Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
I have been reading The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, a recently published book edited by Kenneth Heuer and published by Little, Brown and Company. At the time of his death in 1977, Eiseley was Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the author of many books, including The Immense Journey, The Night Country, All the Strange Hours, and The Star Thrower. He was also a poet and many of his poems were published, some in book form.
Although I came upon Eiseley rather late in my life, and after his death, his thoughts have made a great impression on me, and the easy style of his writing set new goals for my own endeavors. His willingness to bare his soul - including self-confessed inadequacies -helped strengthen my own sometimes fragile psyche. In the words of another great writer, Ray Bradbury, speaking of Eiseley upon his death, "I shall be in debt to him to the end of my life."
The book contains fragments of Loren Eiseley's journals, portions of an unfinished novel, letters to friends and admirers, and notebook entries dating all the way back to his boyhood.
"I was born," he once reminisced, "when father was forty, of a marriage that had never been happy, I was loved, but I was also a changeling, an autumn child surrounded by falling leaves."
His mother was deaf. As he grew older, he also came to realize that she was paranoid, neurotic, and unstable. His father was an itinerant actor, often away from home for long periods of time. The family lived in Nebraska and most of the time was impoverished. Yet he acknowledged that from his mother he gained an appreciation of beauty and from his father a love of poetry.
In his early 20s, Loren was diagnosed as having tuberculosis but fortunately for him the disease went into remission. During the depression he worked at odd jobs, rode the rails, traveled west and eventually, after discovering his affinity for science, continued his education. Assisted financially by a well-to-do uncle, Eiseley obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska and completed his graduate work in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
After he married he made a conscious decision not to have children because there had been talk of insanity in his mother's family. All of his life he suffered from insomnia but - happily for the rest of us - he did a lot of his writing when he couldn't sleep.
For a while he was the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Oberlin College in Ohio. Later he returned to the University of Pennsylvania to head the Department of Anthropology.
The great achievement of Loren Eiseley was to transcend the traditional scientific role of field trips, scientific papers, and the writing of textbooks and emerge as one of the most perceptive writers of our time. A metamorphosis that was belittled at the time by many of his colleagues. In the process, he revealed himself as a man of great compassion, a scientist, a naturalist, a writer of vision, and a humanist who was never pretentious enough to think he knew all the answers.
He died in the summer of 1977. His wife, Mabel, died July 27, 1986. She was buried with her husband under a tombstone with this simple legend: "We loved the earth but could not stay. "
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