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.