Loren Eiseley, the Science Writer Our Planet Needs Now
Science is taking a beating these days. Take the crop of Republican presidential candidates, few of whom acknowledge that the theory of evolution might have some validity. Or vaccine “truthers” and their kooky, undead theories about flu shots and autism. Or climate-change deniers who remain unconvinced that 97 percent of the world’s working climatologists may be on to something when they report that human activity accounts, in part, for the inexorable warming of our blue planet.
What’s ironic, as well as frustrating, about the anti-science tenor of so much of our national dialogue is that we are living through something of a popular-science Golden Age. Beyond the countless apps, books, magazines, podcasts, documentaries, and TV shows dedicated to science, nature, and technology, a head-spinning number of excellent contemporary writers focus their talents on illuminating the marvels of our visible and invisible worlds. Natalie Angier, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Carl Zimmer, David Owen, Elizabeth Kolbert, David Quammen, the great E.O. Wilson, Rebecca Skloot, Brian Greene—the list goes on. Today’s best science writers are journalism’s rock stars, even if most of them still look like … well, like science writers.
But in the midst of this nerdy, curiosity-driven bonanza, one name rarely surfaces anymore when fans of popular science argue for their favorites. Mention Loren Eiseley to anyone under the age of, say, 50, and even if that person buys the latest in Tim Folger’s routinely superb Best American Science and Nature Writing series every fall; even if that person follows @NatGeoScience, @NYTScience and @NSFVoyager2; even if that person genuinely understands the difference between a solstice and an equinox—even then, chances are still quite good that Eiseley’s name will draw a blank. And that’s a shame. Because as captivating as today’s best-known science writers might be, no one has ever managed to make the pursuit of knowledge feel more soulful or more immediate than Loren Eiseley did in the essays and books he published in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
An anthropologist, teacher, and philosopher, Eiseley (1907-1977) is perhaps less known now than many of his science-driven peers mainly due to the unclassifiable nature of his writing. A strange, intoxicating brew of autobiography, unsentimental spiritual musings and striking, clear-eyed observations of nature, Eiseley’s very best work brings to mind Thoreau, Whitman, Robert Frost, John Muir, and other American seekers. A Nebraskan by birth, he wrote movingly of vast spaces—prairies, plateaus, the outer reaches of the galaxy and beyond—while limning the mystery of humanity’s place in an ultimately indifferent universe. Eiseley devotees, meanwhile, push his works—The Immense Journey; The Unexpected Universe; The Firmament of Time; The Star Thrower, a 1978 anthology of his work with a brilliant introduction by W.H. Auden—on the uninitiated with the quiet fervor of acolytes sharing the True Word. (My own introduction came about when I was in my mid-thirties and a friend mentioned Eiseley’s name in passing. Astonished that I’d never heard of the man—especially in light of my then-growing interest in science writing in general—my friend urged me to seek out anything of Eiseley’s I could get my hands on. The first title I found was The Star Thrower—calling it revelatory is hardly overstating the case—and I’ve been grateful for that recommendation ever since.)
For many of Eiseley’s readers—even those who have discovered him, or had him urged upon them, long after he died—the one book that best distills the man’s unique appeal remains his first collection of essays, The Immense Journey. Many others would follow that 1957 classic, but it was in the The Immense Journey (“An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature”) that Eiseley established the voice that would entice and challenge millions of readers, or we might rightly call them listeners, in the coming decades. By turns laconic and songlike, and infused with a kind of hard-won veneration—a scientist’s veneration—for the uncontrived power and complexity of wild landscapes, Eiseley’s writing throughout The Immense Journey was (and, a half-century later, still feels) utterly new:
Some lands are flat and grass-covered [he wrote in “The Slit,” the first essay in the book] and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time. Some are torn, ravaged and convulsed like the features of profane old age. Rocks are wrenched up and exposed to view; black pits receive the sun but give back no light.
It was to such a land I rode, but I rode to it across a sunlit, timeless prairie over which nothing passed but antelope or a wandering bird. On the verge where that prairie halted before a great wall of naked sandstone and clay, I came upon the Slit. A narrow crack worn by some descending torrent had begun secretly, far back in the prairie grass, and worked itself deeper and deeper into the fine sandstone that led by devious channels into the broken waste beyond. I rode back along the crack to a spot where I could descend into it, dismounted, and left my horse to graze.
He then finds, half-buried in the dirt walls of the Slit, the skull of some ancient, rodent-like creature, and his imagination flows. Over the course of the next thousand words or so, Eiseley travels—and effortlessly takes the reader with him—millions of years into the past, to “a remote age near the beginning of the reign of mammals.” He ruminates on evolution; on mass extinctions; on the fall of the dinosaurs and the rise of primates; on the peculiar beauty of High Plains sunlight. And, near the end of the essay, he characterizes what the reader will encounter in the rest of The Immense Journey as “a somewhat unconventional record of the prowlings of one mind which has sought to explore, to understand, and to enjoy the miracles of this world, both in and out of science. It is, without doubt, an inconsistent record in many ways, compounded of fear and hope, for it has grown out of the seasonal jottings of a man preoccupied with time. It involves… the four ancient elements of the Greeks: mud and the fire within it we call life, vast waters, and something—space, air, the intangible substance of hope … out of which the human dream is made.”
In such pieces Eiseley harkened back to the earliest American “environmentalists” (before there was even such a word) like Thoreau and Muir, while anticipating later American writers intensely attuned to nature: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, and so many more. And yet, for all that, Eiseley remains something of a genre unto himself. While a practicing scientist in his own right, he was also increasingly skeptical of science’s aims in the latter half of the 20th century, and wrote with a poet’s sensitivity about the limits of science in the face of the infinite intricacies of the natural world:
I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence [he wrote of his own intellectual journey in his autobiographical All the Strange Hours, with its wonderful, playful subtitle, “The Excavation of a Life"]. I see more faces watching, non-human faces. Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage. The origins of this hunger are as mysterious as the reasons why we, who are last year’s dust and rain, have risen from that dust to look about with the devised crystal of a raindrop before we subside once more into snow and whirling vapor. But, however that one autumn may still color my memory, life is complex; it changes, and my world was destined to change with it.”
One finds, in that single passage, several abiding themes of Eiseley’s writing: his fascination with the glacial pace of time; his affinity for solitude; his appreciation of the sere wonders of the wild; his endless questing. And beneath it all, a sober recognition that all of this—the Earth and everything and everyone upon it—is passing away. What lends Eiseley’s vision its sublime aspect is that he finds a terrible beauty in impermanence. Whether shaped by an appreciation of evolutionary theory or by a sense of our individual and collective mortality, our relationship with the natural world, Eiseley’s writings suggest, should be defined by humility and wonder, rather than by the self-destructive urge for dominion.
It would, of course, be painfully naïve to believe that if he were alive and writing today, Eiseley’s muted, thoughtful voice would somehow cut through the bloviating that passes for debate around the pressing issues of our time. But for any reader needing respite from the bombast, one could do far worse than seeking out—or, in some cases, revisiting—the work of the one and only Loren Eiseley. His was an immense journey, indeed.