The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:42 pm

The Dance of the Frogs


He was a member of the Explorers Club, and he had never been outside the state of Pennsylvania. Some of us who were world travelers used to smile a little about that, even though we knew his scientific reputation had been, at one time, great. It is always the way of youth to smile. I used to think of myself as something of an adventurer, but the time came when I realized that old Albert Dreyer, huddling with his drink in the shadows close to the fire, had journeyed farther into the Country of Terror than any of us would ever go, God willing, and emerge alive.

He was a morose and aging man, without family and without intimates. His membership in the club dated back into the decades when he was a zoologist famous for his remarkable experiments upon amphibians -- he had recovered and actually produced the adult stage of the Mexican axolotl, as well as achieving remarkable tissue transplants in salamanders. The club had been flattered to have him then, travel or no travel, but the end was not fortunate. The brilliant scientist had become the misanthrope; the achievement lay all in the past, and Albert Dreyer kept to his solitary room, his solitary drink, and his accustomed spot by the fire.

The reason I came to hear his story was an odd one. I had been north that year, and the club had asked me to give a little talk on the religious beliefs of the Indians of the northern forest, the Naskapi of Labrador. I had long been a student of the strange melange of superstition and woodland wisdom that makes up the religious life of the nature peoples. Moreover, I had come to know something of the strange similarities of the "shaking tent rite" to the phenomena of the modern medium's cabinet.

"The special tent with its entranced occupant is no different from the cabinet," I contended. "The only difference is the type of voices that emerge. Many of the physical phenomena are identical -- the movement of powerful forces shaking the conical hut, objects thrown, all this is familiar to Western psychical science. What is different are the voices projected. Here they are the cries of animals, the voices from the swamp and the mountain -- the solitary elementals before whom the primitive man stands in awe, and from whom he begs sustenance. Here the game lords reign supreme; man himself is voiceless."

A low, halting query reached me from the back of the room. I was startled, even in the midst of my discussion, to note that it was Dreyer.

"And the game lords, what are they?"

"Each species of animal is supposed to have gigantic leaders of more than normal size," I explained. "These beings are the immaterial controllers of that particular type of animal. Legend about them is confused. Sometimes they partake of human qualities, will and intelligence, but they are of animal shape. They control the movements of game, and thus their favor may mean life or death to man."

"Are they visible?" Again Dreyer's low, troubled voice came from the back of the room.

"Native belief has it that they can be seen on rare occasions," I answered. "In a sense they remind one of the concept of the archetypes, the originals behind the petty show of our small, transitory existence. They are the immortal renewers of substance -- the force behind and above animate nature."

"Do they dance?" persisted Dreyer.

At this I grew nettled. Old Dreyer in a heckling mood was something new. "I cannot answer that question," I said acidly. "My informants failed to elaborate upon it. But they believe implicitly in these monstrous beings, talk to and propitiate them. It is their voices that emerge from the shaking tent."

"The Indians believe it," pursued old Dreyer relentlessly, "but do you believe it?"

"My dear fellow -- I shrugged and glanced at the smiling audience -- "I have seen many strange things, many puzzling things, but I am a scientist." Dreyer made a contemptuous sound in his throat and went back to the shadow out of which he had crept in his interest. The talk was over. I headed for the bar.


The evening passed. Men drifted homeward or went to their rooms. I had been a year in the woods and hungered for voices and companionship. Finally, however, I sat alone with my glass, a little mellow, perhaps, enjoying the warmth of the fire and remembering the blue snowfields of the North as they should be remembered -- in the comfort of warm rooms.

I think an hour must have passed. The club was silent except for the ticking of an antiquated clock on the mantel and small night noises from the street. I must have drowsed. At all events it was some time before I grew aware that a chair had been drawn up opposite me. I started.

"A damp night," I said.

"Foggy," said the man in the shadow musingly. "But not too foggy. They like it that way."

"Eh?" I said. I knew immediately it was Dreyer speaking. Maybe I had missed something; on second thought, maybe not.

"And spring," he said. "Spring. That's part of it. God knows why, of course, but we feel it, why shouldn't they? And more intensely."

"Look--" I said. "I guess --" The old man was more human than I thought. He reached out and touched my knee with the hand that he always kept a glove over -- burn, we used to speculate -- and smiled softly.

"You don't know what I'm talking about," he finished for me. "And, besides, I ruffled your feelings earlier in the evening. You must forgive me. You touched on an interest of mine, and I was perhaps overeager. I did not intend to give the appearance of heckling. It was only that ... "

"Of course," I said. "Of course." Such a confession from Dreyer was astounding. The man might be ill. I rang for a drink and decided to shift the conversation to a safer topic, more appropriate to a scholar.

"Frogs," I said desperately, like any young ass in a china shop. "Always admired your experiments. Frogs. Yes."

I give the old man credit. He took the drink and held it up and looked at me across the rim. There was a faint stir of sardonic humor in his eyes.

"Frogs, no," he said, "or maybe yes. I've never been quite sure. Maybe yes. But there was no time to decide properly." The humor faded out of his eyes. "Maybe I should have let go," he said. "It was what they wanted. There's no doubting that at all, but it came too quick for me. What would you have done?"

"I don't know," I said honestly enough and pinched myself.

"You had better know," said Albert Dreyer severely, "if you're planning to become an investigator of primitive religions. Or even not. I wasn't, you know, and the things came to me just when I least suspected -- But I forget, you don't believe in them."

He shrugged and half rose, and for the first time, really, I saw the black-gloved hand and the haunted face of Albert Dreyer and knew in my heart the things he had stood for in science. I got up then, as a young man in the presence of his betters should get up, and I said, and I meant it, every word: "Please, Dr. Dreyer, sit down and tell me. I'm too young to be saying what I believe or don't believe in at all. I'd be obliged if you'd tell me."

Just at that moment a strange, wonderful dignity shone out of the countenance of Albert Dreyer, and I knew the man he was. He bowed and sat down, and there were no longer the barriers of age and youthful ego between us. There were just two men under a lamp, and around them a great waiting silence. Out to the ends of the universe, I thought fleetingly, that's the way with man and his lamps. One has to huddle in, there's so little light and so much space. One --


"It could happen to anyone," said Albert Dreyer. "And especially in the spring. Remember that. And all I did was to skip. Just a few feet, mark you, but I skipped. Remember that, too.

"You wouldn't remember the place at all. At least not as it was then." He paused and shook the ice in his glass and spoke more easily.

"It was a road that came out finally in a marsh along the Schuykill River. Probably all industrial now. But I had a little house out there with a laboratory thrown in. It was convenient to the marsh, and that helped me with my studies of amphibia. Moreover, it was a wild, lonely road, and I wanted solitude. It is always the demand of the naturalist. You understand that?"

"Of course," I said. I knew he had gone there, after the death of his young wife, in grief and loneliness and despair. He was not a man to mention such things. "It is best for the naturalist," I agreed.

"Exactly. My best work was done there." He held up his black-gloved hand and glanced at it meditatively. "The work on the axolotl, newt neoteny. I worked hard. I had --" he hesitated -- "things to forget. There were times when I worked all night. Or diverted myself, while waiting the result of an experiment, by midnight walks. It was a strange road. Wild all right, but paved and close enough to the city that there were occasional street lamps. All uphill and downhill, with bits of forest leaning in over it, till you walked in a tunnel of trees. Then suddenly you were in the marsh, and the road ended at an old, unused wharf.

"A place to be alone. A place to walk and think. A place for shadows to stretch ahead of you from one dim lamp to another and spring back as you reached the next. I have seen them get tall, tall, but never like that night. It was like a road into space."

"Cold?" I asked.

"No. I shouldn't have said 'space.' It gives the wrong effect. Not cold. Spring. Frog time. The first warmth, and the leaves coming. A little fog in the hollows. The way they like it then in the wet leaves and bogs. No moon, though; secretive and dark, with just those street lamps wandered out from the town. I often wondered what graft had brought them there. They shone on nothing -- except my walks at midnight and the journeys of toads, but still ... "

"Yes?" I prompted, as he paused.

"I was just thinking. The web of things. A politician in town gets a rake-off for selling useless lights on a useless road. If it hadn't been for that, I might not have seen them. I might not even have skipped. Or, if I had, the effect -- How can you tell about such things afterwards? Was the effect heightened? Did it magnify their power? Who is to say?"

"The skip?" I said, trying to keep things casual. "I don't understand. You mean, just skipping? Jumping?"

Something like a twinkle came into his eyes for a moment. "Just that," he said. "No more. You are a young man. Impulsive? You should understand."

''I'm afraid --" I began to counter.

"But of course," he cried pleasantly. "I forget. You were not there. So how could I expect you to feel or know about this skipping. Look, look at me now. A sober man, eh?"

I nodded. "Dignified," I said cautiously.

"Very well. But, young man, there is a time to skip. On country roads in the spring. It is not necessary that there be girls. You will skip without them. You will skip because something within you knows the time -- frog time. Then you will skip."

"Then I will skip," I repeated, hypnotized. Mad or not, there was a force in Albert Dreyer. Even there under the club lights, the night damp of an unused road began to gather.


"It was a late spring," he said. "Fog and mist in those hollows in a way I had never seen before. And frogs, of course. Thousands of them, and twenty species, trilling, gurgling, and grunting in as many keys. The beautiful keen silver piping of spring peepers arousing as the last ice leaves the ponds -- if you have heard that after a long winter alone, you will never forget it." He paused and leaned forward, listening with such an intent inner ear that one could almost hear that far-off silver piping from the wet meadows of the man's forgotten years.

I rattled my glass uneasily, and his eyes came back to me.

"They come out then," he said more calmly. "All amphibia have to return to the water for mating and egg laying. Even toads will hop miles across country to streams and waterways. You don't see them unless you go out at night in the right places as I did, but that night--

"Well, it was unusual, put it that way, as an understatement. It was late, and the creatures seemed to know it. You could feel the forces of mighty and archaic life welling up from the very ground. The water was pulling them -- not water as we know it, but the mother, the ancient life force, the thing that made us in the days of creation, and that lurks around us still, unnoticed in our sterile cities.

"I was no different from any other young fool coming home on a spring night, except that as a student of life, and of amphibia in particular, I was, shall we say, more aware of the creatures. I had performed experiments" -- the black glove gestured before my eyes. "I was, as it proved, susceptible.

"It began on that lost stretch of roadway leading to the river, and it began simply enough. All around, under the street lamps, I saw little frogs and big frogs hopping steadily toward the river. They were going in my direction.

"At that time I had my whimsies, and I was spry enough to feel the tug of that great movement. I joined them. There was no mystery about it. I simply began to skip, to skip gaily, and enjoy the great bobbing shadow I created as I passed onward with that leaping host all headed for the river.

"Now skipping along a wet pavement in spring is infectious, particularly going downhill, as we were. The impulse to take mightier leaps, to soar farther, increases progressively. The madness worked into me. I bounded till my lungs labored, and my shadow, at first my own shadow, bounded and labored with me.

"It was only midway in my flight that I began to grow conscious that I was not alone. The feeling was not strong at first. Normally a sober pedestrian, I was ecstatically preoccupied with the discovery of latent stores of energy and agility which I had not suspected in my subdued existence.

"It was only as we passed under a street lamp that I noticed, beside my own bobbing shadow, another great, leaping grotesquerie that had an uncanny suggestion of the frog world about it. The shocking aspect of the thing lay in its size, and the fact that, judging from the shadow, it was soaring higher and more gaily than myself.

"'Very well,' you will say" -- and here Dreyer paused and looked at me tolerantly-- "'Why didn't you turn around? That would be the scientific thing to do."

"It would be the scientific thing to do, young man, but let me tell you it is not done -- not on an empty road at midnight -- not when the shadow is already beside your shadow and is joined by another, and then another.

"No, you do not pause. You look neither to left nor right, for fear of what you might see there. Instead, you dance on madly, hopelessly. Plunging higher, higher, in the hope the shadows will be left behind, or prove to be only leaves dancing, when you reach the next street light. Or that whatever had joined you in this midnight bacchanal will take some other pathway and depart.

"You do not look -- you cannot look -- because to do so is to destroy the universe in which we move and exist and have our transient being. You dare not look, because, beside the shadows, there now comes to your ears the loose-limbed slap of giant batrachian feet, not loud, not loud at all, but there, definitely there, behind you at your shoulder, plunging with the utter madness of spring, their rhythm entering your bones until you too are hurtling upward in some gigantic ecstasy that it is not given to mere flesh and blood to long endure.

"I was part of it, part of some mad dance of the elementals behind the show of things. Perhaps in that night of archaic and elemental passion, that festival of the wetlands, my careless hopping passage under the street lights had called them, attracted their attention, brought them leaping down some fourth-dimensional roadway into the world of time.

"Do not suppose for a single moment I thought so coherently then. My lungs were bursting, my physical self exhausted, but I sprang, I hurtled, I flung myself onward in a company I could not see, that never outpaced me, but that swept me with the mighty ecstasies of a thousand springs, and that bore me onward exultantly past my own doorstep, toward the river, toward some pathway long forgotten, toward some unforgettable destination in the wetlands and the spring.

"Even as I leaped, I was changing. It was this, I think, that stirred the last remnants of human fear and human caution that I still possessed. My will was in abeyance; I could not stop. Furthermore, certain sensations, hypnotic or otherwise, suggested to me that my own physical shape was modifying, or about to change. I was leaping with a growing ease. I was--

"It was just then that the wharf lights began to show. We were approaching the end of the road, and the road, as I have said, ended in the river. It was this, I suppose, that startled me back into some semblance of human terror. Man is a land animal. He does not willingly plunge off wharfs at midnight in the monstrous company of amphibious shadows.

"Nevertheless their power held me. We pounded madly toward the wharf, and under the light that hung above it, and the beam that made a cross. Part of me struggled to stop, and part of me hurtled on. But in that final frenzy of terror before the water below engulfed me I shrieked, 'Help! In the name of God, help me! In the name of Jesus, stop!'"

Dreyer paused and drew in his chair a little closer under the light. Then he went on steadily.

"I was not, I suppose, a particularly religious man, and the cries merely revealed the extremity of my terror. Nevertheless this is a strange thing, and whether it involves the crossed beam, or the appeal to a Christian deity, I will not attempt to answer.

"In one electric instant, however, was free. It was like the release from demoniac possession. One moment I was leaping in an inhuman company of elder things, and the next moment I was a badly shaken human being on a wharf. Strangest of all, perhaps, was the sudden silence of that midnight hour. I looked down in the circle of the arc light, and there by my feet hopped feebly some tiny froglets of the great migration. There was nothing impressive about them, but you will understand that I drew back in revulsion. I have never been able to handle them for research since. My work is in the past."

He paused and drank, and then, seeing perhaps some lingering doubt and confusion in my eyes, held up his black-gloved hand and deliberately pinched off the glove.

A man should not do that to another man without warning, but I suppose he felt I demanded some proof. I turned my eyes away. One does not like a webbed batrachian hand on a human being.

As I rose embarrassedly, his voice came up to me from the depths of the chair.

"It is not the hand," Dreyer said. "It is the question of choice. Perhaps I was a coward, and ill prepared. Perhaps" -- his voice searched uneasily among his memories -- "perhaps I should have taken them and that springtime without question. Perhaps I should have trusted them and hopped onward. Who knows? They were gay enough, at least."

He sighed and set down his glass and stared so intently into empty space that, seeing I was forgotten, I tiptoed quietly away.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:44 pm

The Hidden Teacher

Sometimes the best teacher teaches only once to a single child or to a grownup past hope.

-- Anonymous


The putting of formidable riddles did not arise with today's philosophers. In fact, there is a sense in which the experimental method of science might be said merely to have widened the area of man's homelessness. Over two thousand years ago, a man named Job, crouching in the Judean desert, was moved to challenge what he felt to be the injustice of his God. The voice in the whirlwind, in turn, volleyed pitiless questions upon the supplicant -- questions that have, in truth, precisely the ring of modem science. For the Lord asked of Job by whose wisdom the hawk soars, and who had fathered the rain, or entered the storehouses of the snow.

A youth standing by, one Elihu, also played a role in this drama, for he ventured diffidently to his protesting elder that it was not true that God failed to manifest Himself. He may speak in one way or another, though men do not perceive it. In consequence of this remark perhaps it would be well, whatever our individual beliefs, to consider what may be called the hidden teacher, lest we become too much concerned with the formalities of only one aspect of the education by which we learn.

We think we learn from teachers, and we sometimes do. But the teachers are not always to be found in school or in great laboratories. Sometimes what we learn depends upon our own powers of insight. Moreover, our teachers may be hidden, even the greatest teacher. And it was the young man Elihu who observed that if the old are not always wise, neither can the teacher's way be ordered by the young whom he would teach.

For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider.

It happened far away on a rainy morning in the West. I had come up a long gulch looking for fossils ,and there, just at eye level, lurked a huge yellow-and-black orb spider, whose web was moored to the tall spears of buffalo grass at the edge of the arroyo. It was her universe, and her senses did not extend beyond the lines and spokes of the great wheel she inhabited. Her extended claws could feel every vibration throughout that delicate structure. She knew the tug of wind, the fall of a raindrop, the flutter of a trapped moth's wing. Down one spoke of the web ran a stout ribbon of gossamer on which she could hurry out to investigate her prey.

Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.

Moreover, I considered, as I tramped along, that to the phagocytes, the white blood cells, clambering even now with some kind of elementary intelligence amid the thin pipes and tubing of my body -- creatures without whose ministrations I could not exist -- the conscious "I" of which I was aware had no significance to these amoeboid beings. I was, instead, a kind of chemical web that brought meaningful messages to them, a natural environment seemingly immortal if they could have thought about it, since generations of them had lived and perished, and would continue to so live and die, in that odd fabric which contained my intelligence -- a misty light that was beginning to seem floating and tenuous even to me.

I began to see that, among the many universes in which the world of living creatures existed, some were large, some small, but that all, including man's, were in some way limited or finite. We were creatures of many different dimensions passing through each other's lives like ghosts through doors.

In the years since, my mind has many times returned to that far moment of my encounter with the orb spider. A message has arisen only now from the misty shreds of that webbed universe. What was it that had so troubled me about the incident? Was it that spidery indifference to the human triumph?

If so, that triumph was very real and could not be denied. I saw, had many times seen, both mentally and in the seams of exposed strata, the long backward stretch of time whose recovery is one of the great feats of modern science. I saw the drifting cells of the early seas from which all life, including our own, has arisen. The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.

And war it has been indeed -- the long war of life against its inhospitable environment, a war that has lasted for perhaps three billion years. It began with strange chemicals seething under a sky lacking in oxygen; it was waged through long ages until the first green plants learned to harness the light of the nearest star, our sun. The human brain, so frail, so perishable, so full of inexhaustible dreams and hungers, burns by the power of the leaf.

The hurrying blood cells charged with oxygen carry more of that element to the human brain than to any other part of the body. A few moments' loss of vital air and the phenomenon we know as consciousness goes down into the black night of inorganic things. The human body is a magical vessel, but its life is linked with an element it cannot produce. Only the green plant knows the secret of transforming the light that comes to us across the far reaches of space. There is no better illustration of the intricacy of man's relationship with other living things.

The student of fossil life would be forced to tell us that if we take the past into consideration the vast majority of earth's creatures -- perhaps over 90 percent -- have vanished. Forms that flourished for a far longer time than man has existed upon earth have become either extinct or so transformed that their descendants are scarcely recognizable. The specialized perish with the environment that created them, the tooth of the tiger fails at last, the lances of men strike down the last mammoth.

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.

With the rise of the human brain, with the appearance of a creature whose upright body enabled two limbs to be freed for the exploration and manipulation of his environment, there had at last emerged a creature with a specialization -- the brain -- that, paradoxically, offered escape from specialization. Many animals driven into the nooks and crannies of nature have achieved momentary survival only at the cost of later extinction.

Was it this that troubled me and brought my mind back to a tiny universe among the grass blades, a spider's universe concerned with spider thought?


The mind that once visualized animals on a cave wall is now engaged in a vast ramification of itself through time and space. Man has broken through the boundaries that control all other life. I saw, at last, the reason for my recollection of that great spider on the arroyo's rim, fingering its universe against the sky.

The spider was a symbol of man in miniature. The wheel of the web brought the analogy home clearly. Man, too, lies at the heart of a web, a web extending through the starry reaches of sidereal space, as well as backward into the dark realm of prehistory. His great eye upon Mount Palomar looks into a distance of millions of light-years, his radio ear hears the whisper of even more remote galaxies, he peers through the electron microscope upon the minute particles of his own being. It is a web no creature of earth has ever spun before. Like the orb spider, man lies at the heart of it, listening. Knowledge has given him the memory of earth's history beyond the time of his emergence. Like the spider's claw, a part of him touches a world he will never enter in the flesh. Even now, one can see him reaching forward into time with new machines, computing, analyzing, until elements of the shadowy future will also compose part of the invisible web he fingers.

Yet still my spider lingers in memory against the sunset sky. Spider thoughts in a spider universe -- sensitive to raindrop and moth flutter, nothing beyond, nothing allowed for the unexpected, the inserted pencil from the world outside.

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 a population he refuses to control, cherishing again his dream of the Adamic Eden he had pursued and lost in the green forests of America. Now it beckons again like a mirage from beyond the moon. Let man spin his web, I thought further; it is his nature. But I considered also the work of the phagocytes swarming in the rivers of my body, the unresting cells in their mortal universe. What is it we are a part of that we do not see, as the spider was not gifted to discern my face, or my little probe into her world?

We are too content with our sensory extensions, with the fulfillment of that Ice Age mind that began its journey amidst the cold of vast tundras and that pauses only briefly before its leap into space. It is no longer enough to see as a man sees -- even to the ends of the universe. It is not enough to hold nuclear energy in one's hand like a spear, as a man would hold it, or to see the lightning, or times past, or time to come, as a man would see it. If we continue to do this, the great brain -- the human brain -- will be only a new version of the old trap, and nature is full of traps for the beast that cannot learn.

It is not sufficient any longer to listen at the end of a wire to the rustlings of galaxies; it is not enough even to examine the great coil of DNA in which is coded the very alphabet of life. These are our extended perceptions. But beyond lies the great darkness of the ultimate Dreamer, who dreamed the light and the galaxies. Before act was, or substance existed, imagination grew in the dark. Man partakes of that ultimate wonder and creativeness. As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and the magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only. He came because he is at heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself. This he has worshiped by many names, even in the dismal caves of his beginning. Man, the self-fabricator, is so by reason of gifts he had no part in devising -- and so he searches as the single living cell in the beginning must have sought the ghostly creature it was to serve.


The young man Elihu, Job's counselor and critic, spoke simply of the "Teacher," and it is of this teacher I speak when I refer to gifts man had no part in devising. Perhaps -- though it is purely a matter of emotional reactions to words -- it is easier for us today to speak of this teacher as "nature," that omnipresent all which contained both the spider and my invisible intrusion into her carefully planned universe. But nature does not simply represent reality. In the shapes of life, it prepares the future; it offers alternatives. Nature teaches, though what it teaches is often hidden and obscure, just as the voice from the spinning dust cloud belittled Job's thought but gave back no answers to its own formidable interrogation.

A few months ago I encountered an amazing little creature on a windy corner of my local shopping center. It seemed, at first glance, some long-limbed, feathery spider teetering rapidly down the edge of a store front. Then it swung into the air and, as hesitantly as a spider on a thread, blew away into the parking lot. It returned in a moment on a gust of wind and ran toward me once more on its spindly legs with amazing rapidity.

With great difficulty I discovered the creature was actually a filamentous seed, seeking a hiding place and scurrying about with the uncanny surety of a conscious animal. In fact, it did escape me before I could secure it. Its flexible limbs were stiffer than milkweed down, and, propelled by the wind, it ran rapidly and evasively over the pavement. It was like a gnome scampering somewhere with a hidden packet -- for all that I could tell, a totally new one: one of the jumbled alphabets of life.

A new one? So stable seem the years and all green leaves, a botanist might smile at my imaginings. Yet bear with me a moment. I would like to tell a tale, a genuine tale of childhood. Moreover, I was just old enough to know the average of my kind and to marvel at what I saw. And what I saw was straight from the hidden Teacher, whatever be his name.

It is told in the Orient of the Hindu god Krishna that his mother, wiping his mouth when he was a child, inadvertently peered in and beheld the universe, though the sight was mercifully and immediately veiled from her. In a sense, this is what happened to me. One day there arrived at our school a newcomer, who entered the grade above me. After some days this lad, whose look of sleepy-eyed arrogance is still before me as I write, was led into my mathematics classroom by the principal. Our class was informed severely that we should learn to work harder.

With this preliminary exhortation, great rows of figures were chalked upon the blackboard, such difficult mathematical problems as could be devised by adults. The class watched in helpless wonder. When the preparations had been completed, the young pupil sauntered forward and, with a glance of infinite boredom that swept from us to his fawning teachers, wrote the answers, as instantaneously as a modern computer, in their proper place upon the board. Then he strolled out with a carelessly exaggerated yawn.

Like some heavy-browed child at the wood's edge, clutching the last stone hand ax, I was witnessing the birth of a new type of humanity -- one so beyond its teachers that it was being used for mean purposes while the intangible web of the universe in all its shimmering mathematical perfection glistened untaught in the mind of a chance little boy. The boy, by then grown self-centered and contemptuous, was being dragged from room to room to encourage us, the paleanthropes, to duplicate what, in reality, our teachers could not duplicate. He was too precious an object to be released upon the playground among us, and with reason. In a few months his parents took him away.

Long after, looking back from maturity, I realized that I had been exposed on that occasion, not to human teaching, but to the Teacher, toying with some sixteen billion nerve cells interlocked in ways past understanding. Or, if we do not like the anthropomorphism implied in the word teacher, then nature, the old voice from the whirlwind fumbling for the light. At all events, I had been the fortunate witness to life's unbounded creativity -- a creativity seemingly still as unbalanced and chance-filled as in that far era when a black-scaled creature had broken from an egg and the age of the giant reptiles, the creatures of the prime, had tentatively begun.

Because form cannot be long sustained in the living, we collapse inward with age. We die. Our bodies, which were the product of a kind of hidden teaching by an alphabet we are only beginning dimly to discern, are dismissed into their elements. What is carried onward, assuming we have descendants, is the little capsule of instructions such as I encountered hastening by me in the shape of a running seed. We have learned the first biological lesson: that in each generation life passes through the eye of a needle. It exists for a time molecularly and in no recognizable semblance to its adult condition. It instructs its way again into man or reptile. As the ages pass, so do variants of the code. Occasionally, a species vanishes on a wind as unreturning as that which took the pterodactyls.

Or the code changes by subtle degrees through the statistical altering of individuals; until I, as the fading Neanderthals must once have done, have looked with still-living eyes upon the creature whose genotype was quite possibly to replace me. The genetic alphabets, like genuine languages, ramify and evolve along unreturning pathways.

If nature's instructions are carried through the eye of a needle, through the molecular darkness of a minute world below the field of human vision and of time's decay, the same, it might be said, is true of those monumental structures known as civilizations. They are transmitted from one generation to another in invisible puffs of air known as words -- words that can also be symbolically incised on clay. As the delicate printing on the mud at the water's edge retraces a visit of autumn birds long since departed, so the little scrabbled tablets in perished cities carry the seeds of human thought across the deserts of millennia. In this instance the teacher is the social brain, but it, too, must be compressed into minute hieroglyphs, and the minds that wrought the miracle efface themselves amidst the jostling torrent of messages, which, like the genetic code, are shuffled and reshuffled as they hurry through eternity. Like a mutation, an idea may be recorded in the wrong time, to lie latent like a recessive gene and spring once more to life in an auspicious era.

Occasionally, in the moments when an archaeologist lifts the slab over a tomb that houses a great secret, a few men gain a unique glimpse through that dark portal out of which all men living have emerged, and through which messages again must pass. Here the Mexican archaeologist Ruz Lhuillier speaks of his first penetration of the great tomb hidden beneath dripping stalactites at the pyramid of Palenque: "Out of the dark shadows, rose a fairy-tale vision, a weird ethereal spectacle from another world. It was like a magician's cave carved out of ice, with walls glittering and sparkling like snow crystals." After shining his torch over hieroglyphs and sculptured figures, the explorer remarked wonderingly: "We were the first people for more than a thousand years to look at it."

Or again, one may read the tale of an unknown pharaoh who had secretly arranged that a beloved woman of his household should be buried in the tomb of the god-king -- an act of compassion carrying a personal message across the millennia in defiance of all precedent.

Up to this point we have been talking of the single hidden teacher, the taunting voice out of that old Biblical whirlwind which symbolizes nature. We have seen incredible organic remembrance passed through the needle's eye of a microcosmic world hidden completely beneath the observational powers of creatures preoccupied and ensorcelled by dissolution and decay. We have seen the human mind unconsciously seize upon the principles of that very code to pass its own societal memory forward into time. The individual, the momentary living cell of the society, vanishes, but the institutional structures stand, or if they change, do so in an invisible flux not too dissimilar from that persisting in the stream of genetic continuity.

Upon this world, life is still young, not truly old as stars are measured. Therefore it comes about that we minimize the role of the synapsid reptiles, our remote forerunners, and correspondingly exalt our own intellectual achievements. We refuse to consider that in the old eye of the hurricane we may be, and doubtless are, in aggregate, a slightly more diffuse and dangerous dragon of the primal morning that still enfolds us.

Note that I say "in aggregate." For it is just here, among men, that the role of messages, and, therefore, the role of the individual teacher -- or, I should say now, the hidden teachers -- begin to be more plainly apparent and their instructions become more diverse. The dead pharaoh, though unintentionally, by a revealing act, had succeeded in conveying an impression of human tenderness that has outlasted the trappings of a vanished religion.

Like most modern educators I have listened to student demands to grade their teachers. I have heard the words repeated until they have become a slogan, that no man over thirty can teach the young of this generation. How would one grade a dead pharaoh, millennia gone, I wonder, one who did not intend to teach, but who, to a few perceptive minds, succeeded by the simple nobility of an act.

Many years ago, a student who was destined to become an internationally known anthropologist sat in a course in linguistics and heard his instructor, a man of no inconsiderable wisdom, describe some linguistic peculiarities of Hebrew words. At the time, the young student, at the urging of his family, was contemplating a career in theology. As the teacher warmed to his subject, the student, in the back row, ventured excitedly, "I believe I can understand that, sir. It is very similar to what exists in Mohegan."

The linguist paused and adjusted his glasses. "Young man," he said, "Mohegan is a dead language. Nothing has been recorded of it since the eighteenth century. Don't bluff."

"But sir," the young student countered hopefully, "It can't be dead so long as an old woman I know still speaks it. She is Pequot- Mohegan. I learned a bit of vocabulary from her and could speak with her myself. She took care of me when I was a child."

"Young man," said the austere, old-fashioned scholar, "be at my house for dinner at six this evening. You and I are going to look into this matter."

A few months later, under careful guidance, the young student published a paper upon Mohegan linguistics, the first of a long series of studies upon the forgotten languages and ethnology of the Indians of the northeastern forests. He had changed his vocation and turned to anthropology because of the attraction of a hidden teacher. But just who was the teacher? The young man himself, his instructor, or that solitary speaker of a dying tongue who had so yearned to hear her people's voice that she had softly babbled it to a child?

Later, this man was to become one of my professors. I absorbed much from him, though I hasten to make the reluctant confession that he was considerably beyond thirty. Most of what I learned was gathered over cups of coffee in a dingy campus restaurant. What we talked about were things some centuries older than either of us. Our common interest lay in snakes, scapulimancy, and other forgotten rites of benighted forest hunters.

I have always regarded this man as an extraordinary individual, in fact, a hidden teacher. But alas, it is all now so old-fashioned. We never protested the impracticality of his quaint subjects. We were all too ready to participate in them. He was an excellent canoeman, but he took me to places where I fully expected to drown before securing my degree. To this day, fragments of his unused wisdom remain stuffed in some back attic of my mind. Much of it I have never found the opportunity to employ, yet it has somehow colored my whole adult existence. I belong to that elderly professor in somewhat the same way that he, in turn, had become the wood child of a hidden forest mother.

There are, however, other teachers. For example, among the hunting peoples there were the animal counselors who appeared in prophetic dreams. Or, among the Creeks, the daemonic supernaturals who stood at the headboard while a man lay stark and listened -- sometimes to dreadful things. "You are asleep," the messengers proclaimed over and over again, as though the man lay in a spell to hear his doom pronounced. "You, Achilles, you, son of Atreus. You are asleep, asleep," the hidden ones pronounced and vanished.

We of this modern time know other things of dreams, but we know also that they can be interior teachers and healers as well as the anticipators of disaster. It has been said that great art is the night thought of man. It may emerge without warning from the soundless depths of the unconscious, just as supernovas may blaze up suddenly in the farther reaches of void space. The critics, like astronomers, can afterward triangulate such worlds but not account for them.

A writer friend of mine with bitter memories of his youth, and estranged from his family, who, in the interim, had died, gave me this account of the matter in his middle years. He had been working, with an unusual degree of reluctance, upon a novel that contained certain autobiographical episodes. One night he dreamed; it was a very vivid and stunning dream in its detailed reality.

He found himself hurrying over creaking snow through the blackness of a winter night. He was ascending a familiar path through a long-vanished orchard. The path led to his childhood home. The house, as he drew near, appeared dark and uninhabited, but, impelled by the power of the dream, he stepped upon the porch and tried to peer through a dark window into his own old room.

"Suddenly," he told me, "I was drawn by a strange mixture of repulsion and desire to press my face against the glass. I knew intuitively they were all there waiting for me within, if I could but see them. My mother and my father. Those I had loved and those I hated. But the window was black to my gaze. I hesitated a moment and struck a match. For an instant in that freezing silence I saw my father's face glimmer wan and remote behind the glass. My mother's face was there, with the hard, distorted lines that marked her later years.

"A surge of fury overcame my cowardice. I cupped the match before me and stepped closer, closer toward that dreadful confrontation. As the match guttered down, my face was pressed almost to the glass. In some quick transformation, such as only a dream can effect, I saw that it was my own face into which I stared, just as it was reflected in the black glass. My father's haunted face was but my own. The hard lines upon my mother's aging countenance were slowly reshaping themselves upon my living face. The light burned out. I awoke sweating from the terrible psychological tension of that nightmare. I was in a far port in a distant land. It was dawn. I could hear the waves breaking on the reef."

"And how do you interpret the dream?" I asked, concealing a sympathetic shudder and sinking deeper into my chair.

"It taught me something," he said slowly, and with equal slowness a kind of beautiful transfiguration passed over his features. All the tired lines I had known so well seemed faintly to be subsiding.

"Did you ever dream it again?" I asked out of a comparable experience of my own.

"No, never," he said, and hesitated. "You see, I had learned it was just I, but more, much more, I had learned that I was they. It makes a difference. And at the last, late -- much too late -- it was all right. I understood. My line was dying, but I understood. I hope they understood, too." His voice trailed into silence.

"It is a thing to learn," I said. "You were seeking something and it came." He nodded, wordless. "Out of a tomb," he added after a silent moment, "my kind of tomb -- the mind."

On the dark street, walking homeward, I considered my friend's experience. Man, I concluded, may have come to the end of that wild being who had mastered the fire and the lightning. He can create the web but not hold it together, not save himself except by transcending his own image. For at last, before the ultimate mystery, it is himself he shapes. Perhaps it is for this that the listening web lies open: that by knowledge we may grow beyond our past, our follies, and ever closer to what the Dreamer in the dark intended before the dust arose and walked. In the pages of an old book it has been written that we are in the hands of a Teacher, nor does it yet appear what man shall be.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 12:27 am

The Fifth Planet


"It isn't there any more," he said. He was the only man I ever knew who hunted for bones in the stars, and I remember we were standing out among his sheep in the clear starshine when he said it. "It isn't there any more," he repeated. And innocently enough I asked, "What isn't?" -- not really thinking at all but just making conversation and watching the silver light drifting over the gray backs of the sheep.

"The fifth planet," he answered. I thought a minute and counted in my head twice over to make sure, and then I said a little soothingly, as one talks to a confused child, "But the fifth planet is Jupiter. There it is over there. All you have to do is swing the tripod around and you'l1pick it up al1right. Planets don't disappear that easy, thank God."

"The fifth one did all the same," he said. But he shifted the tripod and took a sight toward Jupiter, and the sheep went on munching. I decided I hadn't heard him correctly. After all there is a good deal of wind in those high valleys, and even the frost made little pinging sounds cracking the stones.

We might have been standing on the moon ourselves, it was so cold. I wanted badly to go in and sit by the fire, but it was like this night after night, and nothing for me to do about it if I wanted companionship. He was a bone hunter like myself, in a kind of way. There aren't many of us, nor enough help to stand by, so I couldn't let him down even though I knew he was crazy as hell. If I was playing a hundred-to-one shot when I looked for bones around his ranch by day, he was playing it a million to one at night. That just doesn't make sense. Your life isn't long enough to fool with odds like that. Just the same, there we were out with those sheep and pointing his little telescope looking for bones in the sky.

I suppose that was the thing that intrigued me the first season we met. I'm not a star hunter, though like most people who work with the earth and its past, I have my normal share of curiosity about the universe. It was a far-off interest, though, and besides I was nearsighted from too much peering at the ground. Radnor was different. He already had a squint when I met him, from straining over that telescope, and he was the sort of chap who generally ends up in a cistern or a cesspool while marching around after the stars.

He wasn't a professional. That kind never is. He was a pure bona fide amateur, and part of the lunatic fringe. He got into this thing by accident, and like most such people, he didn't know when to stop. It began with Williams and a flight of meteors. It ended with -- well that's the story. But this is how it began.


Williams came up there on the hunt for a meteor. Not an ordinary one, you understand, but the real stuff. A twenty-tonner heard and seen passing over three states. I knew Williams quite well -- we worked at the same institution once -- and I knew there wasn't a keener eye for a starfall and where it was going.

He'd plotted it all out from the reports, triangulated, and headed up there into that high tableland. Of course he ran into Radnor. He would have to in order to operate in there at all. It was Radnor's ranch and Radnor that helped him. They were lucky, sure. A ranch hand had seen the hole where it struck. They got it, and it was quite a feather in Williams's cap. In any sane place in the world they would have packed it off posthaste to a museum, with a few drinks for the local boys, and things would have gone back to normalcy fast.

The trouble was that nothing up there was normal. In the first place, digging out that big chunk of iron took time, equipment, and all sorts of supplies. Williams stayed at Radnor's place for weeks, and knowing' Williams as I did it was easy to guess what happened: Williams simply took the malleable clay of Jim Radnor, sheepman, and made a star hunter out of him. That might have been all right, in a nice amateur sort of way, if they had kept it to the front porch on a Sunday evening, but that wasn't how Williams did things.

He was a born teacher -- if he wasn't an astronomer I'd have said preacher and been closer to the truth -- and he set out to convert Radnor. He aimed to convince Radnor of the importance of meteorite observation, which might have been all right too -- there's no real harm in it if your mind runs that way -- but then he added that last devilish touch that only a fanatic like Williams would have used to corrode the soul of a good sheepman.

It was unethical, to my mind, immoral really, because it is the kind of thing which the innocent amateur isn't ready to withstand. He hasn't built up to it with the necessary preparation. You take him, addlepated and open-mouthed, and let him look into space until his brain is reeling. Then you whisper over his shoulder something about life out there in that void, and the only way we can ever learn if it exists. And you speak -- oh, I knew old Williams well, you know -- of the freezing dark that surrounds us and the loneliness that comes to the astronomer in that room under the slit dome. You speak of the suns going by, and the great fires roaring in the solitude of space. You speak of endless depths, great distances all cold and still and empty of the life of man. And then far off, like an insect singing, you begin to whisper the hope of life on other planets, and whether it is true or untrue, and whether there has ever been or will be things like ourselves out there to share our loneliness. And then you tell again how the secret may be found.


It's not my secret. I won't vouch for it, you understand. It's Williams's field, not mine, but I know what he is capable of and the kind of kinks he can tie in people's heads. I've heard that wistful insect singing too, down another dimension -- time -- which is why I go on bone hunting. Well, he must have done it to Radnor. When I dropped in, a year later, the man had all the symptoms.

I've never known a nicer fellow than Jim. One of those odd, big-handed, practical fellows with a streak of romance that had lain dormant till Williams touched it off. Unmarried, too. Probably a wife could have handled him, or driven Williams away before the damage was done, but he had had no protection, so there he was with the little telescope Williams had gotten for him, and nothing on his mind but stars.

He had a bunch of file cards in boxes all over his bedroom. I've never seen anything like it. There was no system, no alphabet, but all observations on meteorites and things pertaining to them filed in a colossal jumble. It made him feel scientific, I guess. He told me about the boxes and said he had "facts" in them.

"Now, Jim," I said, for I knew him well, having been in and out of that country before on a mission concerning a small mouselike animal a million years deceased, "now, Jim, what in the name of God are you looking for? One crank in this country is bad enough. I don't like competition."

"Bones," he said.

"What?" I exclaimed.

"Bones," he repeated.

"I don't get you," I said. "You've got a nice little telescope that Williams gave you. You've card files full of stuff on meteorites. You're mumbling to me about the Doppler effect and the red shift. What has all that to do with bones? You're in astronomy."

''I'm hunting for interplanetary bones," he said then. He looked at his shoes, and I guess he thought I wouldn't like it very well, being in bones myself. He needn't have worried. I saw where Williams had led him, and I had no intention of following.

"Oh!" I said. And then I just remarked casually I'd be off for the hills in the morning. I knew what Williams could do to a man. He might have done it to me once, if I hadn't been near-sighted. Williams was a fanatic. It wasn't that there was basically anything wrong with his theory, if he'd been content to leave it at that. You'll find it all there in the books. Where the fanaticism came in was in his utter ruthlessness, and his power over people. He knew his theory was a million-to-one shot -- a twice-ten-million-to-one shot. And his idea of shortening the odds was to get twenty thousand jug-headed enthusiasts to waste their lives looking for the proof.

The proof, of course, was bones, interplanetary fossils. Nobody had ever found them and nobody ever -- well, I don't know now. The older you get the less you know. At the last Radnor had his say, but he never showed me anything. That isn't science, you know.

It was meteorites that were the key. The theory runs that they, or some of them, are the products of a smash-up in space, the fragments of a lost planetary body. The chemical composition suggests it. Some are heavy metal such as we expect at our own earth's core; others resemble rocks at the earth's surface. The variation suggests that some of them, at least, originated at different depths in another planet. A planet blown to hell and gone. Just here is where Williams got in his play. Instead of sitting quietly in a good club with his drink and the meteorites, he takes the next impossible step.

The meteorites, he says, keep coming in -- big ones and little ones, raining in with the earth's attraction. Okay then, keep looking, keep watching. Some day you'll get an unconsumed mass of sedimentary rock off that vanished planet. Sedimentary rock, mind you; fossil-bearing rock. Get it and you've got the secret of the galaxies. One fossil speeding in from outer space, one bit of fossil life unknown to this planet, one skull from a meteor's heart, and space out there -- I remember Williams's gesture at that point of his talk -- becomes alive. Man is no longer lonely. Life is no longer a unique and terrible accident. It, too, holds its place with the spinning suns.

My God, when I was younger Williams could make the hair stand up along my neck. Think of it! To know if life was out there, or even had been out there. To know whether there were interplanetary parallelisms, perhaps even men -- beings, anyhow. To know and to find it all in a whirling piece of rock coming down from the night sky.

No, Williams never told me the chances; I learned of them from other men. I learned that meteorites of sedimentary rock have never been found. I learned that the surface layers of a planet form such a small proportion of its actual bulk that, dispersed in outer space, the number of such fragments coming in, if they came at all, would be infinitesimal. The fossil-bearing rocks of a planet would be in about the same proportion as dirt on the surface of a suddenly exploded golf ball to the substance of the ball itself. The odds were too great, you see, too great for a short-lived creature like man. The odds, those infernal odds!

But I have said that Williams was a fanatic. He was -- a cold madman. He tracked meteors everywhere. He organized societies of meteor enthusiasts. He lectured on meteors. He told his tale. He increased the watchers. I followed his progress for years. I saw him pile up meteors like iron junk in his rooms. All iron, no once-living stone that had felt air and known the sun. The fossils might be out there -- yes, they might -- but living men don't win on a million-to- one shot. Williams was getting old.

He was getting old when he came the long way up that mesa in pursuit of his last flaming disappointment. He was old when he met Radnor. And he took the last of his fury and his hunger and his eloquence and poured them into that romantic, stubborn, religious-minded man.

"It's a question of time, that's all," Radnor said to me later after I had come down from the hills for supplies. He said it with the assurance of one of those damned one-track amateurs that pull Pluto out of a hat after the professionals have gone home to bed.

I spat into the fire.

"All we need is watchers, more and more watchers. Then ... "

It was Williams all over again. But there was a difference. I could hear it at the back of his talk. "You will see. It will prove how small we are and how great, also. There will be signs, progress, evidence eventually of how high life can go, evidence from an older planet. Evidence of the Great Plan."

"All right, Jim," I said, seeing him eye the door. I was growing used to his routine. "All right," I said meekly, "we'll go out and watch." It was one of those periods of heavy star fall, but the heavy ones don't come often, not even high up where we were.


I think it was on the third night that I heard him mention that fifth planet, and again the next night. I tried tactfully to correct him once more. Actually I was afraid the stuff was going to his head.

"Look, Radnor," I said, "what do you mean by the fifth planet? I tell you it's Jupiter."

He looked at me and I could see his stubborn, intense eyes back in their shadowy hollows. "Not by Bode's law," he contradicted, and mumbled some figures at me. I remembered his piles of cards, then, and the way Williams must have hammered him.

"Jupiter is the sixth planet," he went on, more to himself than me. "There's a gap between Mars and Jupiter -- something is missing there. There's a gap in the planet distances. The fifth planet isn't there."

"Pure accident," I grumbled, feeling out of my depth.

"No," said Radnor, and we both instinctively stared up at something we couldn't see. "There's something there, all right. You've forgotten the asteroids -- Ceres and the rest. They're moving where there should be a planet. It's the fifth one, and they're all that's left of it. Something went wrong there."

A meteor trailed high above us, dissolved, and vanished. "Of course," I said. "Stones, aren't they? Just fragments, I remember. Part of something bigger. No air, nothing but thousands of stones on a planet's pathway."

"The fifth planet," he said again. "It's part of the fifth planet that comes down here in little pieces. Williams was sure of it. He said--"

"It was beyond Mars," I conceded to humor him. "There might have been a chance for life there. Curious, what happened ... "

I turned away then. It was cold and our breath made little frost rings in the dark. "Come on," I urged, but he just stood there brooding as I went in. I left early the next morning. I won't say with relief, for I liked Radnor. But, after all, this was Radnor in a new phase. Later, in the smoker, as the train started to roll eastward, I thought briefly of Williams and his strange influence upon men of Radnor's type. I thought also of that wide and red-stoned plateau, and the things that came down upon it out of the dark. Then someone started a game of poker, and with the miles clicking off behind us, I forgot, a little deliberately perhaps, the whole episode. One has to live, you know, and I've always had a feeling that space was not in my line.


I don't think, as things turned out, that it was in Radnor's line either. Men of his religious nature get centered on a symbol, finally. With some of them it may be gold tablets buried on a mountain, or a book with cryptic inscriptions. Or it may be just a voice in the woods that they alone can hear. With Radnor I guess it was the fifth planet, and I should have known it when I left him out there in the frost that night.

I never expected to see him again. In a job like mine you go many places, have casual contacts with any number of people, and are apt never to turn up in the same spot twice. As it happens in this case, I wish I never had, but I did.

It was a small matter -- a question of the proper zoning of a new fossil -- but it brought me back two thousand miles, and two years later. I thought of Radnor, of course. I even went to the trouble of clipping a couple of astronomical articles out of the science section of the New York Times for him. I figured he'd like them for those overloaded fact boxes he kept.

Things never change in a country like that. There were the same little desert owls flitting from fence post to fence post as when I went away. The road unwound into the same red distance. It was evening when I got to the ranch, and Radnor received me hospitably enough. I must say he had aged a bit, and his eyes seemed apathetic, but after all, none of us gets any younger.

After supper we talked sheep for a while. It seemed safe, and I was not unskilled at it, but after a time a silence fell between us. It was then I drew out the clippings.

He read the first one without comment and dropped it on the white tablecloth. I handed him the second. I remember it had something to do with a recent discovery about the Martian atmosphere and gave strong support to the theory that there might be life on that planet. Knowing Radnor as I had, I expected this one to be good for an evening's conversation. He looked at the headline with an expression of mingled indifference and dislike. "They shouldn't publish that sort of thing," he said.

"I thought you might like it for those big files of yours," I countered uneasily. He raised his head and looked through me the way that little black telescope of his used to pick up holes in space. "I burned them," he said flatly.

It was awkward, and the whole thing was beginning to get on my nerves. I wanted to get up, and I did. I lit a cigar and studied his face over it. I made one more effort. "How about the scope?" I suggested. "It's a clear night and I reckon you can show me a lot now." Then I started moving for the door.

He pulled himself together with a visible effort and followed me out. For all his peculiarities he was a courteous man, and I had been his friend. On the porch he halted me. There was a high, thin starlight, I remember, and it did odd things to his face.

"I don't look any more," he said, and then repeated it. I dropped into a chair and he sat uneasily facing me on the porch railing. A sort of tension was building up steadily between us.

"I don't look any more because I know," he said. "I know about it already. 'Seek and you shall find: the Book says. It doesn't say what you will find, it just says you will find. Up here there are ways. Williams knew them."

I looked past him into the night. There was nowhere else to look except out on that great windswept plateau. A long streamer of green light shot across the horizon. The stones are still coming in, I thought wearily, but with the other part of my mind I said to Radnor, putting my words carefully together, "I don't follow you. Do you mean you found something?"

He ignored the interruption. "I believed in the Plan:' he said, "what some people call the Divine Plan. I believed in life. I believed it was advancing, rising, becoming more intelligent. I believed it might have been further along out there" -- he gestured mutely. "I believed it would give us hope to know."

I heard him, but I put the question bluntly. After all, it might be a matter for science and scientist is what I called myself. "What did you find," I asked, "specifically?"

"The Plan is not what you think," he said. His eyes in that strange light were alien and as cryptic as before. "The Plan is not what you think it is. I know about it now. And life--" He made another gesture, wide, indifferent, and final. There was a greater emptiness than space within him. I could feel it grow as we sat there.

I did not ask that question again. You can call me a fool, but you did not sit there as I did in that valley out of time, while star falls whispered overhead, and a fanatic talked icy insanity at your elbow. I tell you the man frightened me -- or maybe it was space itself. I got the feeling somehow that he wanted me to ask again what he had found. And by then I didn't want to hear. Why? Well, that kind of experience is painful, and you try to forget afterward, but I think he must have hit some weak spot in my psychology, probed unaware some unexpressed deep horror of my own. Anyhow I had a feeling that I might believe his answer, and I knew in the same clairvoyant instant of revulsion that I could not bear to hear him give it. "Have you got a match?" I said.

He sighed and came a long way back from somewhere. I thought I saw how it was with him then. Williams had finished him as he had finished others. Well, space is not my job. I checked my data in the hills next morning and talked a lot about sheep, and left -- maybe a little sooner than I normally would.

I had a card once from Radnor afterward. It was five years later, and I remember it well, because it came a week after Hiroshima. There was nothing on the card but one line, as though it had been hanging in the air all that time and had just caught up to me. "The Plan is not what you think it is," it read. "Do you see now?"

For a time I puzzled over it, unsure that I did. But after Nagasaki the thing began to be a tune in my head like the little songs the wind makes under telegraph wires. It just went on sighing, "You see? You see?" Of course I knew he was crazy, but just the same he was right about one thing. The fifth planet is gone. And maybe I see.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 12:29 am

The Last Neanderthal

For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field: and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.

-- Job 5:23

It has long been the thought of science, particularly in evolutionary biology, that nature does not make extended leaps, that her creatures slip in slow disguise from one shape to another. A simple observation will reveal, however, that there are rocks in deserts that glow with heat for a time after sundown. Similar emanations may come from the writer or the scientist. The creative individual is someone upon whom mysterious rays have converged and are again reflected, not necessarily immediately, but in the course of years. That all of this wispy geometry of dreams and memories should be the product of a kind of slow-burning oxidation carried on in an equally diffuse and mediating web of nerve and sense cells is surprising enough, but that the emanations from the same particulate organ, the brain, should be so strikingly different as to disobey the old truism of an unleaping nature is quite surprising, once one comes to contemplate the reality. The same incident may stand as a simple fact to some, an intangible hint of the nature of the universe to others, a useful myth to a savage, or any number of other things. The receptive mind makes all the difference, shadowing or lighting the original object. I was an observer, intent upon my own solitary hieroglyphics.

It happened a long time ago at Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, on a shore marked by the exposed ribs of a wrecked freighter. The place was one where only a student of desolation would find cause to linger. Pelicans perched awkwardly on what remained of a rusted prow. On the edge of the littered beach beyond the port I had come upon a dead dog wrapped in burlap, obviously buried at sea and drifted in by the waves. The dog was little more than a skeleton but still articulated, one delicate bony paw laid gracefully -- as though its owner merely slept, and would presently awaken -- across a stone at the water's edge. Around his throat was a waterlogged black strap that showed he had once belonged to someone. This dog was a mongrel whose life had been spent among the island fishermen. He had known only the small sea-beaten boats that come across the strait from Venezuela. He had romped briefly on shores like this to which he had been returned by the indifferent sea.

I stepped back a little hesitantly from the smell of death, but still I paused reluctantly. Why, in this cove littered with tin cans, bottles, and cast-off garments, did I find it difficult, if not a sacrilege, to turn away? Because, the thought finally came to me, this particular tattered garment had once lived. Scenes on the living sea that would never in all eternity recur again had streamed through the sockets of those vanished eyes. The dog was young, the teeth in its jaws still perfect. It was of that type of loving creature who had gamboled happily about the legs of men and striven to partake of their endeavors.

Someone had seen crudely to his sea burial, but not well enough to prevent his lying now where came everything abandoned. Nevertheless, vast natural forces had intervened to clothe him with a pathetic dignity. The tide had brought him quietly at night and placed what remained of him asleep upon the stones. Here at sunrise I had stood above him in a light he would never any longer see. Even if I had had a shovel the stones would have prevented his burial. He would wait for a second tide to spirit him away or lay him higher to bleach starkly upon coral and conch shells, mingling the little lime of his bones with all else that had once stood upright on these shores.

As I turned upward into the hills beyond the beach I was faintly aware of a tracery of lizard tails amidst the sand and the semi-desert shrubbery. The lizards were so numerous on the desert floor that their swift movement in the bright sun left a dizzying impression, like spots dancing before one's eyes. The creatures had a tangential way of darting off to the side like inconsequential thoughts that never paused long enough to be fully apprehended. One's eyesight was oppressed by subtly moving points where all should have been quiet. Similar darting specks seemed to be invading my mind. Offshore I could hear the sea wheezing and suspiring in long gasps among the caverns of the coral. The equatorial sun blazed on my unprotected head and hummingbirds flashed like little green flames in the underbrush. I sought quick shelter under a manzanillo tree, whose poisoned apples had tempted the sailors of Columbus.

I suppose the apples really made the connection. Or perhaps merely the interior rustling of the lizards as I passed some cardboard boxes beside a fence brought the thing to mind. Or again, it may have been the tropic sun, lending its flames to life with a kind of dreadful indifference as to the result. At any rate, as I shielded my head under the leaves of the poison tree, the darting lizard points began to run together into a pattern.

Before me passed a broken old horse plodding before a cart laden with bags of cast-off clothing. discarded furniture. and abandoned metal. The horse's harness was a makeshift combination of straps mended with rope. The bearded man perched high in the driver's seat looked as though he had been compounded from the assorted junk heap in the wagon bed. What finally occupied the center of my attention. however, was a street sign and a year -- a year that scurried into shape with the flickering alacrity of the lizards. "R Street," they spelled, and the year was 1923.

By now the man on the wagon is dead, his cargo dispersed, never to be reassembled. The plodding beast has been overtaken by whatever fate comes upon a junkman's horse. Their significance upon that particular day in 1923 had been resolved to this, just this: The wagon had been passing the intersection between R and Fourteenth streets when I had leaned from a high-school window a block away, absorbed as only a sixteen-year-old may sometimes be with the sudden discovery of time. It is all going, I thought with the bitter desperation of the young confronting history. No one can hold us. Each and all, we are riding into the dark. Even living, we cannot remember half the events of our own days.

At that moment my eye had fallen upon the junk dealer passing his fateful corner. Now, I had thought instantly, now, save him, immortalize the unseizable moment. The junkman is the symbol of all that is going or is gone. He is passing the intersection into nothingness. Say to the mind, "Hold him, do not forget."

The darting lizard points beyond the manzanillo tree converged and tightened. The phantom horse and the heaped, chaotic wagon were still jouncing across the intersection upon R Street. They had never crossed it; they would not. Forty-five years had fled away. I was not wrong about the powers latent in the brain. The scene was still In process.

I estimated the lowering of the sun with one eye while at the back of my mind the lizard rustling continued. The blistering apples of the manzanillo reminded me of an inconsequential wild-plum fall far away in Nebraska. They were not edible but they contained the same, if a simpler, version of the mystery hidden in our heads. They were hoarding and dispersing energy while the inanimate universe was running down around us.

"We must regard the organism as a configuration contrived to evade the tendency of the universal laws of nature," John Joly the geologist had once remarked. Unlike the fire in a thicket, life burned cunningly and hoarded its resources. Energy provisions in the seed provided against individual death. Of all the unexpected qualities of an unexpected universe, the sheer organizing power of animal and plant metabolism is one of the most remarkable, but, as in the case of most everyday marvels, we take it for granted. Where it reaches its highest development, in the human mind, we forget it completely. Yet out of it history is made -- the junkman on R Street is prevented from departing. Growing increasingly archaic, that phantom would be held at the R Street intersection while all around him new houses arose and the years passed unremembered. He would not be released until my own mind began to crumble.

The power to free him is not mine. He is held enchanted because long ago I willed a miniature of history, confined to a single brain. That brain is devouring oxygen at a rate out of all proportion to the rest of the body. It is involved in burning, evoking, and transposing visions, whether of lizard tails, alphabets from the sea, or the realms beyond the galaxy. So important does nature regard this unseen combustion, this smoke of the planet's autumn, that a starving man's brain will be protected to the last while his body is steadily consumed. It is a part of unexpected nature.

In the rational universe of the physical laboratory this sullen and obstinate burning might not, save for our habit of taking the existent for granted, have been expected. Nonetheless, it is here, and man is its most tremendous manifestation. One might ask, Would it be possible to understand humanity a little better if one could follow along just a step of the evolutionary pathway in person? Suppose that there still lived ... but let me tell the tale, make of it what you will.


Years after the experience I am about to describe, I came upon a recent but Neanderthaloid skull in the dissecting room -- a rare-enough occurrence, one that the far-out flitting of forgotten genes struggles occasionally to produce, as if life sometimes hesitated and were inclined to turn back upon its pathway. For a time, remembering an episode of my youth, I kept the indices of cranial measurement by me.

Today, thinking of that experience, I have searched vainly for my old notebook. It is gone. The years have a way of caring for things that do not seek the safety of print. The earlier event remains, however, because it was not a matter of measurements or anthropological indices but of a living person whom I once knew. Now, in my autumn, the face of that girl and the strange season I spent in her neighborhood return in a kind of hazy lesson that I was too young to understand.

It happened in the West, somewhere in that wide drought-ridden land of empty coulees that carry in sudden spates of flood the boulders of the Rockies toward the sea. I suppose that, with the outward flight of population, the region is as wild now as it was then, some forty years ago. It would be useless to search for the place upon a map, though I have tried. Too many years and too many uncertain miles lie behind all bone hunters. There was no town to fix upon a road map. There was only a sod house tucked behind a butte, out of the prevailing wind. And there was a little spring-fed pond in a grassy meadow -- that I remember.

Bone hunting is not really a very romantic occupation. One walks day after day along miles of frequently unrewarding outcrop. One grows browner, leaner, and tougher, it is true, but one is far from the bright lights, and the prospect, barring a big strike, like a mammoth, is always to abandon camp and go on. It was really a gypsy profession, then, for those who did the field collecting.

In this case, we did not go on. There was an eroding hill in the vicinity, and on top of that hill, just below sod cover, were the foot bones, hundreds of them, of some lost Tertiary species of American rhinoceros. It is useless to ask why we found only foot bones or why we gathered the mineralized things in such fantastic quantities that they must still lie stacked in some museum storeroom. Maybe the creatures had been immured standing up in a waterhole and in the millions of succeeding years the rest of the carcasses had eroded away from the hilltop stratum. But there were the foot bones, and the orders had come down, so we dug carpals and metacarpals till we cursed like an army platoon that headquarters has forgotten.

There was just one diversion: the spring, and the pond in the meadow. There, under the bank, we cooled our milk and butter purchased from the soddy inhabitants. There we swam and splashed after work. The country people were reserved and kept mostly to themselves. They were uninterested in the dull bones on the hilltop unenlivened by skulls or treasure. After all, there was reason for their reserve. We must have appeared, by their rural standards, harmless but undoubtedly touched in the head. The barrier of reserve was never broken. The surly farmer kept to his parched acres and estimated to his profit our damage to his uncultivated hilltop. The slatternly wife tended a few scrawny chickens. In that ever-blowing landscape their windmill largely ran itself.

Only a stocky barefoot girl of twenty sometimes came hesitantly down the path to our camp to deliver eggs. Some sixty days had drifted by upon that hillside. I began to remember the remark of an old fossil hunter who in his time had known the Gold Coast and the African veldt. "When calico begins to look like silk," he had once warned over a fire in the Sierras, "it is time to go home."

But enough of that. We were not bad young people. The girl shyly brought us the eggs, the butter, and the bacon and then withdrew. Only after some little time did her appearance begin to strike me as odd. Men are accustomed to men in their various color variations around the world. When the past intrudes into a modem setting, however, it is less apt to be visible, because to see it demands knowledge of the past, and the past is always camouflaged when it wears the clothes of the present.

The girl came slowly down the trail one evening, and it struck me suddenly how alone she looked and how, well, alien, she also appeared. Our cook was stoking up the evening fire, and as the shadows leaped and flickered I, leaning invisibly against a rock, was suddenly transported one hundred thousand years into the past. The shadows and their dancing highlights were the cause of it. They had swept the present out of sight. That girl coming reluctantly down the pathway to the fire was removed from us in time, and subconsciously she knew it as I did. By modem standards she was not pretty, and the gingham dress she wore, if anything, defined the difference.

Short, thickset, and massive, her body was still not the body of a typical peasant woman. Her head, thrust a little forward against the light, was massive-boned. Along the eye orbits at the edge of the frontal bone I could see outlined in the flames an armored protuberance that, particularly in women, had vanished before the close of the Wurmian ice. She swung her head almost like a great muzzle beneath its curls, and I was struck by the low bun-shaped breadth at the back. Along her exposed arms one could see a flash of golden hair.

No, we are out of time, I thought quickly. We are each and every one displaced. She is the last Neanderthal, and she does not know what to do. We are those who eliminated her long ago. It is like an old scene endlessly re-enacted. Only the chipped stones and the dead game are lacking.

I came out of the shadow then and spoke gently to her, taking the packages. It was the most one could do across that waste of infinite years. She spoke almost inaudibly, drawing an unconscious circle in the dust with a splayed bare foot. I saw, through the thin dress, the powerful thighs, the yearning fertility going unmated in this lone- some spot. She looked up, and a trick of the fire accentuated the cavernous eye sockets so that I saw only darkness within. I accompanied her a short distance along the trail. "What is it you are digging for?" she managed to ask.

"It has to do with time," I said slowly. "Something that happened a long time ago."

She listened incuriously, as one at the morning of creation might do.

"Do you like this?" she persisted. "Do you always just go from one place to another digging these things? And who pays for it, and what comes of it in the end? Do you have a home?" The soddy and her burly father were looming in the dusk. I paused, but questions flung across the centuries are hard to answer.

"I am a student," I said, but with no confidence. How could I say that suddenly she herself and her ulnar-bowed and golden-haired forearms were a part of a long reach backward into time?

"Of what has been, and what will come of it we are trying to find out. I am afraid it will not help one to find a home," I said, more to myself than her. "Quite the reverse, in fact. You see--"

The dark sockets under the tumbled hair seemed somehow sadly vacant. "Thank you for bringing the things," I said, knowing the customs of that land. "Your father is waiting. I will go back to camp now." With this I strode off toward our fire but went, on impulse, beyond it into the full-starred night.

This was the way of things along the Wild Cat escarpment. There was sand blowing and the past mingling with the present in more ways than professional science chose to see. There were eroded farms no longer running cattle and a diminishing population waiting, as this girl was waiting, for something they would never possess. They were, without realizing it, huntsmen without game, women without warriors. Obsolescence was upon their way of life.

But about the girl lingered a curious gentleness that we know now had long ago touched the vanished Neanderthals she so resembled. It would be her fate to marry eventually one of the illiterate hard-eyed uplanders of my own kind. Whatever the subtle genes had resurrected in her body would be buried once more and hidden in the creature called sapiens. Perhaps in the end his last woman would stand unwanted before some fiercer, brighter version of himself. It would be no more than justice. I was farther out in the deep spaces than I knew, and the fire was embers when I returned.

The season was waning. There came, inevitably, a time when the trees began to talk of winter in the crags above the camp. I have repeated all that can be said about so fragile an episode. I had exchanged in the course of weeks a few wistful, scarcely understood remarks. I had waved to her a time or so from the quarry hilltop. As the time of our departure neared I had once glimpsed her shyly surveying from a rise beyond the pond our youthful plungings and naked wallowings in the spring-fed water. Then suddenly the leaves were down or turning yellow. It was time to go. The fossil quarry and its interminable foot bones were at last exhausted.

But something never intended had arisen for me there by the darkening water -- some agonizing, lifelong nostalgia, both personal and, in another sense, transcending the personal. It was -- how shall I say it? -- the endurance in a single mind of two stages of man's climb up the energy ladder that may be both his triumph and his doom.

Our battered equipment was assembled in the Model T's, which, in that time, were the only penetrators of deep-rutted upland roads. Morose good-byes were expressed; money was passed over the broken sod cover on the hilltop. Hundreds of once galloping rhinoceros foot bones were stowed safely away. And that was it. I stood by the running board and slowly, very slowly, let my eyes wander toward that massive, archaic, and yet tragically noble head -- of a creature so far back in time it did not know it represented tragedy. I made, I think, some kind of little personal gesture of farewell. Her head raised in recognition and then dropped. The motors started. Homo sapiens, the energy devourer, was on his way once more.

What was it she had said, I thought desperately as I swung aboard. Home, she had questioned, "Do you have a home?" Perhaps I once did, I was to think many times in the years that followed, but I, too, was a mental atavism. I, like that lost creature, would never find the place called home. It lay somewhere in the past down that hundred-thousand- year road on which travel was impossible. Only ghosts with uncertain eyes and abashed gestures would meet there. Upon a surging tide of power first conceived in the hearth fires of dead caverns mankind was plunging into an uncontrolled future beyond anything the people of the Ice had known.

The cell that had somehow mastered the secret of controlled energy, of surreptitious burning to a purpose, had finally produced the mind, judiciously, in its turn, controlling the inconstant fire at the cave mouth. Beyond anything that lost girl could imagine, words in the mouth or immured in libraries would cause substance to vanish and the earth itself to tremble. The little increments of individual energy dissolving at death had been coded and passed through the centuries by human ingenuity. A climbing juggernaut of power was leaping from triumph to triumph. It threatened to be more than man and all his words could master. It was more and less than man.

I remembered those cavernous eye sockets whose depths were forever hidden from me in the firelight. Did they contain a premonition of the end we had invited, or was it only that I was young and hungry for all that was untouchable? I have searched once more for the old notebooks but, again, in vain. They would tell me, at best, only how living phantoms can be anatomically compared with those of the past. They would tell nothing of that season of the falling leaves or how I learned under the night sky of the utter homelessness of man.


I have seen a tree root burst a rock face on a mountain or slowly wrench aside the gateway of a forgotten city. This is a very cunning feat, which men take too readily for granted. Life, unlike the inanimate, will take the long way round to circumvent barrenness. A kind of desperate will resides even in a root. It will perform the evasive tactics of an army, slowly inching its way through crevices and hoarding energy until someday it swells and a living tree upheaves the heaviest mausoleum. This covert struggle is part of the lifelong battle waged against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the heat death that has been frequently assumed to rule the universe. At the hands of man that hoarded energy takes strange forms, both in the methods of its accumulation and in the diverse ways of its expenditure.

For hundreds of thousands of years, a time longer than all we know of recorded history, the kin of that phantom girl had lived without cities along the Italian Mediterranean or below the northern tentacles of the groping ice. The low archaic skull vault had been as capacious as ours. Neanderthal man had, we now know after long digging, his own small dreams and kindnesses. He had buried his dead with offerings -- there were even evidences that they had been laid, in some instances, upon beds of wild flowers. Beyond the chipped flints and the fires in the cavern darkness his mind had not involved itself with what was to come upon him with our kind -- the first bowmen, the great artists, the terrible creatures of his blood who were never still.

It was a time of autumn driftage that might have lasted and been well forever. Whether it was his own heavy brow that changed in the chill nights or that somewhere his line had mingled with a changeling cuckoo brood who multiplied at his expense we do not know with certainty. We know only that he vanished, though sometimes, as in the case of my upland girl, a chance assemblage of archaic genes struggles to re-emerge from the loins of sapiens.

But the plucked flint had flown; the heavy sad girls had borne the children of the conquerors. Rain and leaves washed over the cave shelters of the past. Bronze replaced flint, iron replaced bronze, while the killing never ceased. The Neanderthals were forgotten; their grottoes housed the oracles of later religions. Marble cities gleamed along the Mediterranean. The ice and the cave bear had vanished. White-robed philosophers discoursed in Athens. Armed galleys moved upon the waters. Agriculture had brought wealth and diversification of labor. It had also brought professional soldiery. The armored ones were growing and, with them, slavery, torture, and death upon all the seas of the world.

The energy that had once sufficed only to take man from one camping place to another, the harsh but innocent world glimpsed by Cook in the eighteenth century on the shores of Australia, century by century was driving toward a climax. The warriors with the tall foreheads given increasingly to fanatic religions and monumental art had finally grown to doubt the creations of their own minds.

The remnants of what had once been talked about in Athens and been consumed in the flames of Alexandria hesitantly crept forth once more. Early in the seventeenth century Sir Francis Bacon asserted that "by the agency of man a new aspect of things, a new universe, comes into view." In those words he was laying the basis of what he came to call "the second world," that world which could be drawn out of the natural by the sheer power of the human mind. Man had, of course, unwittingly been doing something of the sort since he came to speak. Bacon, however, was dreaming of the new world of invention, of toleration, of escape from irrational custom. He was the herald of the scientific method itself. Yet that method demands history also -- the history I as an eager student had long ago beheld symbolically upon a corner in the shape of a junkman's cart. Without knowledge of the past, the way into the thickets of the future is desperate and unclear.

Bacon's second world is now so much with us that it rocks our conception of what the natural order was, or is, or in what sense it can be restored. A mathematical formula traveling weakly along the fibers of the neopallium may serve to wreck the planet. It is a kind of metabolic energy never envisaged by the lichen attacking a rock face or dreamed of in the flickering shadows of a cave fire. Yet from these ancient sources man's hunger has been drawn. Its potential is to be found in the life of the world we call natural, just as its terrifying intricacy is the product of the second visionary world evoked in the brain of man.

The two exist on the planet in an increasingly uneven balance. Into one or the other or into a terrifying nothing one of these two worlds must finally subside. Man, whose strange metabolism has passed beyond the search for food to the naked ingestion of power, is scarcely aware that the energy whose limited planetary store lies at the root of the struggle for existence has passed by way of his mind into another dimension. There the giant shadows of the past continue to contend. They do so because life is a furnace of concealed flame.

Some pages back I spoke of a wild-plum thicket. I did so because I had a youthful memory of visiting it in autumn. All the hoarded juices of summer had fallen with that lush un tasted fruit upon the grass. The tiny engines of the plant had painstakingly gathered throughout the summer rich stores of sugar and syrup from the ground. Seed had been produced; birds had flown away with fruit that would give rise to plum trees miles away. The energy dispersion was so beneficent on that autumn afternoon that earth itself seemed anxious to promote the process against the downward guttering of the stars. Even I, tasting the fruit, was in my animal way scooping up some of it into thoughts and dreams.

Long after the Antillean adventure I chanced on an autumn walk to revisit the plum thicket. I was older, much older, and I had come largely because I wondered if the thicket was still there and because this strange hoarding and burning at the heart of life still puzzled me. I have spoken figuratively of fire as an animal, as being perhaps the very essence of animal. Oxidation, I mean, as it enters into life and consciousness.

Fire, as we have learned to our cost, has an insatiable hunger to be fed. It is a nonliving force that can even locomote itself. What if now -- and I half closed my eyes against the blue plums and the smoke drifting along the draw -- what if now it is only concealed and grown slyly conscious of its own burning in this little house of sticks and clay that I inhabit? What if I am, in some way, only a sophisticated fire that has acquired an ability to regulate its rate of combustion and to hoard its fuel in order to see and walk?

The plums, like some gift given from no one to no one visible, continued to fall about me. I was old now, I thought suddenly, glancing at a vein on my hand. I would have to hoard what remained of the embers. I thought of the junkman's horse and tried to release him so that he might be gone.

Perhaps I had finally succeeded. I do not know. I remembered that star-filled night years ago on the escarpment and the heavy-headed dreaming girl drawing a circle in the dust. Perhaps it was time itself she drew, for my own head was growing heavy and the smoke from the autumn fields seemed to be penetrating my mind. I wanted to drop them at last, these carefully hoarded memories. I wanted to strew them like the blue plums in some gesture of love toward the universe all outward on a mat of leaves. Rich, rich and not to be hoarded, only to be laid down for someone, anyone, no longer to be carried and remembered in pain like the delicate paw lying forever on the beach at Curacao.

I leaned farther back, relaxing in the leaves. It was a feeling I had never had before, and it was strangely soothing. Perhaps I was no longer Homo sapiens, and perhaps that girl, the last Neanderthal, had known as much from the first. Perhaps all I was, really, was a pile of autumn leaves seeing smoke wraiths through the haze of my own burning. Things get odder on this planet, not less so. I dropped my head finally and gazed straight up through the branches at the sun. It was all going, I felt, memories dropping away in that high indifferent blaze that tolerated no other light. I let it be so for a little, but then I felt in my pocket the flint blade that I had carried all those years from the gravels on the escarpment. It reminded me of a journey I would not complete and the circle in the dust around which I had magically traveled for so long.

I arose then and, biting a plum that tasted bitter, I limped off down the ravine. One hundred thousand years had made little difference -- at least, to me. The secret was to travel always in the first world, not the second; or, at least, to know at each crossroad which world was which. I went on, clutching for stability the flint knife in my pocket. A blue smoke like some final conflagration swept out of the draw and preceded me. I could feel its heat. I coughed, and my eyes watered. I tried as best I could to keep pace with it as it swirled on. There was a crackling behind me as though I myself were burning, but the smoke was what I followed. I held the sharp flint like a dowser's twig, cold and steady in my hand.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 12:34 am

II. Early Poems

The Spider

His science has progressed past stone,
His strange and dark geometries,
Impossible to flesh and bone,
Revive upon the passing breeze
The house the blundering foot destroys.
Indifferent to what is lost
He trusts the wind and yet employs
The jeweled stability of frost.
Foundations buried underfoot
Are forfeit to the mole and worm
But spiders know it and will put
Their trust in airy dreams more firm
Than any rock and raise from dew
Frail stairs the careless wind blows through.

Tasting the Mountain Spring

The spring comes to us through a mile of wood,
Beginning in the high cold acres where
Snow water starts, but seeping downward there
Feeds roots -- things at the abysmal sources of
All life. Sticks and wet stones and thirsts
Of worm and toadstool, unseen starry bursts
Of damp wood-pollen fill it -- taste enough
To let you know it has come down the brink
Of more than thunder .... In this foaming ditch
Water with earth's iron tainted and defiled
Mingles with stars, but, for myself, I drink
Like fawn or antelope, untasting which,
So long as all that water's quick and wild.

Things Will Go

When it is all done
Who will know? Who will care?
The snake will still be gliding by the stone,
The frog stare
From his place on the lily pad.
Things will go
Like water, like wind,
As they always have gone since the first
Ooze sprouted and finned.
This does not matter. What's done
Has always been so.
I shall tell myself this, not believe
Like the others I know.

Leaving September

If I have once forgotten on this field
The long light of the dusk, or far away
The sheep on tawny grass, how stones will yield
Small bitter puffballs, or a cricket stay
To wring wry tunes from emptiness and dearth,
Let me remember; let me hold them now
Close to the heart -- while I upon the earth
Am the stone field and pain the heavy plow.
Not in wide measures is the harvest culled;
Not by disaster nor by cutting hail
Is the loss seen, the grief in somewise dulled --
Being done at last. Ours is a different scale --
Leaving September stars and a little smoke
And memory tight as a lichen to an oak.

Nocturne in Silver

Here where the barbed wire straggles in the marsh
And alkali crusts all the weeds like frost,
I have come home, I have come home to hear
The new young frogs that cry along the lost

Wild ditches where at midnight only cows
And fools with eery marsh fire in their brains
Blunder toward midnight. Silvery and clear
Cry the new frogs; the blood runs in my veins

Coldly and clearly. I am mottled, too,
And feel a silver bubble in my throat.
Lock doors, turn keys, or follow in your fear
My eyes are green, and warily afloat

In the June darkness. I am done with fire.
Water quicksilver-like that slips through stone
Has quenched my madness -- if you find me here
My lineage squat and warty will be known.

Winter Sign

A spider web pulled tight between two stones
With nothing left but autumn leaves to catch
Is maybe a winter sign, or the thin blue bones
Of a hare picked clean by ants. A man can attach

Meanings enough to the wind when his luck is out,
But, having stumbled into this season of grief,
I mean to reflect on the life that is here and about
In the fall of the leaves -- not on the dying leaf.

Something more tough, reliable, and stark
Carries the blood of life toward a farther spring--
Something that lies concealed in the soundless dark
Of burr and pod, in the seeds that hook and sting.

I have learned from these that love which endures the night
May smolder in outward death while the colors blaze,
But trust my love -- it is small, burr-coated, and tight.
It will stick to the bone. It will last through the autumn days.

October Has the Heart

Left to his ruin with the autumn leaf,
The spider, black and yellow, treading air
By means of gossamer, goes like a thief
Up, up, and up -- till from that trembling stair
He launches out for some far other vine
Where pumpkins lie like moons among the corn.
As through some old, some bitter-clear thin wine
The world lies still -- no green leaf hides the thorn.
October has the heart; no more dark things
Cry in the blood; the quick impatient storms
Are all gone past, and with them all high wings.
Clear in this autumn quiet something forms:
Something to last -- what Keats once bent to learn
Painted forever on a certain urn.

Dusk Interval

Here is the waste, the stone, the streaming sunset,
Where no clouds pass.
Here, where the hawk's dark wing goes lonely over
Sheep-bitten grass,

Green ice once crawled and plowed the meadow.
The boulders lie
As they were dropped in that tremendous plowing.
The crows cry

Clamorous above it in the twilit evening ...
They do not stoop.
The rich grain and the harvest are not found here.
Night hawks loop

Erratic spirals in the windy starlight.
The fallow ground
Is sleeping, and I know with what ghost sleeping,
Deep under sound.

Oh, not for long the grass, the bells of grasses:
The mice who love
Their hidden runways will soon pass. The boulders
Will lift and move.

This land is sleeping in a dream of mammoth.
Their heavy tread
Will sound again. Sometime their feet will shudder
The last man from his bed.

Let the Red Fox Run

Red-bellied let the red fox run
Under the raining leaf, and weather
And summer go beyond recall
My heart will strain no more at its tether

I will not be out in the sharp hill frost,
I will not be there when the fox goes over
A wall where the broken boulders spill
The shape of a farm back into the clover

I will not be running with all that runs
(Its torn breath streaking down the furrow).
I will take my ease while the hunt pounds by,
Safe at last in earth's darkest burrow.

But somewhere still in the brain's gray vault,
Where the light grows dim and the owls are crying,
I shall run with the fox through the leaf-strewn wood
I shall not be present at my own dying.

The Fishers

The trout stream is fished out and still;
The fishers with their flies have gone.
Nor upstream now, nor down the hill
Move any men with waders on.
The water keeps on coming down;
Still water running green and deep
Harbors a stealthy life where brown
Old leaves go sailing into sleep.
The fishers say the stream is bad.
No rainbow flash against the sun
Will make the souls of fishers glad,
But say for fishers I am one
And here, at least, can still be caught
The slippery minnows of a thought
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 2:45 am

III. Science and Humanism

The Star Thrower

Who is the man walking in the Way? An eye glaring in the skull.

-- Seccho


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 frequently been 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. As always, there is this apparent break, this rift in nature, before the insight comes. The terrible question has to translate itself into an even more terrifying freedom.

If there is any meaning to this book [The Unexpected Universe], it began on the beaches of Costabel with just such a leap across an unknown abyss. It began, if I may borrow the expression from a Buddhist sage, with the skull and the eye. I was the skull. I was the inhumanly stripped skeleton without voice, without hope, wandering alone upon the shores of the world. I was devoid of pity, because pity implies hope. There was, in this desiccated skull, only an eye like a pharos light, a beacon, a search beam revolving endlessly in sunless noonday or black night. Ideas like swarms of insects rose to the beam, but the light consumed them. Upon that shore meaning had ceased. There were only the dead skull and the revolving eye. With such an eye, some have said, science looks upon the world. I do not know. I know only that I was the skull of emptiness and the endlessly revolving light without pity.

Once, in a dingy restaurant in the town, I had heard a woman say: "My father reads a goose bone for the weather." A modern primitive, I had thought, a diviner, using a method older than Stonehenge, as old as the arctic forests.

"And where does he do that?" the woman's companion had asked amusedly.

"In Costabel," she answered complacently, "in Costabel." The voice came back and buzzed faintly for a moment in the dark under the revolving eye. It did not make sense, but nothing in Costabel made sense. Perhaps that was why I had finally found myself in Costabel. Perhaps all men are destined at some time to arrive there as I did.

I had come by quite ordinary means, but I was still the skull with the eye. I concealed myself beneath a fisherman's cap and sunglasses, so that I looked like everyone else on the beach. This is the way things are managed in Costabel. It is on the shore that the revolving eye begins its beam and the whispers rise in the empty darkness of the skull.

The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life. Shells are cast up in windrows; a hermit crab, fumbling for a new home in the depths, is tossed naked ashore, where the waiting gulls cut him to pieces. Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. Even the torn fragments of green sponge yield bits of scrambling life striving to return to the great mother that has nourished and protected them.

In the end the sea rejects its offspring. They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the mucilaginous bodies of the unprotected. The seabeach and its endless war are soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls.

In the night, particularly in the tourist season, or during great storms, one can observe another vulturine activity. One can see, in the hour before dawn on the ebb tide, electric torches bobbing like fireflies along the beach. This is the sign of the professional shellers seeking to outrun and anticipate their less aggressive neighbors. A kind of greedy madness sweeps over the competing collectors. After a storm one can see them hurrying along with bundles of gathered starfish, or, toppling and overburdened, clutching bags of living shells whose hidden occupants will be slowly cooked and dissolved in the outdoor kettles provided by the resort hotels for the cleaning of specimens. Following one such episode I met the star thrower.

As soon as the ebb was flowing, as soon as I could make out in my sleeplessness the flashlights on the beach, I arose and dressed in the dark. As I came down the steps to the shore I could hear the deeper rumble of the surf. A gaping hole filled with churning sand had cut sharply into the breakwater. Flying sand as light as powder coated every exposed object like snow. I made my way around the altered edges of the cove and proceeded on my morning walk up the shore. Now and then a stooping figure moved in the gloom or a rain squall swept past me with light pattering steps. There was a faint sense of coming light somewhere behind me in the east.

Soon I began to make out objects, up-ended timbers, conch shells, sea wrack wrenched from the far-out kelp forests. A pink-clawed crab encased in a green cup of sponge lay sprawling where the waves had tossed him. Long-limbed starfish were strewn everywhere, as though the night sky had showered down. I paused once briefly. A small octopus, its beautiful dark-lensed eyes bleared with sand, gazed up at me from a ragged bundle of tentacles. I hesitated, and touched it briefly with my foot. It was dead. I paced on once more before the spreading whitecaps of the surf.

The shore grew steeper, the sound of the sea heavier and more menacing, as I rounded a bluff into the full blast of the offshore wind. I was away from the shellers now and strode more rapidly over the wet sand that effaced my footprints. Around the next point there might be a refuge from the wind. The sun behind me was pressing upward at the horizon's rim -- an ominous red glare amidst the tumbling blackness of the clouds. Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.

Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over a half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

"It's still alive," I ventured.

"Yes," he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

"It may live," he said, "if the offshore pull is strong enough." He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors.

"There are not many come this far," I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. "Do you collect?"

"Only like this," he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. "And only for the living." He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

"The stars," he said, "throw well. One can help them."

He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.

"I do not collect," I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. "Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector." I could feel the full night blackness in my skull and the terrible eye resuming its indifferent journey. I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with that great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.

I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had, at any rate, the posture of a god.

But again the eye, the cold world-shriveling eye, began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world.

I adjusted the dark lens of my glasses and, thus disguised, I paced slowly back by the starfish gatherers, past the shell collectors, with their vulgar little spades and the stick-length shelling pincers that eased their elderly backs while they snatched at treasures in the sand. I chose to look full at the steaming kettles in which beautiful voiceless things were being boiled alive. Behind my sunglasses a kind of litany began and refused to die down. "As I came through the desert thus it was, as I came through the desert."

In the darkness of my room I lay quiet with the sunglasses removed, but the eye turned and turned. In the desert, an old monk had once advised a traveler, the voices of God and the Devil are scarcely distinguishable. Costabel was a desert. I lay quiet, but my restless hand at the bedside fingered the edge of an invisible abyss. "Certain coasts" -- the remark of a perceptive writer came back to me --"are set apart for shipwreck." With unerring persistence I had made my way thither.


There is a difference in our human outlook, depending on whether we have been born on level plains, where one step reasonably leads to another, or whether, by contrast, we have spent our lives amidst glacial crevasses and precipitous descents. In the case of the mountaineer, one step does not always lead rationally to another save by a desperate leap over a chasm, or by an even more hesitant tiptoeing across precarious snow bridges.

Something about these opposed landscapes has its analogue in the mind of man. Our prehistoric life, one might say, began amidst enforested gloom with the abandonment of the protected instinctive life of nature. We sought, instead, an adventurous existence amidst the crater lands and ice fields of self-generated ideas. Clambering onward, we have slowly made our way out of a maze of isolated peaks into the level plains of science. Here, one step seems definitely to succeed another, the universe appears to take on an imposed order, and the illusions through which mankind has painfully made its way for many centuries have given place to the enormous vistas of past and future time. The encrusted eye in the stone speaks to us of undeviating sunlight; the calculated elliptic of Halley's comet no longer forecasts world disaster. The planet plunges on through a chill void of star years, and there is little or nothing that remains unmeasured.

Nothing, that is, but the mind of man. Since boyhood I had been traveling across the endless coordinated realms of science, just as, in the body, I was a plains dweller, accustomed to plodding through distances unbroken by precipices. Now that I come to look back, there was one contingent aspect of that landscape I inhabited whose significance, at the time, escaped me. "Twisters," we called them locally. They were a species of cyclonic, bouncing air funnel that could suddenly loom out of nowhere, crumpling windmills or slashing with devastating fury through country towns. Sometimes, by modest contrast, more harmless varieties known as dust devils might pursue one in a gentle spinning dance for miles. One could see them hesitantly stalking across the alkali flats on a hot day, debating, perhaps, in their tall, rotating columns, whether to ascend and assume more formidable shapes. They were the trickster part of an otherwise pedestrian landscape.

Infrequent though the visitations of these malign creations of the air might be, all prudent homesteaders in those parts had provided themselves with cyclone cellars. In the careless neighborhood in which I grew up, however, we contented ourselves with the queer yarns of cyclonic folklore and the vagaries of weather prophecy. As a boy, aroused by these tales and cherishing a subterranean fondness for caves, I once attempted to dig a storm cellar. Like most such projects this one was never completed. The trickster element in nature, I realize now, had so buffeted my parents that they stoically rejected planning. Unconsciously, they had arrived at the philosophy that foresight merely invited the attention of some baleful intelligence that despised and persecuted the calculating planner. It was not until many years later that I came to realize that a kind of maleficent primordial power persists in the mind as well as in the wandering dust storms of the exterior world.

A hidden dualism that has haunted man since antiquity runs across his religious conceptions as the conflict between good and evil. It persists in the modern world of science under other guises. It becomes chaos versus form or antichaos. Form, since the rise of the evolutionary philosophy, has itself taken on an illusory quality. Our apparent shapes no longer have the stability of a single divine fiat. Instead, they waver and dissolve into the unexpected. We gaze backward into a contracting cone of life until words leave us and all we know is dissolved into the simple circuits of a reptilian brain. Finally, sentience subsides into an animalcule.

Or we revolt and refuse to look deeper, but the void remains. We are rag dolls made out of many ages and skins, changelings who have slept in wood nests or hissed in the uncouth guise of waddling amphibians. We have played such roles for infinitely longer ages than we have been men. Our identity is a dream. We are process, not reality, for reality is an illusion of the daylight -- the light of our particular day. In a fortnight, as aeons are measured, we may lie silent in a bed of stone, or, as has happened in the past, be figured in another guise. Two forces struggle perpetually in our bodies: Yam, the old sea dragon of the original Biblical darkness, and, arrayed against him, some wisp of dancing light that would have us linger, wistful, in our human form. "Tarry thou, till I come again" -- an old legend survives among us of the admonition given by Jesus to the Wandering Jew. The words are applicable to all of us. Deep-hidden in the human psyche there is a similar injunction, no longer having to do with the longevity of the body but, rather, a plea to wait upon some transcendent lesson preparing in the mind itself.

Yet the facts we face seem terrifyingly arrayed against us. It is as if at our backs, masked and demonic, moved the trickster as I have seen his role performed among the remnant of a savage people long ago. It was that of the jokester present at the most devout of ceremonies. This creature never laughed; he never made a sound. Painted in black, he followed silently behind the officiating priest, mimicking, with the added flourish of a little whip, the gestures of the devout one. His timed and stylized posturings conveyed a derision infinitely more formidable than actual laughter.

In modern terms, the dance of contingency, of the indeterminable, outwits us all. The approaching fateful whirlwind on the plain had mercifully passed me by in youth. In the moment when I witnessed that fireside performance I knew with surety that primitive man had lived with a dark message. He had acquiesced in the admission into his village of a cosmic messenger. Perhaps the primitives were wiser in the ways of the trickster universe than ourselves; perhaps they knew, as we do not, how to ground or make endurable the lightning.

At all events, I had learned, as I watched that half-understood drama by the leaping fire, why man, even modern man, reads goose bones for the weather of his soul. Afterward I had gone out, a troubled unbeliever, into the night. There was a shadow I could not henceforth shake off, which I knew was posturing and would always posture behind me. That mocking shadow looms over me as I write. It scrawls with a derisive pen and an exaggerated flourish. I know instinctively it will be present to caricature the solemnities of my deathbed. In a quarter of a century it has never spoken.

Black magic, the magic of the primeval chaos, blots out or transmogrifies the true form of things. At the stroke of twelve the princess must flee the banquet or risk discovery in the rags of a kitchen wench; coach reverts to pumpkin. Instability lies at the heart of the world. With uncanny foresight folklore has long toyed symbolically with what the nineteenth century was to proclaim a reality -- namely, that form is an illusion of the time dimension, that the magic flight of the pursued hero or heroine through frogskin and wolf coat has been, and will continue to be, the flight of all men.

Goethe's genius sensed, well before the publication of the Origin of Species, the thesis and antithesis that epitomize the eternal struggle of the immediate species against its dissolution into something other: in modern terms, fish into reptile, ape into man. The power to change is both creative and destructive -- a sinister gift, which, unrestricted, leads onward toward the formless and inchoate void of the possible. This force can only be counterbalanced by an equal impulse toward specificity. Form, once arisen, clings to its identity. Each species and each individual holds tenaciously to its present nature. Each strives to contain the creative and abolishing maelstrom that pours unseen through the generations. The past vanishes; the present momentarily persists; the future is potential only. In this specious present of the real, life struggles to maintain every manifestation, every individuality, that exists. In the end, life always fails, but the amorphous hurrying stream is held and diverted into new organic vessels in which form persists, though the form may not be that of yesterday.

The evolutionists, piercing beneath the show of momentary stability, discovered, hidden in rudimentary organs, the discarded rubbish of the past. They detected the reptile under the lifted feathers of the bird, the lost terrestrial limbs dwindling beneath the blubber of the giant cetaceans. They saw life rushing outward from an unknown center, just as today the astronomer senses the galaxies fleeing into the infinity of darkness. As the spinning galactic clouds hurl stars and worlds across the night, so life, equally impelled by the centrifugal powers lurking in the germ cell, scatters the splintered radiance of consciousness and sends it prowling and contending through the thickets of the world.

All this devious, tattered way was exposed to the ceaselessly turning eye within the skull that lay hidden upon the bed in Costabel. Slowly that eye grew conscious of another eye that searched it with equal penetration from the shadows of the room. It may have been a projection from the mind within the skull, but the eye was, nevertheless, exteriorized and haunting. It began as something glaucous and blind beneath a web of clinging algae. It altered suddenly and became the sand-smeared eye of the dead cephalopod I had encountered upon the bead~. The transformations became more rapid with the concentration of my attention, and they became more formidable. There was the beaten, bloodshot eye of an animal from somewhere within my childhood experience. Finally, there was an eye that seemed tom from a photograph, but that looked through me as though it had already raced in vision up to the steep edge of nothingness and absorbed whatever terror lay in that abyss. I sank back again upon my cot and buried my head in the pillow. I knew the eye and the circumstance and the question. It was my mother. She was long dead, and the way backward was lost.


Now it may be asked, upon the coasts that invite shipwreck, why the ships should come, just as we may ask the man who pursues knowledge why he should be left with a revolving search beam in the head whose light falls only upon disaster or the flotsam of the shore. There is an answer, but its way is not across the level plains of science, for the science of remote abysses no longer shelters man. Instead, it reveals him in vaporous metamorphic succession as the homeless and unspecified one, the creature of the magic flight.

Long ago, when the future was just a simple tomorrow, men had cast intricately carved game counters to determine its course, or they had traced with a grimy finger the cracks on the burnt shoulder blade of a hare. It was a prophecy of tomorrow's hunt, just as was the old farmer's anachronistic reading of the weather from the signs on the breastbone of a goose. Such quaint almanacs of nature's intent had sufficed mankind since antiquity. They would do so no longer, nor would formal apologies to the souls of the game men hunted. The hunters had come, at last, beyond the satisfying supernatural world that had always surrounded the little village, into a place of homeless frontiers and precipitous edges, the indescribable world of the natural. Here tools increasingly revenged themselves upon their creators and tomorrow became unmanageable. Man had come in his journeying to a region of terrible freedoms.

It was a place of no traditional shelter, save those erected with the aid of tools, which had also begun to achieve a revolutionary independence from their masters. Their ways had grown secretive and incalculable. Science, more powerful than the magical questions that might be addressed by a shaman to a burnt shoulder blade, could create these tools but had not succeeded in controlling their ambivalent nature. Moreover, they responded all too readily to that urge for tampering and dissolution which is part of our primate heritage.

We had been safe in the enchanted forest only because of our weakness. When the powers of that gloomy region were given to us, immediately, as in a witch's house, things began to fly about unbidden. The tools, if not science itself, were linked intangibly to the subconscious poltergeist aspect of man's nature. The closer man and the natural world drew together, the more erratic became the behavior of each. Huge shadows leaped triumphantly after every blinding illumination. It was a magnified but clearly recognizable version of the black trickster's antics behind the solemn backs of the priesthood. Here, there was one difference. The shadows had passed out of all human semblance; no societal ritual safely contained their posturings, as in the warning dance of the trickster. Instead, unseen by many because it was so gigantically real, the multiplied darkness threatened to submerge the carriers of the light.

Darwin, Einstein, and Freud might be said to have released the shadows. Yet man had already entered the perilous domain that henceforth would contain his destiny. Four hundred years ago Francis Bacon had already anticipated its dual nature. The individuals do not matter. If they had not made their discoveries, others would have surely done so. They were good men, and they came as enlighteners of mankind. The tragedy was only that at their backs the ritual figure with the whip was invisible. There was no longer anything to subdue the pride of man. The world had been laid under the heavy spell of the natural; henceforth, it would be ordered by man.

Humanity was suddenly entranced by light and fancied it reflected light. Progress was its watchword, and for a time the shadows seemed to recede. Only a few guessed that the retreat of darkness presaged the emergence of an entirely new and less tangible terror. Things, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, were to grow incalculable by being calculated. Man's powers were finite; the forces he had released in nature recognized no such limitations. They were the irrevocable monsters conjured up by a completely amateur sorcerer.

But what, we may ask, was the nature of the first discoveries that now threaten to induce disaster? Pre-eminent among them was, of course, the perception to which we have already referred: the discovery of the interlinked and evolving web of life. The great Victorian biologists saw, and yet refused to see, the war between form and formlessness, chaos and antichaos, which the poet Goethe had sensed contesting beneath the smiling surface of nature. "The dangerous gift from above," he had termed it, with uneasy foresight.

By contrast, Darwin, the prime student of the struggle for existence, sought to visualize in a tangled bank of leaves the silent and insatiable war of nature. Still, he could imply with a veiled complacency that man might "with some confidence" look forward to a secure future "of inappreciable length." This he could do upon the same page in the Origin of Species where he observes that "of the species now living very few will transmit progeny to a far distant futurity." The contradiction escaped him; he did not wish to see it. Darwin, in addition, saw life as a purely selfish struggle, in which nothing is modified for the good of another species without being directly advantageous to its associated form.

If, he contended, one part of any single species had been formed for the exclusive good of another, "it would annihilate my theory." Powerfully documented and enhanced though the statement has become, famine, war, and death are not the sole instruments biologists today would accept as the means toward that perfection of which Darwin spoke. The subject is subtle and intricate; let it suffice to say here that the sign of the dark cave and the club became so firmly fixed in human thinking that in our time it has been invoked as signifying man's true image in books selling in the hundreds of thousands.

From the thesis and antithesis contained in Darwinism we come to Freud. The public knows that, like Darwin, the master of the inner world took the secure, stable, and sunlit province of the mind and revealed it as a place of contending furies. Ghostly transformations, flitting night shadows, misshapen changelings existed there, as real as anything that haunted the natural universe of Darwin. For this reason, appropriately, I had come as the skull and the eye to Costabel -- the coast demanding shipwreck. Why else had I remembered the phrase, except for a dark impulse toward destruction lurking somewhere in the subconscious? I lay on the bed while the agonized eye in the remembered photograph persisted at the back of my closed lids.

It had begun when, after years of separation, I had gone dutifully home to a house from which the final occupant had departed. In a musty attic -- among old trunks, a broken aquarium, and a dusty heap of fossil shells collected in childhood -- I found a satchel. The satchel was already a shabby antique, in whose depths I turned up a jackknife and a "rat" of hair such as women wore at the beginning of the century. Beneath these lay a pile of old photographs and a note -- two notes, rather, evidently dropped into the bag at different times. Each, in a thin, ornate hand, reiterated a single message that the writer had believed important. "This satchel belongs to my son, Loren Eiseley." It was the last message. I recognized the trivia. The jackknife I had carried in childhood. The rat of hair had belonged to my mother, and there were also two incredibly pointed slippers that looked as though they had been intended for a formal ball, to which I knew well my mother would never in her life have been invited. I undid the rotted string around the studio portraits.

Mostly they consisted of stiff, upright bearded men and heavily clothed women equally bound to the formalities and ritual that attended upon the photography of an earlier generation. No names identified the pictures, although here and there a reminiscent family trait seemed faintly evident. Finally I came upon a less formal photograph, taken in the eighties of the last century. Again no names identified the people, but a commercial stamp upon the back identified the place: Dyersville, Iowa. I had never been in that country town, but I knew at once it was my mother's birthplace.

Dyersville, the thought flashed through my mind, making the connection now for the first time: the dire place. I recognized at once the two sisters at the edge of the photograph, the younger clinging reluctantly to the older. Six years old, I thought, turning momentarily away from the younger child's face. Here it began, her pain and mine. The eyes in the photograph were already remote and shadowed by some inner turmoil. The poise of the body was already that of one miserably departing the peripheries of the human estate. The gaze was mutely clairvoyant and lonely. It was the gaze of a child who knew unbearable difference and impending isolation.

I dropped the notes and pictures once more into the bag. The last message had come from Dyersville: "my son." The child in the photograph had survived to be an ill-taught prairie artist. She had been deaf. All her life she had walked the precipice of mental breakdown. Here on this faded porch it had begun -- the long crucifixion of life. I slipped downstairs and out of the house. I walked for miles through the streets.

Now at Costabel I put on the sunglasses once more, but the face from the torn photograph persisted behind them. It was as though I, as man, was being asked to confront, in all its overbearing weight, the universe itself. "Love not the world," the Biblical injunction runs, "neither the things that are in the world." The revolving beam in my mind had stopped, and the insect whisperings of the intellect. There was, at last, an utter stillness, a waiting as though for a cosmic judgment. The eye, the torn eye, considered me.

"But 1 do love the world," 1 whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. "I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again." 1 choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, "I love the lost ones, the failures of the world." It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone. 1 had come full upon one of the last great rifts in nature, and the merciless beam no longer was in traverse around my skull.

But no, it was not a rift but a joining: the expression of love projected beyond the species boundary by a creature born of Darwinian struggle, in the silent war under the tangled bank. "There is no boon in nature," one of the new philosophers had written harshly in the first years of the industrial cities. Nevertheless, through war and famine and death, a sparse mercy had persisted, like a mutation whose time had not yet come. I had seen the star thrower cross that rift and, in so doing, he had reasserted the human right to define his own frontier. He had moved to the utmost edge of natural being, if not across its boundaries. It was as though at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.

Out of the depths of a seemingly empty universe had grown an eye, like the eye in my room, but an eye on a vastly larger scale. It looked out upon what I can only call itself. It searched the skies and it searched the depths of being. In the shape of man it had ascended like a vaporous emanation from the depths of night. The nothing had miraculously gazed upon the nothing and was not content. It was an intrusion into, or a projection out of, nature for which no precedent existed. The act was, in short, an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero. A little whirlwind of commingling molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe.

Here, at last, was the rift that lay beyond Darwin's tangled bank. For a creature, arisen from that bank and born of its contentions, had stretched out its hand in pity. Some ancient, inexhaustible, and patient intelligence, lying dispersed in the planetary fields of force or amidst the inconceivable cold of interstellar space, had chosen to endow its desolation with an apparition as mysterious as itself. The fate of man is to be the ever-recurrent, reproachful Eye floating upon night and solitude. The world cannot be said to exist save by the interposition of that inward eye -- an eye various and not under the restraints to be apprehended from what is vulgarly called the natural.

I had been unbelieving. I had walked away from the star thrower in the hardened indifference of maturity. But thought mediated by the eye is one of nature's infinite disguises. Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission. I set forth in an effort to find the star thrower.


Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demoniacal stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations. He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment. Finally, the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose -- to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of a world.

Somewhere far up the coast wandered the star thrower beneath his rainbow. Our exchange had been brief because upon that coast I had learned that men who ventured out at dawn resented others in the greediness of their compulsive collecting. I had also been abrupt because I had, in the terms of my profession and experience, nothing to say. The star thrower was mad, and his particular acts were a folly with which I had not chosen to associate myself. I was an observer and a scientist. Nevertheless, I had seen the rainbow attempting to attach itself to earth.

On a point of land, as though projecting into a domain beyond us, I found the star thrower. In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many-hued rainbow still lurked and wavered tentatively beyond him. Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves. I spoke once briefly. "I understand," I said. "Call me another thrower." Only then I allowed myself to think, He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others.

We were part of the rainbow -- an unexplained projection into the natural. As I went down the beach I could feel the drawing of a circle in men's minds, like that lowering, shifting realm of color in which the thrower labored. It was a visible model of something toward which man's mind had striven, the circle of perfection.

I picked and flung another star. Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung. I could feel the movement in my body. It was like a sowing -- the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale. I looked back across my shoulder. Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more. I never looked again. The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.

But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars. Somewhere far off, across bottomless abysses, I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully. I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower in the rainbow cast, slowly, deliberately, and well. The task was not to be assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save. For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns. It was, unsought, the destiny of my kind since the rituals of the Ice Age hunters, when life in the Northern Hemisphere had come close to vanishing. We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life -- the completion of the rainbow of existence. Even the hunters in the snow, making obeisance to the souls of the hunted, had known the cycle. The legend had come down and lingered that he who gained the gratitude of animals gained help in need from the dark wood.

I cast again with an increasingly remembered sowing motion and went my lone way up the beaches. Somewhere, I felt, in a great atavistic surge of feeling, somewhere the Thrower knew. Perhaps he smiled and cast once more into the boundless pit of darkness. Perhaps he, too, was lonely, and the end toward which he labored remained hidden -- even as with ourselves.

I picked up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin's tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered. We had reached the last shore of an invisible island -- yet, strangely, also a shore that the primitives had always known. They had sensed intuitively that man cannot exist spiritually without life, his brother, even if he slays. Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, always in desolation, but not in defeat.

In the night the gas flames under the shelling kettles would continue to glow. I set my clock accordingly. Tomorrow I would walk in the storm. I would walk against the shell collectors and the flames. I would walk remembering Bacon's forgotten words "for the uses of life." I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicably, in nature something above the role men give her. I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 2:50 am

Science and the Sense of the Holy


When I was a young man engaged in fossil hunting in the Nebraska badlands I was frequently reminded that the ravines, washes, and gullies over which we wandered resembled the fissures in a giant exposed brain. The human brain contains the fossil memories of its past -- buried but not extinguished moments -- just as this more formidable replica contained deep in its inner stratigraphic convolutions earth's past in the shape of horned titanotheres and stalking, dirk-toothed cats. Man's memory erodes away in the short space of a lifetime. Jutting from the coils of the earth brain over which I clambered were the buried remnants, the changing history, of the entire age of mammals -- millions of years of vanished daylight with their accompanying traces of volcanic outbursts and upheavals. It may well be asked why this analogy of earth's memory should so preoccupy the mind of a scientist as to have affected his entire outlook upon nature and upon his kinship with -- even his concern for -- the plant and animal world about him.

Perhaps the problem can best be formulated by pointing out that there are two extreme approaches to the interpretation of the living world. One was expressed by Charles Darwin at the age of twenty-eight; one by Sigmund Freud in his mature years. Other men of science have been arrayed on opposite sides of the question, but the eminence of these two scholars will serve to point up a controversy that has been going on since science arose, sometimes quietly, sometimes marked by vitriolic behavior, as when a certain specialist wedded to his own view of the universe hurled his opponent's book into his wastebasket only to have it retrieved and cherished by a graduate student who became a lifelong advocate of the opinions reviled by his mentor. Thus it is evident that, in the supposed objective world of science, emotion and temperament may playa role in our selection of the mental tools with which we choose to investigate nature.

Charles Darwin, at a time when the majority of learned men looked upon animals as either automatons or creatures created merely for human exploitation, jotted thoughtfully into one of his early journals upon evolution the following observation:

"If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine -- our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements -- they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor -- we may be all netted together."

What, we may now inquire, is the world view here implied, one way in which a great scientist looked upon the subject matter that was to preoccupy his entire working life? In spite of the fact that Darwin was, in his later years, an agnostic, in spite of confessing he was "in thick mud" so far as metaphysics was concerned, the remark I have quoted gives every sign of that feeling of awe, of dread of the holy playing upon nature, which characterizes the work of a number of naturalists and physicists down even to the present day. Darwin's remark reveals an intuitive sensitivity to the life of other creatures about him, an attitude quite distinct from that of the laboratory experimentalist who is hardened to the infliction of pain. In addition, Darwin's final comment that we may be all netted together in one gigantic mode of experience, that we are in a mystic sense one single diffuse animal, subject to joy and suffering beyond what we endure as individuals, reveals a youth drawn to the world of nature by far more than just the curiosity to be readily satisfied by the knife or the scalpel.

If we turn to Sigmund Freud by way of contrast we find an oddly inhibited reaction. Freud, though obviously influenced by the elegant medical experimenters of his college days, groped his way alone, and by methods not subject to quantification or absolute verification, into the dark realms of the subconscious. His reaction to the natural world, or at least his feelings and intuitions about it, are basically cold, clinical, and reserved. He of all men recognized what one poet has termed "the terrible archaeology of the brain." Freud states that "nothing once constructed has perished, and all the earlier stages of development have survived alongside the latest." But for Freud, convinced that childhood made the man, adult reactions were apt to fall under the suspicion of being childhood ghosts raised up in a disguised fashion. Thus, insightful though he could be, the very nature of his study of man tended to generate distrust of that outgoing empathy we observed in the young Darwin. "I find it very difficult to work with these intangible qualities," confessed Freud. He was suspicious of their representing some lingering monster of childhood, even if reduced in size. Since Freud regarded any type of religious feeling -- even the illuminative quality of the universe -- as an illusion, feelings of awe before natural phenomena such as that manifested by Darwin were to him basically remnants of childhood and to be dismissed accordingly.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud speaks with slight condescension of a friend who claimed a sensation of eternity, something limitless, unbounded -- "oceanic," to use the friend's expression. The feeling had no sectarian origin, no assurance of immortality, but implied just such a sense of awe as might lie at the root of the religious impulse. "I cannot," maintained Freud, "discover this 'oceanic' impulse in myself." Instead he promptly psychoanalyzes the feeling of oneness with the universe into the child's pleasure ego which holds to itself all that is comforting; in short, the original ego, the infant's ego, included everything. Later, by experience, contended Freud, our adult ego becomes only a shrunken vestige of that far more extensive feeling which "expressed an inseparable connection ... with the external world."

In essence, then, Freud is explaining away one of the great feelings characteristic of the best in man by relegating it to a childhood atavistic survival in adult life. The most highly developed animals, he observes, have arisen from the lowest. Although the great saurians are gone, the dwarfed crocodile remains. Presumably if Freud had completed the analogy he would have been forced to say that crocodilian adults without awe and with egos shrunken safely into their petty concerns represented a higher, more practical evolutionary level than the aberrant adult who persists in feelings of wonder before which Freud recoiled with a nineteenth-century mechanist's distaste, although not without acknowledging that this lurking child· like corruption might be widespread. He chose to regard it, however, as just another manifestation of the irrational aspect of man's divided psyche.

Over six decades before the present, a German theologian, Rudolf Otto, had chosen for his examination what he termed The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige). Appearing in 1917 in a time of bitterness and disillusionment, his book was and is still widely read. It cut across denominational divisions and spoke to all those concerned with that mysterium tremendum, that very awe before the universe which Freud had sighed over and dismissed as irrational. I think it safe to affirm that Freud left adult man somewhat shrunken and misjudged -- misjudged because some of the world's scientists and artists have been deeply affected by the great mystery, less so the child at one's knee who frequently has to be disciplined to what in India has been called the "opening of the heavenly eye."

Ever since man first painted animals in the dark of caves he has been responding to the holy, to the numinous, to the mystery of being and becoming, to what Goethe very aptly called "the weird portentous." Something inexpressible was felt to lie behind nature. The bear cult, circumpolar in distribution and known archaeologically to extend into Neanderthal times, is a further and most ancient example. The widespread beliefs in descent from a totemic animal, guardian helpers in the shapes of animals, the concept of the game lords who released or held back game to man are all part of a variety of a sanctified, reverent experience that extends from the beautiful rock paintings of South Africa to the men of the Labradorean forests or the Plains Indian seeking by starvation and isolation to bring the sacred spirits to his assistance. All this is part of the human inheritance, the wonder of the world, and nowhere does that wonder press closer to us than in the guise of animals which, whether supernaturally as in the caves of our origins or, as in Darwin's sudden illumination, perceived to be, at heart, one form, one awe-inspiring mystery, seemingly diverse and apart but derived from the same genetic source. Thus the mysterium arose not by primitive campfires alone.

Skins may still prickle in a modern classroom.

In the end, science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in a snail's eye or within the light that impinges on that delicate organ. The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one's head about. The world of the secondary qualities -- color, sound, thought -- is reduced to illusion. The only true reality becomes the chill void of ever-streaming particles.

If one is a biologist this approach can result in behavior so remarkably cruel that it ceases to be objective but rather suggests a deep grain of sadism that is not science. To list but one example, a recent newspaper article reported that a great urban museum of national reputation had spent over a half-million dollars on mutilating experiments with cats. The experiments are too revolting to chronicle here and the museum has not seen fit to enlighten the public on the knowledge gained at so frightful a cost in pain. The cost, it would appear, lies not alone in animal suffering but in the dehumanization of those willing to engage in such blind, random cruelty. The practice was defended by museum officials, who in a muted show of scientific defense maintained the right to study what they chose "without regard to its demonstrable practical value."

This is a scientific precept hard to override since the days of Galileo, as the official well knew. Nevertheless, behind its seamless facade of probity many terrible things are and will be done. Blaise Pascal, as far back as the seventeenth century, foresaw our two opposed methods. Of them he said: "There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in." It is the reductionist who, too frequently, would claim that the end justifies the means, who would assert reason as his defense and let that mysterium which guards man's moral nature fall away in indifference, a phantom without reality.

"The whole of existence frightens me," protested the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; "from the smallest fly to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything is unintelligible to me, most of all myself." By contrast, the evolutionary reductionist Ernst Haeckel, writing in 1877, commented that "the cell consists of matter ... composed chiefly of carbon with an admixture of hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur. These component parts, properly united, produce the soul and body of the animated world, and suitably nourished become man. With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in." Since these remarks of Haeckel's, uttered a hundred years ago, the genetic alphabet has scarcely substantiated in its essential intricacy Haeckel's carefree dismissal of the complexity of life. If anything, it has given weight to Kierkegaard's wary statement or at least heightened the compassionate wonder with which we are led to look upon our kind.

"A conviction akin to religious feeling of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a high order," says Albert Einstein. Here once more the eternal dichotomy manifests itself. Thoreau, the man of literature, writes compassionately, "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?" Or Walt Whitman, the poet, protests in his Song of Myself: "whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in a shroud."

"Magnifying and applying come I" -- he thunders --
"Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters ...
Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or a hair
on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation."

Strange, is it not, that so many of these voices are not those of children, but those of great men -- Newton playing on the vast shores of the universe, or Whitman touched with pity or Darwin infused with wonder over the clambering tree of life. Strange, that all these many voices should be dismissed as the atavistic yearnings of an unreduced childlike ego seeking in "oceanic" fashion to absorb its entire surroundings, as though in revolt against the counting house, the laboratory, and the computer.


Not long ago in a Manhattan art gallery there were exhibited paintings by Irwin Fleminger, a modernist whose vast lawless Martianlike landscapes contain cryptic human artifacts. One of these paintings attracted my eye by its title: "Laws of Nature." Here in a jumbled desert waste without visible life two thin laths had been erected a little distance apart. Strung across the top of the laths was an insubstantial string with even more insubstantial filaments depending from the connecting cord. The effect was terrifying. In the huge inhuman universe that constituted the background, man, who was even more diminished by his absence, had attempted to delineate and bring under natural law an area too big for his comprehension. His effort, his "law," whatever it was, denoted a tiny measure in the midst of an ominous landscape looming away to the horizon. The frail slats and dangling string would not have sufficed to fence a chicken run.

The message grew as one looked. With all the great powers of the human intellect we were safe, we understood, in degree, a space between some slats and string, a little gate into the world of infinitude. The effect was crushing and it brought before one that sense of the "other" of which Rudolf Otto spoke, the sense beyond our senses, unspoken awe, or, as the reductionist would have it, nothing but waste. There the slats stood and the string drooped hopelessly. It was the natural law imposed by man, but outside its compass, again to use the words of Thoreau, was something terrific, not bound to be kind to man. Not man's at all really -- a star's substance totally indifferent to life or what laws life might concoct. No man would greatly extend that trifling toy. The line sagged hopelessly. Man's attempt had failed, leaving but an artifact in the wilderness. Perhaps, I thought, this is man's own measure. Perhaps he has already gone. The crepitation at my spine increased. I felt the mood of the paleolithic artists, lost in the mysteries of birth and corning, as they carved pregnant beasts in the dark of caves and tried by crayons to secure the food necessarily wrung from similar vast landscapes. Their art had the same holy quality that shows in the ivory figurines, the worship before the sacred mother who brought man mysteriously into the limited world of the cave mouth.

The numinous then is touched with superstition, the reductionist would say, but all the rituals suggest even toward hunted animals a respect and sympathy leading to ceremonial treatment of hunted souls; whereas by contrast in the modern world the degradation of animals in experiments of little, or vile, meaning, were easily turned to the experimental human torture practiced at Dachau and Buchenwald by men dignified with medical degrees. So the extremes of temperament stand today: the man with reverence and compassion in his heart whose eye ranges farther than the two slats in the wilderness, and the modern vandal totally lacking in empathy for life beyond his own, his sense of wonder reduced to a crushing series of gears and quantitative formula, the educated vandal without mercy or tolerance, the collecting man that I once tried to prevent from killing an endangered falcon, who raised his rifle, fired, and laughed as the bird tumbled at my feet. I suppose Freud might have argued that this was a man of normal ego, but I, extending my childlike mind into the composite life of the world, bled accordingly.

Perhaps Freud was right, but let us look once more at this brain that in many distinguished minds has agonized over life and the mysterious road by which it has come. Certainly, as Darwin recognized, it was not the tough-minded, logical inductionists of the early nineteenth century who in a deliberate distortion of Baconian philosophy solved the problem of evolution. Rather, it was what Darwin chose to call "speculative" men, men, in other words, with just a touch of the numinous in their eye, a sense of marvel, a glimpse of what was happening behind the visible, who saw the whole of the living world as though turning in a child's kaleidoscope.

Among the purely human marvels of the world is the way the human brain after birth, when its cranial capacity is scarcely larger than that of a gorilla or other big anthropoid, spurts onward to treble its size during the first year of life. The human infant's skull will soar to a cranial capacity of 950 cubic centimeters while the gorilla has reached only 380 cubic centimeters. In other words, ·the human brain grows at an exponential rate, a spurt which carries it almost to adult capacity at the age of fourteen.

This clever and specifically human adaptation enables the human offspring successfully to pass the birth canal like a reasonably small-headed animal, but in a more larval and helpless condition than its giant relatives. The brain burgeons after birth, not before, and it is this fact which enables the child, with proper care, to assimilate all that larger world which will be forever denied to its relative the gorilla. The big anthropoids enjoy no such expansion. Their brains grow without exponential quickening into maturity. Somewhere in the far past of man something strange happened in his evolutionary development. His skull has enhanced its youthful globularity; he has lost most of his body hair and what remains grows strangely. He demands, because of his immature emergence into the world, a lengthened and protected childhood. Without prolonged familial attendance he would not survive, yet in him reposes the capacity for great art, inventiveness, and his first mental tool, speech, which creates his humanity. He is without doubt the oddest and most unusual evolutionary product that this planet has yet seen.

The term applied to this condition is neoteny, or pedomorphism. Basically the evolutionary forces, and here "forces" stands for complete ignorance, seem to have taken a roughhewn ordinary primate and softened and eliminated the adult state in order to allow for a fantastic leap in brain growth. In fact, there is a growing suspicion that some, at least, of the African fossils found and ascribed to the direct line of human ascent in eastern Africa may never, except for bipedalism and some incipient tool-using capacities, have taken the human road at all.

Some with brains that seem to have remained at the same level through long ages have what amounts quantitatively to no more than an anthropoid brain. Allowing for upright posture and free use of the hand, there is no assurance that they spoke or in any effective way were more than well-adapted bipedal apes. Collateral relatives, in short, but scarcely to be termed men. All this is the more remarkable because their history can now be traced over roughly five if not six million years -- a singularly unprogressive period for a creature destined later to break upon the world with such remarkable results after so long a period of gestation.

Has something about our calculations gone wrong? Are we studying, however necessarily, some bipedal cousins but not ancestral men? The human phylogeny which we seemed well on the way to arranging satisfactorily is now confused by a multiplicity of material contended over by an almost equal number of scholars. Just as a superfluity of flying particles is embarrassing the physicist, so man's evolution, once thought to be so clearly delineated, is showing signs of similar strain. A skull from Lake Rudolf with an estimated capacity of 775 cubic centimeters or even 800 and an antiquity ranging into the three-million-year range is at the human Rubicon, yet much younger fossils are nowhere out of the anthropoid range.

Are these all parts of a single variable subhumanity from which we arose, or are some parts of this assemblage neotenous of brain and others not? The scientific exchanges are as stiff with politeness as exchanges between enemies on the floor of the Senate. "Professor so-and-so forgets the difficult task of restoring to its proper position a frontal bone trampled by cattle." A million years may be covertly jumped because there is nothing to be found in it. We must never lose sight of one fact, however: it is by neotenous brain growth that we came to be men, and certain of the South African hominids to which we have given such careful attention seem to have been remarkably slow in revealing such development. Some of them, in fact, during more years than present mankind has been alive seem to have flourished quite well as simple grassland apes.

Why indeed should they all have become men? Because they occupied the same ecological niche, contend those who would lump this variable assemblage. But surely paleontology does not always so bind its deliberations. We are here dealing with a gleam, a whisper, a thing of awe in the mind itself, that oceanic feeling which even the hardheaded Freud did not deny existed though he tried to assign it to childhood.

With animals whose precise environment through time may overlap, extinction may result among contending forms; it can and did happen among men. But with the first stirrings of the neotenous brain and its superinduced transformation of the family system a new type of ecological niche had incipiently appeared -- a speaking niche, a wondering niche which need not have been first manifested in tools but in family organization, in wonder over what layover the next hill or what became of the dead. Whether man preferred seeds or flesh, how he regarded his silent collateral relatives, may not at first have induced great competition. Only those gifted with the pedomorphic brain would in some degree have fallen out of competition with the real. It would have been their danger and at the same time their beginning triumph. They were starting to occupy, not a niche in nature, but an invisible niche carved into thought which in time would bring them suffering, superstition, and great power.

It cannot, in the beginning, be recognized clearly because it is not a matter of molar teeth and seeds, or killer instincts and ill-interpreted pebbles. Rather it was something happening in the brain, some blinding, irradiating thing. Until the quantity of that gray matter reached the threshold of human proportions no one could be sure whether the creature saw with a human eye or looked upon life with even the faint stirrings of some kind of religious compassion.

The new niche in its beginnings is invisible; it has to be inferred. It does not lie waiting to be discovered in a pebble or a massive molar. These things are important in the human dawn but so is the mystery that ordained that mind should pass the channel of birth and then grow like a fungus in the night -- grow and convolute and overlap its older buried strata, while a 600-pound gorilla retains by contrast the cranial content of a very small child. When man cast off his fur and placed his trust in that remarkable brain linked by neural pathways to his tongue he had potentially abandoned niches for dreams. Henceforth 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.

Its beginning is not the only curious thing about that brain. There are some finds in South Africa dating into immediately post-glacial times that reveal a face and calvaria more "modern" in appearance, more pedomorphic, than that of the average European. The skull is marked by cranial capacities in excess of 1700 cubic centimeters -- big brained by any standards. The mastoids are childlike, the teeth reduced, the cranial base foreshortened. These people, variously termed Boskopoid or Strandlooper, have, in the words of one anthropologist, "the amazing cranium to face ratio of almost five to one. In Europeans it is about three to one. Face size has been modernized and subordinated to brain growth." In a culture still relying on coarse fare and primitive implements, the face and brain had been subtly altered in the direction science fiction writers like to imagine as the direction in which mankind is progressing. Yet here the curious foetalization of the human body seems to have outrun man's cultural status, though in the process giving warning that man's brain could still pass the straitened threshold of its birth.

How did these people look upon the primitive world into which they found themselves precipitated? History gives back no answer save that here there flourished striking three-dimensional art -- the art of the brother animal seen in beauty. Childlike, Freud might have muttered, with childlike dreams, rushed into conflict with the strong, the adult and shrunken ego, the ego that gets what it wants. Yet how strangely we linger over this lost episode of the human story, its pathos, its possible meaning. From whence did these people come? We are not sure. We are not even sure that they derive from one of the groups among the ruck of bipedal wandering apes long ago in Kenya that reveal some relationship to ourselves. Their development was slow, if indeed some of them took that road, the strange road to the foetalized brain that was to carry man outside of the little niche that fed him his tuberous, sandy diet.

We thought we were on the verge of solving the human story, but now we hold in our hands gross jaws and delicate, and are unsure of our direction save that the trail is longer than we had imagined twenty years ago. Yet still the question haunts us, the numinous, the holy in man's mind. Early man laid gifts beside the dead, but then in the modern unbelieving world, Ernst Haeckel's world, a renowned philosopher says, "The whole of existence frightens me," or another humbler thinker says, "In the world there is nothing to explain the world" but remembers the gold eyes of the falcon thrown brutally at his feet. He shivers while Freud says, "As for me I have never had such feelings." They are a part of childhood, Freud argues, though there are some who counter that in childhood -- yes, even Freud might grant it -- the man is made, the awe persists or is turned off by blows or the dullness of unthinking parents. One can only assert that in science, as in religion, when one has destroyed human wonder and compassion, one has killed man, even if the man in question continues to go about his laboratory tasks.


Perhaps there is one great book out of all American literature which best expresses the clash between the man who has genuine perception and the one who pursues nature as ruthlessly as a hunted animal. I refer to Moby Dick, whose narrator, Ishmael, is the namesake of a Biblical wanderer. Every literate person knows the story of Moby Dick and his pursuit by the crazed Captain Ahab who had yielded a leg to the great albino whale. It is the whale and Ahab who dominate the story. What does the whale represent? A symbol of evil, as some critics have contended? Fate, destiny, the universe personified, as other scholars have protested?

Moby Dick is "all a magnet," remarks Ahab cryptically at one moment. "And be he agent or be he principal I will wreak my hate upon him." Here, reduced to the deck of a whaler out of Nantucket, the old immortal questions resound, the questions labeled science in our era. Nothing is to go unchallenged. Thrice, by different vessels, Ahab is warned away from his contemplated conquest. The whale does not pursue Ahab, Ahab pursues the whale. If there is evil represented in the white whale it cannot be personalized. The evils of self-murder, of megalomania, are at work in a single soul calling up its foreordained destruction. Ahab heartlessly brushes aside the supplications of a brother captain to aid in the search for his son, lost somewhere in a boat in the trail of the white whale's passing. Such a search would only impede the headlong fury of the pursuit.

In Ahab's anxiety to "strike through the mask," to confront "the principal," whether god or destiny, he is denuding himself of all humanity. He has forgotten his owners, his responsibility to his crew. His single obsession, the hidden obsession that lies at the root of much Faustian overdrive in science, totally possesses him. Like Faust he must know, if the knowing kills him, if naught lies beyond. "All my means are sane," he writes, like Haeckel and many another since. "My motive and my object mad."

So it must have been in the laboratories of the atom breakers in their first heady days of success. Yet again on the third day Starbuck, the doomed mate, cries out to Ahab, "Desist. See. Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him." This then is not the pursuit of evil. It is man in his pride that the almighty gods will challenge soon enough. Not for nothing is Moby Dick a white snow hill rushing through Pacific nights. He carries upon his brow the inscrutability of fate. Agent or principal, Moby Dick presents to Ahab the mystery he may confront but never conquer. There is no harpoon tempered that will strike successfully the heart of the great enigma.

So much for the seeking peg-legged man without heart. We know he launched his boats and struck his blows and in the fury of returning vengeance lost his ship, his comrades, and his own life. If, indeed, he pierced momentarily the mask of the "agent," it was not long enough to tell the tale. But what of the sometimes silent narrator, the man who begins the book with the nonchalant announcement, "Call me Ishmael," the man whose Biblical namesake had every man's hand lifted against him? What did he tell? After all, Moby Dick is his book.

Ishmael, in contrast to Ahab, is the wondering man, the acceptor of all races and their gods. In contrast to the obsessed Ahab he paints a magnificent picture of the peace that reigned in the giant whale schools of the 1840s, the snuffling and grunting about the boats like dogs, loving and being loved, huge mothers gazing in bliss upon their offspring. After hours of staring in those peaceful depths, "Deep down," says Ishmael, "there I still bathe in eternal mildness of joy." The weird, the holy, hangs undisturbed over the whales' huge cradle. Ishmael knows it, others do not.

At the end, when Ahab has done his worst and the Pequod with the wounded whale is dragged into the depths amidst shrieking seafowl, it is Ishmael, buoyed up on the calked coffin of his cannibal friend Queequeg, who survives to tell the tale. Like Whitman, like W. H. Hudson, like Thoreau, Ishmael, the wanderer, has noted more of nature and his fellow men than has the headstrong pursuer of the white whale, whether "agent" or "principal," within the universe. The tale is not of science, but it symbolizes on a gigantic canvas the struggle between two ways of looking at the universe: the magnification by the poet's mind attempting to see all, while disturbing as little as possible, as opposed to the plunging fury of Ahab with his cry, "Strike, strike through the mask, whatever it may cost in lives and suffering." Within our generation we have seen the one view plead for endangered species and reject the despoliation of the earth; the other has left us lingering in the shadow of atomic disaster. Actually, the division is not so abrupt as this would imply, but we are conscious as never before in history that there is an invisible line of demarcation, an ethic that science must sooner or later devise for itself if mankind is to survive. Herman Melville glimpsed in his huge mythology of the white beast that was nature's agent something that only the twentieth century can fully grasp.

It may be that those childlike big-brained skulls from Africa are not of the past but of the future, man, not, in Freud's words, retaining an atavistic child's ego, but pushing onward in an evolutionary attempt to become truly at peace with the universe, to know and enjoy the sperm-whale nursery as did Ishmael, to paint in three dimensions the beauty of the world while not to harm it.

Yesterday, wandering along a railroad spur line, I glimpsed a surprising sight. All summer long, nourished by a few clods of earth on a boxcar roof, a sunflower had been growing. At last, the car had been remembered. A train was being made up. The box car with its swaying rooftop inhabitant was coupled in. The engine tooted and slowly, with nodding dignity, my plant began to travel.

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 re-emerge 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."
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 2:50 am

The Winter of Man

"We fear," remarked an Eskimo shaman responding to a religious question from the explorer Knud Rasmussen some fifty years ago. "We fear the cold and the things we do not understand. But most of all we fear the doings of the heedless ones among ourselves."

Students of the earth's climate have observed that man, in spite of the disappearance of the great continental ice fields, still lives on the steep edge of winter or early spring. The pulsations of these great ice deserts, thousands of feet thick and capable of overflowing mountains and valleys, have characterized the nature of the world since man, in his thinking and speaking phase, arose. The ice which has left the marks of its passing upon the landscape of the Northern Hemisphere has also accounted, in its long, slow advances and retreats, for movements, migrations and extinctions throughout the plant and animal kingdoms.

Though man is originally tropical in his origins, the ice has played a great role in his unwritten history. At times it has constricted his movements, affecting the genetic selection that has created him. Again, ice has established conditions in which man has had to exert all his ingenuity in order to survive. By contrast, there have been other times when the ice has withdrawn farther than today and then, like a kind of sleepy dragon, has crept forth to harry man once more. For something like a million years this strange and alternating contest has continued between man and the ice.

When the dragon withdrew again some fifteen or twenty thou- sand years ago, man was on the verge of literacy. He already possessed great art, as the paintings in the Lascaux cavern reveal. It was an art devoted to the unseen, to the powers that control the movement of game and the magic that drives the hunter's shaft to its target. Without such magic man felt weak and helpless against the vagaries of nature. It was his first attempt at technology, at control of nature by dominating the luck element, the principle of uncertainty in the universe.

A few millennia further on in time man had forgotten the doorway of snow through which he had emerged. He would only rediscover the traces of the ice age in the nineteenth century by means of the new science of geology. At first he would not believe his own history or the reality of the hidden ice dragon, even though Greenland and the polar world today lie shrouded beneath that same ice. He would not see that what the Eskimo said to Rasmussen was a belated modern enactment of an age-old drama in which we, too, had once participated. "We fear," the Eskimo sage had said in essence, "we fear the ice and cold. We fear nature which we do not understand and which provides us with food or brings famine."

Man, achieving literacy on the far Mediterranean shores in an instant of golden sunlight would take the world as it was, to be forever. He would explore the intricacies of thought and wisdom in Athens. He would dream the first dreams of science and record them upon scrolls of parchment. Twenty-five centuries later those dreams would culminate in vast agricultural projects, green revolutions, power pouring through great pipelines, or electric energy surging across continents. Voices would speak into the distances of space. Huge jet transports would hurtle through the skies. Radio telescopes would listen to cosmic whispers from beyond our galaxy. Enormous concentrations of people would gather and be fed in towering metropolises. Few would remember the Greek word hubris, the term for overweening pride, that pride which eventually causes some unseen balance to swing in the opposite direction.

Today the ice at the poles lies quiet. There have been times in the past when it has maintained that passivity scores of thousands of years -- times longer, in fact, than the endurance of the whole of urban civilization since its first incipient beginnings no more than seven thousand years ago. The temperature gradient from the poles to the equator is still steeper than throughout much of the unglaciated periods of the past. The doorway through which man has come is just tentatively closing behind him.

So complex is the problem of the glacial rhythms that no living scientist can say with surety the ice will not return. If it does the swarming millions who now populate the planet may mostly perish in misery and darkness, inexorably pushed from their own lands to be rejected in desperation by their neighbors. Like the devouring locust swarms that gather in favorable summers, man may have some of that same light-winged ephemeral quality about him. One senses it occasionally in those places where the dropped, transported boulders of the ice fields still hint of formidable powers lurking somewhere behind the face of present nature.

These fractured mementoes of devastating cold need to be contemplated for another reason than themselves. They constitute exteriorly what may be contemplated interiorly. They contain a veiled warning, perhaps the greatest symbolic warning man has ever received from nature. The giant fragments whisper, in the words of Einstein, that "nature does not always play the same game." Nature is devious in spite of what we have learned of her. The greatest scholars have always sensed this. "She will tell you a direct lie if she can," Charles Darwin once warned a sympathetic listener. Even Darwin, however, alert as he was to vestigial traces of former evolutionary structures in our bodies, was not in a position to foresee the kind of strange mental archaeology by which Sigmund Freud would probe the depths of the human mind. Today we are aware of the latent and shadowy powers contained in the subconscious: the alternating winter and sunlight of the human soul.

Has the earth's glacial winter, for all our mastery of science, surely subsided? No, the geologist would answer. We merely stand in a transitory spot of sunshine that takes on the illusion of permanence only because the human generations are short.

Has the wintry bleakness in the troubled heart of humanity at least equally retreated? -- that aspect of man referred to when the Eskimo, adorned with amulets to ward off evil, reiterated: "Most of all we fear the secret misdoings of the heedless ones among ourselves."

No, the social scientist would have to answer, the winter of man has not departed. The Eskimo standing in the snow, when questioned about his beliefs, said: "We do not believe. We only fear. We fear those things which are about us and of which we have no sure knowledge. . . ."

But surely we can counter that this old man was an ignorant remnant of the Ice Age, fearful of a nature he did not understand. Today we have science; we do not fear the Eskimo's malevolent ghosts. We do not wear amulets to ward off evil spirits. We have pierced to the far rim of the universe. We roam mentally through light-years of time.

Yes, this could be admitted, but we also fear. We fear more deeply than the old man in the snow. It comes to us, if we are honest, that perhaps nothing has changed the grip of winter in our hearts, that winter before which we cringed amidst the ice long ages ago.

For what is it that we do? We fear. We do not fear ghosts but we fear the ghost of ourselves. We have come now, in this time, to fear the water we drink, the air we breathe, the insecticides that are dusted over our giant fruits. Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that comes to us from the sea. There are also those who tell us that by our own heedless acts the sea is dying.

We fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made, the hatreds we have engendered. We fear the crush of fanatic people to whom we readily sell these weapons. We fear for the value of the money in our pockets that stands symbolically for food and shelter. We fear the growing power of the state to take all these things from us. We fear to walk in our streets at evening. We have come to fear even our scientists and their gifts.

We fear, in short, as that self-sufficient Eskimo of the long night had never feared. Our minds, if not our clothes, are hung with invisible amulets: nostrums changed each year for our bodies whether it be chlorophyl toothpaste, the signs of astrology, or cold cures that do not cure: witchcraft nostrums for our society as it fractures into contending multitudes all crying for liberation without responsibility.

We fear, and never in this century will we cease to fear. We fear the end of man as that old shaman in the snow had never had cause to fear it. There is a winter still about us -- the winter of man that has followed him relentlessly from the caverns and the ice. The old Eskimo spoke well. It is the winter of the heedless ones. We are in the winter. We have never left its breath.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 2:51 am

Man Against the Universe


Man against the universe. But who is man and how is the universe to be defined? Sigmund Freud, in the modern era, remarked that man's mind has suffered from the impact of three significant events. The first took place when Nicolaus Copernicus, over four centuries ago, succeeded in demonstrating that the earth revolved around the sun, thus removing man from his privileged position at the center of the cosmos. The second blow which man's religious sensitivity sustained might well be dated to Darwin's demonstration in 1859 that man was only one part of nature's living web and was akin to, indeed was descended from, the animal life of the past. Finally, Freud himself, the great conquistador of psychology, created the third trauma by revealing the subterranean irrational qualities of the human mind.

The five-hundredth anniversary of Copernicus's birth was only recently celebrated. In the 1970S science has lengthened out the period in which man was a mere wandering proto-homonid on the African savanna. Thanks to the researches of Harlow Shapley, for fifty years we have known we are not even located at the heart of our own galaxy but like a sand grain are drifting on a remote arm of a spiral nebula which contains uncounted members. In truth, we can find no center. As far as the eye can reach, the objects of our attention are fleeing outward through billions of light-years.

Yet to say that man's self-examination began with the dawn of Copernican science would be to ignore that tremendous confrontation between Job and the voice from the whirlwind, in which the humbled Job is asked where he was when the foundations of the earth were laid. Furthermore, the ancient Orient had always viewed the world as illusory and envisioned the good life as primarily a way of hastening one's escape from the suffering wheel of existence. Thus man's sense of alienation, his feelings of inadequacy and trepidation before the natural world about him, long preceded the psychical disturbances that Freud regarded as induced by modern science. As Robin Collingwood pointed out some years ago, Anicius Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, written in the sixth century A.D., had the distinction of being one of the most widely read books of the Middle Ages. For a thousand years every literate individual sought solace and comfort in the Consolation. It was never a proscribed book. Nevertheless it touches upon the infinitesimal space occupied by man in the scheme of things. Copernicus, on the other hand, had actually opened the possibility that human power extended into the celestial realms. In no mean sense he was a necessary forerunner of the space voyagers.

Yet any great scholar or artist is likely to find his conceptions denigrated in some quarters. To say that the entirety of mankind has been overwhelmed and psychologically traumatized beyond recall is to overestimate the achievements of any single intellectual. Today there exist millions of people who are totally encapsulated in another era and to whom Darwin and Darwin's ideas mean nothing. The accretion of ideas through the centuries does change the intellectual climate. Rarely, however, is the contemporary mass conscious of the innovator in its midst. This was particularly true before the rise of the news-disseminating media, but even today the content of much of science and philosophy is confined to learned circles and only rarely reaches a wider audience. As our probes into nature become more sophisticated, the greater becomes our reliance upon the specialist, while he, in turn, appeals to a minute audience of his peers.

The truth is that no man expounds upon great ideas to a single audience. He speaks, instead, to audiences, and these in turn will be receiving his message, like the far-traveling light from a star, sometimes centuries after he has delivered it. Man is not one public; he is many and the messages he receives are likely to become garbled in transmission. Again, the ideas of the most honest and well-intentioned scholar may be distorted, reoriented, or trimmed to fit the public needs of a given epoch. In addition, it could be argued that no great act of scientific synthesis is really fixed in the public mind until that public has been prepared to receive it through anticipatory glimpses.

Darwin, for example, had the way partly prepared for his ideas by the geological and paleontological efforts of the generation before him. The fact that geological time had been vastly extended had been recognized. Animal breeders were beginning to discern a lurking dynamism, a potential for change concealed in their domestic creations. In the 1840s Robert Chambers, an enterprising journalist and amateur geologist, had written a widely circulated popular book espousing, albeit anonymously, the evolutionary cause. Even the concept of natural selection, Darwin's major claim to originality, had been anticipated, in admittedly firefly glimpses, by several previous writers. Without detracting in the least from Darwin's massive and major achievement, one may observe that the literate public was in some measure ready to receive his views. In spite of some contemporary furor, the educated world accepted him within his lifetime.

By contrast, Gregor Mendel, as significant in his own way as Darwin, never received serious recognition in scientific circles and had been dead for thirty-five years before his discoveries in genetics were appreciated. He was ahead of his century and was what today might be called a laboratory geneticist carrying out seemingly unspectacular experiments upon pea plants in a kitchen garden. He was a monk burdened with the religious duties of his monastery. He had no romantic aura of wealth, no spectacular world voyage, no eminent scientific colleagues and defenders to heighten his prestige. Mendel's discoveries, though essential to the full understanding of the evolutionary mechanism, were of a sufficiently mathematical cast to belong to the biological studies of the twentieth century, not the nineteenth.

Though his work could be regarded as leading on to a far more sophisticated understanding of the miracle of life and its interrelatedness, Mendel went unnoticed by the public. No philosopher has tried to describe what Mendel's discoveries might have done to our world view, in the way either of shock or of renewed uplift. Such horizons of thought are implicit in his work and need not be equated with a more simplistic nineteenth-century Darwinism. The simple point is, however, that Mendel never had the kind of philosophical attention that would have attracted Freud. His thought lay outside the stream of public attention and he never would have gained Freud's interest as the purveyor of psychological shock.

Freud gauged his own impact upon society, but I wonder, with all due respect to his discoveries in the basement depths of the intellect, whether his claim to having destroyed man's faith in the godlike attributes of reason is justified, or whether he has expressed merely the happy ardor of the triumphant psychiatrist. For out of the depths of unreason, the murkiness of the subconscious, have come also some of the most poignant works of great art and literature. Even scientists have, on occasion, acknowledged indebtedness to that subterranean river. Freud did not in actuality destroy man's faith in mind. He merely added to its mystery by the realization that it could create besides flawed half-idiot phantasms, a more incredible beauty than could be conjured up in daylight. Before Freud was born, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man of no inconsiderable literary gifts, had written: "I conceive a man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head and see the speaker." From those words emerges the voice of nineteenth-century romanticism. With Emerson and Darwin as opposed yet converging forces in nineteenth-century thought I shall now concern myself.


George Boas, one of our most eminent intellectual historians, remarked, some thirty years ago, that there are always at least two philosophies in a country: one based upon the way people live, and the other upon the results of meditation upon the universe. In the end, one is apt to contend against the other. A perfect example of this may be observed in the rise of those doctrines labeled by critics as romanticism. They reached a peculiar intensity in the early nineteenth century, chiefly as a revolt against the formalism and social restraint of the eighteenth century.

One can venture that one of the first principles to emerge from the romantic revolt was the assertion of the self against the universe -- the self, "dirty and amused" or titillated with midnight terrors but for all that having escaped forever out of the constraining formal gardens of custom into a wilder nature of crags and leaping torrents. Reason gave way for the moment to the long-restrained but impassioned reality of the heart. People wept over the new poetry, and the new poetry -- that of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge -- was full of picturesque revolutionaries and moon-haunted landscapes that would have seemed absurd to Lord Chesterfield and his contemporaries -- men who believed that gentlemen neither laughed nor wept, at least in public. So much was the nostalgic time-sense deepened that people of means began to replace their formal gardens with artificially constructed ruins in which to brood. The experience of nature became tinged with a belief in a higher awareness, as though in the observation of nature itself one saw into the mind of the Divinity. Something subjective, lingering behind one's casual impressions, was thus sensed in nature. An intensified empathy, a willingness to transcend the ordinary modes of thinking, became a part of the suddenly emancipated and magnified self.

This feeling for nature as a thought to be encompassed, a human ego sustained by a creative power greater than itself yet capable of assimilation by the individual, crossed the Atlantic and took on a peculiarly American tinge among Emerson and his followers, who became known as transcendentalists. The mystical aspect of this experience is described by Emerson early in his career. "Standing on bare ground," he says, "my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God."

If such remarks now seem a trifle grandiose it is because this first careless rapture, what we might call the utter intoxication with wild nature which descended upon the first romantics, has largely departed. These first innovators were dreamers, sleepwalkers upon mountain heights, who groped their way out of formal gardens to be hurried along through obscure lanes and falling leaves. One's destination mattered less than the sudden freedom from restraint.

In New England with its Puritan heritage it is not surprising that, instead of being engaged with the tale of the Ancient Mariner or the defiant acts of Byronic heroes, verse should remain spare and clipped, but that the granite hillsides should take on an unearthly light in the prose that flowered by Walden Pond. Emerson was the basic sustainer, teacher, and father of the American movement. He had traveled abroad, talked with Coleridge, visited Stonehenge with Carlyle. There he had remarked in a flash of insight that the huge broken slabs reminded him of some ancient egg out of which all the ecclesiastical structures and history of the British isles had proceeded. Unconsciously the great essayist's gift for words had forecast something of his own role in American thought. His utterance was destined to inspire the democratic embrace of Whitman, as well as the austerities of Thoreau.

Of all the Concord circle Emerson was perhaps the most widely read in science. He was familiar with Sir Charles Lyell's work in geology and was well aware that Christian chronology had become a mere "kitchen clock" compared with the vast time depths the earth sciences were beginning to reveal. "What terrible questions we are learning to ask," brooded the man sometimes accused of walking with his head in the clouds. He saw us as already divesting ourselves of the theism of our fathers.

No, it cannot be asserted that this romantic of the winds and stars did not comprehend true nature. Louis Agassiz, the exponent of the Ice Age, was his friend. Emerson could speak without reluctance of early man's chewed marrow bones, of pain and disillusion, of the exploration of dreams and their midnight revelations. Yet he remained deceptively aloof, and it is perhaps this quality which has led to much castigation and to assumptions that his puritanism could never tolerate a full evolutionary philosophy.

"I found," he once humorously remarked, "when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs." And so indeed Emerson had. For all that, however, the stairs, or the somewhat wispy and transparent ghost of them, exist. It is what he called the infinitude of the private man. But if the private man is to understand his infinitude he must be led to explore it, to clamber up any available ladder. This was Emerson's primary occupation and to it he brought not alone a truly prophetic glimpse of nature before Darwin, but also a remarkably clear perception of the fauna contained in man's own psyche.

To explain the intellectual relationship between such opposites as Darwin and Emerson is not easy. At first glance, though contemporaries in time, they appear poles apart in thought, even though both have derived much from the scientific discoveries of their elders. Darwin would never have compared himself to a transparent eyeball, neither would Emerson have ever used Darwin's words "on the clumsy ... blundering and horribly cruel works of Nature." Darwin was also willing to confess that nature was capable of telling "a direct lie," but in spite of his occasional protestations, weariness, and doubt I cannot quite visualize him confiding, as did Emerson, that his journals were full of disjointed dreams and all manner of rambling reveries and "audacities." "I delight in telling what I think," Emerson affirms in a letter, "but if you ask how I dare say so, or why it is so, I am the most helpless of mortal men." Here Emerson is the honest romantic admitting that the voice of the speaker he was never destined to see pre-empted his thoughts. Yet he knew his own gifts well, and the powers he had "by the help of some fine words" to make "every old wagon and woodpile oscillate a little and threaten to dance."

Darwin was capable of perceiving, from the presence of vestigial organs in living creatures, the fact that they were engaged on an invisible journey. Animals slipped through the interstices between one medium and another, dragging with them evolutionary traces of the past in the shape of functionless claws or rudimentary teeth. Nevertheless, no professional biologist should be unaware of Emerson's pronouncement that "there is a crack in everything God has made." Emerson is perfectly aware that the oak glades about Concord present, at best, peripheral vistas into a nature whose "interiors are terrific, full of hydras and crocodiles." In his journals there is a hidden melancholy not always to be found in his published essays.

The Romantic Movement has been studied in many aspects -- its effects on the social order, its effects upon philosophy, literature, music, and the graphic arts. I know of no adequate treatment of its impact upon the science of the nineteenth century and I shall not attempt one here. It should be recognized, however, that nature in the eyes of the early romantics was revelatory. History, the ruins of the past, partook of that revelation. So did the geological catastrophism of the early century. Men began to look behind self-evident nature, the fixed nature of the existing world, toward some mysterium not evident to the directly observant eye. The fixed scale of nature that satisfied the scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed signs of disintegration. Progress and innovation came to be regarded as ushering in a better world. The existent began to be replaced by process. As Emerson put it, "We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended, there are stairs above us ... which go out of sight."

Though Darwin, in public moments, claimed his thinking to be inductive and purely Baconian, he was already as a youth being swept along in the romantic current which included enthusiasm for Odyssean voyages, evidences of past time, and the looming shadow, not just of tomorrow, but of a different tomorrow in some manner derived from today. When in 1831 he set sail in the Beagle all these matters were swirling in the heads of his contemporaries, however much the first discoverers would politely deny themselves in order to avert the wrath of the orthodox. In 1818, when Darwin was a boy of nine, Keats wrote about the struggle for existence, of which men were to hear so much after the publication of the Origin of Species:

I was at home
And should have been most happy-but I saw
Too far into the sea, where every maw
The greater on the less feeds evermore.
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction,
And so from happiness I was far gone.

Keats, the prescient romantic, saw what Darwin was later to see and what Emerson also glimpsed and recorded as "the virulence that still remains uncured in the universe."

As Darwin centered upon that "fierce destruction" whose creative role he sought to unravel, he appealed less to the tame logicians of his era and more and more to "speculative men," men with imagination, men who loved extremes of argument -- in short, romantic men. In a burst of enthusiasm Darwin himself once cried, shedding his Baconian mask for a moment, "I am but a gambler and love a wild experiment." In those words Darwin had revealed the soul of a romantic, a man willing to follow a dancing boglight through the obscurity of forgotten ages.

Nevertheless, when he came to write the conclusion of the Origin of Species, a certain orthodox benignity is allowed once more to conceal the ferocity of the world whose cruelty and waste he had once exclaimed over. "As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being," the author philosophizes, "all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection." "Thus," concludes Darwin, "from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved." Of this type of conclusion the mystical Emerson had remarked soberly on an earlier but similar occasion, "What is so ungodly as these polite bows to God in English books?"

The man whom reality eluded, or so it was said, produced in 1841 a statement that anticipates the full flowering of process philosophy in the twentieth century but would equally and more eloquently have graced Darwin's final paragraphs in the Origin of Species. "The method of nature," Emerson muses, "who could ever analyze it? That rushing stream will not stop to be observed. We can never surprise nature in a corner, never find the end of a thread, never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg. The egg hastens to be a bird. [Nature's] smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of a cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation."

Unlike Darwin's somewhat sly intimations of perfection and progress it was the idealist, not the concealed materialist, who wrote: "That no single end may be selected and nature judged thereby, appears from this, that if man himself be considered as the end, and it be assumed that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded."

As a result of his contemplations, even though he did not possess the Darwinian key of natural selection, Emerson is aware of nature's infinite prodigality and wastefulness of suns and systems. He recognizes that nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal end, and not to a particular one, such as man. "To a universe of ends," Emerson adds as an afterthought, "a work of ecstasy." Nature, he maintained, is unspecific. "[It] knows neither palm nor oak, but only vegetable life, which sprouts into forests and festoons the globe." Nowhere is anything final. Nature has no private will; it will answer no private question. "The world," Emerson meditates, looking on with that far-reaching sun-struck eyeball which earned him critical derision, "leaves no track in space, and the greatest action of man no mark in the vast idea."

And yet Emerson cared -- more, perhaps, than has been allowed. Crouched midway on that desperate stair whose steps pass from dark to dark, he spoke as Darwin chose not to speak in his final peroration. Emerson saw, with a terrible clairvoyance, the downward pull of the past. "The transmigration of souls is no fable," he wrote. ". would it were; but men and women are only half human. Every animal in the barnyard, the field and the forest, of the earth and of the waters ... has contrived to get a footing and to leave the print of its features and form in someone or other of these upright heaven-facing speakers." He could sense, not Darwin's automatic trend toward perfection, but the weary slipping, the sensed entropy, the ebbing away of the human spirit into fox and weasel as it struggled upward while all its past tugged upon it from below. This is the Gethsemane of the man whom Walt Whitman called, and rightly, "transcendental of limits, a pure American for daring."


When I was young, in a time of boyhood marked by a world as fresh and green and utterly marvelous as on the day of its creation, I found myself attracted by a huge tropical shell which lay upon my aunt's dressing table. The twentieth century was scarcely a decade old, and people did not travel or collect as they do now. My uncle and aunt lived far inland in the central states and what wandering relative had given them the beautiful iridescent shell I do not know. It was held up to my youthful ear and I was told to listen carefully and I would hear the sea. Out of the great shell, even in that silent bedroom, I, who had never seen the ocean, heard the whispered sibilance, the sigh of waves upon the beach, the little murmurs of moving water, the confused mewing of gulls in the sun-bright air. It was my first miracle, indeed perhaps my first awareness of the otherness of nature, of myself outside, in a sense, and listening, as though beyond light-years, to a remote event. Perhaps, in that Victorian bedroom with its knickknacks and curios, I had suddenly fallen out of the nature I inhabited and turned, for the first time, to survey her with surprise.

The sounds stayed with me through the years or I would not be able to recall them now. Neither does it matter that in my college days I learned that it was not the sea to which I had listened, but the vastly magnified whispers of my blood and the house around me. Either was marvel enough -- that a shell, a shell shaped in the seas' depths, should, without intent, so concentrate the essence of the world as to bring its absent images before me.

The taxonomists, the classifiers, have tried with Latin appellations to define man to their satisfaction. They have called him wise and raised up justifiable doubt, as did Freud. They have called him the tool user, the fabricator. They have, by turns, characterized him as the only being who laughs or who weeps. They have spoken of him as a time binder who transmits thought through the generations and thus reorients and changes the world. There are also those who have categorized him as the sole religious animal or, finally, as Homo duplex, the creature composed of flesh and spirit.

The appeal of this last definition gives me pause, even though I am a professional anthropologist who must employ the diction of his trade. For is it not true, as Emerson indicated before the rise of scientific anthropology, that man, in becoming aware of nature, has entered upon a confused and endless exploration, a transcendental search for order? Both the theologian and the scientist, each in his way, pursue that quest.

In one of the most profound and succinct analogies ever penned by a philosopher, George Santayana once ventured: "The universe is the true Adam, the creation the true fall." He saw, immured in his study, that in the instant when the universe was brought out of the void of non-being its particles, achieving such powers as are present in man, would yearn for understanding of their destiny. Alienated and alone, listening to the murmur in the shell, the individual would search his mind in vain. Primitively he would seek to placate the unseen spirits in running water, or the ghost that rules in the fir tree. Divorced from the whole, he would always be intimidated by those mocking questions from the whirlwind, "Where wast thou, where wast thou? Declare if thou knowest it all."

No clearer evidence is needed to refute Freud's argument that the great traumas from which man has suffered are the products of modern science. The fall out of nature into knowledge was sustained long ago in the caverns of mankind's birth. Between the telescope and the microscope the Adamic universe has widened, that is all. If we still suffer from renewed shocks of a scientific nature, we have, at the same time, been released from the bonds of barbarous superstition. If the particle cannot rejoin the mass, it has at least achieved, in twentieth-century quantum mechanics, a creative liberty not granted under the Newtonian Mechanic God.

When I first read Emerson's Method of Nature I was amazed at how much of a forerunner of process philosophy he was, and how, some twenty years before the Origin of Species, as I have noted, he had expressed so skillfully nature's lack of any single observable objective. Not for man, not for mouse. Total nature, as he put it, was coincident with no private will, yet it was "growing like a field of maize in July."

At the time I encountered those passages I was a young man steeped in the scientific tradition, and I was struck with Emerson's articulate insight. Why then, one might ponder, if Emerson glimpsed only a universe of ends, and if every natural object is only an emanation from another, and if -- I can put it in no other way -- each emanation explodes into another future, did Emerson, after beclouding human hope, direct so much of his attention toward the species he had so eloquently dismissed? For, along with fox and woodchuck, we would appear as but momentary and superficial tenants of the globe.

It was not until many years later, when I had abandoned certain of the logical disciplines of my youth, that I began to sense why Emerson, with seeming inconsistency, had rounded home in that same essay to extol the nature of man. I think it was upon encountering a phrase in Whitman, and knowing there was an intellectual affinity between the two men, that I paused. The lines read:

There was a child went forth every day
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became.

It is not alone that the species is an emanation, I considered; our very thoughts transform us from minute to minute, hour to hour. How powerfully this quotation reflects Emerson's earlier statement: "The termination of the world in a man appears to be the last victory of intelligence. The universal does not attract us until housed in an individual. Who heeds the waste abyss of possibility?

Who indeed, until the possibility is embodied, "not to be diffused," in Whitman's words, but to be realized. I had listened long ago to the impingement of secret and rumorous whispers from the air upon the coiled interior of a shell. Man it was who held and interpreted the shell, first in the romantic sea vision of youth, last as a symbol of all that the human ear might encompass from the resounding shores of the universe, as well as his own interior.

"We must admire in man," continued Emerson, who, in The Method of Nature, was careful not to admire him overmuch, "the form of the formless, the concentration of the vast, the house of reason, the cave of memory." The cave of memory! It is this, this echoing upheld shell, that enabled Emerson to interpose insignificant transitory man as the counterweight to stars and wasteful galaxies, to say, in fact, that man can carry the chemistry and the distance of a star inside his head. "What is a man," he jotted in his journals, "but nature's finer success in self-explication?" The explication is not eternal, any more than today is for always. The world, Emerson made clear, is in process, is departing, as men and ideas are similarly departing. The self-explication of today is approximate and will demand rearrangement as long as a critical and enlightened eye remains to examine nature. Nor does Emerson have illusions about the number of minds that can genuinely perceive nature. Furthermore, he is aware that what he terms nature's "suburbs and extremities" may contain truths that turn the world from a lumber room to an ordered creation. This observation was written in the same year that Darwin, home from probing such natural extremities as the Galapagos, conceived of the principle of natural selection.

Emerson had had, like Darwin, an illness and a voyage -- that strange road taken by so many of the nineteenth-century romantics -- romantics who were finally to displace the sedate white doorstone into nature by something wild and moon-haunted, whether in science or art. He may have had, as he himself once ventured, "an excess of faith" -- faith in man that may cause us to stir uneasily now, but which he expressed at a time when London was truly a city of dreadful night. Above all, he seemed to sense intuitively what Alfred Russel Wallace had believed -- that man possesses latent mental powers beyond what he might culturally express in a given epoch. In Ice Age caverns he had painted with an artist's eye; modern primitives can master music, writing, and machines they have never previously experienced. In the words of the eminent French biologist Jean Rostand, "Already at the origin of the species man was equal to what he was destined to become." A careful reading of the American transcendentalist would demonstrate that he had an intuitive grasp of this principle -- so firm that neither the size of the universe nor the imperfections of our common humanity distressed him overmuch. He knew, with a surety our age is in danger of losing, that if there was ever a good man there will be more. Nature strives at better than her actual creatures. We are, Emerson maintains, "a conditional population." If atavistic reptiles still swim in the depths of man's psyche, they are not the only inhabitants of that hidden region.

Tomorrow lurks in us, the latency to be all that was not achieved before. This is what led proto-man, five million years ago, to start upon a journey, at a time when night and day were strange and miraculous, as was the trumpeting of mammoths or the march of reindeer. It was for this that man adorned his caverns in the morning of time. It was for this that he worshiped the bear. For man had fallen out of the secure world of instinct into a place of wonder. That wonder is still expanding, changing as man's mind keeps pace with it. He stands and listens with a shell pressed to his ear. He is still a child before the infinite spaces but he is in no way frightened. It was thus that his journey began -- perhaps with a message drawn from an echoing shell. Now he listens with his own giant fabricated ear to messages from beyond infinity. In the old house of nature there are monsters in every cupboard. That is why, as nature's children, we are inveterate romantics and go visiting. This is why the great American essayist anticipated the whole of the unborn science of anthropology when he said, "The entrance of [nature] into his mind seems to be the birth of man." If it brought him fear it opened to his aroused curiosity every nook and cranny of the world. It left him, in fact, the inheritor of an echoing and ghost-ridden mansion. The shifting unseen potential that we call nature has left to man but one observable dictum, to grow. Only our unforeseeable tomorrow can determine whether we will grow in the wisdom Emerson anticipated.
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Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Mon May 02, 2016 2:53 am

Thoreau's Vision of the Natural World


Somewhere in the coverts about Concord, a lynx was killed well over a century ago and examined by Henry David Thoreau; measured, in fact, and meditated upon from nose to tail. Others called it a Canadian lynx, far strayed from the northern wilds. No, insisted Thoreau positively, it is indigenous, indigenous but rare. It is a night haunter; it is a Concord lynx. On this he was adamant. Not long ago, over in Vermont, an intelligent college girl told me that, walking in the woods, her Labrador retriever had startled and been attacked by a Canadian lynx which she had been fully competent to recognize. I was too shy, however, to raise the question of whether the creature might have been, as Thoreau defiantly asserted, a genuine New England lynx, persisting but rare since colonial times.

Thoreau himself was a genuine Concord lynx. Of that there can be no doubt. We know the place of his birth, his rarity, something of his habits, his night travels, that he had, on occasion, a snarl transferred to paper, and that he frequented swamps, abandoned cellar holes, and woodlots. His temperament has been a subject of much uncertainty, as much, in truth, as the actual shape of those human figures which he was wont to examine looming in fogs or midsummer hazes. Thoreau sometimes had difficulty in seeing men or, by contrast, sometimes saw them too well. Others had difficulty in adjusting their vision to the Concord lynx himself, with the result that a varied and contentious literature has come down to us. Even the manner of his death is uncertain, for though the cause is known, some have maintained that he benefited a weak constitution by a rugged outdoor life. Others contend that he almost deliberately stoked the fires of consumption by prolonged exposure in inclement weather.

As is the case with most wild animals at the periphery of the human vision, Thoreau's precise temperament is equally a matter of conjecture even though he left several books and a seemingly ingenuous journal which one eminent critic, at least, regards as a cunningly contrived mythology. He has been termed a stoic, a contentious moralizer, a parasite, an arsonist, a misanthrope, a supreme egotist, a father-hater who projected his animus on the state, a banal writer who somehow managed to produce a classic work of literature. He has also been described as a philosophical anarchist and small-town failure, as well as an intellectual aristocrat. Some would classify him simply as a nature writer, others as a failed scientist who did not comprehend scientific method. Others speak of his worldwide influence upon the social movements of the twentieth century, of his exquisite insight and style, of his relentless searching for something never found -- a mystic in the best sense of the term. He has also been labeled a prig by a notable man of English letters. There remains from those young people who knew him the utterly distinct view that he was a friendly, congenial, and kindly man. At the time of his funeral, and long before fame attended his memory, the schools of Concord were dismissed in his honor.

In short, the Concord lynx did not go unwept to his grave. Much of the later controversy that has created a Browningesque Ring and the Book atmosphere about his intentions and character is the product of a sophisticated literary world he abhorred in life. Something malevolent frequently creeps into this atmosphere even though it is an inevitable accompaniment of the transmission of great books through the ages. Basically the sensitive writer should stay away from his own kind. Jealousies, tensions, feuds, unnecessary discourtesies that are hard to bear in print are frequently augmented by close contact, even if friendships begin well. The writer's life is a lonely one and doubtless should remain so, but a prurient curiosity allows no great artist to rest easy in his grave. Critical essays upon Thoreau now number hundreds of items, very little of which, I suspect, would move the Concord lynx to do more than retire farther into whatever thickets might remain to him. Neither science nor literature was his total concern. He was a fox at the wood's edge, regarding human preoccupations with doubt. Indeed he had rejected an early invitation to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The man had never entertained illusions about the course of technological progress and the only message that he, like an Indian, had gotten from the telegraph was the song of the wind through its wires.

As a naturalist he possessed the kind of memory which fixes certain scenes in the mind forever -- a feeling for the vastness and mystery contained in nature, a powerful aesthetic response when, in his own words, "a thousand bare twigs gleam like cobwebs in the sun." He had been imprinted, as it were, by his home landscape at an early age. Similarly, whatever I may venture upon the meaning of Thoreau must come basically from memory alone, with perhaps some examination of the tone of his first journal as contrasted with his last. My present thoughts convey only the residue of what, in the course of time, I have come to feel about his intellectual achievement -- the solitary memory that Thoreau himself might claim of a journey across austere uplands.

In addition, my observations come mostly from the realm of science, whereas the preponderance of what had been written about Thoreau has come from the region he appeared to inhabit: namely, literature. His scientific interests have frequently been denigrated, and he himself is known more than once to have deplored the "inhumanity of science." Surely then, one cannot, as a representative of this alien discipline, be accused of either undue tolerance or weak sympathy for a transcendental idealism that has largely fallen out of fashion. Yet it is an aspect of this philosophy, more particularly as it is found modified in Thoreau, that I wish to consider. For Thoreau, like Emerson, is an anticipator, a forerunner of the process philosophers who have so largely dominated the twentieth century. He stands at the border between existent and potential nature.


Behind all religions lurks the concept of nature. It persists equally in the burial cults of Neanderthal man, in Cro-Magnon hunting art, in the questions of Job and in the answering voice from the whirlwind. In the end it is the name of man's attempt to define and delimit his world, whether seen or unseen. He knows intuitively that nature is a reality which existed before him and will survive his individual death. He may include in his definition that which is, or that which may be. Nature remains an otherness which incorporates man, but which man instinctively feels contains secrets denied to him.

A professional atheist must still account for the fleeting particles that appear and vanish in the perfected cyclotrons of modern physics. We may see behind nature a divinity which rules it, or we may regard nature itself as a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined deity. Man knows that he springs from nature and not nature from him. This is very old and primitive knowledge. Man, as the "thinking reed," the memory beast, and the anticipator of things to come, has devised hundreds of cosmogonies and interpretations of nature. More lately, with the dawn of the scientific method, he has sought to probe nature's secrets by experiment rather than unbounded speculation.

Still, of all words coming easily to the tongue, none is more mysterious, none more elusive. Behind nature is hidden the chaos as well as the regularities of the world. And behind all that is evident to our senses is veiled the insubstantial deity that only man, of all earth's creatures, has had the power either to perceive or to project into nature.

As scientific agnostics we may draw an imaginary line beyond which we deny ourselves the right to pass. We may adhere to the tangible, but we will still be forced to speak of the "unknowable" or of "final causes" even if we proclaim such phrases barren and of no concern to science. In our minds we will acknowledge a line we have drawn, a definition to which we have arbitrarily restricted ourselves, a human limit that mayor may not coincide with reality. It will still be nature that concerns us as it concerned the Neanderthal. We cannot exorcise the word, refine it semantically though we may. Nature is the receptacle which contains man and into which he finally sinks to rest. It implies all, absolutely all, that man knows or can know. The word ramifies and runs through the centuries, assuming different connotations.

Sometimes it appears as ghostly as the unnamed shadow behind it; sometimes it appears harsh, prescriptive, and solid. Again matter becomes interchangeable with energy; fact becomes shadow, law becomes probability. Nature is a word that must have arisen with man. It is part of his otherness, his humanity. Other beasts live within nature. Only man has ceaselessly turned the abstraction around and around upon his tongue and found fault with every definition, found himself looking ceaselessly outside of nature toward something invisible to any eye but his own and indeed not surely to be glimpsed by him.

To propound that Henry David Thoreau is a process philosopher, it is necessary first to understand something of the concepts entertained by early nineteenth-century science and philosophy, and also to consider something of the way in which these intellectual currents were changing. New England's ties to English thought preponderated, although, as is well known, some of the ideas had their roots on the continent. An exhaustive analysis is unnecessary to the present purpose. Thoreau was a child of his time but he also reached beyond it.

In early-nineteenth-century British science there was a marked obsession with Baconian induction. The more conservative-minded, who dreaded the revelations of the new geology, sought, in their emphatic demand for facts, to drive wide-ranging and useful hypotheses out of currency. The thought of Bacon, actually one of the innovators of scientific method, was being perverted into a convenient barrier against the advance of irreligious science. Robert Chambers, an early evolutionist, had felt the weight of this criticism, and Darwin, later on, experienced it beyond the midcentury. In inexperienced hands it led to much aimless fact-gathering under the guise of proper inductive procedures for true scientists. Some, though not all, of Thoreau's compendiums and detailed observations suggest this view of science, just as do his occasional scornful remarks about museum taxonomy.

In a typical Thoreauvian paradox he could neither leave his bundles of accumulated fact alone, nor resist muttering "it is ebb tide with the scientific reports." Only toward the close of his journals does he seem to be inclining toward a 'more perceptive scientific use of his materials under the influence of later reading. It is necessary to remember that most of Thoreau's intellectual contacts were with literary men, though Emerson was a wide and eclectic reader who saw clearly that the new uniformitarian geology had transformed our conceptions of the world's antiquity.

The one striking exception to Thoreau's lack of direct contact with the scientific world was his meeting with Louis Agassiz after the European glaciologist, taxonomist, and teacher had joined the staff at Harvard in the 1840S. Brilliant and distinguished naturalist though he was, Louis Agassiz was probably not the best influence upon Thoreau. He traced the structural relations of living things, he introduced America to comparative taxonomy, he taught Thoreau to observe such oddities as frozen and revived caterpillars. His eye, if briefly, was added to Thoreau's eye, not always to the latter's detriment. Typically, Agassiz warned against hasty generalizations while pursuing relentlessly his own interpretation of nature.

The European poet of the Ice Age was, in a very crucial sense, at the same time an anachronism. He did not believe in evolution; he did not grasp the significance of natural selection. "Geology," he wrote in 1857, "only shows that at different periods there have existed different species; but no transition from those of a preceding into those of a following epoch has ever been noticed anywhere." He saw a beneficent intelligence behind nature; he was a Platonist at heart, dealing with the classification of the eternal forms, seeing in the vestigial organs noted by the evolutionist only the direct evidence of divine plan carried through for symmetry's sake even when the organ was functionless.

It is this preternatural intelligence which Thoreau is led to see in the protective arrangement of moth cocoons in winter. "What kind of understanding," he writes, "was there between the mind ... and that of the worm that fastened a few of these leaves to its cocoon in order to disguise it?" Plainly he is following in the footsteps of the great biologist, who, like many other scholars, recognized a spiritual succession of forms in the strata, but not the genuine organic transformations that had produced the living world. It may be noted in passing that this Platonic compromise with reality was one easily acceptable to most transcendentalists. They were part of a far-removed romantic movement which was to find the mechanistic aspects of nineteenth-century science increasingly intolerable. One need not align oneself totally with every aspect of the Darwinian universe, however, to see that Agassiz's particular teleological interpretation of nature could not be long sustained. Whatever might lie behind the incredible profusion of living forms would not so easily yield its secrets to man.

The mystery in nature Thoreau began to sense early. A granitic realism forced from him the recognition that the natural world is indifferent to human morality, just as the young Darwin had similarly brooded over the biological imperfections and savagery of the organic realm. "How can [man]" protested Thoreau, "perform that long journey who has not conceived whither he is bound, ... who has no passport to the end?" This is a far cry from the expressions of some of the contemporary transcendentalists who frequently confused nature with a hypostatized divine reason which man could activate within himself. By contrast, Thoreau remarks wearily, "Is not disease the rule of existence?" He had seen the riddled leaf and the worm-infested bud.

If one meditates upon the picture of nature presented by both the transcendental thinkers such as Emerson and the evolutionary doctrine drawn from Darwin, one is struck by the contrast between what appears to be a real and an ideal nature. The transcendentalist lived in two worlds at once, in one of which he was free to transform himself; he could escape the ugly determinism of the real. In Emerson's words, "two states of thought diverge every moment in wild contrast."

The same idea is echoed in the first volume of his journals when the young Thoreau ventures, "On one side of man is the actual and on the other the ideal." These peculiar worlds are simultaneously existent. Life is bifurcated between the observational world and another more ideal but realizable set of "instructions" implanted in our minds, again a kind of Platonic blueprint. We must be taught through the proper understanding of the powers within us. The transcendentalist possessed the strong optimism of the early Republic, the belief in an earthly Eden to be created.

If we examine the Darwinian world of change we recognize that the nature of the evolutionary process is such as to deny any relationships except those that can be established on purely phyletic grounds of uninterrupted descent. The Platonic abstract blueprint of successive types has been dismissed as a hopeful fiction. Vestigial organs are really what their name implies -- remnants lingering from a former state of existence. The tapeworm, the sleeping-sickness trypanosome, are as much a product of natural selection as man himself. All currently existing animals and plants have ancestral roots extending back into Archeozoic time. Every species is in some degree imperfect and scheduled to vanish by reason of the very processes which brought it into being. Even in this world of endless struggle, however, Darwin is forced to introduce a forlorn note of optimism which appears in the final pages of the Origin of Species. It is his own version of the ideal. Out of the war of nature, of strife unending, he declares, all things will progress toward perfection.

The remark rings somewhat hollowly upon the ear. Darwin's posited ideal world, such as it is, offers no immediate hope that man can embrace. Indeed, it is proffered on the same page where Darwin indicates that of the species now living very few will survive into the remote future. Teleological direction has been read out of the universe. It would re-emerge in the twentieth century in more sophisticated guises that would have entranced Thoreau, but for the moment the "Great Companion" was dead. The Darwinian circle had introduced process into nature but had never paused to examine nature itself. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, "Science is concerned not with the causes but the coherence of nature." Something, in other words, held the thing called nature together, gave it duration in the midst of change and a queer kind of inhuman rationality.

It may be true enough that Thoreau in his last years never resolved his philosophical difficulties. (Indeed, what man has?) It may also be assumed that the confident and brilliant perceptions of the young writer began to give way in his middle years to a more patient search for truth. The scientist in him was taking the place of the artist. To some of the literary persuasion this may seem a great loss. Considering, however, the toils from which he freed himself, the hope that he renewed, his solitary achievement is remarkable.

One may observe that there are two reigning models involving human behavior today: a conservative and a progressive version. The first may be stated as regarding man in the mass as closely reflecting his primate origins. He is the "ape and tiger" of Huxley's writing. His origins are sufficiently bestial that they place limits upon his ethical possibilities. Latent aggression makes him an uncertain and dangerous creature.

Unconsciously, perhaps, the first evolutionists sought to link man more closely to the animal world from which he had arisen. Paradoxically this conception would literally freeze man upon his evolutionary pathway as thoroughly as though a similar argument had been projected upon him when he was a Cretaceous tree shrew. Certainly one may grant our imperfect nature. Man is in process, as is the whole of life. He may survive or he may not, but so long as he survives he will be part of the changing, onrushing future. He, too, will be subject to alteration. In fact, he may now be approaching the point of consciously inducing his own modification.

How did Thoreau, who matured under the influence of the transcendentalists and the design arguments of Louis Agassiz, react to this shifting, oncoming world of contingency and change? It is evident he was familiar with Charles Lyell's writings, that he knew about the development (that is, evolution) theories of Robert Chambers. The final volume of his journals even suggests that he may have meditated upon Darwin's views before his death in 1862.

Now, in the final years, he seems to gather himself for one last effort. "The development theory implies a greater vital force in nature," he writes, "because it is more flexible and accommodating and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation."

He recognizes the enormous waste in nature but tries carefully to understand its significance just as he grasps the struggle for existence. His eyes are open still to his tenderly cherished facts of snow and leaves and seasons. He counts tree rings and tries to understand forest succession. The world is perhaps vaster than he imagined, but, even from the first, nature was seen as lawless on occasion and capable of cherishing unimaginable potentials. That was where he chose to stand, at the very edge of the future, "to anticipate," as he says in Walden, "nature herself."

This is not the conservative paradigm of the neo-Darwinian circle. Instead it clearly forecasts the thought of twentieth-century Alfred North Whitehead. Thoreau strove with an unequaled intensity to observe nature in all its forms, whether in the raw shapes of mountains or the travelings of seeds and deer mice. His consciousness expanded like a sunflower. The more objects he beheld, the more immortal he became. "My senses," he wrote, "get no rest." It was as though he had foreseen Whitehead's dictum that "passage is a quality not only of nature, which is the thing known, but also of sense awareness, which is the procedure of knowing." Thoreau had constituted himself the Knower. "All change," he wrote, "is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle that is taking place every instant." He saw man thrust up through the crust of nature "like a wedge and not till the wound heals ... do we begin to discover where we are." He viewed us all as mere potential; shadowy, formless perhaps, but as though about to be formed. He had listened alone to the "unspeakable rain"; he had sought in his own way to lead others to a supernatural life in nature. He had succeeded. He had provided for others the passport that at first he thought did not exist; a passport, he finally noted, "earned from the elements."


To follow the involved saunterings of the journals is to observe a man sorting, selecting, questioning less nature than his own way into nature, to find, as Thoreau expressed it, "a patent for himself." Thoreau is never wholly a man of the transcendental camp. He is, in a sense, a double agent. He is drawn both to the spiritual life and to that of the savage. "Are we not all wreckers," he asks, "and do we not contract the habits of wreckers?" The term "wreckers," of course, he uses in the old evil sense of the shore scavengers who with false lights beckoned ships to their doom. And again he queries, "Is our life innocent enough?" It would appear he thinks otherwise, for he writes, "I have a murderer's experience ... " and he adds, a trifle scornfully, "there is no record of a great success in history."

Thoreau once said disconsolately that he awaited a Visitor who never came, one whom he referred to as the "Great Looker." Some have thought that pique or disappointment shows in these words and affects his subsequent work. I do not choose to follow this line of reasoning, since, on another page of Walden, he actually recollects receiving his guest as the "old settler and original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden pond ... and fringed it with pine woods." As a somewhat heretical priest once observed, "God asks nothing of the highest soul but attention."

Supplementing that remark Thoreau had asserted, "There has been nothing but the sun and the eye since the beginning." That eye, in the instance of Thoreau, had missed nothing. Even in the depths of winter when nature's inscriptions lay all about him in the snow, he had not faltered to recognize among them the cruel marks of a farmer's whip, steadily, even monotonously, lashing his oxen down the drift-covered road. The sight wounded him. Nature, he knew, was not bound to be kind to man. In fact, there was a kind of doubleness in nature as in the writer. The inner eye was removed; its qualities were more than man, as natural man, could long sustain. The Visitor had come in human guise and looked out upon the world a few brief summers. It is remembered that when at last an acquaintance came to ask of Thoreau on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, the Visitor in him responded simply, "We have never quarreled."

Thoreau had appropriated the snow as "the great revealer." On it were inscribed all the hieroglyphs that the softer seasons concealed. Last winter, trudging in the woods, I came to a spot where freezing, melting, and refreezing had lifted old footprints into little pinnacles of trapped oak leaves as though a shrub oak had walked upon some errand. Thoreau had recorded the phenomenon over a century ago. There was something uncanny about it, I thought, standing attentively in the snow. A visitor, perhaps the Visitor, had once more passed.

In the very first volume of his journals Thoreau had written, "There is always the possibility, the possibility, I say, of being all, or remaining a particle in the universe." He had, in the end, learned that nature was not an enlarged version of the human ego, that it was not, to use Emerson's phrase, "the immense shadow of man." Toward the close of his life he had turned from literature to the growing, formidable world of the new science -- the science that in the twentieth century was destined to reduce everything to infinitesimal particles and finally these to a universal vortex of wild energies.

But the eye persisted, the unexplainable eye that gave even Darwin a cold shudder. All it experienced were the secondary qualities, the illusions that physics had rejected, but the eye remained, just as Thoreau had asserted -- the sun and the eye from the beginning. Thoreau was gone, but the eye was multitudinous, ineradicable.

I advanced upon the fallen oak leaves. We were all the eye of the Visitor -- the eye whose reason no physics could explain. Generation after generation the eye was among us. We were particles but we were also the recording eye that saw the sunlight -- that which physics had reduced to cold waves in a cold void. Thoreau's life had been dedicated to the unexplainable eye.

I had been trained since youth against the illusions, the deceptions of that eye, against sunset as reality, against my own features as anything but a momentary midge swarm of particles. Even this momentary phantasm I saw by the mind's eye alone. I no longer resisted as I walked. I went slowly, making sure that the eye momentarily residing in me saw and recorded what was intended when Thoreau spoke of the quality of the eye as belonging more to God than man.

But there was a message Thoreau intended to transmit. "I suspect," he had informed his readers, "that if you should go to the end of the world, you would find somebody there going further." It is plain that he wanted a message carried that distance, but what was it? We are never entirely certain. He delighted in gnomic utterances such as that in which he pursued the summer on snowshoes.

"I do not think much of the actual," he had added. Is this then the only message of the great Walden traveler in the winter days when the years "came fast as snowflakes"? Perhaps it is so intended, but the words remain cryptic. Thoreau, as is evidenced by his final journals, had labored to lay the foundations of a then unnamed science -- ecology. In many ways he had outlived his century. He was always concerned with the actual, but it was the unrolling reality of the process philosopher, "the universe," as he says, "that will not wait to be explained."

For this reason he tended to see men at a distance. For the same reason he saw himself as a first settler in nature, his house the oldest in the settlement. Thoreau reflected in his mind the dreamers of the westward crossing; in this he is totally American.

Yet Thoreau preferred to the end his own white winter spaces. He lingers, curvetting gracefully, like the fox he saw on the river or the falcon in the morning air. He identifies, he enters them, he widens the circumference of life to its utmost bounds. "One world at a time," he jokes playfully on his deathbed, but it is not, in actuality, the world that any of us know or could reasonably endure. It is simply Thoreau's world, "a prairie for outlaws." Each one of us must seek his own way there. This is his final message, for each man is forever the eye and the eye is the Visitor. Whatever remedy exists for life is never to be found at Walden. It exists, if at all, where the real Walden exists, somewhere in the incredible dimensions of the universal Eye.
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