The Star Thrower by Loren EiseleyPosted: November 25, 2016
The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley
A Study Guide
A note: Loren Eiseley was writing before we had developed a consciousness about sexist language. I think had he been writing after that change in our culture, given his appreciation of evolution, he would have used non-sexist language, but no attempt in this study guide has been made to re-write his work.
Perhaps a clue to the importance of this book is that both the Editor’s Preface and the Introduction by W.H. Auden both merit a close reading. In the Editor’s Preface Kenneth Heuer notes that one of Eiesley’s fans was Ray Bradbury the science fiction writer whose work has survived his death and has been enlarged upon by others. We might note here that Ray Bradbury was a member of the United Church of Christ whose work is certainly a testimony to the God Is Still Speaking Initiative in our denomination. The Spirit of Loren Eiseley is in tune with the vision of Ray Bradbury and the United Church of Christ.
Page 20: W. H. Auden provides us with an important insight into the character of Loren Eiseley and his unique spirituality:
. . . More importantly, he reveals himself as a man well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes may be granted, though all to many of them are like wishing that two and two may make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan’t quarrel, so long as they don’t call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, that that “entity” can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable – an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful.
Auden points in the direction of a spirituality without religion. Are you comfortable with a non-religious spirituality? How would you describe your own spirituality? Can you discern any spiritual disciplines that might help you become a better listener?
The Judgment of the Birds
Page 21: It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper sort, he will return with a message. It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about. . . .
. . . One must seek, then, what only the solitary approach can give – a natural revelation.
Let it be understood that I am not the sort of man to whom is entrusted direct knowledge of great events or prophecies. A naturalist, however, spends much of his life alone, and my life is no exception. . .
Have you ever taken time to retreat into nature to observe and listen? Have you found any wisdom or revelations in nature? Eiseley seems to have been something of an introvert. Do you think introverts have any spiritual advantages? What are the biggest disadvantages of introversion? Do you think there are natural revelations? Have you experienced one?
Page 33 – 34: I have said that I saw a judgment upon life, and that it was not passed by men. . . I shall never see an episode like it again if I live to be a hundred, nor do I think that one man in a million has ever seen it, because man is an intruder into such silences. The light must be right, and the observer must remain unseen. No man sets up such an experiment. What he sees, he sees by chance.
You may put it that I had come over s mountain, that I had slogged through fern and pine needles for half a long day, and that on the edge of a little glade with on long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly.
The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.
The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment, and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the un-bereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never dear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not death.
Did the raven do anything wrong? Have you ever encountered a bird of death, or any other animal representing death? Can we observe animals mourning? What would it mean to be a singer of life?
Page 34 – 36: . . . on the top of a step ladder, I made one more observation upon life. It was cold that autumn evening, and standing under a suburban street light in a spate of leaves and beginning snow, I was suddenly conscious of some huge and hairy shadows dancing over the pavement. . . I was standing under the shadow of an orb-weaving spider. Gigantically projected against the street, she was about her spinning when everything else was going underground. . .
I procured a ladder from my yard and climbed up to inspect the situation. . .
I stood over her a moment longer, comprehending somewhat reluctantly that her adventure against the great blind forces of winter, her seizure of this warming globe of light, would come to nothing and was hopeless. Nevertheless it brought the birds back into my mind, and that faraway song which had traveled with growing strength around a forest clearing years ago – a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if rope can still be spun on to s star. Maybe man himself will fight like this in the end, I thought, slowly realizing that the web and its threatening yellow occupant had been added to some luminous store of experience, shining for a moment in the fogbound reaches of my brain.
The mind, it came to me as I slowly descended the ladder, is a very remarkable thing; it has gotten itself a kind of courage by looking at a spider in a street lamp. Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void. I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.
But as I hesitated, it became plain that something was wrong. The marvel was escaping – a sense of bigness beyond man’s power to grasp, the essence of life in its great dealings with the universe. It was better, I decided, for the emissaries returning from the wilderness, even it they were merely descending from a stepladder, to record their marvel, not to define its meaning. In that way it would go echoing on through the minds of men, each grasping at that beyond out of which the miracles emerge, and which, once defined, ceases to satisfy the human need for symbols.
Do you sense futility or heroism in fighting battles that are hopeless? Do you think it is important for people to refuse to lie down and die? (Rage, rage against the dying of the light?) Or is there a wisdom in knowing the times and the seasons, and knowing when to let go? Do you have any stories you need to pass on without defining their meaning for those to whom you are telling them? What do you think it is about humans that we are so attracted to symbols?
The Long Loneliness
Page 37: There is nothing more alone in the universe than man. He is alone because hoe has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates. . . .
Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death. When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible. Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood. . .
Do you try to talk to animals? Do you ever experience your pets responding to you? Do you think we are as alone as Eiseley seems to portray us? Why do you think so many people keep pets?
Page 39 – 42: We are forced to ask ourselves whether native intelligence in another form than man’s might be as high as or even higher than his own, yet be marked by no such material monuments as man has placed upon the earth. At first glance we are alien to this idea, because man is particularly a creature who has turned the tables on his environment so that he is now engrossed in shaping it, rather than being shaped by it. Man expressed himself upon his environment through the use of tools. We therefore tend to equate the use of tools in a one to one relationship with intelligence.
The question we must now ask ourselves, however, is whether this involves an unconsciously man-centered way of looking at intelligence. Let us try for a moment to enter the dolphin’s kingdom and the dolphin’s body, retaining, at the same time, our human intelligence. In this imaginative act, it may be possible to divest ourselves of certain human preconceptions about our kind of intelligence and at the same time to see more clearly why mind, even advanced mind, may have manifestations other than the tools and railroad tracks and laboratories that we regard as evidence of intellect. . .
The result is immediately evident and quite clear: No matter how well we communicate with our fellows through the water medium we will never build drowned empires in the coral; we will never inscribe on palace walls the boasts of porpoise kings. . .
Over all that region of wondrous beauty we will exercise no more control than the simplest mollusk. Even the octopus with flexible arms will build little shelters that we cannot imitate. Without hands we will have only the freedom to follow the untrammeled sea winds across the planet. . .
Man without writing cannot long retain his history in his head. His intelligence permits him to grasp some kind of succession of generations, but without writing, the tale of the past rapidly degenerates into fumbling myth and fable. Man’s greatest epic, his four long battles with the advancing ice of the great continental glaciers, has vanished from human memory without a trace. Our illiterate fathers disappeared and with them, in a few scant generations, died on of the great stories of all time. This episode has nothing to do with the biological quality of the brain as between then and now. It has to do instead with a device, an invention made possible by the hand. That invention came too late in time to record eyewitness accounts of the years of the Giant Frost. . .
Writing, and later printing, is the product of our adaptable many-purposed hands. It is thus, through writing, with no increase in genetic, inborn capacity since the last ice advance, that modern man carries in his mind the intellectual triumphs of all his predecessors who were able to inscribe their thoughts for posterity.
How important are our hands to the development of human intelligence? How has writing changed human intelligence? Is our intelligence also dependent upon the transmission of culture? Are we in an age when cultural evolution may have become as important, or more important than biological evolution?
Page 42-44: . . . . One of the surprising things about the porpoise is that his superior brain is unaccompanied by any type of manipulative organ. He has, however, a remarkable range-finding ability involving some sort of echo-sounding. Perhaps this acute sense — for more accurate than any man has been able to devise artificially – brings him greater knowledge of his watery surroundings than might at first seem possible. Human beings think of intelligence as geared to things. The hand and the tool are to us the unconscious symbols of our intellectual achievement. It is difficult for us to visualize another kind of lonely, almost disembodied intelligence floating in the wavering green fairyland of the sea – an intelligence possibly near or comparable to our own but without hands to build, to transmit knowledge by writing, or to alter by one hairsbreadth the planet’s surface. Yet at the same time there are indications that this is a warm, friendly and eager intelligence quite capable of coming to the assistance of injured companions and striving to rescue them from drowning. . .
Perhaps man has something to learn after all from fellow creatures without the ability to drive harpoons through living flesh, or poison with strontium the planetary winds. . . “Genius in the porpoise? Has the porpoise ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is declared in his pyramidical silence.” If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the world. . . This role would now be a deserved penitence for man. Perhaps such a transformation would bring him once more into the mood of childhood innocence in which he talked successfully to all things living but had no power and not urge to harm. It is worth at least a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him. It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself.
Our human ability to destroy as well as create may be a clue to the myths about original sin. What do you think? What would we have to sacrifice in order to embrace the “mood of childhood innocence.” Do you think any of our animal research will offer us clues to non-human intelligence? How is intelligence related to “consciousness?” Is there a difference between “consciousness” and “moral consciousness?” Do you think our intelligence can save us from poisoning the planetary winds with strontium?
Man the Firemaker
Page 45 – 48 Man, it is well to remember, is the discoverer but not the inventor of fire. Long before this meddling little Prometheus took to experimenting with flints, then matches, and finally (we hope not too finally) hydrogen bombs, fires had burned on this planet. . .
Man did not invent fire but he did make it one of the giant powers on earth. . . . Man’s long adventure with knowledge has, to a very marked degree, be a climb up the heat ladder, for heat alone enables man to mold metals and glassware, to create his great chemical industries, to drive his swift machines. . . . AS we follow man on this journey, we shall learn another aspect of his nature: that he is himself a consuming fire. . .
The second stage in human history is represented by the first true humans. Paleoanthropic man is clearly a tool user, a worker in stone and bone, but there is still something of the isolated tinkerer and fumbler about him. . . It is quite clear that some of these men knew the use of fire, but many may not have.
The third act begins some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago. The last great ice sheet still lies across northern Europe and North America. . . . Suddenly, into this late paradise of game, there erupts our own species of man – Homo Sapiens. Just where he came from we do not know. Tall lithe, long-limbed, he is destined to overrun the continents in the blink of a geological eye. He has an excellent projectile weapon. . . His flint work is meticulous and sharp. And the most aggressive carnivore the world has ever seen comes at a time made for his success: the grasslands are alive with seemingly inexhaustible herds of game.
Yet fire as much as flesh was the magic that opened the way for the supremacy of Homo sapiens. . . .
Fire shortens the digestive process. It breaks down the tough masses of flesh into food that the human stomach can easily assimilate. Fire made the difference that enabled man to expand his numbers rapidly and to press on from hunting to more advanced cultures. . .
With fire primitive man did more than cook his meat. He extended the pasture for grazing herds. . . . fire was a major factor along with soil, moisture, temperature, wind, animals and so forth in determining the types of plants occurring in any region. . . the vegetation of the Great Plains was a fire vegetation. . . Here, as in many other regions, man’s fire altered the ecology of the earth.
Today we are very concerned about human activity altering the environment. Have you ever considered how far back in history human activity has been altering the earth’s environment? Has the impact of human activity changed over time? How is fire still at the heart of human impact on our environment?
Page 49 – 52: Man, as I have said, is himself a flame. He has burned through the animal world and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own. When the great herds failed over many areas, he had to devise new ways to feed his increase or drop back himself into a precarious balance with nature. . . Their economy permits no bursts of energy beyond what is necessary for the simple age old struggle with nature. . .
Nevertheless there is no road back, the primitive way, is no longer our way. We are the inheritors of an aggressive culture which, when the great herds disappeared turned to agriculture. Here again the magic of fire fed the great human wave and built up man’s numbers and civilization.
. . . In the process of adopting the agricultural way of life he made his second chemical experiment with heat: baking pottery. Ceramics may have sprung in part for the need for storage vessels. . .
After man had learned to change the chemical nature of clay, he began to use fire to transform other raw materials. . .
How far will he go? Three hundred years of the scientific method have built the great sky-touching buildings and nourished the incalculable fertility of the human species. But man is also Homo duplex, as they knew in the darker ages. He partakes of evil and of good, of god and of man. Both struggle in him perpetually. And he is himself a flame — a great roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth. Before this century is out, either Homo duplex must learn that knowledge without greatness of spirit is not enough for man, or there will remain only his calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.
Humans are a flame who have burned through the world appropriately vast stores of energy and material for their own, a wasteful furnace. But there is no road back from the aggressive culture. Or is there? If we are going to survive on the planet, do we need to find a less aggressive and more cooperative way of being? Eiseley seems to be concerned about nuclear destruction “calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.” Do you think this is still a concern given deteriorating relations between the U.S. the E.U. and Russia? Or do you think there are greater threats to the future of our species? To what extent do you see the problem of our human aggressive culture as a spiritual problem?
The Innocent Fox
Page 53 – 54: Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings . . . .
. . . . We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories.
Lastly, we inhabit a spiritual twilight on this planet. It is perhaps the most poignant of all the deprivations to which man has be exposed by nature. I have said deprivation, but perhaps I should rather maintain that this feeling of loss is an unrealized anticipation. We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.
I am not the first man to have lost his way only to find, if not a gate a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension at the world’s end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten to the unexpected.
As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover a hole in the ledge leading to the unforeseen. By then, there is frequently no child companion to lead them safely through. After one of two experiences of getting impaled on thorns, the most persistent individual is apt to withdraw and to assert angrily that no such opening exists.
My experience has been quite the opposite, but I have been fortunate. After several unsuccessful but tantalizing trials, which I intend to disclose, I had the help, not of a child, but of a creature – a creature who, appropriately came out of a quite unremarkable and prosaic den. There was nothing, in retrospect, at all mysterious or unreal about him. Nevertheless, the creature was baffling, just as, I suppose, to animals, man himself is baffling.
What do you think Eiseley is trying to get at, when he talks about the hole in the hedge? Do you think that humans as a whole are haunted by meaning? “As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover a hole in the hedge. . . “ Have you reached an age, where you begin to be able to see meaning beyond the everyday? What experiences have offered you the most sense of meaning? Do you think it is possible to manage your way through the hole in the hedge without encountering thorns?
Page 57 – 62: . . .After all, there was nothing to explain my disappointment. I had not known for what I was searching.
Or perhaps I did know, secretly, and would not admit it to myself: I wanted a miracle. Miracles by definition, are without continuity, and perhaps my rooftop scientist had nudged me in that direction by the uncertainty of this departure. The only thing that characterizes a miracle, to my mind, is its sudden appearance and disappearance within the natural order, although, strangely, this loose definition would include each individual person. Miracles, in fact, momentarily dissolve the natural order or place themselves in opposition to it. . . There was magic, but is was an autumnal, sad magic. I had a growing feeling that miracles were particularly concerned with life, with the animal aspect of things. . . .
. . . That was how the true miracle, my own miracle, came to me in its own time and fashion. . .
The episode occurred upon an unengaging and unfrequented shore. It began in the late afternoon of a day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes. There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast. . .
I sat down and rested with my back against the overturned boat. All around me the stillness intensified and the wandering tendrils of fog continued their search. . .
The man lay back among the pillows, wracked, yellow, and cadaverous. Though I was his son he know me only as one lamp is briefly lit from another in the windy night. He was beyond speech, but a question was there, occupying the dying mind, excluding the living, something before which all remaining thought had to be mustered. At the time I was too young to understand. Only now could the hurrying shadow drawn from the wrecked boat interpret and relive the question. The starving figure on the bed as held back from death only be the magnificent heart that would not die.
I, the insubstantial substance of memory, the dispersed droplets of the ranging fog, saw the man lift his hands for the last time. Strangely, in all that ravished body, they alone had remained unchanged. They were strong hands of a craftsman who had played my roles in his life: actor, laborer, professional runner. . . Now in the last lucid moment, he had lifted them up and, curiously, as though they belonged to another being, he had turned and flexed them, gazed upon them unbelievingly, and dropped them once more.
Have you ever wished for a miracle? Have you ever experienced an occurrence that in retrospect you would say was miraculous? How do you think the author’s desire for a miracle was related to his vision of his father’s death?
Page 62 – 64: Suddenly I was back under the overhang of the foundered boat. . . .
I was a biologist, but I chose not to examine my hands. . . Finally the dawn began to touch the sea, and then the worn timbers of the hulk beside which I sheltered reddened just a little. It was then I began to glimpse the world from a different perspective. . .
. . . It was then I saw the miracle. I saw it because I was hunched at ground level smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of this world.
I did not realize what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. . . . It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the think in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
Can you see a parallel between Eiseley’s “getting around in front of the universe,” and Moses’ desire to see God face to face? God only allows Moses a glimpse of his back. Do you think the author has indeed seen the universe (God) in the little fox pup? How important is the fox pup’s offer to play to the author’s sense of miracle and divine?
Pages 64 – 65: It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment.
But I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the nearest ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home.
A little further on, I passed one on a ridge who knew well I had no gun, for it sung by quite close, stepping delicately with brush and head held high. Its face was watchful but averted. It did not matter. It was what I had experienced in adulthood. We passed carefully on our separate ways into the morning, eyes not meeting.
But to me the mist had come, and the mere chance of two lifted sunlit ears at morning. I knew at last why the man on the bed had smiled finally before he dropped his hands. He too, had worked around to the front of things in his death agony. The hands were playthings and had to be cast aside at last like a cherished toy. There was a meaning and there was not a meaning, and therein lay the agony.
The meaning was all in the beginning, as though time was awry. It was a little beautiful meaning that did not stay, and the sixty-year-old man on the hospital bed had traveled briefly toward it through the dark at the end of the universe. There was something in the desperate nature of the world that had to be revered, but he had been too weak to tell me, and the hands had dropped helplessly away.
After forty years I had been just his own age when the fog had come groping for my face. I think I can safely put it own that I had been allowed my miracle. It was very small, as is the way of great things. I had been permitted to correct time’s arrow for a space of perhaps five minutes – and that is a boon not granted to all men. If I were to render a report upon this episode, I would say that men must find a way to run the arrow backward. Doubtless it is impossible in the physical world, but in the memory and the will man might achieve the deed if he would try.
For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked on some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.
Do you think the author experienced a miracle? Do you think the experience of ecstasy is inherently spiritual? Do you see the relationship between the experience of the fox pup and the author’s memory of his father’s death? Have you ever found yourself reversing the arrow of time? How important is memory in the life of the spirit? Have you ever experienced God in nature?
How Flowers Changed the World
Page 66 – 67: In those first ages plants clung of necessity to swamps and watercourses. Their reproductive processes demanded direct access to water. Beyond the primitive ferns and mosses that enclosed the borders of swamps and streams the rocks still lay vast and bare, the winds still swirled the dust of a naked planet. The grass cover that holds our world secure in place was still millions of years in the future. The green marchers had gained a soggy foothold upon the land, but that was all. They did not reproduce by seeds but by microscopic swimming sperm that had to wriggle their way through water to fertilize the female cell. . . The truth is, however, that there is nothing very “normal” about nature. Once upon a time there were no flowers at all. . . .
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of angiosperms – the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist Charles Darwin called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.
Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know — even man himself – would never have existed. . . .
Have you ever given any consideration to the relationship between ourselves and the flowers? Can you imagine a world without flowers or grass? How different would our planet be? Does the story of the emergence of flowers give you any better appreciation of the wonder of evolution?
Page 68 – 70: The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. Their appearance parallels in a quite surprising manner the rise of the birds and mammals.
The event occurred in Cretaceous times in the close of the age of Reptiles. Before the coming of the flowering plants our own ancestral stock, the warm-blooded mammals, consisted of a few mousy little creatures hidden in trees and underbrush. A few lizard-like birds with carnivorous teeth flapped awkwardly on ill-aimed flights among archaic shrubbery. None of these insignificant creatures gave evidence of any remarkable talents. The mammals in particular had been around for some millions of years but had remained well lost in the shadow of the mighty reptiles. Truth to tell, man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat. . .
Neither the birds nor the mammals, however, were quite what they seemed. They were waiting for the Age of Flowers. They were waiting for what flowers, and with the true encased seed, would bring. Fish-easting, gigantic, leather-winged reptiles twenty-eight feet from wing tip to wing tip, hovered over the coasts that one day would be swarming with gulls.
Stop and reflect on how mammals and the precursors of birds had been around for millions of years, awaiting a change in the environment in order to come into their own. Was it chance or design? Is there anything ever inevitable about evolution? If small but important developments have changed the face of the earth in the past, can you imagine how the earth might be changing now under our noses that might produce a completely different environment?
Page 71 – 72: . . . Nevertheless, the true flower – and the seed that it produced — was a profound innovation in the world of life.
In a way this even parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother’s body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less – and so it is with the flowering plants. The primitive spore, a single cell fertilized in the beginning by a swimming sperm, did not promote rapid distribution, and the young plant, moreover, had to struggle up from nothing. No one had left it any food except what it could get by its own unaided efforts.
By contrast, the true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means “encased seed”) grew a seed in the heart of a flower, a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles, or with hooks it can cling to a bear’s or a rabbit’s hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy, attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts, and be voided miles away.
The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. . . Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, liked the giant redwoods, lingered on as relics; many vanished entirely.
Competition seems to be one of the principal themes of evolution not only in the animal world, but also in the plant world. How did seeds impart a competitive advantage to the plants that produced them? How did seeds give a competitive advantage to warm blooded animals? Is competition still a theme in the enfolding of evolution?
Page 73 – 74: The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new sources of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. . . .Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.
Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental up-thrust which had been a part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world’s climates. . .
The mammals too, survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence ow that the thunder lizards were gone. . .
On the edge of the forest, a strange, old-fashioned animal still hesitated. His body was the body of a tree dweller, and though tough and knotty by human standards, he was, in terms of that world into which he gazed a weakling. His teeth, though strong for chewing on the tough fruits of the forest, or for crunching an occasional unwary bird caught with his prehensile hands, were not the tearing sabers of the great cats. He had a passion for lifting himself up to see about, in his restless, roving curiosity. He would run, a little stiffly and uncertainly perhaps, on his hind legs, but only in those rare moments when he ventured out upon the ground. All this was the legacy of his climbing days; he had a hand with flexible fingers and no fine specialized hoofs upon which to gallop like the wind.
If he had any idea of competing in that new world, he had better forget it; teeth or hooves, he was much too late for either. He was a ne’er-do-well, and in-betweener. Nature had not done well by him. It was as if she hesitated and never quite made up her mind. Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets. One day a little band of these odd apes – for apes they were – shambled out upon the grass, the human story had begun.
Eiseley suggests that the process of evolution was complimentary. New insets developed to accommodate the needs of the flowers, and birds evolved to take advantage of new food sources. Can you see how all things have been evolving together? Does the story as Eiseley narrates it suggest a direction in the evolutionary process? While other animals became more specialized in response to the flowers, what happened to the precursors of human beings? Do you think it was actually an advantage to remain an “in-betweener?” How do you feel about Eiseley’s statement: “Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets?”
The Ghostly Guardian
Page 81 – 82: Darwin always troubled by such problems, used to speak of the mysterious and unknown laws governing these matters. Unlike many of this followers he had no illusions that he had solved all the mysteries of life and evolution. Reading this works one is often made aware of how that great mind hesitated painfully over much that his followers take for granted.
Once he expressed himself to the effect that the independent duplication of a single animal form, if proven for two separate areas of the world, might force him to entertain the possibility of some other explanation for evolution than that offered by chance mutations acted upon by natural selection. Strangely enough, these monkeys of South America offer an evolutionary problem very close to, though admittedly not identical with, the hypothetical case proposed by Darwin. These monkeys, while not totally identical anatomically with those of the Old World, are remarkably similar to them. In fact, only the sophisticated observer can recognize the difference. Yet the separation of these two monkey groups from each other is ancient, and no ancestral monkey remains connecting the Old World with the New are known by fossil hunters.
Instead, it is believed by many authorities that the New World and Old World monkeys have arisen as parallel developments from older pre-monkey forms, the lemurs, which were once spread over the whole region of Asia to South America. In this case, creatures of very similar brain, face, habits, and general appearance would have come into being in separate parts of the world from ancestors far below the monkey level. Such a development might suggest latent evolutionary powers not entirely the simple product of what we, in our ignorance of a better word, call chance. We are not in a position yet to verify absolutely this interpretation of the separate origins of Old and New World monkey, but it is the most reasonable theory that we possess.
And here is the latest theory about Old and New World Monkeys from Wikipedia: New World monkeys are the five families of primates that are found in Central and South America and portions of Mexico: Callitrichidae, Cebidae, Aotidae, Pitheciidae, and Atelidae. The five families are ranked together as the Platyrrhini parvorder and the Ceboidea superfamily, which are essentially synonymous since Ceboidea is the only living platyrrhine superfamily. Platyrhini means flat-nosed, and their noses are flatter than those of other simians, with sideways-facing nostrils. Monkeys in the family Atelidae, such as the spider monkey, are the only primates to have prehensile tails. New World monkeys’ closest relatives are the other simians, the Catarrhini (“down-nosed,” comprising Old World monkeys and apes). New World monkeys descend from African simians that colonized South America, a line that split off about 40 million years ago.
About 40 million years ago, the Simiiformes infraorder split into the parvorders Platyrrhini (New World monkeys—in South America) and Catarrhini (apes and Old World monkeys—in Africa). The individuals whose descendents would become Platyrrhini are currently conjectured to have migrated to South America either on a raft of vegetation or via a land bridge. There are two possible rafting routes, either across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa or across the Caribbean from North America. However, there is no fossil record to support the hypothesis of a migration from North America. The land bridge hypothesis relies on the existence of Atlantic Ocean ridges and a fall in the sea level in the Oligocene. This would have either produced a single land bridge or a series of mid-Atlantic islands to act as stepping stones for the migration. The latter is now the favorite choice.
At the time the new world monkeys split off, the Isthmus of Panama had not yet formed, ocean currents and climate were quite different, and the Atlantic Ocean was less than the present 2,800 km (1,700 mi) width by about a third; possibly 1,000 km less, based on the current estimate of the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge formation processes spreading rate of 25 mm/year.
So, do you think evolution is based only on chance, or is there another word Eiseley seems to be reaching for? What is we applied the world “synchronicity” to the processes of evolution? Do you think mere chance explains the tremendous growth in the brain of “modern” humans in a relatively short period of time? From page 5 in the study guide: Writing, and later printing, is the product of our adaptable many-purposed hands. It is thus, through writing, with no increase in genetic, inborn capacity since the last ice advance, that modern man carries in his mind the intellectual triumphs of all his predecessors who were able to inscribe their thoughts for posterity. Have we entered a new phase of evolution no longer dependent on biological principles?
The Bird and the Machine
Page 84 – 91: This is the great age, make no mistake about it; the robot has been born somewhat appropriately along with the atom bomb, and the brain they say now is just another type of more complicated feedback system. The engineers have its basic principles worked out, it’s mechanical you know; nothing to get superstitious about, and man can always improve on nature once he gets the idea. Well, he’s got it all right and that’s why, I guess, guess I sit here in my chair, with the article crunched in my hand, remembering those two birds and that blue mountain sunlight. There is another magazine article on my desk that reads “Machines Are Getting Smarter Every Day.” I don’t deny it, but I’ll stick with the birds. It’s life I believe in, not machines. . . .
Everything worked perfectly except for one detail – I didn’t know what kind of birds were there. . . . He had my hand, that is, and for a small hawk not much bigger than my fist he was doing all right. I heard him give one short metallic cry when the light went on and my had descended on the bird beside him; after that he was busy with his claws and his beak was sunk in my thumb. In the struggle I knocked the lamp over on the shelf, and his mate got her sight back and whisked neatly through the hole in the roof and off among the stars outside. . . .
He was a young sparrow hawk and a fine young male in the prime of life. I was sorry not to catch the pair of them. . . I had to admit the two of them might have been more than I could have handled under the circumstances. . .
In the morning, with the change that comes on suddenly in that high country. . . I was up early and brought the box in which the little hawk was imprisoned out onto the grass where I was building a cage. A wind as cool as a mountain spring ran over the grass and stirred my hair. I 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 had fled. There was no sign of her anywhere. . .
. . . 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 from 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 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; . . . Straight out of the Sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring relentlessly 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 me in a great soaring gyre that turned into a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into those upper regions beyond the eyes of men.
Why do you think the author let the sparrow hawk go free? How do you explain the mate’s vigil for her mate? Do you think birds and other animals experience love, caring, loyalty, joy? Do you think if animals can experience such “feelings” they are exhibiting a form of “consciousness?”
Page 94: I lay my paper down and across my mind a phrase floats insinuatingly: “It does not seem that there is anything in the construction, constituents, or behavior of a human being which it is essentially impossible for science to duplicate and synthesize. On the other hand. . . ”
“On the other hand. . . ” Ah my mind takes up, on the other hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off , over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away.
On the other hand . . . what do you think? Is there some spirit beyond science? To what extent do you feel part of that spirit? Do you think our human attraction to religion and spiritual practices is in any way related to that spirit?
The Dance of the Frogs.
Page 106 – 109: He was a member of the explorers club and he had never been outside of the State of Pennsylvania. Some of us who were world travelers used to smile a little about that, even though we knew his scientific reputation had been, at one time, great. . . . but the time came when I realized that old Albert Dreyer. . . had journeyed farther into the Country of Terror than any of us would ever go, God willing, and emerge alive.
The reason I came to hear of his story was an odd one. I had been North that year, and the club had asked me to give a little talk on the religious beliefs of the Indians of the northern forest . . .
“. . . . What is different are the voices projected. Here they are the cries of animals the voices of the swamp and the mountains — the solitary elementals before whom the primitive man stands in awe, and from whom he begs sustenance. Here the game lords reign supreme; man himself is voiceless.”
A low, halting query reached me from the back of the room. I was startled even in the midst of my discussion, to note that it was Dreyer.
“And the game lords, what are they?”
“Each species of animal is supposed to have gigantic leaders of more than normal size,” I explained. “These beings are the immaterial controllers of that particular type of animal. Legend about them is confused. Sometimes they partake of human qualities, will and intelligence, but they are of animal shape. They control the movements of game, and thus their favor may mean life or death for man.”
“Are they visible?” Again Dreyer’s low, troubled voice came from the back of the room.
“Native belief has it that they can be seen on rare occasions,” I answered. “In a sense they remind one of the concept of the archetypes, the originals behind the petty show of or small, transitory existence. They are the immortal renewers of substance — the force behind and above animate nature.”
“Do they dance?” persisted Dreyer.
. . . “I cannot answer that question,” I said acidly. “My informants failed to elaborate upon it. But they believe implicitly in these monstrous beings, talk to and propitiate them. It is their voices that emerge from the shaking tent.”
“The Indians believe it,” pursued old Dreyer relentlessly, “but do you believe it?” . . .
“. . . I ruffled your feelings earlier in the evening. You must forgive me. You touched on an interest of mine. . . .
“You had better know,” said Dreyer severely, “if you’re planning to become an investigator of primitive religions. . . .”
Can primitive religions teach us something about spirituality? Do the things that humans have believed in the past matter at all to us? Do you believe in spiritual presences? How might that inform your inquiries into spirituality or not?
Page 110 – 114: “It could happen to anyone,” said Albert Dreyer, “and especially in the spring. Remember that. And all I did was to skip. Just a few feet, mark you, but I skipped. Remember that too.
“It was a road that came out finally in a marsh along the Schuykill River. Probably all industrial now. But I had a little house out there with a laboratory thrown in. I was convenient to the marsh, and that helped me with my studies of amphibia. Moreover it was a wild , lonely road, and I wanted solitude. It is always the demand of the naturalist. . . .
“. . .My best work was done there.” He held up his black gloved hand and glanced a it meditatively. . . There were times when I worked all night. Or diverted myself, while waiting the result of an experiment, by midnight walks. It was a strange road. Wild alright, but paved and close enough to the city that there were occasional street lamps. . . Then suddenly you were in the marsh, and the road ended at an old, unused wharf. . .
“. . . . Spring. Frog time. The first warmth, and the leaves coming. A little fog in the hollows. The way they like it then in the wet leaves and bogs. . . .
“It was late Spring,” he said. “Fog and mist in those hollows in a way I had never seen before. And frogs, of course. Thousands of them, and twenty species, trilling, gurgling and grunting in as many keys. . .
“Well, it was unusual, put it that way, as an understatement. It was late and the creatures seemed to know it. You could feel the forces of mighty and archaic life welling up from the very ground. The water was pulling them — not water as we know it, but the mother, the ancient life force, the thing that made us in the days of creation, and that lurks around us still, unnoticed in our sterile cities.
“I was no different from any other young fool coming home a spring night, except as a student of life, and of amphibia, in particular, I was, shall we say, more aware of the creatures. I had performed experiments” — the back glove gestured before my eyes. “I was as it proved susceptible.
“It began on that lost stretch of roadway leading to the river, and it began simply enough. All around, under the street lamps, I saw little frogs and big frogs hopping steadily toward the river. They were going in my direction.
“At this time I had my whimsies, and I was spry enough to feel the tug of that great movement. I joined them. There was no mystery about it. I simply began to skip, to skip gaily, and enjoy the great bobbing shadow I created as I passed onward with that leaping host all headed toward the river.. . .
“It was only midway in my flight that I began to grow conscious that I was not alone. . .
“It was only as we passed under a street lamp that I noticed, beside my own bobbing shadow, another great leaping, grotesquerie that had an uncanny suggestion of the frog world about it. The shocking aspect of the thing lay in its size, and the fact that judging from the shadow, it was soaring higher and more gaily than myself. . . .
“No, you do not pause. You look neither to the left or the right, for fear of what you might see there. Instead, you dance on madly, hopelessly. Plunging higher and higher in the hope the shadows will be left behind, or prove to be only leaves dancing, when you reach the next street light. Or that whatever had joined you in the midnight bacchanal will take some other pathway and depart. . .
“I was part of it, part of some mad dance of the elementals behind the show of things. Perhaps in that night of archaic and elemental passion. . . my careless hoping passage under the street lights had called them . . . brought them leaping down some fourth dimensional road way into the world of time.
“Even as I leaped I was changing. It was this, I think, that stirred the last remnants of human fear and human caution that I still possessed. . . Furthermore, certain sensations, hypnotic or otherwise, suggested to me that my own physical shape was modifying. . .
“It was then that the wharf lights began to show. We were approaching the end of the road. . . .It was this that startled me back into some semblance of human terror. . . .
“Nevertheless, their power held me. We pounded madly toward the wharf, and under the light that hung above it, and the beam that made a cross. . . But in that final frenzy of terror before the water below engulfed me, I shrieked, ‘Help! In the name of God, help me! In the name of Jesus stop!'” . . .
“I was not I suppose a particularly religious man, and the cries merely revealed the extremity of my terror. Nevertheless this is a strange thing, and whether it involves the cross beam or the appeal to a Christian deity, I will not attempt to answer.
“In one electric instant, however, I was free. It was like the release from demonic possession. One moment I was leaping in an inhuman company of elder things, and the next moment I was a badly shaken human being on a wharf. . .”
What do you think Old Dreyer experienced on that night of the frogs? Have you ever felt yourself part of something larger than yourself? Do you think there are elemental forces of nature that are like disembodied spirits? Or are the elemental forces of nature part of our collective unconscious? For you are spiritual presences real? How do you explain Dreyer’s cry for help? Have you ever found yourself crying for help?
This chapter of the Dance of the Frogs reminds me of a book by Robert L. Moore entitled Facing the Dragon, that Rabbi Ballon and I both enjoyed so much we arranged to meet with Dr. Moore in Chicago. Here are a couple of Excerpts:
Page 64: Mircea Eliade made a major contribution to understanding these issues. Most people have overlooked his more important point – that space and time are heterogeneous for homo religious, that is for pre-modern human beings. There is not just one kind of space and time, not just one world, but two worlds, two kinds of space and time: (a) the world of the profane and (b) the world of the sacred, the world of myth.
This world of homo religious was not just Christian, however, but existed for eons prior to modernity, including most of human history. In fact, this radical distinction between ordinary space and time and sacred space and time prevailed throughout human history prior to modernization. Pre-modern people regularly felt the need to make contact with the divine realm. The liturgical year is a vestige of insights from that time. The Mass also served as a refuge from the ordinary world in which it was important to return often to the sacred center, the axis mundi. This world down here is imperfect and human, but the other world is full of numinosity and sacredness and power and grace.
In my view, our survival requires that we get back to the axis mundi, the center of the world. We must do this differently, of course, from how pre-modern people did it, but we must get back to the center in order to survive.
Page 95: That is where the issue of spirituality comes in. A lot of people think prayer is something only spiritual athletes do, as if prayer were the esoteric fifteenth initiation, but if you really understand it, prayer is a survival technique. If you are in one of these helping professions where you get a lot of archetypal transferences, you do not pray because it is pious or sweet or nice or the fifteenth initiation. You pray to stay alive, to get help in dealing with your grandiosity.
If you cannot pray, if you do not pray a lot and you do not have a sense of how to pass on the numinous energy to a mythic vessel, you need to learn how. You can take that energy that is coming toward you and, through your prayer pass it on. “Here,” you say, “this is really yours Lord. Take it. It belongs to you.” If you keep it within yourself, you will soon be drunk with archetypal energies. Prayer is a process of passing on the numinous magical god-energy.
Page 186: Another way to create a personal ritual to contain and channel grandiose energies is a regular exercise program three to five times a week. It is amazing how much craziness in a human personality can be controlled by the ritual of an exercise program.
Think of regular exercise as part of your ritual practice, a conscious ritualization in your ongoing spiritual discipline. It is striking how easy it is to tell if you missed part of your healing ritualization, because your grandiosity will kick up on you. When you miss your exercise program, you become more compulsive in other ways. This is a rule you can follow. Take it to the bank. You will act out more destructively to the extent that you do not tend to your physical discipline.
Page 189 – 192: Another resource for regulating grandiose energies is a regular participation in communal worship and liturgy. If we bracket the religious tribalism issue for a moment and focus on the individual’s regulatory needs, then liturgy does offer a partial containment and regulation. Remember we are talking about marking time. It helps if you have a liturgical year to follow. Christians are not the only ones who have done that. Most people in the world before the modern era used sacred calendars to mark time and help them feel oriented in relation to a true center. They used this means to contain themselves and help themselves stay sane, to provide something predictable, a dependable structure for living. . . .
This recommendation of prayer is perhaps my most radical. . . .
People who have a regular prayer life ritual handle their compulsions and impulsivity better than those who do not. They are less fragmented than those who do not pray regularly. . .
Prayer is any spiritual discipline that enables you to be connected with the basic energies of life and keeps you from an unconscious fantasy that you yourself are God or the God king or queen. . .
Do you begin to see the relationship between the world of the sacred and the profane in the talk that Eiseley gave at the Explorer’s Club? Can you see how “skipping with the frogs” connected Old Dreyer with a spiritual power he didn’t really know how to handle? What spiritual ritual pulled Dreyer out of the spiritual power that might have taken him to his destruction? Can you begin to see the importance of having spiritual ritual in your own life? What do you think of the suggestion that a regular exercise program can be part of your spiritual discipline? Does Yoga or Tai Chi or any number of other contemplative movement exercises fill this function?
The Hidden Teacher
Page 116: . . . . Over two thousand years ago, a man named Job, crouching in the Judean Desert, was moved to challenge what he felt to be the injustice of God. The voice in the whirlwind, in turn, volleyed pitiless questions upon the supplicant — questions that have, in truth, precisely the ring of modern science. For the Lord asked of Job by whose wisdom the hawk soars, and who had fathered the rain, or entered the storehouses of the snow.
. . . . In consequence of this remark perhaps it would be well, whatever our individual beliefs, to consider what may be called the hidden teacher, lest we become too much concerned with the formalities of only one aspect of the education by which we learn.
Have you ever considered that the voice from the whirlwind in Job was the voice of science? What hidden teachers have you encountered in your life? When have you been a teacher? What are the most important lessons you have learned, and how did you learn them?
Page 117 – 118: For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider. . . .
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there was a response. . . . As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. . . As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.
Moreover, I considered, as I tramped along, that to the phagocytes, the white blood cells, clambering even now with some kind of elementary intelligence amid the thin pipes and tubing of my body – creatures without whose ministrations I could not exist – the conscious “I” of which I was aware had no significance to these amoeboid beings. I was, instead, a kind of chemical web that brought meaningful messages to them, a natural environment seemingly immortal if they could have thought about it, since generations of them had lived and perished, and would continue to so live and die, in that odd fabric which contained my intelligence – a misty light that was beginning to seem floating and tenuous even to me.
Have you ever thought of the cells of your body possessing an intelligence or a consciousness of their own? The bacteria that inhabit our guts are independent in that they can survive outside our bodies, but we are dependent upon them for our digestion. Are those bacteria aware of being part of our bodies? Do we need to become more aware of our interdependence with other life around us?
Page 118 – 119: . . . the long war of life against its inhospitable environment, a war that has lasted for perhaps three billion years. It began with strange chemicals seething under a sky lacking in oxygen; it was waged through long ages until the first green plants learned to harness the light of the nearest star, our sun. The human brain, so frail, so perishable, so full of inexhaustible dreams and hungers, burns by the power of the leaf.
The hurrying blood cells charge with oxygen carry more of that element to the human brain than to any other part of the body. . . . The human body is a magical vessel, but its life is linked with an element it cannot produce. Only the green plant knows the secret of transforming the light that comes to us across the far reaches of space. There is no better illustration of the intricacy of man’s relationship with other living things. . .
. . . In three billion years of slow change and groping effort only one living creature has succeeded in escaping the trap of specialization. . . It is man, but the word should be uttered softly, for his story is not yet done.
With the rise of the human brain, with the appearance of a creature whose upright body enabled two limbs to be freed for the exploration and manipulation of his environment, there had at last emerged a creature with a specialization – the brain – that, paradoxically, offered escape from specialization. Many animals driven into the nooks and crannies of nature have achieved momentary survival only at the cost of extinction.
Was it this that trouble me and brought my mind back to a tiny universe among the grass blades, a spider’s universe concerned with spider thought?
If the brain is our human specialization, what kind of dead ends might our brains lead us to? Do you think humanity can avoid extinction? What do you think are the most likely causes of human extinction in the future? If we are intricately linked to other life forms, what responsibilities do we have for stewarding our environment?
Page 120 – 121: We are too content with our sensory extensions. . . It is no longer enough to see as a man sees – even to the ends of the universe. It is not enough to hold nuclear energy in one’s hand like a spear, as a man would hold it. . . If we continue to do this the great brain – the human brain – will be only a new version of the old trap, and nature is full of traps for the beast than cannot learn. . .
. . . But beyond lies the great darkness of the ultimate Dreamer, who dreamed the light and the galaxies. Before act was, or substance existed, imagination grew in the dark. Man partakes of that ultimate wonder and creativeness. As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only. He came because he is a heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself. This he had worshiped by many names, even in the dismal caves of his beginning. Man the self-fabricator, is so by reason of gifts he had no part in devising – and so he searches as the single living cell in the beginning must have sought the ghostly creature it was to serve.
What do you think Eiseley means by the great darkness and the ultimate Dreamer? What do you think is the transcendent realm beyond ourselves? What gifts have we brought with us along the evolutionary path? How are we related to the single celled life forms that first inhabited our planet?
Page 121 – 128: The young man Elihu, Job’s counselor and critic, spoke simply of the “Teacher,” and it is of this teacher I speak when I refer to gifts man had no part in devising. Perhaps – though it is purely a matter of emotional reaction to words – it is easier for us today to speak of this teacher as “nature,” that omnipresent all which contained both the spider and my invisible intrusion into her carefully planned universe. But nature does not simply represent reality. In the shapes of life, it prepares the future; it offers alternatives. Nature teaches, though what it teaches is often hidden and obscure, just as the voice from the spinning dust cloud belittled Job’s thought but gave back no answers to its own formidable interrogation. . .
. . . Man, I concluded, may have come to the end of that wild being who had mastered the fire and the lightning. He can create the web but not hold it together, not save himself except by transcending his own image. For at last, before the ultimate mystery, it is himself he shapes. Perhaps it is for this that the listening web lies open: that by knowledge we may grow beyond our past, our follies, and ever close to what the Dreamer in the dark intended before the dust arose and walked. In the pages of an old book it has been written that we are the hands of a Teacher, nor does it yet appear what man shall be.
Do you think nature and God are one and the same? For you what is the teacher? For you what is the Dreamer in the dark? If humans can create the web in which they live, what more do we need to hold it together?
The Star Thrower
Page 169 – 173: If there is any meaning to this book (the Unexpected Universe), it began on the beaches of Costabel with just such a leap across an unknown abyss. It began, if I may borrow the expression from a Buddhist sage, with the skull and the eye. . . Upon that shore meaning had ceased. There were only the dead skull and the revolving eye. With such an eye, some have said, science looks upon the world. I do not know. I know only that I was the skull of emptiness and the endlessly revolving light without pity,
. . . It did not make sense, but nothing in Costabel made sense. Perhaps that was why I had finally found myself in Costabel. Perhaps all men are destined at some time to arrive there as I did. . . .
The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life. Shells are cast up in windrows. . .
In the end the sea rejects its offspring. They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the mucilaginous bodies of the unprotected. The seabeach and its endless war are soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls.
In the night, particularly in the tourist season, or during great storms, one can observe another vulturine activity. One can see, in the hour before dawn on the ebb tide, electric torches bobbing like fireflies along the beach. This is the sign of the professional shellers seeking to outrun and anticipate their less aggressive neighbors. A kind of greedy madness sweeps over the competing collectors. After a storm one can see them hurrying along with bundles of gathered starfish, or, toppling and overburdened, clutching bags of living shells whose hidden occupants will be slowly cooked and dissolved in the outdoor kettles provided by the resort hotels for the cleaning of specimens. Following one such episode I met the star thrower.
. . . I was away from the shellers now and strode more rapidly over the wet sand that effaced my footprints. . . Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seems to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.
Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over a half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
“It’s still alive,” I ventured.
“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head for out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
“It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors.
“There are not many come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”
“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.” He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.
“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”
He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.
“I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I could feel the full night blackness in my skull and the terrible eye resuming its indifferent journey. I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with that great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some great sea. He had, at any rate the posture of a god.
But again the eye, the cold world-shriveling eye, began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world.
Eiseley seems in this story to be both cynical and depressed. Have you ever found yourself wondering if life has any meaning? How can the path of science be especially troubling to the human spirit? After reading some of Eiseley’s other stories was he a collector in his past? From where do you think his mental struggle came?
Page 181 – 182: Dyersville, the thought flashed through my mind, making the connection now for the first time: the dire place. I recognized at once the two sisters at the edge of the photograph, the younger clinging reluctantly to the older. Six years old, I thought, turning momentarily away from the younger child’s face. Here it began, her pain and mine. The eyes in the photograph were already remote and shadowed by some inner turmoil. The poise of the body was already that of one miserably departing the peripheries of the human estate. The gaze was mutely clairvoyant and lonely. It was the gaze of a child who knew unbearable difference and impending isolation.
I dropped the notes and pictures once more into the bag. The last message had come from Dyersville: “my son.” The child in the photograph had survived to be an ill-taught prairie artist. She had been deaf. All her life she had walked a precipice of mental breakdown. Here on this faded porch it had begun – the long crucifixion of life. I slipped downstairs and out of the house. I walked for miles through the streets.
Now at Costabel I put on the sunglasses once more, but the face from the torn photograph persisted behind them. It was as though I, as a man, was being asked to confront, in all its overbearing weight, the universe itself. “Love not the world,” the Biblical injunction runs, “neither the things that are in the world.” The revolving beam in my mind had stopped, and the insect whisperings of the intellect. There was, at last, an utter stillness, a waiting as though for a cosmic judgment. The eye, the torn eye, considered me.
“But I do love the world,” I whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. “I love the small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again.” I choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, “I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone. I had come full upon one of the great rifts in nature, and the merciless beam no longer was in travers around my skull.
In this small memory Eiseley confronts the pain of his mother’s mental illness, and probably recognizes that his own melancholic nature may have been inherited form his parents. Do you have any history of depression or mental illness in your family? As you grow older and think about death do you ever find depressive thoughts? For you what is the spiritual key for facing death? Does that key lead you at all in the direction of compassion for other living things?
Page 182 – 185: Out of the depths of a seemingly empty universe had grown an eye, like the eye in my room, but an eye on a vastly larger scale. It looked out upon what I can only call itself. . . The nothing had miraculously gazed upon the nothing and was not content. It was an intrusion into, or a projection out of, nature for which no precedent existed. The act was, in short, an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero. A little whirlwind of commingling molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe. . . .
. . . For a creature. . . had stretched out its hand in pity. . .
I had been unbelieving. I had walked away from the star thrower in the hardened indifference of maturity. . . Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission. I set forth to find the star thrower.
Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits. . . He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment. Finally, the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose – to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of the world.
Somewhere far up the coast wandered the star thrower beneath his rainbow . . . The star thrower was mad, and his particular acts were a folly with which I had not chosen to associate myself. I was an observer and a scientist. Nevertheless, I had seen the rainbow attempting to attach itself to earth.
On a point of land . . . I found the star thrower. In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many hued rainbow still lurked and wavered tentatively beyond him. Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves. I spoke once briefly. “I understand,” I said. “Call me another thrower.” Only then I allowed myself to think. He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others. . .
I picked and flung another star. Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly flung. . . . I looked back across my shoulder. Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more. I never looked again. The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.
But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars. . . . It was unsought, the destiny of my kind since the rituals of the Ice Age hunters, when life in the Northern Hemisphere had come close to vanishing. We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life – the completion of the rainbow of existence. . .
I picked up a star whose tubed feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled back of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. . . Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, always in desolation, but not in defeat.
. . . . Tomorrow I would walk in the storm. I would walk against the shell collectors and the flames. I would walk remember Bacon’s forgotten words “for the uses of life.” I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. I would walk with the knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms inexplicably, in nature something about the role men give her. I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel.
Eiseley writes, “I had been unbelieving . . .” What do you think he came to believe? What is our freedom to choose? What do you think it meant for Eiseley, when he thought: “He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others?” What do you think is the “perfect circle of compassion?” What do you think it means to choose, “always in desolation, but not in defeat?” Do you think it is possible for humans to rise above Darwin’s “unceasing struggle, selfishness and death?”
Science and the Sense of the Holy
Page 190: In the end science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery. . . The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle. . .
. . . Blaise Pascal, as far back as the seventeenth century, foresaw our two opposed methods. Of them he said: “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” It is the reductionist who, too frequently, would claim that the end justifies the means, who would assert reason as his defense and let that mysterium which guards man’s moral nature fall away in indifference, a phantom without reality.
Do you think humans have a moral nature? What do you think happens, when science is practiced without some moral or spiritual safeguards or limits?
Page 193: The numinous then is touched with superstition, the reductionist would say, but all the rituals would suggest even toward hunted animals a respect and sympathy leading to a ceremonial treatment of hunted souls; whereas by contrast in the modern world the degradation of animals in vile experiments of little, or vile, meaning, were easily turned to the experimental human torture practiced at Dachau and Buchenwald by men dignified with medical degrees. So the extremes of temperament stand today: the man with reverence and compassion in his heart. . and the modern vandal totally lacking in empathy for life beyond his own, his sense of wonder reduced to a crushing series of gears and quantitative formula, the educated vandal without mercy or tolerance, the collecting man that I once tried to prevent from killing an endangered falcon, who raised his rifle, fired, and laughed as the bird tumbled at my feet. I suppose Freud might have argued that this was a man of normal ego, but I, extending my childlike mind into the composite life of the world, bled accordingly.
What does Eiseley think is the fate of the world, when it loses a sense of the numinous? Is having a sense of the numinous necessary to having some moral and compassionate limits? How do we develop compassion for life not our own? How do we nurture a sense of wonder?
Page 197 – 198: . . . . Yet still the question haunts us, the numinous, the holy in man’s mind. Early man laid gifts beside the dead, but then the modern unbelieving world. . . Freud says, “As for me I have never had such feelings.” They are a part of childhood Freud argues, though there are some who counter that in childhood. . . the man is made, the awe persists or is turned off by blows or the dullness of unthinking parents. One can only assert that in science, as in religion, when one has destroyed human wonder and compassion, one has killed man, even if the man in question continues to go about his laboratory tasks.
Is a sense of the holy a special gift that helps to make humans human? Can our educational system help children cultivate a sense of awe and wonder and thus keep alive some sense of the holy? Is there a role for religious institutions to remind us of the holy? What kinds of things remind you of the holy?
The Winter of Man
Page 204 – 205: Has the wintry bleakness in the troubled heart of humanity at least equally retreated? — that aspect of man referred to when the Eskimo, adorned with amulets to ward off evil reiterated, “Most of all we fear the secret misdoings of the heedless ones among ourselves.”
No, the social scientist would have to answer the winter of man has not departed. The Eskimo standing in the snow, when questioned about his beliefs said: “We do not believe. We only fear. We fear things which are about us and of which we have no sure knowledge. . . ”
But surely we can counter that this old man was an ignorant remnant of the Ice Age, fearful of nature he did not understand. Today we have science; we do not fear the Eskimo’s malevolent ghosts. We do not wear amulets to ward off evil spirits. We have pierced to the far rim of the universe. We roam mentally through light-years of time.
Yes, this could be admitted, be we also fear. We fear more deeply than the old man in the snow. It comes to us, if we are honest, that perhaps nothing has changed the grip of winter in our hearts, that winter before which we cringed amidst the ice long ages ago.
What do you think the Eskimo means, when he says, “Most of all we fear the secret misdoings of the heedless ones among ourselves?” What are some of the major sources of fear for us? How are our fears different from persons living in more primitive cultures? Has science alleviated our fears?
Page 205: For what is it that we do? We fear. We do not fear ghosts but we fear the ghosts of ourselves. We come now, in this time, to fear the water we drink,, the air we breathe, the insecticides that are dusted over our giant fruits . Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that some to us from the sea. There are also those who tell us that by our own heedless acts the sea is dying.
Eiseley lists several impending environmental disasters. Have we done anything to head off any of those disasters? Have any new threats to our environment emerged since Eiseley’s death? To what extent does our pollution of the earth define our nature as the “heedless ones?”
Page 205 – 206: We fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made, the hatreds we have engendered. We fear the crush of fanatic people to whom we readily sell these weapons. We fear for the value of the money in our pockets that stands symbolically for food and shelter. We fear the growing power of the state to take these things from us. We fear to walk our streets at evening. We have come to fear even our scientists and their gifts.
We fear in short, as that self-sufficient Eskimo of the long night had never feared. Our minds, if not our clothes, are hung with invisible amulets: nostrums changed each year for our bodies whether it be chlorophyll toothpaste, the signs of astrology, or cold cures that do not cure: witchcraft nostrums for our society as it factures into contending multitudes all crying for liberation without responsibility.
We fear, and never in this century will we cease to fear. We fear the end of man as that old shaman in the snow had never had cause to fear it. There is a winter still about us — the winter of man that has followed him relentlessly from the caverns and the ice. The old Eskimo spoke well, It is the winter of the heedless ones. We are in the winter. We have never left its breath.
Eiseley lifts up our fears of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. Do you think we are any safer from nuclear destruction today than in 1970? “Our minds if not our clothes, are hung with invisible amulet. . . ” what kinds of “protections” against threats do we moderns use? In our modern context what might Eiseley be referring to when he says: “. . . our society as it fractures into contending multitudes all crying for liberation without responsibility?” How do you think the old Eskimo would see our present problems?
Man Against the Universe
Page 207: Man against the universe. But who is man and how is the universe to be defined? Sigmund Freud, in the modern era, remarked that man’s mind has suffered from the impact of three significant events. The first took place when Nicolaus Copernicus, over four centuries ago, succeeded in demonstrating that the earth revolved around the sun, thus removing man from his privileged position at the center of the cosmos. The second blow which man’s religious sensitivity sustained might well be dated to Darwin’s demonstration in 1859 that man was only one part of nature’s living web and was akin to indeed descended from, the animal life of the past. Finally, Freud himself, the great conquistador of psychology, created the third trauma by revealing the subterranean irrational qualities of the human mind.
Which of those three great revelations do you think have proved most traumatic for human culture? How do you think it affects human thought to know we are not the center of the universe? What would happen, if we discovered evidence we are not the only “intelligent” life in our galaxy? What practical affect has the study of psychology had on human culture?
Page 210 -211: George Boas, one of the most eminent intellectual historians, remarked, some thirty years ago, that there are always at least two philosophies in a country: one based on the way people live, and the other upon the results of meditation upon the universe. In the end, one is apt to contend against the other. A perfect example of this may be observed in the rise of those doctrines labeled by critics as romanticism. They reached a peculiar intensity in the early nineteenth century, chiefly as a revolt against the formalism and social restraint of the eighteenth century.
One can venture that one of the first principles to emerge from the romantic revolt was the assertion of the self against the universe. . . . The experience of nature became tinged with a belief in a higher awareness, as though in the observation of nature itself one saw into the mind of the divinity. Something subjective, lingering behind one’s casual impressions, was thus sensed in nature. And intensified empathy, a willingness to transcend the ordinary modes of thinking, because a part of the suddenly emancipated and magnified self.
This feeling for nature as a thought to be encompassed, a human ego sustained by a creative power greater than itself yet capable of assimilation by the individual, crossed the Atlantic and took on a peculiarly American tinge among Emerson and his followers, who became known as transcendentalists. The mystical aspect of this experience is described by Emerson early in his career, “Standing on bare ground,” he says, “my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all, the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Can you identify with the spirituality represented by the transcendentalists? Just in the past two years there has been a real push for people to put down their phones, pads and devices and get out into nature. Do you think this is a healthy movement? When and in what places do you feel closest to nature? What are some ways to bring people closer to nature?
Page 214 – 216: As Darwin centered jupon the “fierce destruction” whose creative role he sought to unravel, he appealed less to the tame logicians of his era and more and more to “speculative men,” men with imagination, men who loved extremes of argument – in short, romantic men. In a burst of enthusiasm Darwin himself once cried. . . “I am but a gambler and love a wild experiment.” In those words Darwin had revealed the soul of a romantic, a man willing to follow a dancing boglight through the obscurity of forgotten ages.
Nevertheless, when he came to write the conclusion of the Origin of the Species, a certain orthodox benignity is allowed once more to conceal the ferocity of the world whose cruelty and waste he had once exclaimed over. “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being,” the author philosophizes, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.” “Thus,” concludes Darwin, “from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in his view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” Of this type of conclusion the mystical Emerson had remarked soberly on an earlier but similar occasion, “What is so ungodly as these polite bows to God in English books?”
The man whom reality eluded, or so it was said, produced in 1841 a statement that anticipates the full flowering of process philosophy in the twentieth century but would equally and more eloquently have graced Darwin’s final paragraphs in the Origin of the Species. “The method of nature,” Emerson muses, “who could ever analyze it? That rushing stream will not stop to be observed. We can never surprise nature in a corner, never find the end of a thread, never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg. The egg hastens to be a bird. (Nature’s) smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of a cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation.”
Unlike Darwin’s somewhat sly intimations of perfection and progress it was the idealist, not the concealed materialist, who wrote: “That no single end may be selected and nature judged thereby, appears from this, that if man himself be considered as the end, and it be assumed that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded.”
As a result of his contemplations, even though he did not possess the Darwinian key of natural selection, Emerson is aware of nature’s infinite prodigality and wastefulness of suns and systems. He recognizes that nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal end, and not to a particular one, such as man. “To a universe of ends,” Emerson adds as an afterthought, “a work of ecstasy.” Nature, he maintained is unspecific. “(It) knows neither palm nor oak, but only vegetable life, which sprouts into forests and festoons the globe.” Nowhere is anything final. Nature has no private will; it will answer no private question. “The world,” Emerson meditates, looking on with that far-reaching sun-struck eyeball which earned him critical derision, “Leaves no track in space, and the greatest action of man no mark in the vast idea.”
What does it mean if human beings are not the “end” product of evolution? If human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, how do we locate ourselves in our environment? What should we infer about creation, that so many individuals and even whole species are sacrificed in the process of evolution? Should we adopt “survival of the fittest” as the ethic for dealing with problems socially? If we assume we should conform to the survival of the fittest, does that mean we should practice eugenics? What policy did the Third Reich adopt toward those whom it did not consider fittest?
Thoreau’s Vision of the Natural World
Page 232: Thoreau once said disconsolately that he awaited a Visitor who never came, one whom he referred to as the “Great Looker.” Some have thought that pique or disappointment shows in these words and affects his subsequent work. I do not whose to follow this line of reasoning, since, on another page of Walden, he actually recollects receiving his guest as the “old settler and original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden pond. . . and fringed it with pine woods.” As a somewhat heretical priest once observed, “God asks nothing of the highest soul but attention.”
Have you ever tried to intentionally practice attention? Have you ever considered trying an experiment like Thoreau’s? “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” How long do you think you could live in nature?
Page 232: Supplementing that remark Thoreau had asserted, “There has been nothing but the sun and the eye since the beginning. . . . “ The Visitor had come in human guise and looked out upon the world a few brief summers. It is remembered that when at last an acquaintance came to ask of Thoreau on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, the Visitor in him responded simply, “We have never quarreled.”
Who or what do you think is the “Visitor?” Is there are part of you that is the Visitor? Have you made your peace with God?
Page 233: In the very first volume of his journals Thoreau had written, “There is always the possibility, the possibility, I say of being all, or remaining a particle in the universe.” He had, in the end, learned that nature was not an enlarge version of the human ego, that it was not, to use Emerson’s phrase, “the immense shadow of man.” Toward the close of his life he had turned from literature to the growing, formidable world of the new science – the science that in the twentieth century was destined to reduce everything to infinitesimal particles and finally these to a universal vortex of wild energies.
But the eye persisted, the unexplainable eye that gave even Darwin a cold shudder. All it experienced were the secondary qualities, the illusions that Physics had rejected, but the eye remained, just as Thoreau had asserted – the sun and the eye from the beginning. Thoreau was gone, but the eye was multitudinous, ineradicable.
I advanced upon the fallen oak leaves. We were all the eye of the Visitor – the eye whose reason no physics could explain. Generation after generation the eye was among us. WE were particles but we were also the recording eye that say the sunlight – that which physics had reduced to cold waves in a cold void. Thoreau’s life had been dedicated to the unexplainable eye.
I had been trained since youth against the illusions, the deceptions of that eye, against sunset as reality, against my own features as anything but a momentary midge swarm of particles. Even this momentary phantasm I saw by the mind’s eye alone. I no longer resisted as I walked. I went slowly, making sure that the eye momentarily residing in me saw and recorded what was intended when Thoreau spoke of the quality of the eye as belonging more to God than man.
What do you think “the eye” represent for Thoreau and Eiseley? Is there more than one way of “seeing” in the world? Is there a difference between a scientific “seeing,” and a poetic “seeing?” What are the values of the different kinds of seeing? What do you think is the quality of the eye that belongs more to God than to man?
Page 233 – 234: But there was a message Thoreau intended to transmit. “I suspect,” he had informed his readers, “that if you should go to the end of the world, you would find somebody there going further. . . .”
. . . . Thoreau, as is evidence by his final journals, had labored to lay the foundations of a then unnamed science – ecology. In many ways he had outlived his century. He was always concerned with the actual, but it was the unrolling reality of the process philosopher, “the universe,” as he says, “that will not wait to be explained. . . .”
. . . . “One world at a time,” (Thoreau) he jokes playfully on his deathbed, but it is not, in actuality, the world that any of us know or could reasonably endure. It is simply Thoreau’s world, “a prairie for outlaws.” Each one of us much seek his own way there. This is his final message, for each man is forever the eye and the eye is the Visitor. Whatever remedy exists for life is never to be found at Walden. It exists, if at all, where the real Walden exists, somewhere in the incredible dimensions of the universal Eye.
Have you ever thought of Thoreau as a pioneering ecologist? Why do you think there is so much resistance to ecology in our culture? What do you think Thoreau meant, when he said on his deathbed, “One world at a time?” How do you understand the relationship between the eye and the Visitor and the universal Eye?
On page 181 of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book Surely God Was in this Place and I, i Did not Know in a section entitled “The Eye of the Text:” It is not Jacob who says, “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” It is you who are reading these words. You are the sacred text itself. The holy text is not about you. You are not even “in” it. You are it.
Do you think the Eye of the Text is at all related to the relationship between the Visitor and the Universal Eye in Eiseley’s treatment of Thoreau?
The Lethal Factor
Page 251 – 252: Brooding upon the mysteries of time and change, a great and thoughtful scholar, Alfred North Whitehead, many years ago recorded his thoughts in a cryptic yet profound observation. He said, in brief, “We are. . . of infinite importance, because as we perish we are immortal.” Whitehead was not speaking in ordinary theological terms. He was not concerned in this passage with the survival of the human personality after death — at least as a religious conception. He was, instead, struggling with that difficult idea which he describes as the “prehension of the past,” the fact that the world we know, even as it perishes, remains an elusive, unfixed element in the oncoming future.
. . . The individual animal or plant in the course of its development moves always in relation to an unseen future toward which its forces are directed: the egg is broken and a snake writhes away into the grass; the acorn seedling, through many season, contorts itself slowly into a gnarled, gigantic oak. Similarly, life moves against the future in another, an evolutionary sense. The creature existing now – this serpent, this bird, this man – has only to leave progeny in order to stretch out a gray invisible hand into the evolutionary future, into the nonexistent.
With time, the bony fin is transformed into a paw, a round insectivore eye into the near-sighted gaze of a scholar. One insectivore fragment has taken to the air and becomes a vampire bat, while another fragment draws pictures in a cave and creates a new prehensile realm where the shadowy fingers of lost ideas reach forward into time to affect our world view and, with it, our future destinies and happiness.
Thus, since the dawn of life on the planet, the past has been figuratively fingering the present. There is in reality no clearly separable past and future either in the case of nerve and bone or within the less tangible but equally real world of history. Even the extinct dead have plucked the great web of life in such a manner that the future will vibrates to their presence. . .
Can you see how your life today is in a sense an extension of the lives of your ancestors? In what ways is your present self the product of your past selves? Do you ever get a glimpse of how your past or present selves may be reaching into the future?
Page 261: . . . All else vies way before the technician and the computer specialist running his estimates as to how many million deaths it takes, and in how many minutes, before the surviving fragment of a nation – if any – sues for peace. Nor, in the scores of books analyzing these facts, is it easy to find a word spared to indicate concern for the falling sparrow, the ruined forest, the contaminated spring – all, in short, that still spells to man a life in nature.
One of these technicians wrote in another connection involving the mere use of insecticides, which I here shorten and paraphrase: “Balance of nature? An outmoded biological concept. There is no room for sentiment in modern science. We shall learn to get along without birds if necessary. After all, the dinosaurs disappeared. Man merely makes the process go faster. Everything changes with time.” And so it does. But let us be as realistic as the gentleman would wish. It may be we who go. I am just primitive enough to hope that somehow, somewhere, a cardinal may still be whistling on a green bush when the last man goes blind before his man-made sun. It if should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure.
Eiseley seems to point to nuclear weapons as the lethal factor? Can you imagine any other “lethal factors?” Do you believe we have to be concerned about the “balance of nature?” How do you explain political groups who deny a need for a care for the environment?
Page 262 – 263: If I were to attempt to spell out in a sentence the single lethal factor at the root of declining or lost civilizations up to the present, I could be forced to say adaptability. I would have to remark paradoxically, that the magnificent specialization of gray matter which has opened to us all the climates of the earth, which has given us music, surrounded us with luxury, entranced us with great poetry, has this one flaw: it is too adaptable. In breaking free from instinct and venturing naked into a universe which demands constant trial and experiment, a world whose possibilities were unexplored and are unlimited, man’s hunger for experience became unlimited also. He has the capacity to veer with every wind, or, stubbornly to insert himself into some fantastically elaborated and irrational social institution only to perish with it.
It may well be that some will not call this last piece of behavior adaptation. Yet it is to be noted that only extreme, unwise, adaptability would have allowed man to contrive and inhabit such strange structures. When men in the mass have once attached themselves to a cultural excrescence that grows until it threatens the life of the society, it is almost impossible to modify their behavior without violence. . .
Do you agree with Eiseley that “adaptability” is also part of the lethal human factor? What social movements do you see today that might be the most problematical in terms of the survival of our species? Can you see any viable alternatives to the system of nation states that presently dominate our global economic and political affairs?
The Illusion of the Two Cultures
Page 270 – 271: The mind which had shaped his artifact knew its precise purpose. I had found out by experimental observation that the stone was tougher, shaper, more enduring than the hand which wielded it. The creature’s mind had solved the question of the best form of the implement. . .
As I clasped and unclasped the stone, running my fingers down its edges, I began to perceive the ghostly emanations from a long vanished mind, the kind of mind which, once having shaped an object of any sort, leaves an individual trace behind it which speaks to others across the barriers of time and language. It was not the practical experimental aspect of this mind that startled me, but rather that the fellow had wasted time.
In an incalculably brutish and dangerous world he had both shaped an instrument of practical application and then, with a virtuoso’s elegance, proceeded to embellish his product. He had not been content to produce a plain, utilitarian implement. In some wistful, inarticulate way, in the grip of the dim aesthetic feelings which are one of the marks of man. . . this archaic creature had lingered over his handiwork.
. . . With skills lost to me, he had gone on flaking the implement with an eye to beauty until it had become a kind of rough jewel, equivalent in its day to the carved and gold-inlaid pommel of the iron dagger placed in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The Pennsylvania Dutch who are practical if nothing else have a phrase, “just for pretty.” Where in the human spirit resides the desire for things that are beautiful for their own sake? Do you think our culture has become too utilitarian? Much more so than in the 50’s and 60’s we use imagination. Can you see any places in our world, where we need more imagination?
Page 273 – 274: Creation in science demands a high level of imaginative insight and intuitive perception. . . . The scientist’s achievement, however, is quantitatively transmissible. From a single point his discovery is verifiable by other men who may then, on the basis of corresponding data, accept the innovation and elaborate upon it in the cumulative fashion which is one of the great triumphs of science.
Artistic creation, on the other hand, is unique. It cannot be twice discovered as, say, natural selection was discovered. It may be imitated stylistically, in a genre, a school, but, save for a few items of technique is it not cumulative. A successful work of art may set up reverberations and is, in this, just as transmissible as science, but there is a qualitative character about it. . .
The symbols used by the great artist are a key releasing our humanity from the solitary tower of the self. “Man,” says Lewis Mumford, “is first and foremost the self-fabricating animal.” I shall merely add that the artist plays an enormous role in this act of self-creation. . . .
It is surely possible to observe that it is the successful analogy or symbol which frequently allows the scientist to leap from a generalization in one field of thought to a triumphant achievement in another. For example, Progressionism in a spiritual sense later became the model contributing to the discovery of organic evolution. Such analogies genuinely resemble the figures and enchantments of great literature, whose meanings similarly can never be totally grasped because of their endless power to ramify in the individual mind.
John Donne gave powerful expression to a feeling applicable as much to science as to literature when he said devoutly of certain Biblical passages: “The literal sense is always to be preserved; but the literal sense is not always to be discerned; for the literal sense is not always that which the very letter and grammar of the place presents” A figurative sense he argues cogently, can sometimes be the most “literal intention of the Holy Ghost.”
Creativity occur both in art and science. How do you think the two differ? How is the kind of science represented by Einstein different from the kind of science represented by most scientific applications in engineering? How are analogies important in spirituality? How are analogies used in art and science? What is the difference between a literal and a figurative reading of a biblical text?
Page 274 – 275: It is here that the scientist and artist sometimes meet in uneasy opposition, or at least along lines of tension. The scientist’s attitude is sometimes, I suspect, that embodied in Samuel Johnson’s remark that, wherever there is mystery, roguery is not far off.
Yet surely it was not roguery when Sir Charles Lyell glimpsed in a few fossil prints of raindrops the persistence of the world’s natural forces through the incredible, mysterious aeons of geological time. The fossils were a symbol of a vast hitherto un-glimpsed order. They are in Donne’s sense both literal and symbolic. As fossils they merely denote evidence of rain in a past era. Figuratively they are more. To the perceptive intelligence they afford the hint of lengthened natural order, just as the eyes of ancient trilobites tell us similarly of the unchanging laws of light. Equally, the educated mind may discern in a scratched pebble the retreating shadow of vast ages of ice and gloom. In Donne’s archaic phraseology these objects would bespeak the principal intention of the Divine Being — that is, of order beyond our power to grasp.
Is there room for mystery in life? What role does mystery play in spirituality? Is the attempt to find meaning in science essentially a spiritual quest? Do you think science ever points toward the intention of the Divine Being?
How Natural Is Natural?
Page 290 – 291: A century later Laplace had succeeded in dispensing with this last vestige of divine intervention. Hutton had similarly dealt with supernaturalism in earth-building, and Darwin, in the nineteenth century, had gone far toward producing a similar mechanistic explanation of life. The machine that began in the heavens and finally been installed in the human heart and brain. “We can make everything natural,” Pascal had truly said, and surely the more naive forms of worship of the unseen are vanishing.
Yet strangely, with the discovery of evolutionary, as opposed to purely durational, time, there emerges into this safe-and-sane mechanical universe something quite unanticipated by the eighteenth century rationalists — a kind of emergent, if not miraculous novelty.
I know that the word “miraculous” is regarded dubiously in scientific circles because of past quarrels with theologians. The word has been defined, however, as an event transcending the known laws of nature. Since, as we have seen, the laws of nature have a way of being altered from one generation of scientists to the next, a little taste for the miraculous in this broad sense will do us no harm. We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle. . .
Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over tie and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing. How natural was man, we may ask, until he came? What forces dictated that a walking ape should watch the red shift of light beyond the island universes or listen by carefully devised antennae to the pulse of unseen stars? Who, whimsically, conceived that the plot of the world should begin in a mud puddle and end — where, and with whom? Men argue learnedly over whether life is chemical chance or anti-chance, but they seem to forget that the life in chemicals may be the greatest chance of all, the most mysterious and unexplainable property in matter.
Do you think life is mechanistic, or is there something in living things that transcend the chemicals? When one celled life first developed on earth over 3 billion years ago, was intelligent life inevitable? What is your definition of miraculous? According to your definition is life miraculous? What is natural?
The Inner Galaxy
Page 308 – 311: . . . I have walked much to the sea, not knowing what I seek. The west headland I visit is boiling, even on calm days. Spume leaps up from the sea caverns of buried reefs and the blue and purple of the turbulent waters are roiled and twisted with clashing and opposed currents. I go there frequently and sit for hours on an old whiskey crate half-buried in the sand.
Staring into those uncertain and treacherous waters with their unexpected and lifting apparitions is like looking into the future. You can see its forces constantly gathering, expending themselves, streaming away and streaming back, contorting or violently lifting into huge grotesque shapes. The meaning escapes me, but day after day the harpy gulls scream and mew over it and the crabs scuttle like spiders along its edge, waving pincers.
But I wander.
On one occasion, there was just this broken crate in the sand, myself, and the sea — and then this other. I only became aware of him after several days had passed. I first encountered him when I had ventured at low tide up to the verge of the reef beyond which burst that leaping, spouting thunder, which, in my isolated wanderings, I had come to conceive of as containing the future. As I reached the flat, slippery stones over which passed a constant surf, I saw a gray wing tilt upward and move a few feet farther on. It was a big gray-backed gull, who slid quietly down again amidst the encrusted sea growth. He moved just enough, out of old and wise judgment, to keep me at arm’s length, no more. He was no longer with his kind, hovering and mewing over the outer rock masses of a dubious future. He had a space of his own on the last edge of the present. He fed there upon such things as the sea brought. He was old and he rested, if one could be said to rest amidst such waters.
I disturbed him once by coming closer, where upon he rose and tilted slightly in the blast from the reef. If I did not move, neither did he. Since I am not one to go rushing over dangerous crevices, we achieved, after some days, a dignified relationship. We were both gray, and disinclined toward a future that had come to have little meaning to either of us. We stood or sat apart and ignored each other, being, after all, creatures diverse.
Every morning when I came he was there. He was growing thinner, but he still rose at my coming and hovered low upon his great seagoing wings. Then I would seek my box and he would swoop back to that little space that contained his last of life. I came to look for the bird as though we shared some sane, enormously simple secret amidst a little shingle of hard stones and broken beach.
After several days he was gone. A sector of my own life had been sheared away with his going. I shied a stone uncertainly toward the still-spouting future. Nothing came of it; no hand reached out, no shape emerged. The only rational shape had been that aged gull, too wise to venture more than a tilting wing’s length upward in such air. Finally, the extremest edge of his space had hesitantly touched mine. Neither of us had much farther to go, and the harsh simplicity of it was somehow appropriate and gratifying. A little salt-washed rock had contained us both.
Here, I thought, is where I shall abide my ending, in the mind at least. Here where the sea grinds coral and bone alike to pebbles, and the crabs come in he night for the recent dead. Here where everything is transmuted and transmutes, but all is living or about to live.
It was here that I came to know the final phase of love in the mind of man — the phase beyond the evolutionists’ meager concentration upon survival. Here I no longer cared about survival — I merely loved. And the love was meaningless, as the harsh Victorian Dawinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists. . .
I felt, sitting in that desolate spot upon my whiskey crate, a love without issue, tenuous, almost disembodied. It was a love for an old gull, for wild dogs playing in the surf, for a hermit crab in an abandoned shell.
It was a love that had been growing through the unthinking demands of childhood, through the pains and rapture of adult desire. Now it was breaking free, at last, of my worn body, still containing but passing beyond those other loves. Now, at last, it was the bright stranger, the foreign self,” which Emerson had once written. . .
Amidst the fall of waters on that desolate shore I watched briefly an exquisitely shaped jellyfish pumping its little umbrella sturdily along only to subside with the next wave on the strand. “Love makyth the lover and the living matters not,” an old phrase came hesitantly to my lips. We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.
When Eiseley talks about a disembodied love, what do you think he means? What do you think attracts Eiseley to sit beside the sea? Do you think Eiseley imagined some part of himself might survive his death? What do you think his phrase means: “Love makyth the lover and the living matters not?” Is it true that the failures end up as the winners in the story of evolution? How would you apply this paradox to our current human situation?