April 10, 2014 5:44 AM EDT

Peter Matthiessen is a hero to me. Time and good luck allowed me to tell him so. He was a hero to a lot of people, especially writers. He did everything a writer would want to do in a life, and wrote supremely. He wrote fiction (At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Shadow Country) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives) as well as it can be done but seemed, to me at least, to portray a conviction that a writer merely writes–sometimes this way, sometimes that, just always at the highest level of one’s capability. Peter, who was 86 when he died on April 5, practiced Zen Buddhism. Thus, narrow, generic categories were not much his interest.

In life he took risks–physical, emotional, intellectual. He championed causes, made important and needful things happen using only words. He cared for the plight of Indians, of fishermen and fish, of leopards, birds, the misunderstood, even the scourged among us. He made the right people mad at him and did not falter. No easy trick. In life, as on the page, he was this man’s man. I won’t see his like again. I’m sure of that.

Ford is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Independence Day

This appears in the April 21, 2014 issue of TIME.

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