Michael Lind is an author of both fiction and nonfiction books, most recently What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other leading publications. Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."
In his essay "How Flowers Changed the World," the American naturalist Loren Eiseley describes what he calls "a soundless, violent explosion" of seed-born plant life millions of years ago, just as the Age of Reptiles started to draw toward its own apparently violent close in the late Cretaceous Era. At the heart of the explosion was a new kind of flora. Unlike the static, towering green vegetation of the dinosaurs' world, this new plant life managed to encase its genetic imprint in suddenly mobile casings called angiosperm (or "encased seeds").
Borne on the wind or attached to animal hides, the new plant life blanketed the world, and mutated its way into countless new settings. "The fantastic seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability," Eiseley writes. "If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs." Michael Lind, the author most recently of What Lincoln Believed, discusses Eiseley's essay, which was originally collected in the 1957 book The Immense Journey.
Q. How did you first come across Eiseley? He wouldn't have been a writer I would necessarily have associated with your work.
During my childhood in the 1970s, my interest in nature led me to read some of Eiseley's essays. I returned to him a few years back, after reading that one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, was a huge fan of Eiseley's.
Auden wrote an essay about him in The New Yorker and contributed a preface to Eiseley's book The Star Thrower. Auden, by the way, was a fan of another of my heroes, the great German poet and naturalist Goethe, who wrote a long poem titled "The Metamorphosis of Plants." Auden, who said he wanted to be remembered as "a minor Atlantic Goethe," wrote a great deal of poetry inspired by nature and science, proving that poetry and science are still on speaking terms, even if science and some forms of religion are not.
Q. Since Eiseley concentrates so fully on the element of wonder in the natural world — in this case, how the botanical world directly conspires in the evolution of the human species — do you ever detect an element of spiritual thought, however nontraditional, in his work?
I don't think Eiseley himself, or science in general, supports a supernatural interpretation of the world, although some of his writing may suggest that. Like other scientists writing for an audience of nonscientists, Eiseley runs certain risks by using figurative language with mystical or theological overtones. For example, in "How Flowers Changed the World," he writes that, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, "The mammals, too, had survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence now that the thunder lizards were gone."
Of course, early rodents weren't really surprised at their "sudden eminence" in the ecosystem, something of which they were unaware; this is a literary conceit. I think you have to distinguish between the sense of wonder associated with belief in the supernatural and the sense of wonder produced by nature. The former is destroyed by scientific explanation, which, however, enhances the latter. Learning that flowers and fruit evolved in the Mesozoic era and helped to shape our own evolution doesn't replace the delight in flowers that human beings have always felt, it reinforces and supplements that delight.
Q. Still, what's always impressive to me about such writing is the way it lifts one out of the parochial limits of one's own narrow self, and into a far wider frame of cosmic reference. Why is it, you think, that such a perspective seems so much readily achieved by naturalists like Eiseley? Are the rest of us just too incorrigibly self-obsessed as a species?
I don't think that human beings are species-narcissists; most people seem to prefer their pets to their neighbors, and even many of their relatives. Instead, I think that human alienation from nature is a relatively new phenomenon. Most people in the world, for the first time in history, live in urban areas now, in which greenery is limited to parks and yards and in which artificial lighting makes it impossible to see the stars.
This must have a profound effect on the consciousness and behavior of the human animal. The modern "intellectual" is a purely urban phenomenon, having originated in Paris in the 19th century and spread to other urban bohemias and allied university campuses. Before the rise of a self-conscious intelligentsia, most educated people — as well as the unlettered majority — spent most of their time in the countryside or, if they lived in cities, were a few blocks away from farmland or wilderness. Think of the knowledge of local flowers and birds, for example, that is found in the poetry of most civilizations, or the fact that for two millennia Vergil's "Georgics," a poem about farming, was esteemed as much as his and Homer's epic poems.
At the risk of sounding countercultural, I suspect that thinkers who live in sealed, air-conditioned boxes and work by artificial light (I am one) are as unnatural as apes in cages at zoos. Naturalists like Eiseley in that sense are the most normal human beings to be found among intellectuals, because they spend a lot of time outdoors and know the names of the plants and animals they see.
Q. What in Eiseley's writing here impresses you most?
For all of his scientific erudition, Eiseley has a poetic, even cinematic, imagination.
Recently I once again viewed Stanley Kubrick's great meditation on human evolution and destiny, 2001: A Space Odyssey. You may remember the classic sequence in which a primitive hominid tosses a bone up into the air and it turns into a spaceship in orbit around the earth.
Eiseley is capable of equally breathtaking segues. Indeed, he concludes "How Flowers Changed the World" with one. Imagining the first human being who pondered the possibility of planting seeds, he writes: "In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand. Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours."
Review by Christine C. Pappas
“Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley”
Edited and with an introduction by Tom Lynch and Susan N. Maher
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Who was Loren Eiseley? He was a mental time traveler, a scientific shaman who wrote in essays and poems. In his personal and professional life he lived between worlds: human or animal; artist or scientist? The essays in the volume “Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley” (edited by Tom Lynch and Susan N. Maher and published by the University of Nebraska Press) finally may provide basic insight into Eiseley that will allow his readers to break the code that has been surrounding his works for 40 years. Lynch is an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Maher is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The University of Nebraska Press has been instrumental in keeping Eiseley’s books in print and offering them with new intro- ductions. Hopefully this new volume will spur more Eiseley scholarship on the themes they begin to develop.
Loren Eiseley’s biography is familiar to lovers of Nebraska literature. He was born in Lincoln in 1907 into a tortured home featured many times in his essays. His education at the University of Nebraska included work on the “Prairie Schooner” as well as anthropological digs with the Old South Party in Western Nebraska. His “bonehunting” days also inform his writing. Eiseley earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania where he spent the majority of his academic career. His writing remained solely academic until he published “The Immense Journey” in 1957. After that time Eiseley tried to walk in two worlds, bridging the academic and the popular. By the time of his death in 1977 he wrote exclusively for a popular audience.
To read this book without a thorough knowledge of Eiseley and his works would be difficult. I found myself wanting to run to my bookcase repeatedly to reread the full story of the relic men, the jumping catfish, or the telescoping rat. Some of the essays require advanced knowledge of other authors, such as Dante, Emerson and John Burroughs.
Just as I might suggest “The Night Country” as the first book of Eiseley’s to read, I found Pamela Gossin’s chapter “Lessons of an Interdisciplinary Life” a good primer on how to read Eiseley. She literally explains how she teaches the essays to her college science students. As a fan of the autobiographical essay, I liked “The Bay of Broken Things” by Susan Hanson. It provides some context about Eiseley’s miserable and formative childhood and would also be a good place to start.
Another particularly accessible chapter is Kathleen Boardman’s “Anthropomorphizing the Essay.” Eiseley’s works are full of animals, many of which are ascribed human characteristics, motivations or emotions. One of the most stinging barbs Eiseley ever received from a reviewer was that such writing was “sentimental twaddle.” Boardman redeems Eiseley by arguing that situating animals as closer to humans is a “strategic choice” he makes in order to engender empathy in people regarding man’s place in the animal world. For example, when Eiseley writes about a trapped bird that he freed to go sing with his mate, he attributes feelings of joy not only to the bird but to humans who he sees are at risk of alienation from their emotions. Seeking analogies in the natural world also seems to be a safe way to communicate his own personal pain.
I also enjoyed Michael A. Bryson’s chapter “Unearthing Urban Nature.” One of Eiseley’s most enduring images is that of the pigeons and mice that are abandoned when a train station closes. Just as animals in the wild, they had adapted to their environment and accepted the nuts and crumbs from train passengers. When the station closes, they must adapt again. It’s a small but poignant reminder of the vast effect we “World Eaters” have on the natural world.
“Artifacts and Illuminations” attempts what no collection has done before: offer critical lenses through which to understand Loren Eiseley’s writings. As Anthony Lioi writes in his chapter, Eiseley tried as hard as he could to erase any modern pedigree by straddling the two worlds of art and science. Until now he was successful, but Lioi finds writers such as Emerson and Thoreau to be precursors. Stephen Mercier demonstrates that John Burroughs’ epic narratives also pave the way for Eiseley, especially his essay “The Flow of the River.”
What about Eiseley’s writing continues to capture our imaginations? “Simply put, Eiseley’s genius lies in his ability to create novel metaphors that help us to perceive the connections and resemblances among dissimilar things,” writes Jacqueline Cason. Eiseley is a Darwinist who believes in cooperation and the love of life, not competition to the death. One of Eiseley’s most famous essays is “The Star Thrower,” published in “The Unexpected Universe” in 1969. In the essay, Eiseley meets a man on a beach littered with starfish brought in on the high tide. Eiseley initially considers the man insane when he watches him carefully pick up one star after another and throw them into the ocean because only a small fraction can be saved. In the final section of the story, Eiseley himself picks up a star, and he suddenly realizes that the star thrower was not mad: “From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life.”
John Nizalowski’s chapter entitled “Eiseley and Jung” brings to the surface the connections between the Jungian idea of a collective unconscious and themes used by Eiseley dating back to his first popular essays in “The Immense Journey.” Nizalowski concludes that Eiseley probably didn’t become aware of Jungian psychology until the 1960s, but that Jung and Eiseley’s ideas developed in a parallel fashion. Eiseley places anachronistic—“out of time”—experiences in many of his essays. In just one of many examples, Eiseley describes his dog seizing on a bone and growled menacingly: “ancient shapes were moving in his mind and determining his utterance.” In looking at “The Star Thrower” Nizalowski interprets Eiseley the man: “From a Jungian standpoint, Eiseley is seeking individuation, integration into the whole, and has descended into a mental labyrinth in which life’s pairs of opposites are tearing him apart. Eiseley, a scientist, believes in the need to see the world as it really is, to view it with cool, rational eyes. But his heart says to pity the world, to feel compassion for all people and all creatures who suffer.” When he picks up the star and exclaims that he loves life, he achieves individuation, according to Nizalowski.
I myself am not a natural scientist. I came to love Loren Eiseley from my work at the Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors and then came to serve on the board of the Friends of Loren Eiseley. However, Loren Eiseley opened up a new world to me. One of my favorite essays—only alluded to in this collection—is “The Star Dragon” from the book “The Invisible Pyramid.” Young Loren at age three watches the blaze of Halley’s comet with his father who urges him to watch for it 75 years later. As an old and dying man, Eiseley knows he will not see the mighty comet again, but he muses about what it would have been like in millennia past. Going back as far as he can imagine, he writes, “I think we are now well across the last ice, toward the beginning. There is no fire of any sort but we do not miss it… Do not repeat this. I think we are animals. I think we have reached beyond the bridge. We are happy here. Tell no one.”
Eiseley’s ability to reach back into the deep past and guess about what it must have been like to live with limited capabilities is unique. In fact, a lot of what I know about science and epistemology I learned from Eiseley because he was able to tell stories and use metaphor in a way that I could relate to. From the essay “How Flowers Changed the Earth” I learned that without seeds and all the energy stored within, mammals could not have developed high-functioning brains. I learned from “The Firmament of Time” that for thousands of years humans were not conceptually ready to understand geologic time because their own lives were so short: “Time and raindrops! It took enormous effort to discover the potentialities of both these forces. It took centuries before the faint tricking from cottage eaves and gutters caught the ear of some inquiring scholar. Men who could visualize readily the horrors of a universal Flood were deaf to the roar of an invisible Niagara falling into the rain barrel outside the window.”
Eiseley was a scientist. This book offers many lenses through which to understand his work: a changeling walking in two worlds, a railroad hobo, anthropomorphist, ecocritic, poet. It speaks volumes about the scientific world’s acceptance—or lack thereof—that there is no chapter situating Eiseley’s contributions to the world of anthropology or even philosophy of science in this book. Perhaps it would have been inappropriate in a work of literary criticism, but it seems like the piece that is missing from an otherwise fine step forward in Loren Eiseley