~ All the Strange Hours by Loren Eiseley ~
Sometimes I think Loren Eiseley must have been the saddest American that ever lived, but he found consolation in places most others would fail to uncover it.
His mother was deaf and mentally ill, his father a failed stage actor who earned a scant living as a salesman. They were a family of outsiders with few friends and connections, always moving from the edge of one town to the edge of another. Eiseley fled as soon as he was able, riding the rails as a young man through the Great Depression, living hand-to-mouth and at the mercy of strangers. He nearly died of tuberculosis in his early twenties.
Somehow he managed to get an education and become an anthropologist. He found his peace working alone in the empty places of the High Plains or at the foot of the Rockies, scraping at the exposed strata of ancient streambeds to unbury the lingering remains of the great Ice Ages: the bones of forgotten nomads and species long extinct. He found his peace, too, in books. Few men of science have ever been so well read.
Eiseley seems to have harbored doubts about his calling. He might have been a poet, or a philosopher. He was distracted by wonder, overwhelmed with a feeling “as though the universe were too frighteningly queer to be understood by minds like ours.”
As a scientist he knew that “one is supposed to flourish Occam’s razor and reduce hypotheses about a complex world to human proportions. Certainly I try,” he said. “Mostly I come out feeling that whatever else the universe may be, it’s so-called simplicity is a trick… We have learned a lot, but the scope is too vast for us. Every now and then if we look behind us, everything has changed. It isn’t precisely that nature tricks us. We trick ourselves with our own ingenuity.”
For sentiments like these, which appear in all his books, Eiseley was sometimes called a bad scientist by his more self-assured colleagues. He lacked the necessary professional hubris and was too willing to grant that the truly big questions were still wide open. He could never be satisfied with inflexible materialism:
“In the world there is nothing to explain the world,” he said. “Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid world of rock and soil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty… In the world there is nothing below a certain depth that is truly explanatory. It is as if matter dreamed and muttered in its sleep. But why, and for what reason it dreams, there is no evidence.”
Faithless, Eiseley had the soul of a believer. Imprisoned since childhood by an unbreachable spiritual isolation, he nonetheless kept company with a something (a Someone, perhaps) that hid always beyond the range of his sight but was present, indefinably, in the thousand shifting shapes of the life principle. “Those who love its endless manifestations may be accused of a submerged form of worship,” he granted.
This, at least, is my own key to Eiseley: He was utterly devout in adoration of a presence he could not see and that promised a communion he could never quite believe was offered to him.
There’s an illustrative passage from Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century Christian mystic whom Eiseley himself occasionally quoted:
“As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between then, so there is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it.”