[7 June 2010]
In his essay “Man Against the Universe”, the naturalist and poet Loren Eiseley references George Boas, “one of our most eminent intellectual historians, (who) remarked, some thirty years ago, that there are always at least two philosophies in a country: one based upon the way people live, and the other upon the results of meditation upon the universe.”
It isn’t difficult to figure out in which camp Eiseley himself set up his tent. All you need to do is glance at his author’s photograph on the back of the hardcover edition of his posthumous collection The Star Thrower, in which the essay is reprinted. Eiseley, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and with his hair neatly parted, is perched as stiffly as an antenna on an outcropping of rock in some unidentified and rubble-strewn wilderness, gazing off at the distant un-peopled horizon. He’s leaning backwards at the waist, arms akimbo, head cocked to one side as if listening for a faint signal from the stars. He‘s wearing a dark suit, dress shoes and a narrow tie. He may be the very last human being of our epoch to wear a suit and tie while hiking, or at least pretending to do so for an author’s photo.
Hike he did. Eiseley was one of the great explicators of evolution, a distinguished anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist, and perhaps the most poetic science writer and nature writer of our time. Throughout his adult life, he wandered the American West, sometimes purposelessly (he lived, for a while, as a freight-train riding hobo) but more often purposefully. He undertook his explorations in the name of science but, as well, in the name of meditating upon the universe, our place in it, and the place of even the smallest slug and snake.
The meditations were not idle—he wrote, among other masterworks, a classic contemplation of evolution, The Immense Journey, as well as The Unexpected Universe and The Firmament of Time. All of these books, and other writings and poems besides, are excerpted in the The Star Thrower.
Although Eiseley also published an autobiography, All the Strange Hours, The Star Thrower is the best place to start for someone who isn’t familiar with Eiseley, both as a sampler of his writings and as a glimpse into his dust-covered existence. For Eiseley is the kind of writer who not only explores the natural world, but gets down on his hands and knees, wags his tail and barks at it. In one of his better-known passages, he encounters a fox pup, alone in his den:
I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound…(t)hey crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe…
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face… here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a white bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment.
This typifies the simultaneously contemplative, idiosyncratic, and highly personal nature of Eiseley’s writing. He is ever-present in his work, but never intrusively; rather, he is the intensely and innately curious, questing and brooding human being who has awakened to find himself on the far shores of a long journey from mudfish to man, and is inordinately pleased with his ability, and that of his fellow humans, to not only understand and appreciate the wonder of that long, strange trip but on rare occasions to leap backwards in time to its very beginning.
As he says in another essay in this collection, “The Judgment of the Birds”, “The world, I have come to believe, is a very queer place, but we have been part of this queerness for so long that we tend to take it for granted. We rush to and fro like Mad Hatters upon our peculiar errands, all the time imagining our surroundings to be dull and ourselves quite ordinary creatures.” Although Eiseley himself says that he at one time “was a man trapped in the despair once alluded to as the utterly hopeless fear confined to moderns—that no miracles can ever happen,“ much of his writing consists of a successful attempt to disabuse himself and the rest of us that “dull” and “ordinary” have anything at all to do with the lives we lead.
Because his writing is so steeped in knowledge of the natural world and the humility that this knowledge inevitably engenders, he almost never slides into the lecturing, fire-and-brimstone mode so dominant among the science preachers, er, writers of our era. (Eisley died in 1977.) There is nothing political here, none of the typically insincere hyperbole about the fate of our planet if we don’t do precisely what the intellectual fashion of the moment tells us we ought to do, and no excoriations of our short-sighted politicians and policy-makers (though they are, of course, short-sighted.) As an authority on evolution, Eiseley’s view extends across aeons. “I have been steeped in geological eras”; he writes, ”my mind is filled with the osseous debris of a hundred graveyards.”
Yet his view is also at the level of the fox pup’s snout and the snail’s trail.He tells a guilt-filled story in one of the essays here about how he trapped a male sparrow hawk when working for a museum, and then thinks better of it. The morning after capturing the bird, he opens the box:
I got him right out in my hand with his wings folded properly and I was careful not to startle him. He lay limp in my grasp and I could feel his heart pound under the feathers but he only looked beyond me and up. I saw him look that last look away beyond me into a sky so full of light that I could not follow his gaze… He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must have been that he was already so far away in heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass. In the next second after that long minute he was gone…
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured, for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing farther up. Straight out of the sun‘s eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.
This is not to suggest that Eiseley was unconcerned about the here and now. In an essay from nearly 40 years ago called “The Winter of Man” that could easily have been composed last week, he writes:
For what is it that we do? We fear. We do not fear ghosts but we fear the ghosts of ourselves. We have come now, in this time, to fear the water we drink, the air we breathe, the insecticides we have dusted over our giant fruits. Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that comes to us from the sea. There are also those who tell us that by our own heedless acts the sea is dying. We fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made, the hatreds we have engendered. We fear the crush of fanatic people to whom we readily sell these weapons. We fear for the value of the money in our pockets that stands symbolically for food and shelter. We fear the growing power of the state to take all these things from us. We fear to walk in our streets at evening. We have come to fear even our scientists and their gifts.
Eiseley offers no prescriptions to alleviate this fear, other than to take the short view, the one to be found at the level of the fox pup’s snout and the snail’s trail, and the long view, the one to be found in the empty spaces between the stars. He writes:
I am a man who has spent a great deal of his life on his knees, though not in prayer. I do not say this last pridefully, but with the feeling that the posture, if not the thought behind it, may have had some final salutary effect. I am a naturalist and a fossil hunter, and I have crawled most of the way through life. I have crawled downward into holes without a bottom, and upward, wedged into crevices where the wind and the birds scream at you until the sound of a falling pebble is enough to make the sick heart lurch. In man, I know now, there is no such thing as wisdom.
As conclusions go, that’s as un-definitive and un-reassuring as it gets, but perhaps the best that we can hope for in our present parlous circumstances. We’re trapped in our own boxes, with no guiltily superior beings to take pity on us and set us free. Yet we are utterly unwilling, every one of us without exception, to give up the plastics and the chemicals that constitute our offline and online lives and that result, as sure as night follows day, in tragedies like the Gulf oil spill and evil like al Qaeda. Unlike that trapped bird, we are all too capable of imagining an ecstatic reunion with nature but—at least at this moment in time—unlike the bird incapable of actually achieving it.
We are in a transitional period, one that Eiseley with his antenna-like sensitivity suspected was rapidly approaching and that might, if we are lucky, contain among its tragedies some miracles, as well. At this uncertain moment, as the dread universe swings in some fantastic fashion around, do yourself a favor, go to Amazon and order a copy of The Star Thrower, or if you must, secure yourself a Kindle version. By whatever form it finds you, immerse yourself in the wisdom of one who didn’t believe in wisdom, but who understood at least that we are straddling a pivotal point in human history between the end of one long and painful eon and the beginning of an uncertain other.