September 2006

Michael Antman


The Night Country by Loren Eiseley

In one of his books, the naturalist, anthropologist, and inveterate walker Loren Eiseley tells of groping his way through an impossibly thick fog and coming suddenly face to face with a crow who shrieks in what Eiseley imagines to be horror. The crow, Eiseley surmises, was disoriented by the fog and, assuming it was flying much higher than it actually was, also assumed that the human it encountered must have learned how to walk in mid-air, and had “desecrated the very heart of the crow kingdom.”

With our suburban subdivisions that invariably are named in honor of the very natural wonders they have wiped out, and our massive Wal Marts, and our 12-lane-wide superhighways that cut cruel swaths through natural habitats, we have, needless to say, desecrated not only the crow kingdom, but the domains of a great many other beasts and birds on the face of our overcrowded continent.

However, it is only fair to note that the precipitous population decline of crows in my neck of the woods is primarily the result not of the presence of humans but rather a natural plague -- West Nile disease -- and even as certain birds and beasts fade away, others, like chipmunks and rabbits, and the graceful, darting chimney swifts that fill the sky at dusk, suddenly seem to be everywhere.

I mention this because, as someone who loves nature (especially “near nature” -- the kind that can be observed in and around cities and suburbs) and also enjoys nature writing, I am beginning to feel a bit beaten down by the continual hectoring of nature writers, science writers, and pundits about the near-certainty that human-caused global warming will cause mass extinctions of animals and, just as inevitably, in a kind of ironic retribution for our arrogance, most of us humans as well. Am I -- are any of us -- allowed any more even the slightest bit of skepticism that global warming is bad and getting worse, that it is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and that it will all end up in global catastrophe? Apparently not, because, as I was preemptorily informed by a recent documentary on global warming, “the debate is over.” So just shut up, the implication seems to be, and go with the program, though it is not at all clear what that program might be. Are all of us being asked to move into solar-powered yurts? More likely, we are being asked to fret impotently about something -- which is to say, civilization itself -- that all of us know perfectly well none of us have any desire to dismantle. It reminds me of a T.V. weatherman I once knew who would rail against the ugly Americans who had destroyed our natural habitats, and in particular against the soulless row of houses that blocked his view of a beautiful mountain in Oregon, completely insensible to the row of houses behind him whose views were just as obstructed by his house.

Because I am not a scientist, I am not about to enter into the debate about global warming, the depletion of natural resources, or the destruction of natural habitats. I only ask for a little more modesty on the part of those who pretend to know what they cannot possibly know (i.e., the shape of the future) and a little more historical perspective on what changes the world has already endured, and what it will be able to bear in the future.

Eiseley, in his volume of personal essays The Night Country, provides some of this perspective. Albeit in a different context and before global warming was the doom de jour, Eiseley noted:

Every age has its style in these necromantic projections. The corpse-lifting divinations of the Elizabethan sorcerers have given way, in our time, to other and, at first sight, more scientific interpretations of the future. Today we know more about where man has come from and what we may expect of him -- or so we think. But there is one thing which identifies… witches, star readers, or today’s technologists. This quality is their claim to omniscience -- an omniscience only half stated on the basis of the past or specious present and always lacking in genuine knowledge of the future. The leading characteristic of the future they present is its fixed, static, inflexible quality.

Later in the essay from which this passage is taken, “Instruments of Darkness,” Eiseley says:

Nature, as I have tried to intimate, is never quite where we see it. It is a becoming as well as a passing, but the becoming is both within and without our power. This lesson, with all our hard-gained knowledge, is difficult to grasp. All along the evolutionary road it could have been said, “This is man,” if there had then been such a magical self-delineating and mind-freezing word. It could have immobilized us at any step of our journey. It could have held us hanging to the bough from which we actually dropped; it could have kept us cowering, small-brained and helpless, whenever the great cats came through the trees. It could have stricken us with terror before the fire that was later to be our warmth and weapon against ice-age cold. At any step of the way, the word “man,” in retrospect, could be said to have enompassed just such final limits. Each time the barrier has been surmounted…

Elsewhere in The Night Country, Eiseley issues this admonishment that almost seems aimed at those scientists who sententiously pronounce our planet’s demise with unwavering certainty:

“To those who have substituted authoritarian science for authoritarian religion, individual thought is worthless… (s)uch men adhere to a dogma as rigidly as men of fanatical religiosity.”

Again, I am not suggesting that if Eiseley were alive today that he would be a global-warming skeptic, only that it is likely he would take at once a more modest stance than many politicians and scientists do on our ability to foresee the future and, at the same time, a more confident and hopeful perspective on how well we will, like those clever animals that are currently overpopulating suburbia, be able to adapt to that future, no matter how hot under the collar we all may get.

Loren Eiseley was a Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science who wrote some classic popular texts on evolution, including his most famous book, The Immense Journey. He was, in other words, someone who was entitled to take a long view of man’s prospects. At the same time, he was a quirky and playful explorer of the natural world who, in an essay included in The Night Country, “Big Eyes and Small Eyes,” takes a night-time stroll:

Somewhere along a section of damp sand I encountered several large toads who were also making a night journey and who hopped clumsily for a little way with me. There was something so attractive about their little bursts of energy that, tired as I was, I began to skip with them. I was delighted now to have even lowly company. First one would hop and then another, and I began to take my turn automatically with the rest.

But where are those toads now? Have they, or rather their descendants, long ago been plowed under by some suburban retail behemoth? Here, later in the book, is what Eiseley has to say about that, while on yet another one of his walks:

One day as I cut across the field which at that time extended on one side of our suburban shopping center, I found a giant slug feeding from a runnel of pink ice cream in an abandoned Dixie cup. I could see his eyes telescope and protrude in a kind of dim uncertain ecstasy as his dark body bunched and elongated in the curve of the cup… Then I came to a sign which informed me that this field was to be the site of a new Wanamaker suburban store. Thousands of obscure lives were about to perish, the spores of puffballs would go smoking off to new fields, and the bodies of little white-footed mice would be crunched under the inexorable wheels of the bulldozers. Life disappears or modifies its appearances so fast that everything takes on an aspect of illusion -- a momentary fizzing and boiling with smoke rings, like pouring dissident chemicals into a retort. Here man was advancing, but in a few years his plaster and bricks would be disappearing once more into the insatiable maw of the clover. Being of an anthropological cast of mind, I thought of this fact with an obscure sense of satisfaction and waded back through the rose thickets to the concrete parking lot.

Any writer who can trace the millennia-long journey of the human animal and, at the same time, go skipping with the toads in the middle of the night or watch slugs supping on strawberry ice cream is a writer, I submit, who is worth attending to. Read The Night Country for its beautiful prose and its scientist’s eye. But read it, as well, for its calm assurance that we are part of something much bigger than us, that we cannot know the future with absolute certainty, and that we should proceed with a little less dread of what unknown or self-created terrors may some day desecrate “the very heart of the human kingdom,” and with a little more open-mindedness and, perhaps, playfulness even as we walk into the uncertain dark.

The Night Country by Loren Eiseley
Bison Books
ISBN: 0803267355
240 Pages