Thursday, September 3, 2009

Loren Eiseley: Sept 3, 1907--July 9, 1977

Loren Eiseley: anthropologist, poet, essayist, teacher, philosopher, scientist, humanist.

Back in the early '60s, I subscribed to Time Magazine. One issue had an advertisement for The Time Reading Program. The notice included a brief paragraph from a work by a writer I had never heard of--Loren Eiseley. I read the paragraph, and I was hooked. I had to read more by one who could put words together as he does in that brief quote. In this one brief paragraph he combined physiology, art, and evolution. And, he made the point that evolution has not stopped. I immediately joined the book club and never regretted it. The TRP had many books which I enjoyed and learned from, but this is the one book I always think of. I now have ten works by Loren Eiseley.

This quote is the one that hooked me. It comes from his first book The Immense Journey and is part of the essay "The Snout."

"Wherever, instead, the thin sheets of gray matter expand upward into the enormous hemispheres of the human brain, laughter, or it may be sorrow, enters in. Out of the choked Devonian waters emerged sight and sound and the music that rolls invisible through the composer's brain. They are there still in the ooze along the tideline, though no one notices. The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."

This is from another essay, "The Flow of the River," also from the same work. Eiseley has been walking for many hours and has come to the Platte River in Nebraska, which stretches from the Rockies to the Missouri and then to the Gulf of Mexico. He is hot and dry and dusty. The River is cold yet inviting and only a few inches deep in most places, but still there are dangerous holes and quicksands. He is alone and he can't swim and he is afraid of water as the result of a childhood incident. Yet, the sight of the river stirs him "with a new idea. I was going to float."

"I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.

I drifted by stranded timber cut by beaver in mountain fastnesses; I slid over shallows that had buried the broken axles of prairie schooners and the mired bones of mammoth. I was streaming alive through the hot and working ferment of the sun, or oozing secretively through shady thickets. I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water, the slimy jellies that under the enormous magnification of the sun writhe and whip upward as great barbeled fish mouths, or sink indistinctly back into the murk out of which they arose. Turtle and fish and the pinpoint chirpings of individual frogs are all watery projections, concentrations--as man himself is a concentration--of that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time. It has appearances, but at its heart lies water, and as I was finally edged gently against a sand bar and dropped like any log, I tottered as I arose. I knew once more the body's revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine tenths of everything alive."

There is more, so much more.

The Loren Eiseley Society

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