Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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From the vaults: Loren Eiseley, and connections

Stumbled across this today while searching my hard drive for some other old writings. I never datestamped the essay, but it's from my college days, which puts it at about a decade old.

It's an homage to one of my favorite writers, written not only about him but in his style. Though there are a few things about it I'd change today, I've presented it unedited.

We refuse to consider that in the old eye of the hurricane we may be, and doubtless are, in aggregate, a slightly more diffuse and dangerous dragon of the primal morning that still enfolds us.
-- Loren Eiseley, "The Hidden Teacher"

* * *

You probably know that I'm a dragon -- I'm relatively public about it, and I doubt you'd be reading this without knowing something about its author. I'm quite serious about my inner draconity, and I'm quite bitter at being stuck in this bipedal, earthbound form. If I had the chance to switch back to what I feel is my true body, I'd do so in an instant. But I've got a confession to make.

Sometimes I envy humanity.

For all their faults, they are masters of great beauty. Well -- they can be. I hold no respect for that vast wave of flesh creeping across Earth which believes its proper function is to exist rather than live. But occasionally an individual will spring up from the crowd and just transcend all standards, and winged though I be, I can only glance upwards in awe.

The most obvious of those I esteem are musicians. (My CD collection alone takes up a shelf on my bookcase.) I admire artists of all sorts, in fact -- especially artists of the written word. But it was only recently, in the chill hues of a fogged-in early summer that sent me scurrying to the warmth of a blanket and a book, that I caught myself feeling lucky to be stuck in a human body.

Not many books, I'm sure, have the potential to cause that sort of sheer envy. I'm very proud of what I am. But when the human race spawns beings like Loren Eiseley, I can't help but feel fortunate to have the opportunity to see the world from his perspective.

* * *

Eiseley was a scientist by vocation. An archaeologist, as he tells us in his stories. In his search for the dead, though, his attention was continually drawn to the marvels of the living.

Being a scientist never stopped him from appreciating nature, though. And I still haven't decided for what I respect him more: his gentle sense of wonder about life, or his flair for putting that uplifting awe into text. His style weaves a web not unlike that of the spider in _The Judgment of the Birds_, _The Star Thrower_'s introductory essay:

... I was suddenly conscious of some huge and hairy shadows dancing over the pavement. They seemed attached to some odd, globular shape that was magnified above me. There was no mistaking it. I was standing under the shadow of an orb-weaving spider. ... Even her cables were magnified upon the sidewalk and already I was half-entangled in their shadows.

Likewise, Eiseley weaves tales of the thread of the "supernatural" which permeates the natural world -- tales of living neanderthals, enormous dancing frogs, Easter Island monoliths, and even searches for exotic life inside meteorites.

Even as fiction, as distant and removed phenomena, they would be engaging -- but it is the fascination of knowing that his web is woven from personal experience which makes us long for the wonder in his eyes. For he speaks not only as an investigator of the un-Earthly. He is a naturalist, as well, and his stories often deal with the fascination simply of the inhuman rather than the unbelievable. The birds, the spiders, the foxes, the flora and fauna of this world, every last one, speak to him. And he listens.

I highly respect Eiseley for that alone, but anyone can learn to hear the non-human world, really. He earned my awe with his tales of the human experience. When he talks about life inside of meteorites, the alien is really the secondary part of the story -- his tale is about the man who looks for it. When he speaks with nature, he is there as a listener, and he relates the story from the listener's ears.

* * *

My last field biology class this quarter was a field trip out to the wildlands behind Santa Barbara. Nine of us, including the teacher, piled into a careworn UCSB van and drove out on 154, destination: Red Rock.

On the way, we filled out teacher evaluation forms; something I wrote down stuck with me. "[It's] not only about how animals interact in their natural environment," I mused, "it's about how we as humans interact with them." Eiselian echoes danced through my skull.

* * *

There's a great beauty to the natural world, to be certain. It is certainly admirable as something distant and removed; landscapes and cloud formations and distant purple mountains majesty have often moved hearts. But we have to recognize our role as humans in the landscape in order to truly connect -- and it is this simple fact which Eiseley recognizes, and -- wisely -- does not preach.

He doesn't force it down our throats because it's not a lesson that should be taken on faith. Eiseley, wise human that he was, knew that we all have to find our places individually, and that we won't all fit into the same mold and be affected by the same experiences. He contents himself with recording the small miracles that showed him his place -- and reminds us, in the process, just to keep our eyes open.

* * *

We hiked up a dry riverbed that day, after parking the van by the side of the road near one of the river crossings. After about twenty minutes of clambering over the bleached-white, stony ground, we realized that our course paralleled the road. The teacher called for a volunteer to go back and retrieve the car so we could park it closer to where the rest of the group was.

Robert's hand shot up. "If someone leaves the group, we should at least stay in pairs," I counselled from my depth of backcountry hiking experience, volunteering myself. The head that mattered nodded assent, and we veered off toward the road.

Robert took off running over the horridly uneven ground. I smirked and bounded after him. Feet twisting to catch the stones properly, vaulting over fallen deadwood and ducking under live branches, we scampered across the riverbed in a tacit competition, pushing ourselves and each other without saying a word.

We didn't stop when we hit pavement, either. We settled into a jog which would have been moderately taxing even without the headwind. Pushing through the road's wind tunnel, it felt like we were sprinting. The wind thundered a victory song in resonance with our flowing forms. Trees shook their leaves and bent their trunks in homage as we went by. My jacket swelled out behind me, flaring out like a sail -- or a set of leathern wings.

"Even the air is alive today," I said with a smile as we ran. I think he felt it too. We reached the van, perhaps 3/4 of a mile from our group, without once having broken stride.

There was no good reason to run, really. It was just a day to break free of the earth.

* * *

Well, it wasn't, not really. You can't truly leave the earth. You can jump, or soar, or perhaps take the ultimate leap in a spaceship (and never come back) -- but you are always connected. Even in leaping to other planets, we still have to take artifacts of the earth with us, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat. Without her caressing gravity, our bodies atrophy.

It was a day of tracing connections that windy Thursday afternoon. Nature was whispering in my ear the whole time I was outdoors. She gave me a taste of flight, a glimpse of the horizon, a kinship with the air; it was only later, after the run, that I came back to the ground and glanced into the eyes of the miraculous which Eiseley had long traded stares with.

* * *

It was in the simple act of creation, fittingly enough, that I encountered my miracle. (A very simple creation, but how else do these things ever start?) Having found a thin trail from the car's new parking space down through thick, man-high brush to the riverbed, I set about building a cairn so that I could find the entrance again after exploration.

A simple pile of rocks was all I had set out to build. I chose a few likely candidates from the bleached riverbed. I noticed that the stones at my feet meshed together, unevenly, like a cobblestone road; long-dessicated and whitened algae, deprived of its rottenness through a season's long embrace, mortared the smoothed stones together. It was really unearthly. Nature had paved over the riverbed, and not even the insects could find nourishment here.

I picked a suitably large stone and heaved it up with both hands, lifting it towards the sitting-rock I'd chosen as a base. No sooner had the underside of the stone seen the light of day than I blinked a few times and set the rock aside. A fishy smell washed through my nostrils, and I noticed that lying there underneath the bone-white riverbed, in a perfectly square grey silt mausoleum of its own design, lay the reddened shell of a crayfish.

The impact was as significant as if I'd discovered fossils on Mars. In a long-dead riverbed world, an inhabitant had, long ago, felt the receding waters, and carved himself a crypt out of what must have undoubtedly been a house. The only clue of his death was that he lay on his side, tail curled underneath his legs in a perfect "c". He was missing a forewhisker, probably eaten off by some voracious river predator, long since torn apart or moved to more hospitable climes.

It was a message, for certain. The crayfish might or might not have seen his own death coming, but he prepared for the passing of the waters with a certain inevitability. His empty shell served as silent testimony to the world in which he lived -- like the riverbed itself, only bones, dried bones of what was.

* * *

Perhaps I was being reassured, that day, that no matter who we are, someone notes our existence, even long beyond our passing. I wonder, idly, whether Eiseley knew, and whether he was aware of what a great difference his writing would have, even decades after his death.

I suspect he was aware. I think he was trying, by the act of writing, to remind us all that we cannot go through life untouched, be it by the natural world, or humans, or even dragons. Certainly all of those three have left marks on my life.

I suppose that I can only hope that others will learn from me; learn things which enrich their life and give them a greater understanding of themselves. And there's really no way I can tell those I care about to do so. I can only show them what is important to me, what is real, what makes me think. Then encourage them to find their own paths.

In that way, Eiseley blazed a trail; I can only admire him for the awesome human that he was, and walk in his footsteps. I do. I think he'd be proud.
Tags: from the vaults, writing

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