The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley

The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:20 pm

The Star Thrower
by Loren Eiseley
Introduction by W H. Auden
Copyright © 1978 by the estate of Loren C. Eiseley





Table of Contents

Editor's Preface
Introduction: Concerning the Unpredictable
o The Judgment of the Birds
o The Long Loneliness
o Man the Firemaker
o The Innocent Fox
o How Flowers Changed the World
o The Ghostly Guardian
o The Bird and the Machine
o The Fire Apes
o Easter: The Isle of Faces
o The Dance of the Frogs
o The Hidden Teacher
o The Fifth Planet
o The Last Neanderthal
o The Spider
o Tasting the Mountain Spring
o Things Will Go
o Leaving September
o Nocturne in Silver
o Winter Sign
o October Has the Heart
o Dusk Interval
o Let the Red Fox Run
o The Fishers
o The Star Thrower
o Science and the Sense of the Holy
o The Winter of Man
o Man Against the Universe
o Thoreau's Vision of the Natural World
o Walden: Thoreau's Unfinished Business
o The Lethal Factor
o The Illusion of the Two Cultures
o How Natural Is "Natural"?
o The Inner Galaxy
Honors and Awards
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:21 pm

Editor's Preface

Loren Eiseley died in the summer of 1977. During the last year of his life, he selected and arranged some of his favorite writings for publication. The result is this anthology, which contains a large number of essays and poems that have never appeared in a book before and which add greatly to the total of his work.

The essays the author liked best were the early ones. These were more anecdotal, popular, and shorter than his later writings. As he became better known, he was sought after as a public speaker by universities and other groups, and his lectures, which were necessarily more scholarly, served as the basis of his later books. With the publication of All the Strange Hours, his autobiography and last major prose work, he returned to the shorter essay form.

In The Star Thrower, there is a generous sampling of the essays from the early books: The Immense Journey, which established his reputation as a literary naturalist, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe, which contains the essay that provides the title for the present collection.

It was the publication of The Unexpected Universe that prompted W.H. Auden to write the review, "Concerning the Unpredictable," which appeared in The New Yorker in 1970. In this review, which is broader in scope than a critical account of a single book, Auden observed that he had read everything of Eiseley's he could find. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to use this essay by Auden, who subsequently became Eiseley's friend, to introduce The Star Thrower.

In 1972, Eiseley's first book of poems was published. His editor had encouraged him to collect his early poems for publication. This he did, but then one of those unpredictable things that happen occasionally in publishing occurred: before the manuscript could be sent to the printer, he wrote a whole new book of poems! These were published under the title of Notes of an Alchemist, and two other collections followed.

The poems included here are from the unpublished manuscript. Written in the years 1930-1942, most of them were first printed in "little magazines" and are not now available. They serve as a link to his later more modern poetry and were the inspiration for that body of work. As an evolutionist, Loren Eiseley recognized their merit and included them in the anthology.

More than half of this collection consists of essays which have never been published before or which have appeared only in magazines or scientific journals. Although some of them were selected by the author for inclusion, others were discovered by his assistant, Caroline E. Werkley, while assembling his papers for the Loren Eiseley conference room at the University of Pennsylvania. "The Dance of the Frogs" and "The Fifth Planet," which have the Immense Journey touch, are among the latter. Since he did not publish them, he may not have thought they were as complete as he would have liked them to be.

At the time of his death, Eiseley had plans for half a dozen new books, which were in various states of preparation. "Man Against the Universe," which is included here, is a lecture he had presented around the country many times and had planned to develop into a book. There were bits and pieces of The Snow Wolf, a science-fiction novel he was enthusiastic about and which was to be set in the Ice Age. There were his nature notebooks, a textbook on world archaeology, and other projects.

On July 9, 1977, Loren Eiseley "stepped down to lace his bones with ancient dogs and prairie shadows," in the words of another of his admirers, Ray Bradbury. But he has left behind a body of work which will be read and reread for generations.

The essays and poems in The Star Thrower appear essentially as they were first published. Since certain dates, such as those relating to the age of the earth and life on it, are constantly being revised, no attempt has been made to make these consistent or to conform to current thinking.

To round out this book, a list of Eiseley's honors and awards has been appended. His election in 1971 to the National Institute of Arts and Letters is a rare achievement among scientists. He won many of the major literary awards and received thirty-five honorary degrees. Modest by nature, he seldom spoke of this, and few of his friends and colleagues knew he had been so widely honored.

Kenneth Heuer
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:25 pm


Concerning the Unpredictable

In creation there is not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity; not only progress and continuation but also impediment and limitation ... not only value but also worthlessness .... It is true that individual creatures and men experience these things in most unequal measure, their lots being assigned by a justice which is curious or very much concealed. Yet it is irrefutable that creation and creature are good even in the fact that all that is exists in this contrast and antithesis.

-- Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics

Rather oddly, I first heard of Dr. Loren Eiseley not in this country but in Oxford, where a student gave me a copy of The Immense Journey, since which time I have eagerly read anything of his I could lay my hands on. His obvious ancestors, as both writers and thinkers, are Thoreau and Emerson, but he often reminds me of Ruskin, Richard Jefferies, W. H. Hudson, whom, I feel sure, he must have read, and of two writers, Novalis (a German) and Adalbert Stifter (an Austrian), whom perhaps he hasn't. But I wouldn't be sure. Some of the quotations in The Unexpected Universe surprised me. I would not have expected someone who is an American and a scientist to have read such little-known literary works as the Voluspd, James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night, and Charles Williams's play Cranmer....

Dr. Eiseley happens to be an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and a naturalist, but, if I have understood him rightly, the first point he wishes to make is that in order to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, or what-have-you, one has first to be a human being. No member of any other species can have a special "field." One question his book raises is: "What differences have recent scientific discoveries, in physics, astronomy, biology, etc., made to man's conception, individually or collectively, of himself?" The answer is, I believe, very little.

We did not have to wait for Darwin to tell us that, as physical creatures, we are akin to other animals. Like them, we breathe, eat, digest, excrete, copulate, are viviparously born, and, whatever views we may have about an "afterlife," must certainly suffer physical death in this. Indeed, one result of urbanization has been that, despite what we now know about our ancestry, we feel far less akin and grateful to the animal kingdom than did primitive tribes, with their totem systems and animal folktales.

Speaking of the recognition of Odysseus by his dog Argos, Dr. Eiseley says:

"The magic that gleams an instant between Argos and Odysseus is both the recognition of diversity and the need for affection across the illusions of form. It is nature's cry to homeless, far-wandering, insatiable man: 'Do not forget your brethren, nor the green wood from which you sprang. To do so is to invite disaster. ... One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.' "

Before Descartes, such a warning would have been unnecessary. On the other hand, nothing Darwin and the geneticists have to tell us can alter the fact that, as self-conscious beings who speak (that is to say, give Proper Names to other beings), who laugh, who pray, and who, as creators of history and culture, continue to change after our biological evolution is complete, we are unique among all the creatures we know of. All attempts to account for our behavior on the basis of our pre-human ancestors are myths, and usually invented to justify base behavior. As Karl Kraus wrote:

"When a man is treated like a beast, he says, 'After all, I'm human.' When he behaves like a beast, he says, 'After all, I'm only human.' "

No; as Dr. Eiseley says, "There is no definition or description of man possible by reducing him to ape or tree-shrew. Once, it is true, the shrew contained him, but he is gone." Or, as C. K. Chesterton said, "If it is not true that a divine being fell, then one can only say that one of the animals went completely off its head."

What modern science has profoundly changed is our way of thinking about the non-human universe. We have always been aware that human beings are characters in a story in which we can know more or less what has happened but can never predict what is going to happen; what we never realized until recently is that the same is true of the universe. But, of course, its story is even more mysterious to us than our own. When we act, we do know something about our motives for action, but it is rarely possible for us to say why anything novel happens in the universe. All the same, I do not personally believe there is such a thing as a "random" event. "Unpredictable" is a factual description; "random" contains, without having the honesty to admit it, a philosophical bias typical of persons who have forgotten how to pray. Though he does use the term once, I don't think Dr. Eiseley believes in it, either:

"The earth's atmosphere of oxygen appears to be the product of a biological invention, photosynthesis, another random event that took place in Archeozoic times. That single 'invention,' for such it was, determined the entire nature of life on this planet, and there is no possibility at present of calling it preordained. Similarly, the stepped-up manipulation of chance, in the shape of both mutation and recombination of genetic factors, which is one result of the sexual mechanism, would have been unprophesiable."

I must now openly state my own bias and say that I do not believe in Chance; I believe in Providence and Miracles. If photosynthesis was invented by chance, then I can only say it was a damned lucky chance for us. If, biologically speaking, it is a "statistical impossibility" that I should be walking the earth instead of a million other possible people, I can only think of it as a miracle which I must do my best to deserve. Natural Selection as a negative force is comprehensible. It is obvious that a drastic change in the environment, like an ice age, will destroy a large number of species adapted to a warm climate .. What I cannot swallow is the assertion that "chance" mutations can explain the fact that whenever an ecological niche is free, some species evolves to fit it, especially when one thinks how peculiar some such niches -- the one occupied by the liver fluke, for example -- can be. Dr. Eiseley quotes George Gaylord Simpson as saying:

"The association of unusual physical conditions with a crisis in evolution is not likely to be pure coincidence. Life and its environment are interdependent and evolve together."

Dr. Eiseley has excellent things to say about the myth of the Survival of the Fittest:

"A major portion of the world's story appears to be that of fumbling little creatures of seemingly no great potential, falling, like the helpless little girl Alice, down a rabbit hole or an unexpected crevice into some new and topsy-turvy realm .... The first land-walking fish was, by modern standards, an ungainly and inefficient vertebrate. Figuratively, he was a water failure who had managed to climb ashore on a continent where no vertebrates existed. In a time of crisis he had escaped his enemies .... The wet fish gasping in the harsh air on the shore, the warm-blooded mammal roving unchecked through the torpor of the reptilian night, the lizard-bird launching into a moment of ill-aimed flight, shatter all purely competitive assumptions. These singular events reveal escapes through the living screen, penetrated, one would have to say in retrospect, by the 'overspecialized' and the seemingly 'inefficient,' the creatures driven to the wall."

The main theme of The Unexpected Universe is Man as the Quest Hero, the wanderer, the voyager, the seeker after adventure, knowledge, power, meaning, and righteousness. The Quest is dangerous (he may suffer shipwreck or ambush) and unpredictable (he never knows what will happen to him next). The Quest is not of his own choosing -- often, in weariness, he wishes he had never set out on it -- but is enjoined upon him by his nature as a human being:

"No longer, as with the animal, can the world be accepted as given. It has to be perceived and consciously thought about, abstracted, and considered. The moment one does so, one is outside of the natural; objects are each one surrounded with an aura radiating meaning to man alone.

"Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings Man was a reader before he became a writer, a reader of what Coleridge once called the mighty alphabet of the universe."

For illustrations of his thesis, Dr. Eiseley begins with an imaginary voyage -- Homer's epic the Odyssey -- and goes on to two famous historical voyages, that of Captain Cook in the Resolution, during which he discovered not the Terra Incognita he was sent to find -- a rich and habitable continent south and westward of South America -- but what he described as "an inexpressibly horrid Antarctica," and Darwin's voyage in the Beagle, during which he found the data which led him to doubt the Fixity of Species. Lastly, Dr. Eiseley tells us many anecdotes from his own life voyage, and these are to me the most fascinating passages in the book. Of the Odyssey he says:

"Odysseus' passage through the haunted waters of the eastern Mediterranean symbolizes, at the start of the Western intellectual tradition, the sufferings that the universe and his own nature impose upon homeward-yearning man. In the restless atmosphere of today all the psychological elements of the Odyssey are present to excess: the driving will toward achievement, the technological cleverness crudely manifest in the blinding of Cyclops, the fierce rejection of the sleepy Lotus Isles, the violence between man and man. Yet, significantly, the ancient hero cries out in desperation, 'There is nothing worse for men than wandering.'"

Dr. Eiseley's autobiographical passages are, most of them, descriptions of numinous encounters -- some joyful, some terrifying. After reading them, I get the impression of a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of Dejection -- it can hardly be an accident that three of his encounters take place in cemeteries -- and a solitary who feels more easily at home with animals than with his fellow human beings. Aside from figures in his childhood, the human beings who have "messages" for him are all total strangers -- someone tending a rubbish dump, a mysterious figure throwing stranded starfish back into the sea, a vagrant scientist with a horrid parasitic worm in a bottle, a girl in the Wild West with Neanderthal features. As a rule, though, his numinous encounters are with non-human objects -- a spider, the eye of a dead octopus, his own shepherd dog, a starving jackrabbit, a young fox. It is also clear that he is a deeply compassionate man who, in his own words, "loves the lost ones, the failures of the world." It is typical of him that, on recovering consciousness after a bad fall to find himself bleeding profusely, he should, quite unself-consciously, apologize to his now doomed blood cells -- phagocytes and platelets -- "Oh, don't go. I'm sorry, I've done for you." More importantly, he reveals himself as a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes may be granted, though all too many of them are like wishing that two and two may make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan't quarrel, so long as they don't call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, for that "entity" can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable -- an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful.

At this point, a digression. Last September, I attended a symposium in Stockholm on "The Place of Value in a World of Fact." Most of those present were scientists, some of them very distinguished indeed. To my shock and amazement, they kept saying that what we need today is a set of Ethical Axioms (italics mine). I can only say that to me the phrase is gibberish. An axiom is stated in the indicative and addressed to the intellect. From one set of axioms one kind of mathematics will follow, from another set another, but it would be nonsense to call one of them "better" than the other. All ethical statements are addressed to the will, usually a reluctant will, and must therefore appear in the imperative. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and "A straight line is the shortest distance between two points" belong to two totally different realms of discourse.

But to return to Dr. Eiseley. As a rule, the Voice speaks to him not directly but through messengers who are unaware of the message they bear. In the following dream, however, he is spoken to without intermediaries:

"The dream was of a great blurred bearlike shape emerging from the snow against the window. It pounded on the glass and beckoned importunately toward the forest. I caught the urgency of a message as uncouth and indecipherable as the shape of its huge bearer in the snow. In the immense terror of my dream I struggled against the import of that message as I struggled also to resist the impatient pounding of the frost-enveloped beast at the window.

"Suddenly I lifted the telephone beside my bed, and through the receiver came a message as cryptic as the message from the snow, but far more miraculous in origin. For I knew intuitively, in the still snowfall of my dream, that the voice I heard, a long way off, was my own voice in childhood. Pure and sweet, incredibly refined and beautiful beyond the things of earth, yet somehow inexorable and not to be stayed, the voice was already terminating its message. 'I am sorry to have troubled you,' the clear faint syllables of the child persisted. They seemed to come across a thinning wire that lengthened far away into the years of my past. 'I am sorry, I am sorry to have troubled you at all.' The voice faded before 1could speak. I was awake now, trembling in the cold."

I have said that I suspect Dr. Eiseley of being a melancholic. He recognizes that man is the only creature who speaks personally, works, and prays, but nowhere does he overtly say that man is the only creature who laughs. True laughter is not to be confused with the superior titter of the intellect, though we are capable, alas, of that, too: when we truly laugh, we laugh simultaneously with and at. True laughter (belly laughter) I would define as the spirit of Carnival.

Again a digression, on the meaning of Carnival as it was known in the Middle Ages and persisted in a few places, like Rome, where Goethe witnessed and described it in February of 1788. Carnival celebrates the unity of our human race as mortal creatures, who come into this world and depart from it without our consent, who must eat, drink, defecate, belch, and break wind in order to live, and procreate if our species is to survive. Our feelings about this are ambiguous. To us as individuals, it is a cause for rejoicing to know that we are not alone, that all of us, irrespective of age or sex or rank or talent, are in the same boat. As unique persons, on the other hand, all of us are resentful that an exception cannot be made in our own case. We oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be problematic to ourselves. The Carnival solution of this ambiguity is to laugh, for laughter is simultaneously a protest and an acceptance. During Carnival, all social distinctions are suspended, even that of sex. Young men dress up as girls, young girls as boys. The escape from social personality is symbolized by the wearing of masks. The oddity of the human animal expresses itself through the grotesque -- false noses, huge bellies and buttocks, farcical imitations of childbirth and copulation. The protest element in laughter takes the form of mock aggression: people pelt each other with small, harmless objects, draw cardboard daggers, and abuse each other verbally, like the small boy Goethe heard screaming at his father, "Sia ammazzato if Signore Padre!" Traditionally, Carnival, the days of feasting and fun, immediately precedes Lent, the days of fasting and prayer. In medieval carnivals, parodies of the rituals of the Church were common, but what Lewis Carroll said of literary parody -- "One can only parody a poem one admires" -- is true of all parody. One can only blaspheme if one believes. The world of Laughter is much more closely related to the world of Worship and Prayer than either is to the everyday, secular world of Work, for both are worlds in which we are all equal, in the first as individual members of our species, in the latter as unique persons. In the world of Work, on the other hand, we are not and cannot be equal, only diverse and interdependent: each of us, whether as scientist, artist, cook, cabdriver, or whatever, has to do "our thing." So long as we thought of Nature in polytheistic terms as the abode of gods, our efficiency and success as workers were hampered by a false humility which tried to make Nature responsible for us. But, according to Genesis, God made Adam responsible for looking after the Garden of Eden on His behalf, and it now seems as if He expects us to be responsible for the whole natural universe, which means that, as workers, we have to regard the universe ets; deus non daretur: God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation.

A satisfactory human life, individually or collectively, is possible only if proper respect is paid to all three worlds. Without Prayer and Work, the Carnival laughter turns ugly, the comic obscenities grubby and pornographic, the mock aggression into real hatred and cruelty. (The hippies, it appears to me, are trying to recover the sense of Carnival which is so conspicuously absent in this age, but so long as they reject Work they are unlikely to succeed.) Without Laughter and Work, Prayer turns Gnostic, cranky, Pharisaic, while those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires -- an attempt which can only end in utter catastrophe, shipwreck on the Isle of the Sirens.

Carnival in its traditional forms is not, I think, for Dr. Eiseley any more than it is for me. Neither of us can enjoy crowds and loud noises. But even introverted intellectuals can share the Carnival experience if they are prepared to forget their dignity, as Dr. Eiseley did when he unexpectedly encountered a fox cub:

"The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.

"He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face.... Here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

"It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox's den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. ... For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society."

Thank God, though, Dr. Eiseley has reported it to me. Bravo! say I.

W. H. Auden
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:27 pm

I. Nature and Autobiography

The Judgment of the Birds

It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper sort, he will return with a message. It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about.

The world, I have come to believe, is a very queer place, but we have been part of this queerness for so long that we tend to take it for granted. We rush to and fro like Mad Hatters upon our peculiar errands, all the time imagining our surroundings to be dull and ourselves quite ordinary creatures. Actually, there is nothing in the world to encourage this idea, but such is the mind of man, and this is why he finds it necessary from time to time to send emissaries into the wilderness in the hope of learning of great events, or plans in store for him, that will resuscitate his waning taste for life. His great news services, his worldwide radio network, he knows with a last remnant of healthy distrust will be of no use to him in this matter. No miracle can withstand a radio broadcast, and it is certain that it would be no miracle if it could. One must seek, then, what only the solitary approach can give -- a natural revelation.

Let it be understood that I am not the sort of man to whom is entrusted direct knowledge of great events or prophecies. A naturalist, however, spends much of his life alone, and my life is no exception. Even in New York City there are patches of wilderness, and a man by himself is bound to undergo certain experiences falling into the class of which I speak. I set mine down, therefore: a matter of pigeons, a flight of chemicals, and a judgment of birds, in the hope that they will come to the eye of those who have retained a true taste for the marvelous, and who are capable of discerning in the flow of ordinary events the point at which the mundane world gives way to quite another dimension.

New York is not, on the whole, the best place to enjoy the downright miraculous nature of the planet. There are, I do not doubt, many remarkable stories to be heard there and many strange sights to be seen, but to grasp a marvel fully it must be savored from all aspects. This cannot be done while one is being jostled and hustled along a crowded street. Nevertheless, in any city there are true wildernesses where a man can be alone. It can happen in a hotel room, or on the high roofs at dawn.

One night on the twentieth floor of a midtown hotel I awoke in the dark and grew restless. On an impulse I climbed upon the broad old-fashioned window sill, opened the curtains, and peered out. It was the hour just before dawn, the hour when men sigh in their sleep or, if awake, strive to focus their wavering eyesight upon a world emerging from the shadows. I leaned out sleepily through the open window. I had expected depths, but not the sight I saw.

I found I was looking down from that great height into a series of curious cupolas or lofts that I could just barely make out in the darkness. As I looked, the outlines of these lofts became more distinct because the light was being reflected from the wings of pigeons who, in utter silence, were beginning to float outward upon the city. In and out through the open slits in the cupolas passed the white-winged birds on their mysterious errands. At this hour the city was theirs, and quietly, without the brush of a single wing tip against stone in that high, eerie place, they were taking over the spires of Manhattan. They were pouring upward in a light that was not yet perceptible to human eyes, while far down in the black darkness of the alleys it was still midnight.

As I crouched half-asleep across the sill, I had a moment's illusion that the world had changed in the night, as in some immense snowfall, and that, if I were to leave, it would have to be as these other inhabitants were doing, by the window. I should have to launch out into that great bottomless void with the simple confidence of young birds reared high up there among the familiar chimney pots and interposed horrors of the abyss.

I leaned farther out. To and fro went the white wings, to and fro. There were no sounds from any of them. They knew man was asleep and this light for a little while was theirs. Or perhaps I had only dreamed about man in this city of wings -- which he could surely never have built. Perhaps I, myself, was one of these birds dreaming unpleasantly a moment of old dangers far below as I teetered on a window ledge.

Around and around went the wings. It needed only a little courage, only a little shove from the window ledge, to enter that city of light. The muscles of my hands were already making little premonitory lunges. I wanted to enter that city and go away over the roofs in the first dawn. I wanted to enter it so badly that I drew back carefully into the room and opened the hall door. I found my coat on the chair, and it slowly became clear to me that there was a way down through the floors, that I was, after all, only a man.

I dressed then and went back to my own kind, and I have been rather more than usually careful ever since not to look into the city of light. I had seen, just once, man's greatest creation from a strange inverted angle, and it was not really his at all. I will never forget how those wings went round and round, and how, by the merest pressure of the fingers and a feeling for air, one might go away over the roofs. It is a knowledge, however, that is better kept to oneself. I think of it sometimes in such a way that the wings, beginning far down in the black depths of the mind, begin to rise and whirl till all the mind is lit by their spinning, and there is a sense of things passing away, but lightly, as a wing might veer over an obstacle.

To see from an inverted angle, however, is not a gift allotted merely to the human imagination. I have come to suspect that within their degree it is sensed by animals, though perhaps as rarely as among men. The time has to be right; one has to be, by chance or intention, upon the border of two worlds. And sometimes these two borders may shift or interpenetrate and one sees the miraculous.

I once saw this happen to a crow.

This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity. His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.

On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.

I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station, following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow's voice before and never expect to hear again.

He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He'd knock his silly brains out.

All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog seemed scarcely to account for it -- especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.

Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me. It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that. He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight. He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of -- air-walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.

He caws now when he sees me leaving for the station in the morning, and I fancy that in that note I catch the uncertainty of a mind that has come to know things are not always what they seem. He has seen a marvel in his heights of air and is no longer as other crows. He has experienced the human world from an unlikely perspective. He and I share a viewpoint in common: our worlds have interpenetrated, and we both have faith in the miraculous.

It is a faith that in my own case has been augmented by two remarkable sights. I once saw some very odd chemicals fly across a waste so dead it might have been upon the moon, and once, by an even more fantastic piece of luck, I was present when a group of birds passed a judgment upon life.

On the maps of the old voyageurs it is called Mauvaises Terres, the evil lands, and, slurred a little with the passage through many minds, it has come down to us anglicized as the badlands. The soft shuffle of moccasins has passed through its canyons on the grim business of war and flight, but the last of those slight disturbances of immemorial silences died out almost a century ago. The land, if one can call it a land, is a waste as lifeless as that valley in which lie the kings of Egypt. Like the Valley of the Kings, it is a mausoleum, a place of dry bones in what once was a place of life. Now it has silences as deep as those in the moon's airless chasms.

Nothing grows among its pinnacles; there is no shade except under great toadstools of sandstone whose bases have been eaten to the shape of wine glasses by the wind. Everything is flaking, cracking, disintegrating, wearing away in the long, imperceptible weather of time. The ash of ancient volcanic outbursts still sterilizes its soil, and its colors in that waste are the colors that flame in the lonely sunsets on dead planets. Men come there but rarely, and for one purpose only, the collection of bones.

It was a late hour on a cold, wind-bitten autumn day when I climbed a great hill spined like a dinosaur's back and tried to take my bearings. The tumbled waste fell away in waves in all directions. Blue air was darkening into purple along the bases of the hills. I shifted my knapsack, heavy with the petrified bones of long-vanished creatures, and studied my compass. I wanted to be out of there by nightfall, and already the sun was going sullenly down in the west.

It was then that I saw the flight coming on. It was moving like a little close-knit body of black specks that danced and darted and closed again. It was pouring from the north and heading toward me with the undeviating relentlessness of a compass needle. It streamed through the shadows rising out of monstrous gorges. It rushed over towering pinnacles in the red light of the sun or momentarily sank from sight within their shade. Across that desert of eroding clay and wind-worn stone they came with a faint wild twittering that filled all the air about me as those tiny living bullets hurtled past into the night.

It may not strike you as a marvel. It would not, perhaps, unless you stood in the middle of a dead world at sunset, but that was where I stood. Fifty million years lay under my feet, fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was traveling on the farther edge of space. The chemicals of all that vanished age lay about me in the ground. Around me still lay the shearing molars of dead titanotheres, the delicate sabers of soft-stepping cats, the hollow sockets that had held the eyes of many a strange, outmoded beast. Those eyes had looked out upon a world as real as ours; dark, savage brains had roamed and roared their challenges into the steaming night.

Now they were still here, or, put it as you will, the chemicals that made them were here about me in the ground. The carbon that had driven them ran blackly in the eroding stone. The stain of iron was in the clays. The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorus had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.

I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorus, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang. It swerved like a single body, it knew itself, and, lonely, it bunched close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

I dropped my fistful of earth. I heard it roll inanimate back into the gully at the base of the hill: iron, carbon, the chemicals of life. Like men from those wild tribes who had haunted these hills before me seeking visions, I made my sign to the great darkness. It was not a mocking sign, and I was not mocked. As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, "What did you see?"

"I think, a miracle," I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.

I have said that I saw a judgment upon life, and that it was not passed by men. Those who stare at birds in cages or who test minds by their closeness to our own may not care for it. It comes from far away out of my past, in a place of pouring waters and green leaves. I shall never see an episode like it again if I live to be a hundred, nor do I think that one man in a million has ever seen it, because man is an intruder into such silences. The light must be right, and the observer must remain unseen. No man sets up such an experiment. What he sees, he sees by chance.

You may put it that I had come over a mountain, that I had slogged through fern and pine needles for half a long day, and that on the edge of a little glade with one long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly.

The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling's parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment, and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.

I was not of that airy company. My limbs were the heavy limbs of an earthbound creature who could climb mountains, even the mountains of the mind, only by a great effort of will. I knew I had seen a marvel and observed a judgment, but the mind which was my human endowment was sure to question it and to be at me day by day with its heresies until I grew to doubt the meaning of what I had seen. Eventually darkness and subtleties would ring me round once more.

And so it proved until, on the top of a stepladder, I made one more observation upon life. It was cold that autumn evening, and, standing under a suburban street light in a spate of leaves and beginning snow, I was suddenly conscious of some huge and hairy shadows dancing over the pavement. They seemed attached to an odd, globular shape that was magnified above me. There was no mistaking it. I was standing under the shadow of an orb-weaving spider. Gigantically projected against the street, she was about her spinning when everything was going underground. Even her cables were magnified upon the sidewalk and already I was half-entangled in their shadows.

"Good Lord," I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."

I procured a ladder from my yard and climbed up to inspect the situation. There she was, the universe running down around her, warmly arranged among her guy ropes attached to the lamp supports -- a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or stepladders. She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web.

I stood over her on the ladder, a faint snow touching my cheeks, and surveyed her universe. There were a couple of iridescent green beetle cases turning slowly on a loose strand of web, a fragment of luminescent eye from a moth's wing and a large indeterminable object, perhaps a cicada, that had struggled and been wrapped in silk. There were also little bits and slivers, little red and blue flashes from the scales of anonymous wings that had crashed there.

Some days, I thought, they will be dull and gray and the shine will be out of them; then the dew will polish them again and drops hang on the silk until everything is gleaming and turning in the light. It is like a mind, really, where everything changes but remains, and in the end you have these eaten-out bits of experience like beetle wings.

I stood over her a moment longer, comprehending somewhat reluctantly that her adventure against the great blind forces of winter, her seizure of this warming globe of light, would come to nothing and was hopeless. Nevertheless it brought the birds back into my mind, and that faraway song which had traveled with growing strength around a forest clearing years ago -- a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star. Maybe man himself will fight like this in the end, I thought, slowly realizing that the web and its threatening yellow occupant had been added to some luminous store of experience, shining for a moment in the fogbound reaches of my brain.

The mind, it came to me as I slowly descended the ladder, is a very remarkable thing; it has gotten itself a kind of courage by looking at a spider in a street lamp. Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void. I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.

But as I hesitated, it became plain that something was wrong. The marvel was escaping -- a sense of bigness beyond man's power to grasp, the essence of life in its great dealings with the universe. It was better, I decided, for the emissaries returning from the wilderness, even if they were merely descending from a stepladder, to record their marvel, not to define its meaning. In that way it would go echoing on through the minds of men, each grasping at that beyond out of which the miracles emerge, and which, once defined, ceases to satisfy the human need for symbols.

In the end I merely made a mental note: One specimen of Epeira observed building a web in a street light. Late autumn and cold for spiders. Cold for men, too. I shivered and left the lamp glowing there in my mind. The last I saw of Epeira she was hauling steadily on a cable. I stepped carefully over her shadow as I walked away.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:28 pm

The Long Loneliness

There is nothing more alone in the universe than man. He is alone because he has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates. He has entered into the strange world of history, of social and intellectual change, while his brothers of the field and forest remain subject to the invisible laws of biological evolution. Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend. To their minds there is no past and no future. There is only the everlasting present of a single generation -- its trails in the forest, its hidden pathways of the air and in the sea.

Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death. When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible. Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood; the rabbit was left on the lawn, the dog was relegated to his kennel. Only in acts of inarticulate compassion, in rare and hidden moments of communion with nature, does man briefly escape his solitary destiny. Frequently in science fiction he dreams of worlds with creatures whose communicative power is the equivalent of his own.

It is with a feeling of startlement, therefore, and eager interest touching the lost child in every one of us, that the public has received the recent accounts of naval research upon the intelligence of one of our brother mammals -- the sea-dwelling bottle-nosed porpoise or dolphin.

These small whales who left the land millions of years ago to return to the great mother element of life, the sea, are now being regarded by researchers as perhaps the most intelligent form of life on our planet next to man. Dr. John Lilly of the Communications Research Institute in the Virgin Islands reports that the brain of the porpoise is 40 per cent larger than man's and is just as complex in its functional units. Amazed by the rapidity with which captive porpoises solved problems that even monkeys found difficult, Dr. Lilly is quoted as expressing the view that "man's position at the top of the hierarchy [of intelligence] begins to be questioned."

Dr. Lilly found that his captives communicated in a series of underwater whistles and that, in addition, they showed an amazing "verbalizing" ability in copying certain sounds heard in the laboratory. The experimental animal obviously hoped to elicit by this means a reproduction of the pleasurable sensations he had been made to experience under laboratory conditions. It is reported that in spite of living in a medium different from the one that man inhabits, and therefore having quite a different throat structure, one of the porpoises even uttered in a Donald-Duckish voice a short number series it had heard spoken by one of the laboratory investigators.

The import of these discoveries is tremendous and may not be adequately known for a long time. An animal from a little-explored medium, which places great barriers in the way of the psychologist, has been found to have not only a strong social organization but to show a degree of initiative in experimental communicative activity unmatched by man's closest relatives, the great apes. The porpoises reveal, moreover, a touching altruism and friendliness in their attempts to aid injured companions. Can it be, one inevitably wonders, that man is so locked in his own type of intelligence -- an intelligence that is linked to a prehensile, grasping hand giving him power over his environment -- that he is unable to comprehend the intellectual life of a highly endowed creature from another domain such as the sea?

Perhaps the water barrier has shut us away from a potentially communicative and jolly companion. Perhaps we have some things still to learn from the natural world around us before we turn to the far shores of space and whatever creatures may await us there. After all, the porpoise is a mammal. He shares with us an ancient way of birth and affectionate motherhood. His blood is warm, he breathes air as we do. We both bear in our bodies the remnants of a common skeleton torn asunder for divergent purposes far back in the dim dawn of mammalian life. The porpoise has been superficially streamlined like a fish.

His are not, however, the cold-blooded ways of the true fishes. Far higher on the tree of life than fishes, the dolphin's paddles are made-over paws, rather than fins. He is an ever-constant reminder of the versatility of life and its willingness to pass through strange dimensions of experience. There are environmental worlds on earth every bit as weird as what we may imagine to revolve by far-off suns. It is our superficial familiarity with this planet that inhibits our appreciation of the unknown until a porpoise, rearing from a tank to say Three-Two-Three, re-creates for us the utter wonder of childhood.

Unless we are specialists in the study of communication and its relation to intelligence, however, we are apt to oversimplify or define poorly what intelligence is, what communication and language are, and thus confuse and mystify both ourselves and others. The mysteries surrounding the behavior of the bottle-nosed porpoise, and even of man himself, are not things to be probed simply by the dissector's scalpel. They lie deeper. They involve the whole nature of the mind and its role in the universe.

We are forced to ask ourselves whether native intelligence in another form than man's might be as high as or even higher than his own, yet be marked by no such material monuments as man has placed upon the earth. At first glance we are alien to this idea, because man is particularly a creature who has turned the tables on his environment so that he is now engrossed in shaping it, rather than being shaped by it. Man expresses himself upon his environment through the use of tools. We therefore tend to equate the use of tools in a one-to-one relationship with intelligence.

The question we must now ask ourselves, however, is whether this involves an unconsciously man-centered way of looking at intelligence. Let us try for a moment to enter the dolphin's kingdom and the dolphin's body, retaining, at the same time, our human intelligence. In this imaginative act, it may be possible to divest ourselves of certain human preconceptions about our kind of intelligence and at the same time to see more clearly why mind, even advanced mind, may have manifestations other than the tools and railroad tracks and laboratories that we regard as evidence of intellect. If we are particularly adept in escaping from our own bodies, we may even learn to discount a little the kind of world of rockets and death that our type of busy human curiosity, linked to a hand noted for its ability to open assorted Pandora's boxes, has succeeded in foisting upon the world as a symbol of universal intelligence.

We have now sacrificed, in our imagination, our hands for flippers and our familiar land environment for the ocean. We will go down into the deep waters as naked of possessions as when we entered life itself. We will take with us one thing alone that exists among porpoises as among men: an ingrained biological gregariousness -- a sociality that in our new world will permit us to run in schools, just as early man ran in the packs that were his ancient anthropoid heritage. We will assume in the light of Dr. Lilly's researches that our native intelligence, as distinguished from our culturally transmitted habits, is very high. The waters have closed finally over us, our paws have been sacrificed for the necessary flippers with which to navigate.

The result is immediately evident and quite clear: No matter how well we communicate with our fellows through the water medium we will never build drowned empires in the coral; we will never inscribe on palace walls the victorious boasts of porpoise kings. We will know only water and the wastes of water beyond the power of man to describe. We will be secret visitors in hidden canyons beneath the mouths of torrential rivers. We will survey in innocent astonishment the flotsam that pours from the veins of continents -- dead men, great serpents, giant trees -- or perhaps the little toy boat of a child loosed far upstream will come floating past. Bottles with winking green lights will plunge by us into the all-embracing ooze. Meaningless appearances and disappearances will comprise our philosophies. We will hear the earth's heart ticking in its thin granitic shell. Volcanic fires will growl ominously in steam-filled crevices. Vapor, bird cries, and sea wrack will compose our memories. We will see death in many forms and, on occasion, the slow majestic fall of battleships through the green light that comes from beyond our domain.

Over all that region of wondrous beauty we will exercise no more control than the simplest mollusk. Even the octopus with flexible arms will build little shelters that we cannot imitate. Without hands we will have only the freedom to follow the untrammeled sea winds across the planet.

Perhaps if those whistling sounds that porpoises make are truly symbolic and capable of manipulation in our brains, we will wonder about the world in which we find ourselves -- but it will be a world not susceptible to experiment. At best we may nuzzle in curiosity a passing shipbottom and be harpooned for our pains. Our thoughts, in other words, will be as limited as those of the first men who roved in little bands in the times before fire and the writing that was to open to man the great doorway of his past.

Man without writing cannot long retain his history in his head. His intelligence permits him to grasp some kind of succession of generations; but without writing, the tale of the past rapidly degenerates into fumbling myth and fable. Man's greatest epic, his four long battles with the advancing ice of the great continental glaciers, has vanished from human memory without a trace. Our illiterate fathers disappeared and with them, in a few scant generations, died one of the great stories of all time. This episode has nothing to do with the biological quality of a brain as between then and now. It has to do instead with a device, an invention made possible by the hand. That invention came too late in time to record eyewitness accounts of the years of the Giant Frost.

Primitives of our own species, even today, are historically shallow in their knowledge of the past. Only the poet who writes speaks his message across the millennia to other hearts. Only in writing can the cry from the great cross on Golgotha still be heard in the minds of men. The thinker of perceptive insight, even if we allow him for the moment to be a porpoise rather than a man, has only his individual glimpse of the universe until such time as he can impose that insight upon unnumbered generations. In centuries of pondering, man has come upon but one answer to this problem: speech translated into writing that passes beyond human mortality.

Writing, and later printing, is the product of our adaptable many-purposed hands. It is thus, through writing, with no increase in genetic, inborn capacity since the last ice advance, that modern man carries in his mind the intellectual triumphs of all his predecessors who were able to inscribe their thoughts for posterity.

All animals which man has reason to believe are more than usually intelligent -- our relatives the great apes, the elephant, the raccoon, the wolverine, among others -- are problem solvers, and in at least a small way manipulators of their environment. Save for the instinctive calls of their species, however, they cannot communicate except by direct imitation. They cannot invent words for new situations nor get their fellows to use such words. No matter how high the individual intelligence, its private world remains a private possession locked forever within a single, perishable brain. It is this fact that finally balks our hunger to communicate even with the sensitive dog who shares our fireside.

Dr. Lilly insists, however, that the porpoises communicate in high-pitched, underwater whistles that seem to transmit their wishes and problems. The question then becomes one of ascertaining whether these sounds represent true language -- in the sense of symbolic meanings, additive, learned elements -- or whether they are simply the instinctive signals of a pack animal. To this there is as yet no clear answer, but the eagerness with which laboratory sounds and voices were copied by captive porpoises suggests a vocalizing ability extending perhaps to or beyond the threshold of speech.

Most of the intelligent land animals have prehensile, grasping organs for exploring their environment -- hands in man and his anthropoid relatives, the sensitive inquiring trunk in the elephant. One of the surprising things about the porpoise is that his superior brain is unaccompanied by any type of manipulative organ. He has, however, a remarkable range-finding ability involving some sort of echo-sounding. Perhaps this acute sense -- far more accurate than any man has been able to devise artificially -- brings him greater knowledge of his watery surroundings than might at first seem possible. Human beings think of intelligence as geared to things. The hand and the tool are to us the unconscious symbols of our intel1ectual achievement. It is difficult for us to visualize another kind of lonely, almost disembodied intelligence floating in the wavering green fairyland of the sea -- an intelligence possibly near or comparable to our own but without hands to build, to transmit knowledge by writing, or to alter by one hairsbreadth the planet's surface. Yet at the same time there are indications that this is a warm, friendly and eager intel1igence quite capable of coming to the assistance of injured companions and striving to rescue them from drowning. Porpoises left the land when mammalian brains were stil1smal1and primitive. Without the stimulus provided by agile exploring fingers, these great sea mammals have yet taken a divergent road toward intel1igence of a high order. Hidden in their sleek bodies is an impressively elaborated instrument, the reason for whose appearance is a complete enigma. It is as though both man and porpoise were each part of some great eye which yearned to look both outward on eternity and inward to the sea's heart -- that fertile entity so like the mind in its swarming and grotesque life.

Perhaps man has something to learn after all from fellow creatures without the ability to drive harpoons through living flesh, or poison with strontium the planetary winds. One is reminded of those watery blue vaults in which, as in some idyl1ic eternity, Herman Melvi11e once saw the sperm whales nurse their young. And as Melvi11ewrote of the sperm whale, so we might now paraphrase his words in speaking of the porpoise. "Genius in the porpoise? Has the porpoise ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is declared in his pyramidical silence." If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the world. Instead he would have lived and wandered, like the porpoise, homeless across currents and winds and oceans, intel1igent, but forever the lonely and curious observer of unknown wreckage fal1ingthrough the blue light of eternity. This role would now be a deserved penitence for man. Perhaps such a transformation would bring him once more into that mood of childhood innocence in which he talked successful1y to all things living but had no power and no urge to harm. It is worth at least a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him. It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:29 pm

Man the Firemaker

Man, it is well to remember, is the discoverer but not the inventor of fire. Long before this meddling little Prometheus took to experimenting with flints, then matches, and finally (we hope not too finally) hydrogen bombs, fires had burned on this planet. Volcanoes had belched molten lava, lightning had struck in dry grass, winds had rubbed dead branches against each other until they burst into flame. There are evidences of fire in ancient fossil beds that lie deep below the time of man.

Man did not invent fire but he did make it one of the giant powers on the earth. He began this experiment long ago in the red morning of the human mind. Today he continues it in the midst of coruscating heat that is capable of rending the very fabric of his universe. Man's long adventure with knowledge has, to a very marked degree, been a climb up the heat ladder, for heat alone enables man to mold metals and glassware, to create his great chemical industries, to drive his swift machines. It is my intention here to trace man's manipulation of this force far back into its ice-age beginnings and to observe the part that fire has played in the human journey across the planet. The torch has been carried smoking through the ages of glacial advance. As we follow man on this journey, we shall learn another aspect of his nature: that he is himself a consuming fire.

At just what level in his intellectual development man mastered the art of making fire is still unknown. Neanderthal man of 50,000 years ago certainly knew the art. Traces of the use of fire have turned up in a cave of Peking man, the primitive human being of at least 250,000 years ago who had a brain only about two-thirds the size of modern man's. And in 1947 Raymond Dart of Witwatersrand University announced the discovery in South Africa of Australopithecus prometheus, a man-ape cranium recovered from deposits which he believed showed traces of burned bone.

This startling announcement of the possible use of fire by a subhuman creature raised a considerable storm in anthropological circles. The chemical identifications purporting to indicate evidence of fire are now considered highly questionable. It has also been intimated that the evidence may represent only traces of a natural brush fire. Certainly, so long as the South African man-apes have not been clearly shown to be tool users, wide doubts about their use of fire will remain. There are later sites of tool-using human beings which do not show traces of fire.

Until there is proof to the contrary, it would seem wise to date the earliest use of fire to Peking man -- Sinanthropus. Other human sites of the same antiquity have not yielded evidence of ash, but this is not surprising, for as a new discovery the use of fire would have taken time to diffuse from one group to another. Whether it was discovered once or several times we have no way of knowing. The fact that fire was in worldwide use at the beginning of man's civilized history enables us to infer that it is an old human culture trait -- doubtless one of the earliest. Furthermore, it is likely that man used fire long before he became sophisticated enough to produce it himself.

In 1865 Sir John Lubbock, a British banker who made a hobby of popular writing on science, observed: "There can be no doubt that man originally crept over the earth's surface, little by little, year by year, just, for instance, as the weeds of Europe are now gradually but surely creeping over the surface of Australia." This remark was, in its time, a very shrewd and sensible observation. We know today, however, that there have been times when man suddenly made great strides across the face of the earth. I want to review one of .those startling expansions -- a lost episode in which fire played a tremendous part. To make its outlines clear we shall have to review the human drama in three acts.

The earliest humanlike animals we can discern are the man-apes of South Africa. Perhaps walking upright on two feet, this creature seems to have been roaming the East African grasslands about one million years ago. Our ancestor, proto-man, probably emerged from the tropics and diffused over the region of warm climate in Eurasia and North Africa. He must have been dependent upon small game, insects, wild seeds, and fruits. His life was hard, his search for food incessant, his numbers were small.

The second stage in human history is represented by the first true men. Paleoanthropic man is clearly a tool user, a worker in stone and bone, but there is still something of the isolated tinkerer and fumbler about him. His numbers are still sparse, judging from the paucity of skeletal remains. Short, stocky, and powerful, he spread over the most temperate portions of the Afro-Eurasiatic land mass but never attempted the passage through the high Arctic to America. Through scores of millennia he drifted with the seasons, seemingly content with his troglodyte existence, making little serious change in his array of flint tools. It is quite clear that some of these men knew the use of fire, but many may not have.

The third act begins some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago. The last great ice sheet still lies across northern Europe and North America. Roving on the open tundra and grasslands below those ice sheets is the best-fed and most varied assemblage of grass-eating animals the world has ever seen. Giant long-horned bison, the huge wild cattle of the Pleistocene, graze on both continents. Mammoth and mastodon wander about in such numbers that their bones are later to astonish the first American colonists. Suddenly, into this late paradise of game, there erupts our own species of man -- Homo sapiens. Just where he came from we do not know. Tall, lithe, long-limbed, he is destined to overrun the continents in the blink of a geological eye. He has an excellent projectile weapon in the shape of the spear thrower. His flint work is meticulous and sharp. And the most aggressive carnivore the world has ever seen comes at a time made for his success: the grasslands are alive with seemingly inexhaustible herds of game.

Yet fire as much as flesh was the magic that opened the way for the supremacy of Homo sapiens. We know that he was already the master of fire, for the track of it runs from camp to buried camp: the blackened bones of the animals he killed, mute testimony to the relentless step of man across the continents, lie in hundreds of sites in the Old and the New Worlds. Meat, more precious than the gold for which men later struggled, supplied the energy that carried man across the world. Had it not been for fire, however, all that enormous source of life would have been denied to him: he would have gone on drinking the blood from small kills, chewing wearily at uncooked bone ends or masticating the crackling bodies of grasshoppers.

Fire shortens the digestive process. It breaks down tough masses of flesh into food that the human stomach can easily assimilate. Fire made the difference that enabled man to expand his numbers rapidly and to press on from hunting to more advanced cultures. Yet we take fire so much for granted that this first great upswing in human numbers, this first real gain in the seizure of vast quantities of free energy, has to a remarkable degree eluded our attention.

With fire primitive man did more than cook his meat. He extended the pasture for grazing herds. A considerable school of thought, represented by such men as the geographer Carl Sauer and the anthropologist Omer Stewart, believes that the early use of fire by the aborigines of the New World greatly expanded the grassland areas. Stewart says: "The number of tribes reported using fire leads one to the conclusion that burning of vegetation was a universal culture pattern among the Indians of the U.S. Furthermore, the amount of burning leads to the deduction that nearly all vegetation in America at the time of discovery and exploration was what ecologists would call fire vegetation. That is to say, fire was a major factor, along with soil, moisture, temperature, wind, animals, and so forth, in determining the types of plants occurring in any region. It follows then, that the vegetation of the Great Plains was a fire vegetation." In short, the so-called primeval wilderness which awed our forefathers had already felt the fire of the Indian hunter. Here, as in many other regions, man's fire altered the ecology of the earth.

It had its effect not only on the flora but also on the fauna. Of the great herds of grazing animals that flourished in America in the last Ice Age, not a single trace remains -- the American elephants, camels, long-horned bison are all gone. Not all of them were struck down by the hunters' weapons. Sauer argues that a major explanation of the extinction of the great American mammals may be fire. He says that the aborigines used fire drives to stampede game, and he contends that this weapon would have worked with peculiar effectiveness to exterminate such lumbering creatures as the mammoth. I have stood in a gully in western Kansas and seen outlined in the earth the fragmented black bones of scores of bison who had perished in what was probably a man-made conflagration. If, at the end of Pleistocene times, vast ecological changes occurred, if climates shifted, if lakes dried and in other places forests sprang up, and if, in this uncertain and unsteady time, man came with flint and fire upon the animal world about him, he may well have triggered a catastrophic decline and extinction. Five thousand years of man and his smoking weapon rolling down the wind may have finished the story for many a slow-witted animal species. In the great scale of geological time this act of destruction amounts to but one brief hunt.

Man, as I have said, is himself a flame. He has burned through the animal world and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own. When the great herds failed over many areas, he had to devise new ways to feed his increase or drop back himself into a precarious balance with nature. Here and there on the world's margins there have survived into modern times men who were forced into just such local adjustments. Simple hunters and collectors of small game in impoverished areas, they maintain themselves with difficulty. Their numbers remain the same through generations. Their economy permits no bursts of energy beyond what is necessary for the simple age-old struggle with nature. Perhaps, as we view the looming shadow of atomic disaster, this way of life takes on a certain dignity today.

Nevertheless there is no road back; the primitive way is no longer our way. We are the inheritors of an aggressive culture which, when the great herds disappeared, turned to agriculture. Here again the magic of fire fed the great human wave and built up man's numbers and civilization.

Man's first chemical experiment involving the use of heat was to make foods digestible. He had cooked his meat; now he used fire to crack his grain. In the process of adopting the agricultural way of life he made his second chemical experiment with heat: baking pottery. Ceramics may have sprung in part from the need for storage vessels to protect harvested grain from the incursions of rats and mice and moisture. At any rate, the potter's art spread with the revolutionary shift in food production in early Neolithic times.

People who have only played with mud pies or made little sundried vessels of clay are apt to think of ceramics as a simple art. Actually it is not. The sundried vessels of our childhood experiments would melt in the first rain that struck them. To produce true pottery one must destroy the elasticity of clay through a chemical process which can be induced only by subjecting the clay to an intense baking at a temperature of at least 400 or 500 degrees centigrade. The baking drives out the so-called water of constitution from the aluminum silicate in the clay. Thereafter the clay will no longer dissolve in water; a truly fired vessel will survive in the ground for centuries. This is why pottery is so important to the archaeologist. It is impervious to the decay that overtakes many other substances, and, since it was manufactured in quantity, it may tell tales of the past when other clues fail us.

Pottery can be hardened in an open campfire, but the results can never be so excellent as those achieved in a kiln. At some point the early potter must have learned that he could concentrate and conserve heat by covering his fire -- perhaps making it in a hole or trench. From this it was a step to the true closed kiln, in which there was a lower chamber for the fire and an upper one for the pottery. Most of the earthenware of simple cultures was fired at temperatures around 500 degrees centigrade, but really thorough firing demands temperatures in the neighborhood of 900 degrees.

After man had learned to change the chemical nature of clay, he began to use fire to transform other raw materials -- ores into metals, for instance. One measure of civilization is the number of materials manipulated. The savage contents himself with a few raw materials which can be shaped without the application of high temperatures. Civilized man uses fire to extract, alter, or synthesize a multitude of substances.

By the time metals came into extended use, the precious flame no longer burned in the open campfire, radiating its heat away into the dark or flickering on the bronzed faces of the hunters. Instead it roared in confined furnaces and was fed oxygen through crude bellows. One of the by-products of more intensified experiments with heat was glass -- the strange, impassive substance which, in the form of the chemist's flask, the astronomer's telescope, the biologist's microscope, and the mirror, has contributed so vastly to our knowledge of ourselves and the universe.

We hear a good deal about the Iron Age, or age of metals, as a great jump forward in man's history; actually the metals themselves played a comparatively small part in the rise of the first great civilizations. While men learned to use bronze, which demands little more heat than is necessary to produce good ceramics, and later iron, for tools and ornaments, the use of metal did not make a really massive change in civilization for well over 1,500 years. It was what Leslie White of the University of Michigan calls the "Fuel Revolution" that brought the metals into their own. Coal, oil, and gas, new sources of energy, combined with the invention of the steam and combustion engines, ushered in the new age. It was not metals as tools, but metals combined with heat in new furnaces and power machinery that took human society off its thousand-year plateau and made possible another enormous upswing in human numbers, with all the social repercussions.

Today the flames grow hotter in the furnaces. Man has come far up the heat ladder. The creature that crept furred through the glitter of blue glacial nights lives surrounded by the hiss of steam, the roar of engines, and the bubbling of vats. Like a long-armed crab, he manipulates the tongs in dangerous atomic furnaces. In asbestos suits he plunges into the flaming debris of hideous accidents. With intricate heat-measuring instruments he investigates the secrets of the stars, and he has already found heat-resistant alloys that have enabled him to hurl himself into space.

How far will he go? Three hundred years of the scientific method have built the great sky-touching buildings and nourished the incalculable fertility of the human species. But man is also Homo duplex, as they knew in the darker ages. He partakes of evil and of good, of god and of man. Both struggle in him perpetually. And he is himself a flame -- a great, roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth. Before this century is out, either Homo duplex must learn that knowledge without greatness of spirit is not enough for man, or there will remain only his calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:31 pm

The Innocent Fox

Only to a magician is the world forever fluid, infinitely mutable and eternally new. Only he knows the secret of change, only he knows truly that all things are crouched in eagerness to become something else, and it is from this universal tension that he draws his power.

-- Peter Beagle


Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings -- meanings felt even in the wood, where the trees leaned over him, manifesting a vast and living presence. The image in the pool vanished at the touch of his finger, but he went home and created a legend. The great trees never spoke, but man knew that dryads slipped among their boles. Since the red morning of time it has been so, and the compulsive reading of such manuscripts will continue to occupy man's attention long after the books that contain his inmost thoughts have been sealed away by the indefatigable spider.

Some men are daylight readers, who peruse the ambiguous wording of clouds or the individual letter shapes of wandering birds. Some, like myself, are librarians of the night, whose ephemeral documents consist of root-inscribed bones or whatever rustles in thickets upon solitary walks. Man, for all his daylight activities, is, at best, an evening creature. Our very addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories.

Lastly, we inhabit a spiritual twilight on this planet. It is perhaps the most poignant of an the deprivations to which man has been exposed by nature. I have said deprivation, but perhaps I should rather maintain that this feeling of loss is an unrealized anticipation. We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.

I am not the first man to have lost his way only to find, if not a gate, a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension at the world's end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten into the unexpected.

As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover the hole in the hedge leading to the unforeseen. By then, there is frequently no child companion to lead them safely through. After one or two experiences of getting impaled on thorns, the most persistent individual is apt to withdraw and to assert angrily that no such opening exists.

My experience has been quite the opposite, but I have been fortunate. After several unsuccessful but tantalizing trials, which I intend to disclose, I had the help, not of a child, but of a creature -- a creature who, appropriately, came out of a quite unremarkable and prosaic den. There was nothing, in retrospect, at an mysterious or unreal about him. Nevertheless, the creature was baffling, just as, I suppose, to animals, man himself is baffling.


An autumn midnight in 1967 caught me staring idly from my study window at the attic cupola of an old Victorian house that loomed far above a neighboring grove of trees. I suppose the episode happened just as I had grown dimly aware, amidst my encasing cocoon of books and papers, that something was missing from my life. This feeling had brought me from my desk to peer hopelessly upon the relentless advance of suburban housing. For years, I had not seen anything from that particular window that did not spell the death of something I loved.

Finally, in blundering, good-natured confidence, the last land tortoise had fallen a victim to the new expressway. None of his kind any longer came to replace him. A chipmunk that had held out valiantly in a drainpipe on the lawn had been forced to flee from the usurping rats that had come with the new supermarket. A parking lot now occupied most of the view from the window. I was a man trapped in the despair once alluded to as the utterly hopeless fear confined to moderns -- that no miracles can ever happen. I considered, as I tried to will myself away into the attic room far above the trees, the wisdom of a search, a search unlikely to yield tangible results.

Since boyhood I have been charmed by the unexpected and the beautiful. This was what had led me originally into science, but now I felt instinctively that something more was needed -- though what I needed verged on a miracle. As a scientist, I did not believe in miracles, though I willingly granted the word broad latitudes of definition.

My whole life had been unconsciously a search, and the search had not been restricted to the bones and stones of my visible profession. Moreover, my age could allow me folly; indeed, it demanded a boldness that the young frequently cannot afford. All I needed to do was to set forth either mentally or physically, but to where escaped me.

At that instant the high dormer window beyond the trees blazed as blue as a lightning flash. As I have remarked, it was midnight. There was no possibility of reflection from a street lamp. A giant bolt of artificial lightning was playing from a condenser, leaping at intervals across the interior of the black pane in the distance. It was the artificial lightning that only one of several engineers with unusual equipment could produce.

Now the old house was plebeian enough. Rooms were rented. People of modest middle-class means lived there, as I was to learn later. But still, in the midmost of the night, somebody or some group was engaged in that attic room upon a fantastic experiment. For, you see, I spied. I spied for nights in succession. I was bored, I was sleepless, and it pleased me to think that the mad scientists, as I came to call them, were engaged, in their hidden room, upon some remarkable and unheard-of adventure.

Why else would they be active at midnight, why else would they be engaged for a brief hour and then extinguish the spark? In the next few days I trained high-powered field glasses upon the window, but the blue bolt defeated me, as did the wavering of autumn boughs across the distant roof. I could only believe that science still possessed some of its old, mad fascination for a mind outside the professional circle of the great laboratories. Perhaps, I thought eagerly, there was a fresh intelligence groping after some secret beyond pure technology. I thought of the dreams of Emerson and others when evolution was first anticipated but its mechanisms remained a mystery entangled with the first galvanic batteries. Night after night, while the leaves thinned and the bolt leaped at its appointed hour, I dreamed, staring from my window, of that coruscating arc revivifying flesh or leaping sentient beyond it into some unguessed state of being. Only for such purposes, I thought, would a man toil in an attic room at midnight.

I began unconsciously to hang more and more upon that work of which, in reality, I knew nothing. It sustained me in my waking hours when the old house, amidst its yellowing leaves, assumed a sleepy and inconsequential air. For me, it had restored wonder and lifted my dreams to the height they had once had when, as a young student, I had peeped through the glass door of a famous experimenter's laboratory. I no longer read. I sat in the darkened study and watched and waited for the unforeseen. It came in a way I had not expected.

One night the window remained dark. My powerful glasses revealed only birds flying across the face of the moon. A bat fluttered about the tessellated chimney. A few remaining leaves fell into the dark below the roofs.

I waited expectantly for the experiment to be resumed. It was not. The next night it rained violently. The window did not glow. Leaves yellowed the wet walks below the street lamps. It was the same the next night and the next. The episode, I came to feel, peering ruefully from my window, was altogether too much like science itself -- science with its lightning bolts, its bubbling retorts, its elusive promises of perfection. All too frequently the dream ended in a downpour of rain and leaves upon wet walks. The men involved had a way, like my mysterious neighbors, of vanishing silently and leaving, if anything at all, corroding bits of metal out of which no one could make sense.

I had once stood in a graveyard that was a great fallen city. It was not hard to imagine another. After watching fruitlessly at intervals until winter was imminent, I promised myself a journey. After all, there was nothing to explain my disappointment. I had not known for what I was searching.

Or perhaps I did know, secretly, and would not admit it to myself: I wanted a miracle. Miracles, by definition, are without continuity, and perhaps my rooftop scientist had nudged me in that direction by the uncertainty of his departure. The only thing that characterizes a miracle, to my mind, is its sudden appearance and disappearance within the natural order, although, strangely, this loose definition would include each individual person. Miracles, in fact, momentarily dissolve the natural order or place themselves in opposition to it. My first experience had been only a tantalizing expectation, a hint that I must look elsewhere than in retorts or coiled wire, however formidable the powers that could be coerced to inhabit them. There was magic, but it was an autumnal, sad magic. I had a growing feeling that miracles were particularly concerned with life, with the animal aspect of things.

Just at this time, and with my thoughts in a receptive mood, a summons came that made it necessary for me to make a long night drive over poor roads through a dense forest. As a subjective experience, which it turned out to be, I would call it a near approach to what I was seeking. There was no doubt I was working further toward the heart of the problem. The common man thinks a miracle can just be "seen" to be reported. Quite the contrary. One has to be, I was discovering, reasonably sophisticated even to perceive the miraculous. It takes experience; otherwise, more miracles would be encountered.

One has, in short, to refine one's perceptions. Lightning bolts observed in attics, I now knew, were simply raw material, a lurking extravagant potential in the cosmos. In themselves, they were merely powers summoned up and released by the human mind. Wishing would never make them anything else and might make them worse. Nuclear fission was a ready example. No, a miracle was definitely something else, but that I would have to discover in my own good time.

Preoccupied with such thoughts, I started my journey of descent through the mountains. For a long time I was alone. I followed a road of unexpectedly twisting curves and abrupt descents. I bumped over ruts, where I occasionally caught the earthly starshine of eyes under leaves. Or I plunged at intervals into an impenetrable gloom buttressed by the trunks of huge pines.

After hours of arduous concentration and the sudden crimping of the wheel, my eyes were playing tricks with me. It was time to stop, but I could not afford to stop. I shook my head to clear it and blundered on. For a long time, in this confined glen among the mountains, I had been dimly aware that something beyond the reach of my headlights, but at times momentarily caught in their flicker, was accompanying me.

Whatever the creature might be, it was amazingly fleet. I never really saw its true outline. It seemed, at times, to my weary and much-rubbed eyes, to be running upright like a man, or, again, its color appeared to shift in a multiform illusion. Sometimes it seemed to be bounding forward. Sometimes it seemed to present a face to me and dance backward. From weary consciousness of an animal I grew slowly aware that the being caught momentarily in my flickering headlights was as much a shapeshifter as the wolf in a folk tale. It was not an animal; it was a gliding, leaping mythology. I felt the skin crawl on the back of my neck, for this was still the forest of the windigo and the floating heads commemorated so vividly in the masks of the Iroquois. I was lost, but I understood the forest. The blood that ran in me was not urban. I almost said not human. It had come from other times and a far place.

I slowed the car and silently fought to contain the horror that even animals feel before the disruption of the natural order. But was there a natural order? As I coaxed my lights to a fuller blaze I suddenly realized the absurdity of the question. Why should life tremble before the unexpected if it had not already anticipated the answer? There was no order. Or, better, what order there might be was far wilder and more formidable than that conjured up by human effort.

It did not help in the least to make out finally that the creature who had assigned himself to me was an absurdly spotted dog of dubious affinities -- nor did it help that his coat had the curious properties generally attributable to a magician. For how, after all, could I assert with surety what shape this dog had originally possessed a half-mile down the road? There was no way of securing his word for it.

The dog was, in actuality, an illusory succession of forms finally, but momentarily, frozen into the shape "dog" by me. A word, no more. But as it turned away into the night how was I to know it would remain "dog"? By experience? No, it had been picked by me out of a running weave of colors and faces into which it would lapse once more as it bounded silently into the inhuman, unpopulated wood. We deceive ourselves if we think our self-drawn categories exist there. The dog would simply become once more an endless running series of forms, which would not, the instant I might vanish, any longer know themselves as "dog."

By a mental effort peculiar to man, I had wrenched a leaping phantom into the flesh "dog," but the shape could not be held, neither his nor my own. We were contradictions and unreal. A nerve net and the lens of an eye had created us. Like the dog, I was destined to leap away at last into the unknown wood. My flesh, my own seemingly unique individuality, was already slipping like flying mist, like the colors of the dog, away from the little parcel of my bones. If there was order in us, it was the order of change. I started the car again, but I drove on chastened and unsure. Somewhere something was running and changing in the haunted wood. I knew no more than that. In a similar way, my mind was leaping and also changing as it sped. That was how the true miracle, my own miracle, came to me in its own time and fashion.


The episode occurred upon an unengaging and unfrequented shore. It began in the late afternoon of a day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes. There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast. Somewhere on the horizon wavered the tenuous outlines of a misplaced building, growing increasingly insubstantial in the autumn light.

After my companions had taken their photographs and departed, their persistent voices were immediately seized upon and absorbed by the extending immensity of an incoming fog. The fog trailed in wisps over the upthrust ribs of the boat. For a time I could see it fingering the tracks of some small animal, as though engaged in a belated dialogue with the creature's mind. The tracks crisscrossed a dune, and there the fog hesitated, as though puzzled. Finally, it approached and enwrapped me, as though to peer into my face. I was not frightened, but I also realized with a slight shock that I was not intended immediately to leave.

I sat down then and rested with my back against the overturned boat. All around me the stillness intensified and the wandering tendrils of the fog continued their search. Nothing escaped them.

The broken cup of a wild bird's egg was touched tentatively, as if with meaning, for the first time. I saw a sand-colored ghost crab, hitherto hidden and immobile, begin to sidle amidst the beach grass as though imbued suddenly with a will derived ultimately from the fog. A gull passed high overhead, but its cry took on the plaint of something other than itself.

I began dimly to remember a primitive dialogue as to whether God is a mist or merely a mist maker. Since a great deal of my thought has been spent amidst such early human and, to my mind, not outworn speculations, the idea did not seem particularly irrational or blasphemous. How else would so great a being, assuming his existence, be able thoroughly to investigate his world, or, perhaps, merely a world that he had come upon, than as he was now proceeding to do?

I closed my eyes and let the tiny diffused droplets of the fog gently palpate my face. At the same time, by some unexplained affinity, I felt my mind drawn inland, to pour, smoking and gigantic as the fog itself, through the gorges of a neighboring mountain range.

In a little shaft of falling light my consciousness swirled dimly over the tombstones of a fallen cemetery. Something within me touched half-obliterated names and dates before sliding imperceptibly onward toward an errand in the city. That errand, whatever its purpose, perhaps because I was mercifully guided away from the future, was denied me.

As suddenly as I had been dispersed I found myself back among the boat timbers and the broken shell of something that had not achieved existence. "I am the thing that lives in the midst of the bones" -- a line from the dead poet Charles Williams persisted obstinately in my head. It was true. I was merely condensed from that greater fog to a smaller congelation of droplets. Vague and smoky wisplets of thought were my extensions.

From a rack of bone no more substantial than the broken boat ribs on the beach, I was moving like that larger, all-investigating fog through the doorways of the past. Somewhere far away in an inland city the fog was transformed into a blizzard. Nineteen twenty-nine was a meaningless date that whipped by upon a flying newspaper. The blizzard was beating upon a great gate marked St. Elizabeth's. I was no longer the blizzard. I was hurrying, a small dark shadow, up a stairway beyond which came a labored and importunate breathing.

The man lay back among the pillows, wracked, yellow, and cadaverous. Though I was his son he knew me only as one lamp is briefly lit from another in the windy night. He was beyond speech, but a question was there, occupying the dying mind, excluding the living, something before which all remaining thought had to be mustered. At the time I was too young to understand. Only now could the hurrying shadow drawn from the wrecked boat interpret and relive the question. The starving figure on the bed was held back from death only by a magnificent heart that would not die.

I, the insubstantial substance of memory, the dispersed droplets of the ranging fog, saw the man lift his hands for the last time. Strangely, in all that ravished body, they alone had remained unchanged. They were strong hands, the hands of a craftsman who had played many roles in his life: actor, laborer, professional runner. They were the hands of a man, indirectly of all men, for such had been the nature of his life. Now, in a last lucid moment, he had lifted them up and, curiously, as though they belonged to another being, he had turned and flexed them, gazed upon them unbelievingly, and dropped them once more.

He, too, the shadow, the mist in the gaping bones, had seen these seemingly untouched deathless instruments rally as though with one last purpose before the demanding will. And I, also a shadow, come back across forty years, could hear the question at last. "Why are you, my hands, so separate from me at death, yet still to be commanded? Why have you served me, you who are alive and ingeniously clever?" For here he turned and contemplated them with his old superb steadiness. "What has been our partnership, for I, the shadow, am going, yet you of all of me are alive and persist?"

I could have sworn that his last thought was not of himself but of the fate of the instruments. He was outside, he was trying to look into the secret purposes of things, and the hands, the masterful hands, were the only purpose remaining, while he, increasingly without center, was vanishing. It was the hands that contained his last conscious act. They had been formidable in life. In death they had become strangers who had denied their master's last question.

Suddenly I was back under the overhang of the foundered boat. I had sat there stiff with cold for many hours. I was no longer the extension of a blizzard beating against immovable gates. The year of the locusts was done. It was, instead, the year of the mist maker that some obscure Macusi witch doctor had chosen to call god. But the mist maker had gone over the long-abandoned beach, touching for his inscrutable purposes only the broken shell of the nonexistent, only the tracks of a wayward fox, only a man who, serving the mist maker, could be made to stream wispily through the interstices of time.

I was a biologist, but I chose not to examine my hands. The fog and the night were lifting. I had been far away for hours. Crouched in my heavy sheepskin I waited without thought as the witch doctor might have waited for the morning dispersion of his god. Finally, the dawn began to touch the sea, and then the worn timbers of the hulk beside which I sheltered reddened just a little. It was then I began to glimpse the world from a different perspective.

I had watched for nights the great bolts leaping across the pane of an attic window, the bolts Emerson had dreamed in the first scientific days might be the force that hurled reptile into mammal. I had watched at midnight the mad scientists intent upon their own creation. But in the end, those fantastic flashes of the lightning had ceased without issue, at least for me. The pane, the inscrutable pane, had darkened at last; the scientists, if scientists they were, had departed, carrying their secret with them. I sighed, remembering. It was then I saw the miracle. I saw it because I was hunched at ground level smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of this world.

I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull's cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.

He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. "If there was only one fox in the world and I could kill him, I would do." The words of a British poacher in a pub rasped in my ears. I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.

Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox's den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.

But I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the nearest ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home.

A little farther on, I passed one on a ridge who knew well I had no gun, for it swung by quite close, stepping delicately with brush and head held high. Its face was watchful but averted. It did not matter. It was what I had experienced and the fox had experienced, what we had all experienced in adulthood. We passed carefully on our separate ways into the morning, eyes not meeting.

But to me the mist had come, and the mere chance of two lifted sunlit ears at morning. I knew at last why the man on the bed had smiled finally before he dropped his hands. He, too, had worked around to the front of things in his death agony. The hands were playthings and had to be cast aside at last like a little cherished toy. There was a meaning and there was not a meaning, and therein lay the agony.

The meaning was all in the beginning, as though time was awry. It was a little beautiful meaning that did not stay, and the sixty-year-old man on the hospital bed had traveled briefly toward it through the dark at the end of the universe. There was something in the desperate nature of the world that had to be reversed, but he had been too weak to tel1 me, and the hands had dropped helplessly away.

After forty years I had been just his own age when the fog had come groping for my face. I think I can safely put it down that I had been allowed my miracle. It was very smal1,as is the way of great things. I had been permitted to correct time's arrow for a space of perhaps five minutes -- and that is a boon not granted to al1men. If I were to render a report upon this episode, I would say that men must find a way to run the arrow backward. Doubtless it is impossible in the physical world, but in the memory and the will man might achieve the deed if he would try.

For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shal1 ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:33 pm

How Flowers Changed the World

If it had been possible to observe the earth from the far side of the solar system over the long course of geological epochs, the watchers might have been able to discern a subtle change in the light emanating from our planet. That world of long ago would, like the red deserts of Mars, have reflected light from vast drifts of stone and gravel, the sands of wandering wastes, the blackness of naked basalt, the yellow dust of endlessly moving storms. Only the ceaseless marching of the clouds and the intermittent flashes from the restless surface of the sea would have told a different story, but still essentially a barren one. Then, as the millennia rolled away and age followed age, a new and greener light would, by degrees, have come to twinkle across those endless miles.

This is the only difference those far watchers, by the use of subtle instruments, might have perceived in the whole history of the planet Earth. Yet that slowly growing green twinkle would have contained the epic march of life from the tidal oozes upward across the raw and unclothed continents. Out of the vast chemical bath of the sea -- not from the deeps, but from the element-rich, light-exposed platforms of the continental shelves -- wandering fingers of green had crept upward along the meanderings of river systems and fringed the gravels of forgotten lakes.

In those first ages plants clung of necessity to swamps and watercourses. Their reproductive processes demanded direct access to water. Beyond the primitive ferns and mosses that en- closed the borders of swamps and streams the rocks still lay vast and bare, the winds still swirled the dust of a naked planet. The grass cover that holds our world secure in place was still millions of years in the future. The green marchers had gained a soggy foothold upon the land, but that was all. They did not reproduce by seeds but by microscopic swimming sperm that had to wriggle their way through water to fertilize the female cell. Such plants in their higher forms had clever adaptations for the use of rain water in their sexual phases and survived with increasing success in a wet land environment. They now seem part of man's normal environment. The truth is, however, that there is nothing very "normal" about nature. Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.

A little while ago -- about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates time in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet -- flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.

Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms -- the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist Charles Darwin called them "an abominable mystery," because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.

Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know -- even man himself -- would never have existed. Francis Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. Intuitively he had sensed like a naturalist the enormous interlinked complexity of life. Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man.

If we were to go back into the Age of Reptiles, its drowned swamps and birdless forests would reveal to us a warmer but, on the whole, a sleepier world than that of today. Here and there, it is true, the serpent heads of bottom-feeding dinosaurs might be upreared in suspicion of their huge flesh-eating compatriots. Tyrannosaurs, enormous bipedal caricatures of men, would stalk mindlessly across the sites of future cities and go their slow way down into the dark of geologic time.

In all that world of living things nothing saw save with the intense concentration of the hunt, nothing moved except with the grave sleepwalking intentness of the instinct-driven brain. Judged by modem standards, it was a world in slow motion, a cold-blooded world whose occupants were most active at noonday but torpid on chill nights, their brains damped by a slower metabolism than any known to even the most primitive of warm-blooded animals today.

A high metabolic rate and the maintenance of a constant body temperature are supreme achievements in the evolution of life. They enable an animal to escape, within broad limits, from the overheating or the chilling of its immediate surroundings, and at the same time to maintain a peak mental efficiency. Creatures without a high metabolic rate are slaves to weather. Insects in the first frosts of autumn all run down like little clocks. Yet if you pick one up and breathe warmly upon it, it will begin to move about once more.

In a sheltered spot such creatures may sleep away the winter, but they are hopelessly immobilized. Though a few warm-blooded mammals, such as the woodchuck of our day, have evolved a way of reducing their metabolic rate in order to undergo winter hibernation, it is a survival mechanism with drawbacks, for it leaves the animal helplessly exposed if enemies discover him during his period of suspended animation. Thus bear or woodchuck, big animal or small, must seek, in this time of descending sleep, a safe refuge in some hidden den or burrow. Hibernation is, therefore, primarily a winter refuge of small, easily concealed animals rather than of large ones.

A high metabolic rate, however, means a heavy intake of energy in order to sustain body warmth and efficiency. It is for this reason that even some of these later warm-blooded mammals existing in our day have learned to descend into a slower, unconscious rate of living during the winter months when food may be difficult to obtain. On a slightly higher plane they are following the procedure of the coldblooded frog sleeping in the mud at the bottom of a frozen pond.

The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. Their appearance parallels in a quite surprising manner the rise of the birds and mammals.

Slowly, toward the dawn of the Age of Reptiles, something over two hundred and fifty million years ago, the little naked sperm cells wriggling their way through dew and raindrops had given way to a kind of pollen carried by the wind. Our present-day pine forests represent plants of a pollen-disseminating variety. Once fertilization was no longer dependent on exterior water, the march over drier regions could be extended. Instead of spores, simple primitive seeds carrying some nourishment for the young plant had developed, but true flowers were still scores of millions of years away. After a long period of hesitant evolutionary groping, they exploded upon the world with truly revolutionary violence.

The event occurred in Cretaceous times in the close of the Age of Reptiles. Before the coming of the flowering plants our own ancestral stock, the warm-blooded mammals, consisted of a few mousy little creatures hidden in trees and underbrush. A few lizard-like birds with carnivorous teeth flapped awkwardly on ill-aimed flights among archaic shrubbery. None of these insignificant creatures gave evidence of any remarkable talents. The mammals in particular had been around for some millions of years but had remained well lost in the shadow of the mighty reptiles. Truth to tell, man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat.

As for the birds, their reptilian cousins the Pterodactyls flew farther and better. There was just one thing about the birds that paralleled the physiology of the mammals. They, too, had evolved warm blood and its accompanying temperature control. Nevertheless, if one had been seen stripped of his feathers, he would still have seemed a slightly uncanny and unsightly lizard.

Neither the birds nor the mammals, however, were quite what they seemed. They were waiting for the Age of Flowers. They were waiting for what flowers, and with them the true encased seed, would bring. Fish-eating, gigantic, leather-winged reptiles, twenty- eight feet from wing tip to wing tip, hovered over the coasts that one day would be swarming with gulls.

Inland the monotonous green of the pine and spruce forests with their primitive wooden cone flowers stretched everywhere. No grass hindered the fall of the naked seeds to earth. Great sequoias towered to the skies. The world of that time has a certain appeal but it is a giant's world, a world moving slowly like the reptiles who stalked magnificently among the boles of its trees.

The trees themselves are ancient, slow-growing, and immense, like the redwood groves that have survived to our day on the California coast. All is stiff, formal, upright and green, monotonously green. There is no grass as yet; there are no wide plains rolling in the sun, no tiny daisies dotting the meadows underfoot. There is little versatility about this scene; it is, in truth, a giant's world.

A few nights ago it was brought home vividly to me that the world has changed since that far epoch. I was awakened out of sleep by an unknown sound in my living room. Not a small sound -- not a creaking timber or a mouse's scurry -- but a sharp, rending explosion as though an unwary foot had been put down upon a wine glass. I had come instantly out of sleep and lay tense, unbreathing. I listened for another step. There was none.

Unable to stand the suspense any longer, I turned on the light and passed from room to room glancing uneasily behind chairs and into closets. Nothing seemed disturbed, and I stood puzzled in the center of the living room floor. Then a small button-shaped object upon the rug caught my eye. It was hard and polished and glistening. Scattered over the length of the room were several more, shining up at me like wary little eyes. A pine cone that had been lying in a dish had been blown the length of the coffee table. The dish itself could hardly have been the source of the explosion. Beside it I found two ribbonlike strips of a velvety-green. I tried to place the two strips together to make a pod. They twisted resolutely away from each other and would no longer fit.

I relaxed in a chair, then, for I had reached a solution of the midnight disturbance. The twisted strips were wistaria pods that I had brought in a day or two previously and placed in the dish. They had chosen midnight to explode and distribute their multiplying fund of life down the length of the room. A plant, a fixed, rooted thing, immobilized in a single spot, had devised a way of propelling its offspring across open space. Immediately there passed before my eyes the million airy troopers of the milkweed pod and the clutching hooks of the sandburs. Seeds on the coyote's tail, seeds on the hunter's coat, thistledown mounting on the winds -- all were some· how triumphing over life's limitations. Yet the ability to do this had not been with them at the beginning. It was the product of endless effort and experiment.

The seeds on my carpet were not going to lie stiffly where they had dropped like their antiquated cousins, the naked seeds on the pine-cone scales. They were travelers. Struck by the thought, I went out next day and collected several other varieties. I line them up now in a row on my desk-so many little capsules of life, winged, hooked or spiked. Every one is an angiosperm, a product of the true flowering plants. Contained in these little boxes is the secret of that far-off Cretaceous explosion of a hundred million years ago that changed the face of the planet. And somewhere in here, I think, as I poke seriously at one particularly resistant seedcase of a wild grass, was once man himself.

When the first simple flower bloomed on some raw upland late in the Dinosaur Age, it was wind-pollinated, just like its early pine-cone relatives. It was a very inconspicuous flower because it had not yet evolved the idea of using the surer attraction of birds and insects to achieve the transportation of pollen. It sowed its own pollen and received the pollen of other flowers by the simple vagaries of the wind. Many plants in regions where insect life is scant still follow this principle today. Nevertheless, the true flower -- and the seed that it produced -- was a profound innovation in the world of life.

In a way, this event parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother's body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less -- and so it is with the flowering plants. The primitive spore, a single cell fertilized in the beginning by a swimming sperm, did not promote rapid distribution, and the young plant, moreover, had to struggle up from nothing. No one had left it any food except what it could get by its own unaided efforts.

By contrast, the true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means "encased seed") grew a seed in the heart of a flower, a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles; or with hooks it can cling to a bear's or a rabbit's hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy, attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts, and be voided miles away.

The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments heretofore never entered by the old spore plants or stiff pine-cone-seed plants. The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere. Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, like the giant redwoods, lingered on as relics; many vanished entirely.

The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard-of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs.

That food came from three sources, all produced by the reproductive system of the flowering plants. There were the tantalizing nectars and pollens intended to draw insects for pollenizing purposes, and which are responsible also for that wonderful jeweled creation, the hummingbird. There were the juicy and enticing fruits to attract larger animals, and in which tough-coated seeds were concealed, as in the tomato, for example. Then, as if this were not enough, there was the food in the actual seed itself, the food intended to nourish the embryo. All over the world, like hot com in a popper, these incredible elaborations of the flowering plants kept exploding. In a movement that was almost instantaneous, geologically speaking, the angiosperms had taken over the world. Grass was beginning to cover the bare earth until, today, there are over six thousand species. All kinds of vines and bushes squirmed and writhed under new trees with flying seeds.

The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new sources of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. Some were pale unearthly night flowers intended to lure moths in the evening twilight, some among the orchids even took the shape of female spiders in order to attract wandering males, some flamed redly in the light of noon or twinkled modestly in the meadow grasses. Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.

Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental upthrust which had been a part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world's climates. The stalking reptiles and the leather-winged black imps of the seashore cliffs had vanished. Only birds roamed the air now, hot-blooded and high-speed metabolic machines.

The mammals, too, had survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence now that the thunder lizards were gone. Many of them, beginning as small browsers upon leaves in the forest, began to venture out upon this new sunlit world of the grass. Grass has a high silica content and demands a new type of very tough and resistant tooth enamel, but the seeds taken incidentally in the cropping of the grass are highly nutritious. A new world had opened out for the warm-blooded mammals. Great herbivores like the mammoths, horses, and bisons appeared. Skulking about them had arisen savage flesh-feeding carnivores like the now extinct dire wolves and the saber-toothed tiger.

Flesh eaters though these creatures were, they were being sustained on nutritious grasses one step removed. Their fierce energy was being maintained on a high, effective level, through hot days and frosty nights, by the concentrated energy of the angiosperms. That energy, thirty per cent or more of the weight of the entire plant among some of the cereal grasses, was being accumulated and concentrated in the rich proteins and fats of the enormous game herds of the grasslands.

On the edge of the forest, a strange, old-fashioned animal still hesitated. His body was the body of a tree dweller, and though tough and knotty by human standards, he was, in terms of that world into which he gazed, a weakling. His teeth, though strong for chewing on the tough fruits of the forest, or for crunching an occasional unwary bird caught with his prehensile hands, were not the tearing sabers of the great cats. He had a passion for lifting himself up to see about, in his restless, roving curiosity. He would run, a little stiffly and uncertainly perhaps, on his hind legs, but only in those rare moments when he ventured out upon the ground. All this was the legacy of his climbing days; he had a hand with flexible fingers and no fine specialized hoofs upon which to gallop like the wind.

If he had any idea of competing in that new world, he had better forget it; teeth or hooves, he was much too late for either. He was a ne'er-do-well, an in-betweener. Nature had not done well by him. It was as if she had hesitated and never quite made up her mind. Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets. One day a little band of these odd apes -- for apes they were -- shambled out upon the grass; the human story had begun.

Apes were to become men, in the inscrutable wisdom of nature, because flowers had produced seeds and fruits in such tremendous quantities that a new and totally different store of energy had become available in concentrated form. Impressive as the slow-moving, dim-brained dinosaurs had been, it is doubtful if their age had supported anything like the diversity of life that now rioted across the planet or flashed in and out among the trees. Down on the grass by a streamside, one of those apes with inquisitive fingers turned over a stone and hefted it vaguely. The group clucked together in a throaty tongue and moved off through the tall grass foraging for seeds and insects. The one still held, sniffed, and hefted the stone he had found. He liked the feel of it in his fingers. The attack on the animal world was about to begin.

If one could run the story of that first human group like a speeded-up motion picture through a million years of time, one might see the stone in the hand change to the flint ax and the torch. All that swarming grassland world with its giant bison and trumpeting mammoths would go down in ruin to feed the insatiable and growing numbers of a carnivore who, like the great cats before him, was taking his energy indirectly from the grass. Later he found fire and it altered the tough meats and drained their energy even faster into a stomach ill adapted for the ferocious turn man's habits had taken.

His limbs grew longer, he strode more purposefully over the grass. The stolen energy that would take man across the continents would fail him at last. The great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively.

In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand. Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:35 pm

The Ghostly Guardian

There is an animal that is followed everywhere by a ghost. The ghost floats uncannily a little above and just back of the animal's head. Whether the creature is clambering up the bars of a cage in the zoo or ascending trees in the dense rain forests of the Amazon or the Orinoco, the ghost is always there, sensitive, exploring, shrinking back or protruding forward as the occasion may demand.

The animal is a skinny creature in a funereal black dress. Its legs, arms, and tail are so elongated in proportion to its body that, seen obscurely through a curtain of leaves, it often appears like a huge and repulsive spider as it sidles about in the forest. As a result it has earned the name of "spider monkey," and the ghost that accompanies it is its tremendously lengthy tail. This tail is one of the most remarkable organs to be found anywhere among a group of animals, the monkeys, noted for their addiction to quite varied styles in posterior adornment.

The spider monkey's tail is prehensile -- that is, it is capable of grasping objects and transferring them to its owner's mouth, or of holding him safe while he is seated on a waving branch, or its almost preternatural grasping power may save his life as he hurtles headlong from some lofty spot in the forest attic. The muscles and nerves of such tails are of so extraordinary a character that even in death they may hold their owner to his aerial refuge after he has been slain by rifles from the ground.

The spider monkey's tail, however, is not the strangest part of the story. He lives in an area where a great variety of animals of quite unrelated ancestry have tails of this general type, although the spider monkey's is perhaps the most clever and appears to have almost literally taken on an independent life of its own. It is, in very truth, a guardian ghost, but the tail itself is not nearly so mysterious as the way in which numerous diverse creatures in one particular area of forest have acquired these hovering appendages.

These contemporaneous animals, all of one time and place but of widely different origins and habits, share in common one thing: the prehensile grasping tail. In a living world regarded by many scientists as the creation of chance mutations in animals acted upon by selective forces in the environment, they present a strange spectacle. These dangling creatures with their uncanny third hand suggest, inescapably, that nature, somewhere in the vast intricacies with which she complicates the world of life, has here been playing with loaded dice.

On the basis of pure chance it is hard to see why the mysterious evolutionary forces behind the universe should have bestowed this gift with such incredible profusion in only one area of the world, the Amazon basin. It is as though all human beings had spun coins at a particular moment but only those who tossed in San Francisco came up with "tails." This is an obvious simplification, but it makes the issue clear. We would regard such an event as outside the known laws of mathematics. We would feel a hair-raising chill down our spines and demand an explanation.

That is the way one feels when one looks at the ghostly guardian hovering behind a spider monkey, particularly when one walks to the next cage of the mammal house and sees Coendou, the prehensile- tailed porcupine of South America; or Disactylus, the pygmy anteater, "note the strongly prehensile tail." At such times, though I am supposed to be a naturalist and adjusted to such matters, I get the chill to which I referred. I slink out, almost as if I were followed by a tail myself, and go and sit on a bench to meditate upon the inscrutable way of tails in nature. Of six whole genera -- not species, but genera -- of South American monkeys, only one lacks a grasping tail. If you are not a student of these matters you may think indifferently, So what? All monkeys, you see cartoons of them everywhere, hang by their tails. It's the way of monkeys. But the "way of things" is a cover-up for our ignorance. As a matter of simple fact, there isn't a single solitary monkey on the continent of Africa who possesses a true prehensile tail. Yet many monkeys live lives in the high green attic of Africa that, so far as we can tell, are the precise equivalent of those lived by their relatives in the South American forests. But the monkeys of Africa climb without the help of their adorning tails, and as for other African animals only an obscure lizard and a peculiar scaled anteater, the pangolin, seem to be endowed with this helpful little secondary personality.

No, there is something else to be seen here than the "way of things," or, at least, the way of things turns out to be unaccountably marvelous whenever we turn sharply and begin to scrutinize it instead of using the phrase as an opiate. Involved in this matter of tails are some strange factors of inheritance and change which still trouble the modern scientist and over which philosophers have puzzled in vain. Only by climbing ourselves into that lofty world hung on the unstable rafters of strangling vines or by peering down at the wandering and uncertain waters that drench the forest floor in the season of floods can we expect to learn anything of the dark forces that created the grotesque little appendage which, in the spider monkey, may affectionately caress his fellows or faithfully sustain his broken body beyond the hour of death.

The basins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers contain the largest untouched tropical rain forest left anywhere in the world. Here is the world of the past as it existed over much of the globe before the crawling continent-wide glaciers of the Age of Ice met and forced back, in million-year-long battles, the forces of the green. Now, harried by the fires and axes of man, forests are everywhere in the process of disappearance. Their last strongholds lie in the damp hot lands along the equator in Africa, in South America, in a few South Sea Islands, and in the remoter confines of Asia. In these areas, and particularly in the state of Amazonas in Brazil, man can move only along the waterways that pour under the great archways of the forest. He is still a puny shadow who, a few feet from the protecting river, may vanish without a trace. If he flies above that endless green expanse and falls, he will be as soundlessly engulfed as though he had gone down into the sea itself. For this world is a sea, a sea over whose swaying green billows pass the wind and the birds. Below, the depths are still. Nevertheless, there is life there, scampering wildly through orchid gardens high in the dim green forest garret, just as, below the waves of the sea, there is also life among the forests of the coral.

The forest floor of the great jungles can almost be compared to the abyssal depths of the sea. It is barren and dark and it receives the dead that fall from above. Few higher forms of life haunt its dim recesses. The real life of the rain forest lives among the rafters of a thousand-mile attic more than one hundred feet above the ground. Here, safely elevated above the floods that swirl over hundreds of miles of forest during the rainy season, the monkeys pass on their trembling pathways, serpents creep through networks of vines, brilliantly colored parrots shriek discordantly, and even frogs are born in aerial ponds and never go beneath their floor of leaves. In short, this is a world whose life needs the help of a friendly ghost, and among all the animals who creep and climb on rickety stairs and crumbling balustrades, tails are much in evidence. Not just any old tail, but tails that creep along behind and hold one safe. Tails with naked sensitive tips furrowed like fingers with nonskid whorls of skin.

In a place where death lurks frequently on either side of some quivering patchwork of cables it is no great marvel that everything from porcupines to arboreal anteaters should have a second life in their tails. The real mystery, to the student of tails, lies in another direction. It is the problem of how so many totally unrelated animals have acquired these tails in the Amazonian basin while in the great forests along the Congo scarcely a single aerial performer makes use of a prehensile tail. This is an uncanny situation. The dice of chance have fallen in a certain way all in one place.

The student of animal evolution is accustomed to the assumption that a series of chance changes in the heredity of an animal -- "mutations," the biologist calls them -- happen to promote the animal's welfare in a given way of life. Slowly, by infinitesimal degrees, such advantageous mutations may be followed by others until an animal is equipped with some highly improved organ such as a grasping tailor other useful character. All of this, as far as present-day experimentation can tell us, is the result of chance adaptations which are very infrequent compared with poor or disadvantageous variations that lead to an animal's destruction. Chance adaptation, in other words, might have readily explained the appearance of one species of monkey with a prehensile tail. It might even explain the occurrence of a grasping tail in two closely related forms, because closely related forms, possibly because of similarities in their body chemistry, may show a tendency to produce similar mutations and hence to evolve along the same pathway, particularly if their environment is such as to similarly select them. But here, in a single great jungle, numerous quite unrelated animals have all chosen to pull out of the grab bag of chance a single useful organ: the grasping tail. Within a reasonably limited period of geological time, they have drawn from the mysterious little packets of the genes, the hereditary substance, an identical solution to a similar problem, and supposedly it has been done by chance variation and selection.

"Easy," runs one solution. "Tails all tend to vary in this direction. It's one of the few useful ways they can vary. Nothing to it."

If one says this, one is forced to look at the arboreal life of Africa. The minute one does so the ease of this solution slips away. There are many tails; among the African mammals there are no prehensile ones save that of the scaled and ancient pangolin. If the grasping tail has been so easy to produce by chance, why is it so scarce in Africa and so common in South America?

One writer, confining himself discreetly to monkeys, argues that the South American forms like the spider monkey are thumbless; as a consequence they have developed the prehensile tail as a compensation for this absence of a digit. Very well, but the colobus monkeys of Africa are thumbless and they do not possess a grasping tail. The correlation does not seem to hold, and in any case it does not explain why certain arboreal opossums, kinkajous, and other queer Amazonian beasts with paws and no missing digits should go in for grasping tails.

Another suggestion is that the Amazonian lowlands, being frequently inundated by floods, have stimulated the selection of prehensile tails more vigorously than the African forests. In this connection one must consider the Uakari monkey. He is a queer little fellow with an absolutely bald head and a choleric, equally bald face. Un- cannily human in facial appearance, he looks, in his coat of motheaten brown fur, as though he were a human being who had been playing an orangutang at a masked ball and had just removed his head mask. He has a nonprehensile, stumpy, rudimentary, and almost useless tail, but he continues to flourish happily among the Amazonian floods.

In any case it is to be noticed that while these varied theories attempt to explain the selection of mutations leading to the development of grasping tails, none of them really comes to grips with the more formidable problem of why these apt variations were all conveniently at hand in this one place. The difficulty is enhanced by the presence of such a diverse array of creatures all showing the same characteristic, which comprises several lesser adaptations such as suitably flattened vertebrae, muscular enhancement in the tail and lower back, a certain way of rolling up or manipulating the organ, and its control by the brain.

Darwin, always troubled by such problems, used to speak of the mysterious and unknown laws governing these matters. Unlike many of his followers he had no illusions that he had solved all the mysteries of life and evolution. Reading his works one is often made aware of how that great mind hesitated painfully over much that his followers take for granted.

Once he expressed himself to the effect that the independent duplication of a single animal form, if proven for two separate areas of the world, might force him to entertain the possibility of some other explanation for evolution than that offered by chance mutations acted upon by natural selection. Strangely enough, these monkeys of South America offer an evolutionary problem very close to, though admittedly not identical with, the hypothetical case proposed by Darwin. These monkeys, while not totally identical anatomically with those of the Old World, are remarkably similar to them. In fact, only the sophisticated observer can recognize the differences. Yet the separation of these two monkey groups from each other is ancient, and no ancestral monkey remains connecting the Old World with the New are known by fossil hunters.

Instead, it is believed by many authorities that the New World and Old World monkeys have arisen as parallel developments from older pre-monkey forms, the lemurs, which were once spread over the whole region from Asia to South America. In this case, creatures of very similar brain, face, habits, and general appearance would have come into being in separate parts of the world from ancestors far below the monkey level. Such a development might suggest latent evolutionary powers not entirely the simple product of what we, in our ignorance of a better word, call chance. We are not in a position as yet to verify absolutely this interpretation of the separate origins of the Old and New World monkeys, but it is the most reasonable theory that we possess.

There is no doubt that this mystery would have intrigued the brooding mind of Darwin, particularly since one of the South American monkeys involved has a brain which in proportion to its body weight is larger than man's. Perhaps fortunately for us, however, Chrysothrix, the squirrel monkey, stayed small and remained in the trees so that his large and elflike cranium presents no threat to us. Yet withal, these strange parallelisms leave one with an odd feeling about what the biologist means by chance.

Elusive, tantalizing, and remote in the green attic of the elder world one catches an occasional glimpse of faces hauntingly like one's own and yet different, as though one peered into a charmed mirror. And slowly, through the shifting endless greenery, crawl the multitudinous things with tails, the tails that curl and hold, or wave forward like slender ghosts. There is something, particularly in a spider monkey's tail, that is too bold and purposeful to be easily called the product of simple chance. It floats there like a complete little personality. At least it may cause the true philosopher to pause hesitantly and ponder before he dismisses the universe as totally a world of chance.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Starthrower, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Sun May 01, 2016 11:36 pm

The Bird and the Machine

I suppose their little bones have years ago been lost among the stones and winds of those high glacial pastures. I suppose their feathers blew eventually into the piles of tumbleweed beneath the straggling cattle fences and rotted there in the mountain snows, along with dead steers and all the other things that drift to an end in the comers of the wire. I do not quite know why I should be thinking of birds over the New York Times at breakfast, particularly the birds of my youth half a continent away. It is a funny thing what the brain will do with memories and how it will treasure them and finally bring them into odd juxtapositions with other things, as though it wanted to make a design, or get some meaning out of them, whether you want it or not, or even see it.

It used to seem marvelous to me, but I read now that there are machines that can do these things in a small way, machines that can crawl about like animals, and that it may not be long now until they do more things -- maybe even make themselves -- I saw that piece in the Times just now. And then they will, maybe -- well, who knows -- but you read about it more and more with no one making any protest, and already they can add better than we and reach up and hear things through the dark and finger the guns over the night sky.

This is the new world that I read about at breakfast. This is the world that confronts me in my biological books and journals, until there are times when I sit quietly in my chair and try to hear the little purr of the cogs in my head and the tubes flaring and dying as the messages go through them and the circuits snap shut or open. This is the great age, make no mistake about it; the robot has been born somewhat appropriately along with the atom bomb, and the brain they say now is just another type of more complicated feedback system. The engineers have its basic principles worked out; it's mechanical, you know; nothing to get superstitious about; and man can always improve on nature once he gets the idea. Well, he's got it all right and that's why, I guess, that I sit here in my chair, with the article crunched in my hand, remembering those two birds and that blue mountain sunlight. There is another magazine article on my desk that reads "Machines Are Getting Smarter Every Day." I don't deny it, but I'll still stick with the birds. It's life I believe in, not machines.

Maybe you don't believe there is any difference. A skeleton is all joints and pulleys, I'll admit. And when man was in his simpler stages of machine building in the eighteenth century, he quickly saw the resemblances. "What," wrote Hobbes, "is the heart but a spring, and the nerves but so many strings, and the joints but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body?" Tinkering about in their shops it was inevitable in the end that men would see the world as a huge machine "subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines."

The idea took on with a vengeance. Little automatons toured the country -- dolls controlled by clockwork. Clocks described as little worlds were taken on tours by their designers. They were made up of moving figures, shifting scenes, and other remarkable devices. The life of the cell was unknown. Man, whether he was conceived as possessing a soul or not, moved and jerked about like these tiny puppets. A human being thought of himself in terms of his own tools and implements. He had been fashioned like the puppets he produced and was only a more clever model made by a greater designer.

Then in the nineteenth century, the cell was discovered, and the single machine in its turn was found to be the product of millions of infinitesimal machines -- the cells. Now, finally, the cell itself dissolves away into an abstract chemical machine, and that into some intangible, inexpressible flow of energy. The secret seems to lurk all about, the wheels get smaller and smaller, and they turn more rapidly, but when you try to seize it the life is gone -- and so, by popular definition, some would say that life was never there in the first place. The wheels and the cogs are the secret and we can make them better in time -- machines that will run faster and more accurately than real mice to real cheese.

I have no doubt it can be done, though a mouse harvesting seeds on an autumn thistle is to me a fine sight and more complicated, I think, in his multiform activity than a machine "mouse" running a maze. Also, I like to think of the possible shape of the future brooding in mice, just as it brooded once in a rather ordinary mousy insectivore who became a man. It leaves a nice fine indeterminate sense of wonder that even an electronic brain hasn't got, because you know perfectly well that if the electronic brain changes, it will be because of something man has done to it. But what man will do to himself he doesn't really know. A certain scale of time and a ghostly intangible thing called change are ticking in him. Powers and potentialities like the oak in the seed, or a red and awful ruin. Either way, it's impressive; and the mouse has it, too. Or those birds, I'll never forget those birds -- yet before I measured their significance, I learned the lesson of time first of all. I was young then and left alone in a great desert -- part of an expedition that had scattered its men over several hundred miles in order to carry on research more effectively. I learned there that time is a series of planes existing superficially in the same universe. The tempo is a human illusion, a subjective clock ticking in our own kind of protoplasm.

As the long months passed, I began to live on the slower planes and to observe more readily what passed for life there. I sauntered, I passed more and more slowly up and down the canyons in the dry baking heat of midsummer. I slumbered for long hours in the shade of huge brown boulders that had gathered in tilted companies out on the flats. I had forgotten the world of men and the world had forgotten me. Now and then I found a skull in the canyons, and these justified my remaining there. I took a serene cold interest in these discoveries. I had come, like many a naturalist before me, to view life with a wary and subdued attention. I had grown to take pleasure in the divested bone.

I sat once on a high ridge that fell away before me into a waste of sand dunes. I sat through hours of a long afternoon. Finally, as I glanced beside my boot an indistinct configuration caught my eye. It was a coiled rattlesnake, a big one. How long he had sat with me I do not know. I had not frightened him. We were both locked in the sleep-walking tempo of the earlier world, baking in the same high air and sunshine. Perhaps he had been there when I came. He slept on as I left, his coils, so ill-discerned by me, dissolving once more among the stones and gravel from which I had barely made him out.

Another time I got on a higher ridge, among some tough little wind-warped pines half covered over with sand in a basinlike depression that caught everything carried by the air up to those heights. There were a few thin bones of birds, some cracked shells of indeterminable age, and the knotty fingers of pine roots bulged out of shape horn their long and agonizing grasp upon the crevices of the rock. I lay under the pines in the sparse shade and went to sleep once more.

It grew cold finally, for autumn was in the air by then, and the few things that lived thereabouts were sinking down into an even chillier scale of time. In the moments between sleeping and waking I saw the roots about me and slowly, slowly, a foot in what seemed many centuries, I moved my sleep-stiffened hands over the scaling bark and lifted my numbed face after the vanishing sun. I was a great awkward thing of knots and aching limbs, trapped up there in some long, patient endurance that involved the necessity of putting living fingers into rock and by slow, aching expansion bursting those rocks asunder. I suppose, so thin and slow was the time of my pulse by then, that I might have stayed on to drift still deeper into the lower cadences of the frost, or the crystalline life that glistens pebbles, or shines in a snowflake, or dreams in the meteoric iron between the worlds.

It was a dim descent, but time was present in it. Somewhere far down in that scale the notion struck me that one might come the other way. Not many months thereafter I joined some colleagues heading higher into a remote windy tableland where huge bones were reputed to protrude like boulders from the turf. I had drowsed with reptiles and moved with the century-long pulse of trees; now, lethargically, I was climbing back up some invisible ladder of quickening hours. There had been talk of birds in connection with my duties. Birds are intense, fast-living creatures -- reptiles, I suppose one might say, that have escaped out of the heavy sleep of time, transformed fairy creatures dancing over sunlit meadows. It is a youthful fancy, no doubt, but because of something that happened up there among the escarpments of that range, it remains with me a lifelong impression. I can never bear to see a bird imprisoned.

We came into that valley through the trailing mists of a spring night. It was a place that looked as though it might never have known the foot of man, but our scouts had been ahead of us and we knew all about the abandoned cabin of stone that lay far up on one hillside. It had been built in the land rush of the last century and then lost to the cattlemen again as the marginal soils failed to take to the plow.

There were spots like this all over that country. Lost graves marked by unlettered stones and old corroding rim-fire cartridge cases lying where somebody had made a stand among the boulders that rimmed the valley. They are all that remain of the range wars; the men are under the stones now. I could see our cavalcade winding in and out through the mist below us: torches, the reflection of the truck lights on our collecting tins, and the far-off bumping of a loose dinosaur thigh bone in the bottom of a trailer. I stood on a rock a moment looking down and thinking what it cost in money and equipment to capture the past.

We had, in addition, instructions to lay hands on the present. The word had come through to get them alive -- birds, reptiles, anything. A zoo somewhere abroad needed restocking. It was one of those reciprocal matters in which science involves itself. Maybe our museum needed a stray ostrich egg and this was the payoff. Anyhow, my job was to help capture some birds and that was why I was there before the trucks.

The cabin had not been occupied for years. We intended to clean it out and live in it, but there were holes in the roof and the birds had come in and were roosting in the rafters. You could depend on it in a place like this where everything blew away, and even a bird needed some place out of the weather and away from coyotes. A cabin going back to nature in a wild place draws them till they come in, listening at the eaves, I imagine, pecking softly among the shingles till they find a hole, and then suddenly the place is theirs and man is forgotten.

Sometimes of late years I find myself thinking the most beautiful sight in the world might be the birds taking over New York after the last man has run away to the hills. I will never live to see it, of course, but I know just how it will sound because I've lived up high and I know the sort of watch birds keep on us. I've listened to sparrows tapping tentatively on the outside of air conditioners when they thought no one was listening, and I know how other birds test the vibrations that come up to them through the television aerials.

"Is he gone?" they ask, and the vibrations come up from below, "Not yet, not yet."

Well, to come back, I got the door open softly and I had the spotlight all ready to turn on and blind whatever birds there were so they couldn't see to get out through the roof. I had a short piece of ladder to put against the far wall where there was a shelf on which I expected to make the biggest haul. I had all the information I needed, just like any skilled assassin. I pushed the door open, the hinges squeaking only a little. A bird or two stirred -- I could hear them -- but nothing flew and there was a faint starlight through the holes in the roof.

I padded across the floor, got the ladder up and the light ready, and slithered up the ladder till my head and arms were over the shelf. Everything was dark as pitch except for the starlight at the little place back of the shelf near the eaves. With the light to blind them, they'd never make it. I had them. I reached my arm carefully over in order to be ready to seize whatever was there and I put the flash on the edge of the shelf where it would stand by itself when I turned it on. That way I'd be able to use both hands.

Everything worked perfectly except for one detail -- I didn't know what kind of birds were there. I never thought about it at all, and it wouldn't have mattered if I had. My orders were to get something interesting. I snapped on the flash and sure enough there was a great beating and feathers flying, but instead of my having them, they, or rather he, had me. He had my hand, that is, and for a small hawk not much bigger than my fist he was doing all right. I heard him give one short metallic cry when the light went on and my hand descended on the bird beside him; after that he was busy with his claws and his beak was sunk in my thumb. In the struggle I knocked the lamp over on the shelf, and his mate got her sight back and whisked neatly through the hole in the roof and off among the stars outside. It all happened in fifteen seconds and you might think I would have fallen down the ladder, but no, I had a professional assassin's reputation to keep up, and the bird, of course, made the mistake of thinking the hand was the enemy and not the eyes behind it. He chewed my thumb up pretty effectively and lacerated my hand with his claws, but in the end I got him, having two hands to work with.

He was a sparrow hawk and a fine young male in the prime of life. I was sorry not to catch the pair of them, but as I dripped blood and folded his wings carefully, holding him by the back so that he couldn't strike again, I had to admit the two of them might have been more than I could have handled under the circumstances. The little fellow had saved his mate by diverting me, and that was that. He was born to it and made no outcry now, resting in my hand hopelessly but peering toward me in the shadows behind the lamp with a fierce, almost indifferent glance. He neither gave nor expected mercy and something out of the high air passed from him to me, stirring a faint embarrassment.

I quit looking into that eye and managed to get my huge carcass with its fist full of prey back down the ladder. I put the bird in a box too small to allow him to injure himself by struggle and walked out to welcome the arriving trucks. It had been a long day, and camp still to make in the darkness. In the morning that bird would be just another episode. He would go back with the bones in the truck to a small cage in a city where he would spend the rest of his life. And a good thing, too. I sucked my aching thumb and spat out some blood. An assassin has to get used to these things. I had a professional reputation to keep up.

In the morning, with the change that comes on suddenly in that high country, the mist that had hovered below us in the valley was gone. The sky was a deep blue, and one could see for miles over the high outcroppings of stone. I was up early and brought the box in which the little hawk was imprisoned out onto the grass where I was building a cage. A wind as cool as a mountain spring ran over the grass and stirred my hair. It was a fine day to be alive. I looked up and all around and at the hole in the cabin roof out of which the other little hawk had fled. There was no sign of her anywhere that I could see.

"Probably in the next county by now," I thought cynically, but before beginning work I decided I'd have a look at my last night's capture.

Secretively, I looked again all around the camp and up and down and opened the box. I got him right out in my hand with his wings folded properly and I was careful not to startle him. He lay limp in my grasp and I could feel his heart pound under the feathers but he only looked beyond me and up.

I saw him look that last look away beyond me into a sky so full of light that I could not follow his gaze. The little breeze flowed over me again, and nearby a mountain aspen shook all its tiny leaves. I suppose I must have had an idea then of what I was going to do, but I never let it come up into consciousness. I just reached over and laid the hawk on the grass.

He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must have been that he was already so far away in heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.

In the next second after that long minute he was gone. Like a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes full on him but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.

I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing farther up. Straight out of the sun's eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.

I saw them both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They met in a great soaring gyre that turned to a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into those upper regions beyond the eyes of men.

I am older now, and sleep less, and have seen most of what there is to see and am not very much impressed any more, I suppose, by anything. "What Next in the Attributes of Machines?" my morning headline runs. "It Might Be the Power to Reproduce Themselves."

I lay the paper down and across my mind a phrase floats insinuatingly: "It does not seem that there is anything in the construction, constituents, or behavior of the human being which it is essentially impossible for science to duplicate and synthesize. On the other hand ... "

All over the city the cogs in the hard, bright mechanisms have begun to turn. Figures move through computers, names are spelled out, a thoughtful machine selects the fingerprints of a wanted criminal from an array of thousands. In the laboratory an electronic mouse runs swiftly through a maze toward the cheese it can neither taste nor enjoy. On the second run it does better than a living mouse.

"On the other hand ... " Ah, my mind takes up, on the other hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off, over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away.
Site Admin
Posts: 33545
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to Science

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest