On Loren Eiseley

I wrote the piece below for the short-lived yet lamented Education & Culture. I’m reposting it here because Eiseley has been one of the most important writers for me.


In order to understand the achievement of Loren Eiseley, one of the finest essayists America has yet produced and one of our most neglected major writers, one must look back into the seventeenth century and introduce oneself to Eiseley’s great predecessor and model, the English physician Sir Thomas Browne. In 1658 he published a curious work called Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, the early pages of which are matter-of-fact:

In a field of old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty Urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, nor far from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described: Some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jaws, thigh-bones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion. Besides the extraneous substances, like pieces of small boxes, or combs handsomely wrought, handles of small brass instruments, brazen nippers, and in one some kind of Opal.

Browne was not just a physician but a naturalist, a historian, a man of observation. Here he provides us with the simple facts of the case: a farmer ploughing his field found some urns, and the local learned man was called in to give an account of them. A straightforward matter.

But to think of burial urns is to think of burial; to think of burial is to think of death; and to think of death is to consider all the hopes we have, and our ancestors had before us, that death is not the end of us. So one thing leads to another, and as Browne meditates his thoughts grow deeper and his prose more sonorous, until in the final chapter he sounds like this:

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty-seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every hour adds unto that current Arithmetic, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye; since our longest Sun sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes; since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento’s, and time that grows old itself, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.

It is as though a plinking toy piano had gradually metamorphosed itself into the mightiest of organs.

In the twentieth century it was no longer possible to write this way; but Browne’s sensibility found its way into the mind and heart of a man born in Nebraska in the first years of the twentieth century, raised on those plains and retaining always his love of them, but living out much of his life in the city of Philadelphia — where the pageant of life and death people call “Nature” was to be found as it always had been, though in ways sometimes masked by the pride of a great city.

The new Library of America edition of Loren Eiseley’s essays contains much, though not all, of his best writing: his fine early books on Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin’s predecessors are missing, as is his autobiography All the Strange Hours. Moreover, not everything here is in fact an essay: The Firmament of Time (1964) originated as a series of lectures, but is meant to tell a single historical narrative. But anyone reading these two volumes will be treated to a feast of beautiful writing, shrewd observation, and deeply melancholy meditation by a man who always felt himself to be lost in time.

By academic training Eiseley was an anthropologist, though he was educated at a time when anthropology hewed rather closely to archaeology, and his imagination was fundamentally paleontological: concerned with old beings, old Being. Perhaps his central theme is the kinship he always felt with all those creatures who occupy the neighboring branches on the great evolutionary tree. In the book that made him famous, The Immense Journey (1957), he wrote,

Birds all have feathers, wings, and claws; they are a common class in spite of their diversities. They have been pulled into many shapes, but there is still an eternal “birdliness” about them. They are built on a common plan, just as I share mammalian characters with a small mouse who inhabits my desk drawer. This is hard to account for in a disordered world, so that recently, when I came upon this mouse, trapped and terrified in the wastebasket, his similarity to myself rendered me helpless, and out of sheer embarrassment I connived in his escape.

And in one of the essays in The Night Country (1971) — my favorite among his books — he reflects on the collection of human skulls that he had acquired over the years and that had found their place in his office at the University of Pennsylvania:

Generally I can’t refuse skulls that are offered to me. It is not that I am morbid, or a true collector, or that I need many of them in my work. It is just that in most cases, people being what they are, I know the skulls are safer with me. Call it a kind of respect for the bones ingrained through long habit. That, I guess, is the reason I keep those two locked in the filing cabinet — they are delicate, and not in a position to defend themselves. So I look out for them. I’d do as much for you.

Eiseley is often called a naturalist, and we should remember that the Anglo-Saxon word most closely related to the Latin natura is kind: the figure we call Mother Nature was once called Dame Kind, and the word is also the source of kin. We might say that we are kin to those with whom we share a nature, and Eiseley’s sympathetic feelings extend not only to his fellow mammals, as far back as that ancient ancestor of all mammals whom he imagines and dubs the Snout, but to all who share the struggle to survive: pigeons at a railway station, wasps in their nests, a spider weaving a web in the light of a suburban street lamp. For Eiseley, we’re all, past and present, in this together.

Many books have been written in recent years, by scholars, about the need to expand our feelings of kinship. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is an example; Timothy Morton’s forthcoming Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People is another. Such works are highly theoretical and dense with reference, and while there is a place for all that, I suppose, it is something of a relief to turn from such writers to one whose deep feelings of kinship with the nonhuman arise from the touch of a hawk’s feathers, the meeting of eyes with a mouse, the discovery that what lay next to his boot as he dozed in the shade of a mesa was not a pile of pebbles but a rattlesnake, taking its own calm siesta.

In a notebook discovered after his death in 1977, Eiseley wrote, “Men should be the subject of human study, never man; the moment we say Man we are lost in abstraction.” And yet he began that very entry by writing, “Man has been seeking man for five thousand years.” And the first words of his beautiful book The Firmament of Time — published only a few years before that journal entry — are: “Man is at heart a romantic.” (Later chapters of that book are called “How Man Became Natural” and “How Human Is Man?”) He was right to use the word, and wrong when he deemed it abstract.

“Man” is of course not a word widely employed today, in the sense Eiseley gives it; I don’t use it thus, because those who feel that it implicitly dismisses half the human race from its purview have a legitimate claim on my language. But its disappearance has come with costs: its only plausible replacements, “humanity” and “the human race,” are indeed abstract, which is one reason why they aren’t often used. “Man” in the sense that Eiseley invokes it draws its power from a distinctively Christian idea, first articulated by St. Paul, that our story is that of a single human person in whom we all participate: we are the first Adam in our fall, we are the second Adam, Christ, in our redemption. “All sinned in Adam”; “For me to live is Christ.” The most common alternative to “Man,” “Mankind,” is slightly less intense and encompassing in its force. To be of one “kind” is to be “kin,” and kinship is not as strong as identity. To be sure, John Donne says much when he says, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” But King James’s translators give us something still stronger when they invoke us all by asking God, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

In a recent book, an important if deeply flawed one, Mark Greif describes The Age of the Crisis of Man, that period in the mid-twentieth century in which every other writer seemed to be asking, simply and flatly, the first part of the Psalmist’s question: What is Man? It is an oversimplification, but a useful one, to say that Man was in crisis because the Christian account of us was in crisis, because people no longer believed that God is mindful of us or mindful of anything at all. (In one of Eiseley’s essays he meditates on the puzzle of “whether God is a mist or merely a mist-maker.”) In a strange paradox, as Samuel Moyn explains in a book that should be read in conjunction with Greif’s, the last efflorescence of the Christian view of Man was the creation of something called “human rights.” This is the cultural and philosophical context in which Eiseley writes. He strives to reimagine Man within a narrative not of creation/fall/redemption, but of unguided and fortuitous evolutionary development: thus his emphasis on his kinship with the Snout, and with all the creatures who are, as it were, our neighbors on the tree described by the mindless workings of natural selection. What, then, is Man? An evanescent evolutionary accident who knows that he is an evanescent evolutionary accident. This is the kinship that we share, the one story that our lives all share. It is Eiseley’s chosen task as a writer to make that story compelling and moving.

In All the Strange Hours Eiseley writes, “I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence. I see more faces watching, non-human faces. Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.” He was always aware of his temperamental affinity for writers — above all Sir Thomas Browne — whose motive power was their religious belief. “I have had the vague word ‘mystic’ applied to me,” he wrote in The Night Country (1971), “because I have not been able to shut out wonder occasionally, when I have looked at the world.” His inability to “shut out wonder” made him an object of suspicion to his academic colleagues, one of whom demanded that he “explain himself”: “words which sound for all the world like a humorless request for the self-accusations so popular in Communist lands.” Similarly, he records in his essay on the “two cultures” debate engendered by C. P. Snow — the best essay on that vexed dispute — that once, when took the risk of reading The Lord of the Rings in a public place,

a young scientist of my acquaintance paused and looked over my shoulder. After a little casual interchange the man departed leaving an accusing remark hovering in the air between us. ‘I wouldn’t waste my time with a man who writes fairy stories.’ He might as well have added, ‘or with a man who reads them.’

Some of professional suspicion was aroused simply by Eiseley’s lack of clear specialization: the range of his interests marked him as an old-fashioned naturalist of the Gilbert White and John Muir variety, one whose heart always goes out to a particular landscape. Eiseley learned in universities and taught in them, but they never shaped his fundamental outlook on life: that shaping was done by the wind blowing across prairie grasses and the sound of sparrow hawks crying out in the mountains, and he never for one moment forgot it.

But Eiseley’s lack of specialization, and his essential outdoorsiness, though problematic, were never as offensive as his propensity for wonderment. And that propensity has made Christians some of his best and most fervent readers. No one understood Eiseley better than the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote that Eiseley’s great theme is “Man the Quest Hero, the wanderer, the voyager, the seeker after adventure, knowledge, power, meaning, and righteousness…. The Quest is not of his own choosing — often, in weariness, he wishes he had never set out on it — but is enjoined upon him by his nature as a human being.” (I do not believe that Auden knew of Eiseley’s interest in Tolkien.) Auden’s shrewd commentary, in a long review of The Unexpected Universe (1969), rightly notes several of Eiseley’s most persistent traits: his melancholia; his preference for nonhuman company; his love for “the lost ones, the failures of the world” (Eiseley’s own words); and his prayerfulness. “He reveals himself as a man well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening.” And listening leads to wonder.

In 1910, when Eiseley was just three years old, Halley’s Comet streaked across the skies, and his father said something to him, while showing him the comet, then that became a powerful lifelong memory. He told the story more than once, but this is the version from his book The Invisible Pyramid (1970):

“If you live to be an old man,” he said carefully, fixing my eyes on the midnight spectacle, “you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years. Remember,” he whispered in my ear, “I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there” — he swept a hand toward the blue horizon of the plains — “it will turn back. It is running glittering through millions of miles.”

I discovered Eiseley’s writing when I was about fifteen years old, and that passage struck me with great force. I wondered what he would say when the comet returned. And so I was touched by a real grief when I learned that he was dead, in 1977, nine years before the comet’s return.

Such melancholy, grief, loss are intrinsic to Eiseley’s imagination. In what may be his most famous essay, “The Brown Wasps,” he recalls another moment with his father, when the two of them, at their small house in a small town in Nebraska, planted a cottonwood tree of which later he often dreamed.

I have said my life has been passed in the shade of a nonexistent tree…. It was planted sixty years ago by a boy with a bucket and a toy spade in a little Nebraska town. That boy was myself. It was a cottonwood sapling and the boy remembered it because of some words spoken by his father and because everyone died or moved away who was supposed to wait and grow old under its shade. The boy was passed from hand to hand, but the tree for some intangible reason had taken root in his mind. It was under its branches that he sheltered; it was from this tree that his memories, which are my memories, let away into the world.

The tree meant so much to him because as they planted it his father had said, “We’ll plant a tree here, son, and we’re not going to move any more, And when you’re an old, old man you can sit under it and think how we planted it here, you and me, together.” And decades later Eiseley returned to that house to find it wholly unchanged — but the tree was not there. No sign of it was there. “In sixty years the house and street had rotted out of my mind. But the tree, the tree that longer was, that had perished in its first season, bloomed on in my individual mind, unblemished as my father’s words.”

In Eiseley’s paleontological imagination his own life was but an eyeblink; and yet he was ever sustained and wounded, wounded and sustained, by all his memories of it. In that first and most famous book, The Immense Journey, he wrote, “We will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or to learn all that we hunger to know.” The tombstone of the grave in Pennsylvania that he shares with his wife Mabel features a line from his poem “The Little Treasures”: “We loved the earth but could not stay.”