The Night Country by Loren Eiseley

I just finished The Night Country, which I highly recommend. It is beautifully written and has woodcut style illustrations beginning each chapter by American illustrator, Leonard Everett Fisher.

Chapter 3
Big Eyes and Small Eyes

So here’s the thing, I had no idea Loren Eiseley existed before I happened upon a rather scrappy essay in an online literary site, LiteraryHub, which is devoted to all things literary — even politics! The essay culled all the great advice Ray Bradbury gave in his lifetime for those who believe they are called to write, but haven’t quite figured out how to embrace this calling. Bradbury, among other things, advises to read essays on everything, and suggests two authors in particular as worth reading.  Loren Eiseley (which is misspelled in the article), was, according to Bradbury, a “great anthropologist.” I was intrigued, mostly because of the misspelling; I thought “Lauren” — as it was spelled in the article —  was a woman. It took me several tries, though, to find, Loren Eiseley. 

The Night Country is filled with wild stories that span Eiseley’s memories from childhood and through thirty years of career.  Loren Eiseley might have thought himself to be a small bone hunter who never managed to make a great discovery, but that is not what matters here, what matters most is his ability to tell a story. For he truly is a story teller. His prose at times made my heart race, as in the chapter “The Places Below” when he recalled his childhood adventures crawling around sewer tunnels with his friend, the Rat.

“The tunnel dripped a little and at first I heard nothing. The Rat jabbed at me. — Listen, for Christ’s sake, — he said. I heard it then all right, and my heart gave a big jump and almost stopped altogether, but it was a very little sound. It was nothing but a little murmuring in the water, a little whisper, a little complaint as though the water were growing restless and wanted to go somewhere. 

” — It’s moving, — I said, and the Rat said nothing at all except to cast the light forward as far as he could. The darkness swallowed it up and the murmuring sounded louder, except maybe it was the blood in our ears.” 

page 22

Or, when he recounts in “Obituary of a Bone Hunter” how there were three times when, if he had pressed on he might have been more than a small bone hunter. 

Chapter 12
Obituary of a Bone Hunter

“The light lay beside me shining on the ceiling — a dull, velvety-looking ceiling, different from the stone around. I don’t know when I first sensed that something was wrong, that the ceiling was moving, that waves were passing over it like the wind in a stand of wheat. But suddenly I did; suddenly I dropped the shovel and thrust the light closer against the roof. Things began to detach themselves and drop wherever the light touched them. Things with legs. I could hear them plop on the soft earth around me. 

“I shut off the light. The plopping ceased. I sat on my knees in the darkness, listening. My mind was centered on just one thing — escape.” 

page 184

The image of millions-upon-millions of daddy-long-legs hanging over his head, and all around him, while he is cramped in a small crack in a cave, and possibly on the verge of making a great discovery, a skull or a jawbone, something that will bring him fame, and take him from a small bone hunter to a big bone hunter is so well written it kicked in my own fear response.  The prize out of reach and apparently guarded by way too many daddy-long-legs,  turned his experience into a great metaphor. For we tend to believe if we push ourselves just a little bit more we will succeed in finding the one thing that will set us apart from the rest. What he looks for is superficial, but what he actually finds is not, which, I suspect, is Eiseley’s point. Indeed, Eiseley found millions-upon-millions of daddy-long-legs, surely something no one else has found, but his real find was intangible as it relates to the modern world of discovery. The great discovery with spiders looming overhead, was a glimpse at the limit and the limitless:  our link to primitive man, our fear, and our vulnerability. 

At other times I was blown away by his honesty, and deep conviction in the mystery of the universe and humankind. His critique of science — this book was written in 1971 — could have been written today. In “Strangeness in the Proportion,” he is steadfast in his questioning of our profound faith in science. Eiseley as an anthropologist, is not arguing against science; rather, it seems to me, from a logic of proportion, out of which he concludes science’s claim of salvation is disproportionate to what it can actually deliver. 

“To those who have substituted authoritarian science for authoritarian religion, individual thought is worthless unless it is the symbol for a reality which can be seen, tasted, felt, or thought about by everyone else. Such men adhere to a dogma as rigidly as men of fanatical religiosity. They reject the world of the personal, the happy world of open, playful, or aspiring thought.

“Here, indeed we come upon a serious aspect of our discussion. For there is a widespread but totally erroneous impression that science is an unalterable and absolute system. It is supposed that other institutions change, but that science, after the discovery of the scientific method, remains adamant and inflexible in the purity of its basic outlook. This is an iron creed which is at least partly illusory. A very ill-defined thing known as the scientific method persists, but the motivations behind it have altered from century to century.” 

page 139

Image by Lisa Nolan

This idea that science changes, startled me a bit. It is something I had forgotten: a science that changes with the times. A science that is not outside of time and unaffected by the desires of man at their best and at their worst. We tend to think, as Eiseley points out, that since the scientific method science is the same science. Or, more often than not, we believe science just keeps getting better and better with its benefits increasing, and any negative attributes diminishing until they ultimately cease to have consequences worth noticing. But science has its unsettling and pernicious attributes as well.

Science, writes Eiseley, results in

“exaggerated conformity and, at the same time, an equally exaggerated assumption that science, a tool for manipulating the outside, the material universe, can be used to create happiness and ethical living.” 

page 140

Somehow, Eiseley gets in-between things, whether it is a small opening in a cave or a narrow opening in the mind. Perhaps, it is more than 30 years of crawling around in dark cavernous spaces which requires one to be awake, cautious, and willing to use other senses. That which is hidden; the crevices and cracks of both the world and the mind, places most people never go, these have given him a reverence for the mystery of the universe, and this mystery has informed not only his work but his worldview:

“Science, of course, in discovery represents the individual, but in the moment of triumph, science creates uniformity through which the mind of the individual once more flees away.

page 140-141

How eloquently the door is opened by Eiseley for the artist, the humanist — in the end, the humanities. Science has its place in the house, but science is not the only guest.  What motivates man to continue searching is beyond the realm of science. Without the artist, science becomes an unimaginative tool of oppression. 

“It is the part of the artist — the humanist — to defend that eternal flight, just as it is the part of science to seek to impose laws, regularities and certainties. Man desires the certainties but he also transcends them. Thus, as in so many other aspects of life, man inhabits a realm half in and half out of nature, his mind reaching forever beyond the tool, the uniformity, the law, into some realm which is that of mind alone. The pen and the brush represent that eternal search, that conscious recognition of the individual as the unique creature beyond the statistic.” 

page 141

The wisdom of Loren Eiseley is one of trust in the unknown. His experience sifting through time has led not to resting on facts, but rather to dwelling in wonder and awe.

“Directly stated, the evolution of the entire universe — stars, ele

ments, life, man — is a process of drawing something out of nothing, out of the void of nonbeing. The creative element in the mind of man — that latency which can conceive gods, carve statues, move the heart with the symbols of great poetry, or devise the formulas of modern physics — emerges in as mysterious a fashion as those elementary particles which leap into momentary existence in great cyclotrons, only to vanish again like infinitesimal ghosts. The reality we know in our limited lifetimes is dwarfed by the unseen potential of the abyss where science stops. In a similar way the smaller universe of the individual human brain has its lonely cometary passages or flares suddenly like a supernova, only to subside in death while the waves of energy it has released roll on through unnumbered generations. 

page 215
Image by Lisa Nolan

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