The Purpose of Life: The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley

In the opening chapter of The Immense Journey we find ourselves accompanying Loren Eiseley on another perilous run to unearth a bone. The way he describes it makes us hesitate a bit as we try to figure out where he is taking us, the chapter heading, “The Slit,” is accurate, but not overly descriptive so we struggle as we follow our guide as he crosses prairie lands without explaining where he is taking us. If we have the courage to continue reading, things become clear, and clearly Eiseley has lowered himself into a small crack in the earth where he hardly fits. He goes down and down until he comes face to face with a skull.

The point of contact: Here is where Eiseley differs from all other “bone hunters” or anthropologists; he does not simply take out his tools and begin excavating in order to get his booty in a bag and get out of the Slit, a literal crack in the earth that is quite unnerving, as fast as possible. The skull, sitting there for, millions of years, has been waiting for this moment, and Eiseley, with his humble intelligence, yields to it and obeys its message. He knows it is there as guide to offer up a little knowledge, but above all to give the hunter a glimpse into his own future, and thus a start so that when he looks up at the sky he looks at it differently than when he first began his journey.

Loren Eiseley is hard to pin down. He calls himself a “bone hunter,” and a “naturalist.” By profession he was an anthropologist. He has even been called a mystic. He is all of these things. Thankfully. He takes everything in and sifts through it offering us, as the bone does to him, little bits of wisdom. The old bones wait for someone wise enough to decipher the message of history, of a history that is not about the victorious wars fought by nation against nation, but a long history that tells the story of who we are and how we relate, not just to each other, but to all of life. The word evolution needs some refitting as we tend to think of it as something that has come to a tidy conclusion. But, when we read Eiseley we begin to feel very close to an animal we cannot name. As he works chiseling around the bone he thinks about our hands and our bones, and then he focuses on the bone in front of him, taking us through his thought process of elements and finally settling on calcium, carbonate of lime:

Our history is the reason — we came from the water. It was there the cells took the lime habit, and they kept it after we came ashore.

It is not a bad symbol of that long wandering, I thought again — the human hand that has been fin and scaly reptile foot and furry paw.

page 6

His hands, skillfully working away at the bone encourage thoughts which center on the meaning of life. After all, what is the message being conveyed by the old bones?

Perhaps there is no meaning in it at all, the thought went on inside me, save that of journey itself, so far as men can see. It has altered with the chances of life, and the chances brought us here; but it was a good journey — long, perhaps — but a good journey under a pleasant sun. Do not look for the purpose. Think of the way we came and be a little proud. Think of this hand — the utter pain of its first venture on the pebbly shore.

pages 6 & 7

Eiseley’s thoughts are glacial in their depth and movement. They require a vastness of time and space that modern culture often rejects. In a crack a million years down, and beyond the modern, Eiseley manages to find a little place to wedge himself and have a smoke, reminiscing about a village he used to visit close by that was half forgotten. He speaks of prairie-dog town and the age of the Paleocene; of chance in evolution. One slight change and we are or are not part of the scene.

When you are with Loren Eiseley you get a fair share of science, enough, I think, to align science properly with the rest of humanity instead of the usual increased and somewhat distorted share science is often awarded. Most important, however, is Eiseley’s ability, his talent, his sage like way of entering his field and inviting us in to hear his stories and be awed by them. He is often credited with having a prose style that is lyrical. But, saying his prose is lyrical does not resonate with most of the population today and tends to be dismissive his work, casting it too narrowly in the beam of light that is literature and poetry.

Eiseley’s work is powerful and brilliant because it is a synthesis of literature, poetry, science, philosophy and personal observation. If you read it slowly you will be awed and humbled; you will walk away knowing a little bit more about bones and mammals; about evolution and history. You will also, and to my mind, more important, learn how nature can humble us — even scientists — and you will turn your eyes with reverence towards all living creatures of the earth. You will look at your hands differently, and think about the cells in your body differently, the birds in the air, your dog and cat, the tree in front of your house, and when you get to the flowers, which is an amazing chapter in his book, “How Flowers Changed the World.” you will get on your knees when you see a flower and give thanks for such a blessing.

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.

pages 63-64

While Loren Eiseley’s words are very beautiful, they would, I believe, be less able to convey the beauty of the world to us if they did not come from a very beautiful human being. In the end, after all the science, and bone hunting come to a close we have to deal directly with the man, Loren Eiseley. In the penultimate chapter he tells how, as a young researcher, he had to help capture birds in order, presumably, to continue doing science — a little reciprocal gesture, he begins what seems like a confession of how he would use his knowledge about nature to imprison some of it.

He was a sparrow hawk and a fine young male in the prime of his 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.

page 189

Eiseley continues giving details of how he put the bird in a small box so it would not harm himself and how in the morning the bird would be “just another episode” (page 190). Truly devastated, but hopeful, the reader reads on.

The morning light sometimes has a clarifying affect on the soul:

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 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 of 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 further 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.

pages 191-192

Eiseley tells this story of the capture and release of the sparrow hawk as he reflects on man and machines. The retelling of it highlights beauty that is unable to be duplicated in any machine or technology. Machines can do calculations, but they cannot do life. Life begets beauty, the beauty in Eiseley’s act of releasing the hawk; the beauty in the female waiting for her mate; the beauty in the joy of her cry when she sees her mate; the beauty in their dance together; and the beauty in the retelling.

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