The universe and the meaning of life in the words of a scientist-poet

Greg Cusack
Like the late Carl Sagan, Loren Eiseley had the great gift of being able to express his thoughts in language that not only made his field of study more accessible to the rest of us
Greg Cusack

Like the late Carl Sagan, Loren Eiseley had the great gift of being able to express his thoughts in language that not only made his field of study more accessible to the rest of us, but to also do so in words that soared into the realm of poetic beauty.

In his remarkable autobiography — “All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life” — he relates his ascent from a childhood of poverty and loneliness — his mother was a victim of a profound mental illness that separated wife from husband and mother from son — through a young adulthood of struggles, including being judged unteachable in school and various wanderings around the United States by riding the rails during the Depression, to finding his love of nature and language.

Eiseley peers into — and thinks about — the deep; the depths of time and space, and the immense distances between the stars and within human hearts; the challenge of bridging eons with that of understanding and mastering ourselves.

Repeatedly, one comes upon a burst of prose that just explodes with a breath-taking expression, a vision of what we usually describe in the most ordinary terms, as in mankind pursuing “... the towering cloudland of his dreams.”

As this quote reveals, Eiseley, who died in 1977, lived before more gender-neutral terminology came into standard use. Even though such can occasionally jar a modern reader, Eiseley was but using the language of his time, one which now seems so very long ago.

Eiseley is a wonderful companion for our own troubled, often sordid, times. His eloquent phrases, so redolent of nature and the mysteries of life, offer the equivalent of a refreshing breeze or a cleansing shower. He is proof that we are capable of thinking and speaking like this! Unlike the club-bearing, guttural utterances of our pathetic “leaders” today, Eiseley wields words with both a poet’s and a surgeon’s precision.

With him, you will venture deep into the storied past of our lovely and truly ancient planet. By staring into the vacant eyes of a long-buried skull, he will bring you face to face with the once-living creature and describe it and its environment in loving, wondrous detail.

Or you will find yourself catapulted into the star-field of galaxies that are themselves remnants of earlier beginnings. It is in these multiple immensities — of time, distance, and memory — that Eiseley consistently roams. His thoughts, really meditations, can sometimes veer sharply from one subject to another, but always with clear connectivity.

Always, his ultimate quest returns to humankind — this mysterious form of life that is miraculous and may be unique. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he often seems to be holding a skull — our skull — and saying, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Except Eiseley would add, not really that well at all.

It is not just the natural world and the forbidding reaches of the cosmos we little understand but, as our jealousies and wars reveal, it is also ourselves.

For Eiseley, we are the creatures who emerged from the long-ago muck, through a long line of evolving life-forms, and who are poised between heaven and earth, living all too brief lives and often pursuing the most ridiculous of things. He urges us — in his language, in his art, in his work — to listen to the music of the spheres, read the writing etched on our hearts and understand the longing of our souls if we would truly become the humans we could be.

After all, he reminds us, our time on this planet is really (in the geographic sense) short. Many, many creatures flourished far longer. We have no guarantee that we will continue. It is almost certain that ­— unless we learn to read our hearts and minds anew ­— that we will not.

(The Library of America recently offered a superb two-volume collection of Eiseley’s major works entitled Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos that I highly recommend, as I suspect that most people, once they have begun reading him, will be loath to stop at just one book. However, there are still a good number of his single volumes in circulation, too, both in hardbound and paperback versions.)

The author is a retired statesman from Iowa.

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