Date: May 27, 2008
Description : Charlie Rose interviews Peter Matthiessen about Shadow Country. He is quite obviously irritated at Charlie's questioning about his experience as a spy for the CIA.

Forum : The Free Library of Philadelphia
Media : Article | MP3 (right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as"
Stream :
Length : 58:29
Air Date: April 17, 2008
Description : Perhaps the best interview with Matthiessen I could find. He's has a good rapport with the interviewer, also an author. He wanders quite a bit in his answers, it's interesting to see where his mind takes him. Nice Q&A bit with the audience at the end.

Forum : Writer's Symposium by the Sea
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : Dean Nelson interview's Peter Matthiessen at a writer's forum. This one is distinct from the others because he tells personal stories I've heard nowhere else. He talks about nearly getting killed in the Sudan, encountering old men in the swamp backcountry, and there's an allusion to when he came across a dead guy in an alley when he was a young man. He is actaully quite jovial.
Air Date: April 1, 2005
Description : 28:45

Forum : "Web Exclusive" on Orion Magazine Website
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 13:36
Air Date: September 1, 2004
Description : Sort of a monologue about Politics and the Environment, Globalization, Resources, and Ethics and Corporate Profits and Common Sense. Not terribly interesting (to me, anyway), but does give some insight into his political views.

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 18:33
Air Date: December 9, 2003
Description : Discussion with Matthiessen, about his book "At The End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica". Tells Rose that his favorite book to date is "Far Tortuga" but hints that it might be replaced by the book he's working on (which will become "Shadow Country")

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 16:43
Air Date: March 21, 2002
Description : Interview about his book "Birds of Heaven" about Cranes. Bet you didn't know there's a Crane sanctuary in the DMZ between North and South Korea. Not a terribly interesting interview otherwise, though he does talk a bit about Antarctica.

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (to download, right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as")
Stream :
Length : 10:19
Air Date: April 26, 2000
Description : From Charlie Rose site: "Peter Matthiessen, nature writer and co-founder of "The Paris Review", discusses his book "Tigers in the Snow", which explores the efforts being made to save the species and contemplates the impact of their majesty and grace on our collective imagination."

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as"
Stream :
Length : 15:55
Air Date: June 3, 1999
Description : Charlie Rose interviews Peter Matthiessen about "Bone by Bone". Interesting because even though Bone by Bone had just been released, he hyas already resolved to synthesize the "Watson Trilogy" into one book. He tosses out "The Labyrinth" as a speculative title (refernce to the everglades). He also discusses EJ Watson in depth, the Columbine shootings, and the dark side of humanity. Good interview.

Forum : The Charlie Rose Show
Media : Video | MP3 (right-click and choose "save as" or "save target as"
Stream :
Length : 23:10
Air Date: November 26, 1997
Description : A great interview because of its age, done at the time the second book of the Watson Trilogy, "Lost Man's River" was released.


  1. There's also my little site: Mp3 audio tours and Mp3 audio guides for sale starting from just 2 €. Immediate download available.

  2. My name is Alvin Lederer and I would like to talk with you about Edgar Watson you can e-mail me at alvininnaples@msn.com or call me at 321-634-2919.
    thank you

  3. My father Charlie Green told the stories of E J Watson and the Ten Thousand Island families to us as small children over sixty years ago, I am amazed that Matthiessen's Trilogy of Watson's story totally dove tails with my dad's. What a great job and fascinating read and I think he got it right.
    Mimi Long
    Atlanta, GA


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