LOREN EISELEY was one of the preeminent literary naturalists of the twentieth century. "There has never been another writer like him," wrote a reviewer for the Library of Science, "and there never will be". Eiseley's hauntingly beautiful, often brooding essays cast a revealing light on that most paradoxical, many-visaged of enigmas: man. Wandering like a modern Odysseus across prairie badlands and along fogbound coasts, Eiseley pondered the great ethical issues of our age -- humanity's technological hubris, the silence that follows the dying of any species, man's denial of compassion to his creaturely kin. Few lines in literature compare with Eiseley's poignant description of the aerial reunion of a captive hawk with its mate ("The Bird and the Machine"), or the forlorn gaze of a strange girl trapped out of time on a remote prairie escarpment ("The Last Neanderthal"), or his joyful, undignified romp with a young fox that had yet to learn life's most crucial lesson -- fear ("The Innocent Fox"). But always it was the question of how man might be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it, that preoccupied his writing and gave a certain urgency to his message.
LOREN COREY EISELEY. Evolutionary biologist, anthropologist, bone hunter, poet, teacher, hobo, historian, naturalist, philosopher, "the heir apparent to Henry David Thoreau" (The Philadelphia Inquirer).
Born September 3, 1907 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Obtained B.S. at age 26 at the University of Nebraska after nearly a decade as a Depression era drifter. Awarded Ph.D. in anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, in 1937. Began teaching career at University of Kansas in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology that same year. Married MABEL LANGDON in 1938. Accepted post at Oberlin College, Ohio in 1944, where he became head of the Department of Anthropology. Became head of the Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, in 1947. Elected president of the American Institute of Human Paleontology in 1949. The Immense Journey, his first book, published by Random House in 1957.Darwin's Century awarded Phi Beta Kappa prize for best book in science, 1958. Awarded the John Burroughs Medal and the LeComte du Nouy Award in 1961 for The Firmament of Time. Appointed Provost, University of Pennsylvania, 1959-1961, after which he was named Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science. During 1969-1977 he published several volumes of personal essays and poetry including The Invisible Pyramid, The Unexpected Universe, The Night Country, Notes of an Alchemist, The Star Thrower, and Another Kind of Autumn. Elected in 1971 to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a singular achievement among scientists. His autobiography, All The Strange Hours, arguably his finest work, was published in 1975.
Loren Eiseley died on July 9, 1977. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (1979), All the Night Wings (1979), and The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley (Kenneth Heuer, ed.) (1987) were published posthumously. Mabel Eiseley followed on July 27, 1986 and was buried beside her husband in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Their rough-hewn headstone, overarched by the branches of a great horse chestnut tree, bears a single line from his poem The Little Treasures:
We Loved The Earth But Could Not Stay
Man the Changeling
Fox masks, wolf masks, I try them on ... The Changelings (poem) in Notes of an Alchemist
I have never entered a wood but what I hear footsteps in the leaves tiptoeing away ... The Lost Notebooks
While driving along a dark road Eiseley perceives something racing in the woods beside his car ... "It was not an animal; it was a gliding, leaping mythology. I felt the skin crawl on the back of my neck, for this was still the forest of the windigo....I was lost, but I understood the forest. The blood that ran in me was not urban. I almost said not human." The Unexpected Universe
I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light. The Firmament of Time
The creature called man has a strange history. He is not of one piece, nor was he born of a single moment in time. His elementary substance is stardust almost as old as the universe. The Lost Notebooks.
The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds. The Immense Journey
Written deep in the human subconscious is a simple terror of what has come with us from the forest and sometimes haunts our dreams. The Invisible Pyramid
To the day of our deaths we exist in an inner solitude that is linked to the nature of life itself. Even as we project an affection upon others we endure a loneliness which is the price of all individual consciousness -- the price of living. The Invisible Pyramid
There is nothing more alone in the universe than man. He is alone because he has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates. The Star Thrower.
Man is many things -- he is protean, elusive, capable of great good and appalling evil. He is what he is -- a reservoir of indeterminism. He represents the genuine triumph of volition, life's near evasion of the forces that have molded it. Darwin's Century
I am not nearly so interested in what monkey man was derived from as I am in what kind of monkey he is to become. The Lost Notebooks
In three billion years of slow change and groping effort only one living creature has succeeded in escaping the trap of specialization that has led in time to so much death and wasted endeavor. It is man, but the word should be uttered softly, for his story is not yet done. The Unexpected Universe
Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings meanings felt even in the wood, where the trees leaned over him, manifesting a vast and living presence. The image in the pool vanished at the touch of his finger, but he went home and created a legend. The Innocent Fox
... man in contemplation reveals something that is characteristic of no other form of life known to us: he suffers because of what he is, and wishes to become something else. The moment we cease to hunger to be otherwise our soul is dead. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X
I am a man who regrets the loss of his fur and his tail. The Lost Notebooks.
The Asphalt Animal Man's Estrangement from Nature
(Man) must make, by way of his cultural world, an actual conscious reentry into the sunflower forest he had thought to merely exploit or abandon. He must do this in order to survive. The Invisible Pyramid
If I term humanity a slime mold organism it is because our present environment suggests it. If I remember the sunflower forest it is because from its hidden reaches man arose. The green world is his sacred center. In moments of sanity he must still seek refuge there. The Invisible Pyramid
We (humans) see ourselves as the culmination and the end, and if we do indeed consider our passing, we think that sunlight will go with us and the Earth will be dark. We think we are the end. For us, continents rose and fell, for us the waters and air were mastered, for us the great living web has pulsated and grown more intricate. The Incredible Journey
In some of us a child -- lost, strayed off the beaten path -- goes wandering to the end of time while we, in another garb, grow up, marry or seduce, have children, hold jobs, or sit in movies, and refuse to answer our mail. Or, by contrast, we haunt our mailboxes, impelled by some strange anticipation of a message that will never come. The Night Country
Man is always marveling at what he has blown apart, never what the universe has put together, and this is his limitation. The Lost Notebooks
Man is many things -- he is protean, elusive, capable of great good and appalling evil. He is what he is -- a reservoir of indeterminism. He represents the genuine triumph of volition, life's near evasion of the forces that have molded it. Darwin's Century
Man would kill for shadowy ideas more ferociously than other creatures kill for food, then, in a generation or less, forget what bloody dream had so oppressed him. The Star Thrower.
In reality every living thing is writhing from one shape into another in the way that we might witness the growth of a tropical forest in a speeded up motion picture. Our long-assumed stability is only the illusion produced by the tempo at which we live. Darwin's Century
Beginning on some winter night the snow will fall steadily for a thousand years and hush in its falling the spore cities whose seed has flown. The delicate traceries of the frost will slowly dim the glass in observatories and all will be as it had been before the virus wakened. The long trail of Halley's comet, once more returning will pass like a ghostly matchflame over the unwatched grave of the cities. This has always been their end, whether in the snow or in the sand. The Invisible Pyramid
What persists in my mind is an utter distrust of the longevity of civilization. The Lost Notebooks
Eiseley reflects on the desperate return of the crippled Apollo 13 -- "A love for Earth, almost forgotten in man's roving mind, had momentarily reasserted its mastery, a love for the green meadows we have so long taken for granted and desecrated to our cost. Man was born and took shape among Earth's leafy shadows. The most poignant thing the astronauts had revealed in their extremity was the nostalgic call still faintly ringing on the winds from the sunflower forest." The Invisible Pyramid
You think you've lost your fur and your tail for a purpose spelled with a capital P and sold to you in some book that explains how everything was just a prelude until you came. If you do, you're happy I take it, and you'd be better off not to be following me or this crab or lifting up stones and looking under them. The Lost Notebooks
The Attack on Nature
Eiseley ponders modern global warfare -- "All else gives way before the technician and the computer specialist running his estimates as to how many deaths it takes, and in how many minutes, before the surviving fragment of a nation if any sues for peace. Nor, in the scores of books analyzing these facts, is it easy to find a word spared to indicate concern for the falling sparrow, the ruined forest, the contaminated spring all, in short, that still spells to man a life in nature." The Lethal Factor
Is man at heart any different from the spider, I wonder: man thoughts, as limited as spider thoughts, contemplating now the nearest star with the threat of bringing with him the fungus rot from earth, wars, violence, the burden of overpopulation he refuses to control, cherishing again the dream of the Adamic Eden he had pursued and lost in the green forests of America. The Hidden Teacher
(Man's) courage was unbreakable, but in society there was mounting evidence of strain. Billions of dollars were being devoured in the space effort, while at the same time an affluent civilization was consuming its resources at an ever-increasing rate. Air and water and the land itself were being polluted by the activities of a creature grown used to the careless ravage of a continent. The World Eaters
... the world was man's niche. All else would live by his toleration -- even the earth from which he sprang. Perhaps this is the hardest, most expensive lesson the layers of the fungus brain have yet to learn: that man is not as other creatures and that without the sense of the holy, without compassion, his brain can become a gray stalking horror -- the deviser of Belsen. Science and the Sense of the Holy
On Compassion (or the lack of, sadly)
Reflections upon a dog seen running to catch up to a train car Eiseley had boarded during his hobo days in the '30's -- "Let men beat men, if they will, but why do they have to beat and starve small things? Why? -- why? I will never forget that dog's eyes, nor the eyes of every starved mongrel I have fed from Curacao to Cuernavaca. Nor the drowning one I once fished out of an irrigation ditch in California, only to see him limp away with his ribs showing as mine once showed in that cabin long ago in Manitou. This is why I am a wanderer forever in the streets of men, a wanderer in mind, and, in these matters, a creature of desperate impulse." All the Strange Hours
I am middle-aged now, and like the Egyptian heads of buried stone, or like the gentle ones who came before me, I am resigned to wait out man's lingering barbarity. The Star Thrower
Upon watching a hunter-wounded duck die in seawaves -- "This is the way wild things die, without question, without knowledge of mercy in the universe, knowing only themselves and their own pathway to the end. I wonder, walking further up the beach, if the man who shot the bird will die as well." The Night Country
No, it is not because I am filled with obscure guilt that I step gently over, and not upon, an autumn cricket. It is not because of guilt that I refuse to shoot the last osprey from her nest in the tide marsh. I posses empathy; I have grown with man in his mind's growing. I share that sympathy and compassion which extends beyond the barriers of class and race and form until it partakes of the universal whole. I am not ashamed to profess this emotion, nor will I call it a pathology. Only through this experience many times repeated and enhanced does man become truly human. Only then will his gun arm be forever lowered. The Lost Notebooks
Above all, some of them, a mere handful in any generation perhaps, loved they loved the animals about them, the song of the wind, the soft voices of women. On the flat surfaces of cave walls the three dimensions of the outside world took animal shape and form. Here not with the ax, not with the bow man fumbled at the door of his true kingdom. Here, hidden in times of trouble behind silent brows, against the man with the flint, waited St. Francis of the birds the lovers, the men who are still forced to walk warily among their kind. The Unexpected Universe.
The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge. The Lost Notebooks
The March of the Machines Science & Technology
Modern man, the world eater, respects no space and no thing green or furred as sacred. The march of the machines has entered his blood. The Invisible Pyramid
For if inventions of power outrun understanding, as they now threaten to do, man may well sink into a night more abysmal than any he has yet experienced. The Invisible Pyramid
. . . there exists a new class of highly skilled barbarians, the technologists -- not representative of the very great in science -- who would confine man entirely to this diet. The Night Country
The technology which, in our culture, has released urban and even rural man from the quiet of his hearth log has debauched his taste. Man no longer dreams over a book in which a soft voice, a constant companion, observes, exhorts, or sighs with him through the pangs of youth and age. Today he is more likely to sit before a screen and dream the mass dream which comes from outside. The Invisible Pyramid
Eiseley reflects on reports of intelligent machines and a hawk he'd once released from captivity to a reunion with its mate in the prairie sky "On the other hand..." Ah, my mind takes up, on the other hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off, over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing sound among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away. The Bird and the Machine
As our knowledge of the genetic mechanism increases, ours ears are bombarded with ingenious accounts of how we are to control, henceforth, our own evolution. We who have recourse only to a past which we misread and which has made us cynics would now venture to produce our own future. Again I judge this self-esteem as a symptom of our time, our powerful misused technology, our desire not to seek the good life but to produce a painless mechnical version of it -- our willingness to be good if goodness can, in short, be swallowed in a pill. The Night Country
Pointing the Way to a Natural Esthetics
But I have pondered and not understood earth that endures spoiled cities in preference to white deserts and stars. The Lost Notebooks
I mean to reflect on the life that is here and about In the fall of the leaves -- not on the dying leaf. from Winter Sign
We do not like mists in this era, and the word imagination is less and less used. The Star Thrower
The hawk wheels by, wheels by While all, mouse, serpent, men Leap once in that fierce eye, Fall, and are lost again. The Hawk (poem) in The Lost Notebooks
Eiseley on a sunflower found growing on the roof of a railroad boxcar: "Throughout the summer I had watched it grow but never troubled it. Now it lingered and bowed a trifle toward me as the winds began to touch it. A light not quite the sunlight of this earth was touching the flower, or perhaps it was the watering of my aging eye who knows? The plant would not long survive its journey but the flower seeds were autumn-brown. At every jolt for miles they would drop along the embankment. They were travelers travelers like Ishmael and myself, outlasting all fierce pursuits and destined to reemerge into future autumns. Like Ishmael, I thought, they will speak with the voice of the one true agent: 'I only am escaped to tell thee'." The Star Thrower
In the fell fields where elfin timber grows above tree limits and the world is dwarfed, where every thousand year old pine is crouched behind huge boulders like a rifleman hunched to the earth, where even leaves must hide against the wind that screams on naked granite, this is where one comes to be alone; not just alone, to feel what life is like when one must cringe to live. Timberline (poem) in The Innocent Assassins
It is the natural history that led Hudson to glimpse eternity in some old men's faces at Land's End, that led Thoreau to see human civilizations as toadstools sprung up in the night by solitary roads, or that provoked Melville to experience in the sight of a sperm whale some colossal alien existence without which man himself would be incomplete. The Man Who Saw Through Time
Eiseley has played with a young fox he encountered on a stroll -- "For just a moment I held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society." The Innocent Fox
Lines from unpublished ms. The Snow Wolf ". . . The great white wolf howled until her ululations echoed against the stars. She waited, but there was no response from the ravine, from thicket, from the far-off mountains. Her mate tried in his turn to break the silence and intuitively to awake the pack. There was still silence for the simple reason there was no pack to answer. There could have been no answer below the arctic. They could not know but a vast loneliness had begun to descend upon them the loneliness of a dying species. The Ice Age had ended. No, not quite, for the white cub with the big feet toddled on beside his mother. When she slept, he would sleep. He would never know he was a floating ghost from the past. Only the shadows and the moonlight knew and embraced him, knew they would do so to the end." The Lost Notebooks
To tell the story of a life one is bound to linger above gravestones where memory blurs and doors can be pushed ajar, but never opened. Listen, or do not listen, it is all the same. All the Strange Hours
I was born when father was forty, of a marriage that had never been happy. I was loved, but I was also a changeling, an autumn child surrounded by falling leaves. All the Strange Hours
Eiseley's last words with his mother -- "I shook my head wordlessly and turned away, raising my hand in a combined gesture of despair and farewell. The last I saw was the blue vein creeping down her arm as she repeated in a voice that seemed to emanate from another dimension, "I'm old, I think I'm old." All the Strange Hours
Some men are daylight readers, who peruse the ambiguous wording of clouds or the individual letter shapes of wandering birds. Some, like myself, are librarians of the night, whose ephemeral documents consist of root-inscribed bones or whatever rustles in thickets upon solitary walks. The Innocent Fox
... somewhere in the remote darkness I could sense Halley's comet turning on its long ellipse. Hurry, I half formed the words. Hurry, or I will not be here. I did not know why I said it. Yes, I did. I wanted to return to that bare world of 1910, held in my father's arms -- lay back and vanish. Pa, I said. There was no sound from the dark. The Lost Notebooks
Upon his death, Eiseley's father had little to leave his son; notable was an old copy of Shakespeare's poems. About his father Eiseley remarks "I will merely say he had a great genius for love and that his luck was very bad. He was not fitted for life under the yellow cloud (Nebraska). He knew it, yet played out his role there to the end. So poor were we it took me twenty years to put a monument upon his grave". The Night Country
I am every man and no man, and will be so to the end. This is why I must tell the story as I may. Not for the nameless name upon the page, not for the trails behind me that faded or led nowhere, not for the rooms at nightfall where I slept from exhaustion or did not sleep at all, not for the confusion of where I was to go, or if I had a destiny recognizable by any star. No, in retrospect it was the loneliness of not knowing, not knowing at all. All the Strange Hours
. . . the teacher is the sculptor of the intangible future. There is no more dangerous occupation on the planet, for what we conceive as our masterpiece may appear out of time to mock us -- a horrible caricature of ourselves. The Night Country
Skins may still prickle in a modern classroom. The Star Thrower
A society whose youth believe only in the Now is deceiving itself: A now that is truly Now has no future. It denies Man's basic and oldest characteristic, that he is a creation of memory, a bridge into the future, a time binder. Without that recognition of continuity, love and understanding between the generations is impossible. A true Now standing all by itself is the face of Death. The Lost Notebooks
The teacher occupies a particularly anomalous and exposed position in a society subject to rapid change or threatened by exterior enemies. Society is never totally sure of what it wants of its educators. The Night Country
Schoolrooms are not and should not be the place where man learns only scientific techniques. They are the place where selfhood, what has been called "the supreme instrument of knowledge" is created. Only such deep inner knowledge truly expands horizons and makes use of technology, not for power, but for human happiness. As the capacity for self-awareness is intensified, so will return that sense of personal responsibility which has been well-nigh lost in the eager aggrandizement of the asphalt man. The Firmament of Time
The teacher is genuinely the creator of humanity, the molder of its most precious possession, the mind. There should be no greater honor given by society than permission to teach, just as there can be no greater disaster than to fail at the task. The Lost Notebooks
(The teacher) must teach men not alone to dream, but to dream so substantially that they will never in after years capitulate through the demands of a passing and ephemeral materialism. The Lost Notebooks.
The educator can be the withholder as well as the giver of life. The Night Country
It has ever been my lot, though formally myself a teacher, to be taught surely by none. There are times when I have thought to read lessons in the sky, or in books, or from the behavior of my fellows, but in the end my perceptions have been frequently inadequate or betrayed. Nevertheless, I venture to say that of what man may be I have caught a fugitive glimpse, not among multitudes of men, but along an endless wave-beaten coast at dawn. The Star Thrower.
By Loren Eiseley (Major Literary Works)
- The Immense Journey. New York: Random House, 1957
- Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. New York: Doubleday, 1958
- The Firmament of Time. New York: Atheneum, 1960.
- Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
- The Unexpected Universe. New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1969.
- The Brown Wasps: A Collection of Three Essays in Autobiography. Mount Horeb: Perishable Press, 1969.
- The Invisible Pyramid. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
- The Night Country. New York: Scribner's, 1971.
- Notes of an Alchemist (poems). New York: Scribner's, 1972.
- The Man Who Saw Through Time. New York: Scribner's, 1973.
- The Innocent Assassins (poems). New York: Scribner's, 1973.
- Another Kind of Autumn (poems). New York: Scribner's, 1977.
- The Star Thrower. Kenneth Heuer (ed.). New York: Quadrangle, 1978.
- All the Night Wings (poems). New York: Times Books, 1979.
- Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X. Ed. Kenneth Heuer. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979.
About Loren Eiseley (Selected)
- A Boy, A Bird, and a Book. A touching remembrance of Loren Eiseley by Bill Wisner, Audubon, May, 1989
- Concerning the Unpredictable. W. H. Auden. The New Yorker,21 Feb., 1970.
- Fox at the Wood's Edge: A Biography of Loren Eiseley. Gale E. Christianson. H. Holt Brown, 1990
- Loren Eiseley. Andrew J. Angyal. Twayne Publishers, 1983
- Loren Eiseley. Gerber, Leslie E. and Margaret McFadden. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983 (contains an exhaustive Eiseley bibliography)
- The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley. Kenneth Heuer (ed.). Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1987
- Loren Eiseley: A Modern Ishmael. Peter Heidtmann. Archon Books, 1991
- Searching for Loren Eiseley: An Attempt at Reconstruction from a Few Fragments. Gene V. Glass, Arizona State Univ., Tempe, 1998
- Loren Eiseley: Excavating the Self. Vivian Gornick, The American Scholar, Winter, 1999 (in Encyclopedia Britannica's website)
Many of Loren Eiseley's essays lend themselves well to the modern classroom. A few curriculum guides are offered by The Loren Eiseley Society. If you have developed lesson plans for any of Eiseley's essays and wish to share them, you may inquire about posting them there.
Maddie's Neck, Virginia
Greetings from Virginias beautiful Eastern Shore. I hope things are well in your part of the world. This site is solely for educational purposes without so much as an iota of commercial intent. For those who require political correctness, know ye that "man" as used herein refers to all things bipedal with 46 chromosomes, rarely more, never less. All images are public domain, or believed to be so. If not, then mea culpa, I am sorry. I will correct the error.Charles M. Haynes
For Christopher. And for my students.