Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

February 10, 1970

Loren Eiseley’s Walk on the Wild Side

For years upon years—century upon century, in fact—we have had a stereotyped idea of what a scientist is, what he looks like, how he talks, etc. Centuries ago he was looked upon as a crackpot, a madman recluse who could be seen walking around in the hills muttering to himself, and, when he wasn’t doing that, he was pictured locked up in a stuffy, overcrowded laboratory, cutting apart still living animals, mixing vile-smelling chemicals, or flying models of apparatus that were surely toys of the devil. He was, in essence, if not in fact, a sort of mad magician, but much more mysterious because he argued logic behind his machinations, instead of relying on sorcery.

As time passed, our mad scientist was altered slightly. The general public began to become aware that there were different types of scientists, working in different realms, be it biology, physics, chemistry, archeology, or ecology. That didn’t matter, of course, because it still didn’t bring them above the level of magician in the minds of the public; it merely diversified them a bit. Then, through the advent of the science-oriented story we gained the image of the mad scientist with the silvered hair and the beautiful daughter who was invariably rescued from one of her father’s made experiments by the intrepid hero.

During this time, however, scientists were pulling themselves above the level of the magician as people began to realize that the electric light, the telephone, and the uncovering of Egyptian mummies had all come about through the work of these scientists. The appreciation of their work did not greatly change our perception of them, however. They were still reclusive, in their own world, and generally unapproachable—and hence, a bit on the dull side socially. In fact, they carried the generalization characteristics with them so well that people would not have been hard pressed to rank them right in there with that other legendary madman, the poet, who walked about flinging verses to the stars and who, in the final analysis, was perhaps even farther gone than the scientist/magician.

Just as it is unfair to generalize all scientists into one mold, so, in some cases, is it unfair to separate the poet and the scientist. Simply because in one there is a bit of the other: Henry David Thoreau’s observations on the relation of Man to Nature are just now being comprehended by many biologists, and much of Darwin’s writing, with just minor revisions, could be rudimentary lyric poetry, with all the accompanying connotations.

Last year was rather significant. An archeologist named Loren Eiseley ended it with a promise of overt reconciliation between the poet and the scientist for the seventies, which cannot help but alter drastically the images of both the poet and the scientist in the minds of the American public.

Eiseley’s book, The Unexpected Universe, hails him as a rather astute scientist with the mind of a poet, a scientist hot on the trail of the world with the insight of a poet into its interlacings between the physical world and the mind and soul of Manknd. He deals with the subject through very personal, pipe-smoking essays, seemingly rambling pieces that are anything but. The rambling is symbolic of the complexities and cosmic movements of the world but, as with the order of the world, all is ultimately connected, and Eiseley’s essays are ultimately connected to the nerve endings of the human body, to the tendrils of Man’s mind, and to the constantly stirring colossus of his unconsciousness.

Eiseley wanders about the world drinking in anything that comes his way and associating it with anything and everything else, eventually forming a grand plan and direction of Man on his land. In the star-thrower, where a man walks by the sea and washed-up starfish back into the sea so that they may live while others gather them up and drop them in boiling pots to kill them, Eiseley sees hope of understanding and appreciating totality of Nature by understanding and appreciating oneself in relation to a part of Nature, which is, in the end, our common starting point.

Eiseley calls up metaphors from the world around us in order to reconcile the totality of Man and his present inability to appreciate his role as a part of the structure of Nature. This as a preamble to our present concern over the mess that has been made of the balance of Nature by unrestrained mutilation of the ecology of our planet.

Eiseley is unique, and will hopefully be joined by other as the years forcefully present us with our follies. He can see Thoreau as a naturalist to equal Darwin, where another scientists could not see beyond his microscope, much less into the unbounded universe of a pond in Concord. And his understanding of Thoreau is not merely rudimentary, either. He cites, quite accurately, they key to the understanding of Walden that Thoreau took with him to the grave, i.e. the lost horse, hound, and dove. Eiseley, like Thoreau and other profound literary types, sees the cosmic structure in a chance word, a speck of sand, or in a man.

The Unexpected Universe is filled with an understanding that is very rare, and with a series of revelations about our state of being that will make the reader uneasy for his place in the world. The hope that Eiseley carries through his narrative of thought is unmistakable, however, and after having traveled with him through the unexpected universe, one can’t help but appreciate Man’s position, whether he succeeds to beat the odds of survival or not.

In retrospect: This has got to be one of the most over-written and incomprehensible columns in the history of column-writing.