Changing Planet

Late Journalist Matthew Power Inspired a Generation

Power reportedly died of natural causes in Uganda this week near Murchison Falls Conservation Area (file photo), while covering the attempt of British explorer Levinson Wood to walk the entire length of the Nile.
(Photograph by Albert Backer, Wikimedia Commons)

By Justin Nobel

I think guides are dangerous, no one can show you the way. The world changes too swiftly, even if someone has just cracked the code, five minutes later the digits are different. And besides, you are different, you are not them, and if you trail too close your own work will never be your own.

But it is okay to have inspiration, that in fact is a necessity, because there are too many ways to look down off the ledge and become frightened, and there are too many ways to skip out for something easier, and there are too many ways to create ways, ways to not believe in yourself. You need something to spark the fire, to unleash the monster, to churn the chaos into beauty. Journalists often find inspiration in the impossible: in going somewhere others are afraid to go, in tackling projects others tell us are pointless, and in the simple moments, in those rare red bolts of fiery light that burst out from the blackness.

We also find inspiration in people, in those who have pushed their own limits and pulled something back from the brink, in those who have sojourned the world in order to understand the world. For me one of those inspirational people was the journalist Matthew Power, and tragically, he has just died [while on assignment in Uganda for Men’s Journal].

I found Matthew’s writing as a young man, my pockets stuffed with scrawled-up notebooks, my mind addled by how to turn the scrawl into that thing called writing. That thing I could do for a magazine, or a newsletter, or a pamphlet, or anything, really. I wanted to scrap together a living, and a life, with nothing more than a pen and a pad and a burning desire to make journeys.

One day, I stumbled across a story about hopping freight trains across Canada in the now defunct adventure-lifestyle magazine Blue, and discovered a writer who was doing just that. “The disembodied sensation of taking off in an airplane pales compared to catching hold of a train and not letting go,” wrote the then twenty-something Matthew Power, as he hopped an eastbound train from a Vancouver rail yard. “It’s like grabbing the landing gear as the plane taxis up the runway. Suddenly, all the nausea of anticipation is gone, I am flying.”

The way to do it, I realized, was just to do it. Do the thing you want to do, and write about that. You will always write best when you follow your own ideas. Matthew’s writing taught me another lesson. If you scroll through the articles on his website you will notice the impressive list of publications he wrote for: Harper’s, Wired, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, Granta, Slate, GQ, Mother Jones, OnEarth, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Believer, SEED, Heeb, Feed, and on and on. To be a freelance writer is to parcel out your life as story. The time you got arrested at City Hall while part of a sit-in to save some community gardens becomes a story, and the time you rafted with “boat punks” down the Mississippi River a la Huck Finn becomes a story, and the time you sailed to the Galapagos on a ketch called the Shangri La with a pair of old friends becomes a story.

Your life is your material. More than just that, your life is your energy, your drive. What should you write about…Well, what makes you burn? That!

The world is a dangerous and strange place and most of us don’t dive in too deeply. Matthew completely submerged himself. For me no story says this better than the haunting and beautiful piece he wrote for Harper’s about life in Payatas, a massive garbage dump in the Philippine capital of Manila that serves as home for an industrious population of trash-pickers.

“Hundreds of scavengers, brandishing kalahigs and sacks, faces covered with filthy T-shirts, eyes peering out like desert nomads through the neck holes, gather in clutches across the dump,” wrote Matthew. “The impression is of pure entropy, a mass of people as disordered as the refuse itself, swarming frantically over the surface. But patterns emerge, and as trucks dump each new load with a shriek of gears and a sickening glorp of wet garbage, the scavengers surge forward, tearing open plastic bags, spearing cans and plastic bottles with a choreographed efficiency…We stand by the side of a fresh pile and watch as it is worked over with astonishing speed.”

If you can understand the world, then you can understand what it means to be alive in the world, then you can understand what it means to be alive in your own skin. And if you can understand yourself at the end of the day, at the end of the life, you have succeeded in the holiest of tasks. To find the thing it is you want to do, and actually have the guts to do it. Matthew was doing it. “The kind of stories I’ve gotten to do have involved fulfilling my childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life,” said Matthew in a Longform podcast interview. “Even though I don’t make a ton of money doing it, I’ve never felt like I was missing out on something.”

Matthew Power pushed his own limits, he pushed his craft’s limits, he pushed the world’s limits. And he has now left the world with a bounty of knowledge and stories that will push the minds of anyone willing to take the time to read them. My deepest condolences to his family, in Matthew you have lost something so special. Many of my friends and colleagues have written lovely tributes to him on facebook and elsewhere. I didn’t know Matthew personally, so I have no tales to tell of how we ever interacted. All I have is the inspiration he instilled in me, and I have his writing.

Halfway across Canada, Matthew finds himself alone on the rails. His freight hopping companion Pike has gone south for Florida, Matthew is headed east for New York. Somewhere near Thunder Bay, Ontario the train shudders to a stop in the middle of the woods. Matthew spies a raspberry bramble:

“I jump off and grab raspberries by the fistful, scratching my arms, the sweet juice running down my neck through the rust and oil. Maybe only bears have ever eaten here, I think. Maybe I am the first human ever to eat from this patch, a hundred miles away from the nearest town.

“The berries are perfect. I am nowhere near home. The train is waiting for me, it hasn’t pulled out yet. All the ghosts of the workers who built this railroad, all the people who have knowingly or not helped me across the huge continent, all swirl around me in those few moments. This is a great secret of trainhopping. And this is what it means to be alive.”

Justin Nobel is a freelance journalist and author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle.

  • George Odhiambo

    A very good obituary piece,inspirational on both sides.Congrats my friend Justin.I was with Justin in Kenya,we did internship together with the M.V.P.

  • Paul Steyn

    Thanks for taking the time to write this wonderful tribute – to someone who tore great chunks out of life and carefully presented it for us to consume.

  • Charles Cushman

    Dear Whoever is reading this:
    I have just finished reading Justin Noble’s wonderful tribute to Matthew Power (above) and couldn’t help but relate to Matthew’s indomitable spirit of travel, adventure and deep-seeded curiosity about this fascinating world of ours, He sought out the least visited places, forsaking danger when his curiosity demanded that the next step be taken.
    40 plus years ago (1965-67), I did something similar by hitch-hiking around the world. Starting in Central America, I moved on to Africa, walking and hitch-hiking its breath from Dakar, Senegal to Mombasa, Kenya, before ending up in India where 3rd class trains took me from Mombai (Bombay) to Kashmir, Nepal and finally Calcutta. This entire year and a half adventure was done with only $2,000, my modus operandi being, “the cheaper you travel, the deeper into the world you go.”
    Thus, I would appreciate your sending the following examples from the journal I kept during that time to Justin Noble who is ideally suited to judge whether other people would be interested in this adventure or not.
    Thank you very much for doing this.

    Yours sincerely,
    Charlie Cushman

    How a dedicated Peace Corps Volunteer got the Ecuadorian government to send a teacher and vital support to his isolated mountain village
    A night of folk singing in Quito with Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s foremost artist, when neither of us spoke the other’s language
    Three days in a small missionary enclave deep in the Amazon jungle among several indigenous tribes, one of which were the Jivaro, the notorious head shrinkers

    West Africa
    A few days with a twenty-three year old Malian fighter pilot who had trained in Russian for three years
    Canoeing out to a primitive 17th century lake village in Dahomey (Benin) that had been completely built on stilts
    The chief of an isolated fishing village in Nigeria’s Delta region’s intriguing confrontation with a young government official about why women shouldn’t be given membership in his village cooperative

    East Africa
    “Don’t talk, eat, or there will be nothing left,” admonished one of the many Sudanese soldiers on our Nile steamer that had been churning its way up to Juba for six days
    Confronting five dangerously drunk sheep herders on a lonely mountain road in the western wilds of Rwanda
    “Paralyzed with fear, I inched my way back from the fog shrouded 1000 foot cliff that dropped off straight down in front of me.” One of the many harrowing experiences I encountered during my one week solo trek in the17,000 foot Ruwenzori Mountains of western Uganda

    A wiry charismatic swami (Hindu “priest”) who not only slept with the destitute Muslim bus boys in their dingy dormitory in Srinagar, Kashmir (a most unlikely occurrence for any Hindu, never mind a swami), but who also claimed he could incite 100,000 protesters to march on New Delhi at any time on any pretense
    In Manali, a regional city in northern India, the police chief’s less than benevolent way of handling criminals
    A private audience with the Dalai Lama at his mountain retreat near Dharmsala

  • Annette Jackson

    So sorry to read this John, my heart goes out to you and the family. Any idea why or how?
    Prayers are with you

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