Loren Eiseley

This book will be read and cherished in the year 2001. It will go to the MOON and MARS with future generations. Loren Eiseley’s work changed my life.”

That’s Ray Bradbury from the back of Eiseley’s The Star Thrower. Reading that quote made me wonder how many people I know (most of whom are readers) have actually heard of let alone read Loren Eiseley. I don’t even remember how I came about reading him. Maybe it was simply from romping around on wikipedia or maybe someone mentioned him. But when I asked friends if they had read him most people my age or younger hadn’t even heard of him. I guess his fame never made it past the 1980s (at least outside of his hometown), which is a shame because he’s amazing.

He’s a more humanist Carl Sagan. A nature essayist that writes like Thoreau by way of Weird Tales. An essay about foxes will start with a quote from Peter Beagle talking about magicians. It will end with Eiseley sleep deprived at dawn, chicken bone in his mouth, playing with a fox cub in the dunes. Maybe it’s the fate of science writers. Their work too tied to progress and the rate of technological advancement to be anything but doomed to oblivion. Maybe he straddled the line too much and wasn’t enough of a materialist. He spoke too often of miracles.

“Since boyhood I have been charmed by the unexpected and the beautiful. This was what had led me originally into science, but now I felt instinctively that something more was needed – though what I needed verged on a miracle. As a scientist, I did not believe in miracles, though I willingly granted the word broad latitudes of definition.”

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6 responses to “Loren Eiseley”

  1. Oz Drummond says :

    I have read Loren Eiseley, more than one of his books. But then, I’m a bit older. I read The Immense Journey in high school as examples of expository literature. Awesome stuff.

    • Justin says :

      Hey, Oz! Thanks for stopping by. I agree that his stuff is awesome. And I’m beginning to suspect it’s a small generational thing like one high school class to another.

  2. gordsellar says :

    Well, you introduced me to his work (thank you!), and he is a wonderful writer. “The Star Thrower” is incredibly moving, especially, but all of The Unexpected Universe really is just amazing to me, and I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of Eiseley before… indeed, it was kind of a big help to me in processing all that was going on in my head when we were preparing to leave Korea, really.

    I suspect probably the kids that (like me) grew up with Hawking (and Sagan on PBS) just thought of “Science writing” as another thing. (And those growing up with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos will have yet another perspective, more political and confrontational to the crimes of idiots, sexists, theocracies, and so on.)

    This is a left-field thought, but I can’t help but think of that micro-rant at the beginning of Bruce Sterling’s “Our Neural Chernobyl” where he complains essentially about how suit-and-tie science writing got in the 80s and 90s, and how it lost something very precious and visionary in the change. Hm.

    • Justin says :

      I haven’t read the Sterling essay and will try and track it down. I’m nearly done with the Eiseley book now – and again I’m just struck by how odd he is. Maybe it’s because he’s an anthropologist and can see something in religion that physicists can’t. The essay I just finished was titled something like “Science and the Holy” and read as much like Arthur Machen as Carl Sagan – and I can’t help but think that all his attention to the spirit world doesn’t sit well with modern audiences that want an Us vs. Them binary conflict.

      • gordsellar says :

        Argh, original comment lost to the ether. Quick reconstruction:

        “Our Neural Chernobyl” is a short story (in Globalhead), not an essay; he only makes an aside on the issue of style in science writing but it feels like a comment, especially knowing his thing for Prigogine.

        As for the whole Us vs. Them, well, yeah; the most extreme religionists were always anti-science, but they were less political (and one could argue, socially, more harmless) in Eiseley’s time than they’ve been the last thirty-five or so years. Sigh. Also, there’s more willingness in the science world to be blunt about how anti-science some religious groups have really been, which, you know… ain’t all bad either.

        (Jihyun’s been watching the new “Cosmos”–the Neil DeGrasse Tyson series, I mean–and she’s impressed with how blunt and critical it’s been been regarding religious antiscientism, as well as sexism directed at female scientists–both by male fellow-scientists and by anti-science agitators alike. I’ve only seen one episode, mind…)

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