Seen From Above

Poet and Naturalist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

It is a well-known fact that there are probably half a dozen writers that you have been urging your friends to read … with no success. My own personal failure in this regard is with the works of Loren Eiseley. Perhaps as a scientist, he is a little too out of date; but the fact that he is also a poet makes everything I have read by him almost numinous. Here, for example, is a poem called “The Condor”:

The Condor

The great bird moves its feathers on the air
like fingers playing on an instrument,
the instrument of wind; it climbs and scarcely moves
while steady thermals push
its giant wings still higher till it soars
beyond my sight completely, though it peers
through strange red eyes
upon my face below.
Its kind is dying from the earth; its wings
create a foolish envy among men.
Its shadow knew the mammoth and he passed,
floated above the sabertooth, now gone,
saw the first spearmen on the bison’s track,
banked sharply, went its way alone.
Its eyes are larger than its searching brain;
the creature sees like a satellite,
but exists within
an ice-world now dead. This bird cannot
understand rifles, multiply its eggs,
one hidden on a cliff face all it has.
Its shadow is now passing from the earth
just as the mammoth’s shadow at high noon.
Something has gone with each of them, the sky
is out of balance with the tipping poles.
No huge, tusked beast is marching with the ice,
no aerial shadow tracks the passing years.
Only below the haze grows deeper still,
only the buildings edge up through the murk.
Planes fly, and sometimes crash, but no black wing will write
the end of man, as man’s end should be written
by all the condor wings beneath high heaven.

I have seen Andean condors in Peru at Colca Canyon. They were rising and falling in the thermals hundreds of feet at a time.

Serendipity: A Re-Discovery

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Have you ever laid something precious aside and, years later, suddenly be reminded of it? Then, going back to it, you find it was not only as good as you ever thought it was, but even better.The last book I read by Loren Eiseley was The Man Who Saw Through Time, about Sir Francis Bacon, back in 1990. Then I saw a blog by Fred Runk, whose perceptive comments you may have encountered in this space, quoting and commenting on a poem by Eiseley. It seemed as if a vortex formed around my head, in which I saw the waste of nearly a quarter century without once having encountered one of my favorite writers. I am making up for lost time by reading The Star Thrower, his last book, with essays on nature and science and a few of his early poems.

There is something small and humble about Eiseley as he examines nature and our place in it. Survival of the fittest?

A major portion of the world’s story appears to be that of fumbling little creatures of seemingly no great potential, falling, like the helpless little girl Alice, down a rabbit hole or an unexpected crevice into some new topsy-turvy realm…. The first land-walking fish was, by modern standards, an ungainly and inefficient invertebrate. Figuratively, he was a water failure who had managed to climb ashore on a continent where no vertebrates existed. In a time of crisis he had escaped his enemies…. The wet fish gasping in the harsh air on the shore, the warm-blooded mammal roving unchecked through the torpor of the reptilian night, the lizard-bird launching into a moment of ill-aimed flight, shatter all purely competitive assumptions. hese singular events reveal escapes through the living screen, penetrated, one would have to say in retrospect, by the ‘overspecialized’ and the seemingly ‘inefficient,’ the creatures driven to the wall.

In another essay, he talks about how life on our planet would have failed if it weren’t for the birth of flowers and everything that came in their train. At another time, we see him playing with an unafraid young fox with a pile of bones and selecting one and handing it to him. In yet another essay, we see him watching while an unusual squirrel manages to climb a post that had a wrap-around funnel protecting the food left for birds.

This is not BIG nature. It is all little nature with a lot of very BIG implications. Eiseley is a wonderful essayist and poet, deserving not only of scientific fame, but literary fame as well. It is no accident that the Introduction to The Star Thrower was written by an admirer named W. H. Auden.

In future, I will write more about Eiseley. Having rediscovered him, I cannot let him down.