Loren Eiseley once likened the brain of a writer to an attic that stores pictures from the past—pictures that are later recalled and woven into story. Many of Eiseley’s stories in the books that won him international fame originated with experience he laid away in his early years in Nebraska. Now, more than ever, his message about humankind’s relationship to the environment is relevant in light of global warming, pollution, population growth, and resource depletion. Eiseley may even prove to be a modern shaman as he calls for us to remember our roots and seek our “sacred center” in nature.
Born in 1907, Eiseley’s childhood was spent exploring the streets and storm sewers of Lincoln and the prairie grasses and wildflowers of the surrounding countryside. He studied anthropology and paleontology at the University of Nebraska, wrote for the Prairie Schooner and hunted for bones in the Wildcat Hills with the State Museum’s South Party. He would go on to hold faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania, write 16 books, and receive more than 35 honorary degrees and awards before his death in 1977. But his Nebraska years were a well upon which he drew for his literary works.
“I… was born on the Great Plains and was drawn almost mesmerically into its rougher margins, the Wild Cat Hills and the Badlands, where bone hunting was a way of life. …To me, time was never a textbook abstraction. Its remnants lay openly about me in arroyos, the teetering, eroded pinnacles of Toadstool Park, or farther North in the dinosaur beds of Wyoming. Finally, through some strange mental osmosis these extinct fragmented creatures merged with and became part of my own identity” (The Invisible Pyramid).
The son of a “Willie Lohman” salesman and an untaught prairie artist who was deaf, Eiseley grew up in modest economic circumstances in the Lincoln area. His parents’ marriage was unhappy; Eiseley best communicated with his mother through hand signals, lip movements and thumping on the floor to create vibrations. The frame house on Lincoln’s South Street had an earthen cellar and the parlor was dark to keep out the intrusions of the outside world. Eiseley later described it as a “house of gestures.” He notes: “We never had visitors, no minister ever called on us; so the curtains were never raised. We were, in a sense, social outcasts. We were not bad people. …We were simply shunned as unimportant and odd” (The Night Country).
As a child, Eiseley gradually withdrew into a world of nature and books, reading authors such as Jack London and accompanying his uncle on trips to the State Museum. He enrolled in the University of Nebraska, although health problems and his own wanderings interrupted his education. His restlessness led him to ride the rails in the West for a year. Eiseley returned to Lincoln in 1930, realizing he would have to finish his education soon or not at all. That fall, he befriended a Nebraska student from Red Cloud, Bertrand Shultz. They formed a lifelong friendship as they discovered a mutual interest in geological history and anthropology. Eiseley also sought to learn more about paleontology, the study of ancient life through fossils. Dr. Edwin Barbour, the director of the University’s State Museum, found funding to allow Eiseley to join the museum’s South Party on field expeditions to western Nebraska for three consecutive summers. Bone hunting provided an escape and release from the confinements of home, creating a time and place of his own. “I am every man and no man, and will be so to the end,” he would later write in his autobiography, All the Strange Hours.
In the summer of 1933, Eiseley’s last season with the South Party, the remains of a 20-million-year-old Miocene cat, whose fang is locked in the leg of another cat, were found. In his poem “The Innocent Assassins,” Eiseley looks upon the fossil of the cats engaged in combat, wondering why “such perfect fury had been swept away, while man / wide-roaming dark assassin of his kind / had sprung up in the wake / of such perfected instruments as these.” He sees man on the hilltop posed like the saber-toothed cats; all will be later found in the “cellars of dead time.” Eiseley is known for his ability to portray the long, slow passage of time and the meaning of the past in the present. His works are complex and rich with metaphor. It is perhaps ironic that his legacy is cause for tribute, since he realized the futility of legacy. In the opening chapter of The Immense Journey, he comes upon a skull embedded in the sandstone that was about ten million years old.
The skull lay tilted in such a manner that it stared, sightless, up at me as though I, too, were already caught a few feet above him in the strata and, in my turn, were staring upward at that strip of sky which the ages were carrying farther and farther away from me beneath the tumbling debris of falling mountains. The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was I never going to see? (The Immense Journey)
The Immense Journey, published in 1957, is his most widely read collection of essays, although many consider his autobiography, All the Strange Hours, to be his literary masterpiece. Today Eiseley’s work is receiving renewed attention in the new, emerging field of ecocriticism, the study of the relationship between literature and the natural environment. Ecocritical scholars are studying Eiseley in the context of other environmental/scientific writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rachel Carson, John Muir, and Stephen Jay Gould. Noted ecocritical scholar Dr. Scott Slovic has become a kind of “global ambassador” for ecocriticism and is a devoted Eiseley reader, teacher, and scholar. He and other scholars are also studying Eiseley’s relevance and prescience in light of 21st-century environmental conditions. In The Invisible Pyramid, Eiseley reminds us that “the dreams, skills and understanding of people have catapulted us into space, while at the same time we have polluted and endangered our existence on earth.”
Original version published in the August 2007 issue of Prairie Fire. Links to Prairie Fire may be broken due to a change in web hosting.