The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages
People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest. Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod. For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.
Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well. “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time. Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”
His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world. The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man. There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.
You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story. He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands. There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”. All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.
Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative. He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic. He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”. His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.
Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains. He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf. Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp. After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion. All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.
In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms. “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat. It pays to know this. It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past. The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it. There are still things coming ashore. Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”
Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain. “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear. The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly. It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”
Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc. I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years. That says something. In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910. He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit. Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977. If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.