The Philosophy of Loren Eiseley, in Verse

BLOG The Philosophy of Loren Eiseley, in Verse

I wrote this three years ago, and just rediscovered it. I thought it was worth reposting.

The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”  To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

Loren Eiseley died in 1977. He was a scientist and humanist greatly alarmed at the accelerating destruction of our planet in the last century, and would, I am sure, have been horrified at the setbacks at the start of the 21st century. Eiseley wrote several books on anthropology and natural philosophy, and, in a very different style, some dense, complex and (to me) inaccessible poetry.

What I find astonishing is that his prose seems more lyrical, more moving and profound and passionate than his verse. So, below, I’m taking the liberty of presenting some excerpts from his scientific and philosophical writing as poetry, parsing them as I think they would flow if Eiseley himself were to read them aloud. The ‘titles’ are my own ostentation.

our reputation precedes us

I have never entered a wood
     but what I hear
                              footsteps in the leaves

dying to remember

Man would kill for shadowy ideas
more ferociously than other creatures kill for food,
in a generation or less,
forget what bloody dream had so oppressed him

“the notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” 

Let men beat men, if they will,
     but why do they have to beat and starve small things?
Why? — Why? I will never forget that dog’s eyes,
nor the eyes of every starved mongrel I have fed from Curacao to Cuernavaca.
Nor the drowning one I once fished out of an irrigation ditch in California,
only to see him limp away with his ribs showing
as mine once showed in that cabin long ago in Manitou.

This is why I am a wanderer forever in the streets of men,
a wanderer in mind,
and, in these matters, a creature of desperate impulse.

It is not because I am filled with obscure guilt
     that I step gently over, and not upon, an autumn cricket.
It is not because of guilt
     that I refuse to shoot the last osprey from her nest in the tide marsh.
I posses empathy;
I have grown with man in his mind’s growing.
I share that sympathy and compassion
which extends beyond the barriers of class and race and form
until it partakes of the universal whole.

I am not ashamed to profess this emotion, nor will I call it a pathology.
Only through this experience many times repeated and enhanced
does man become truly human.

Only then will his gun arm be forever lowered.

nothing sacred

Modern man, the world eater,
respects no space
and no thing green or furred as sacred.

The march of the machines has entered his blood.

And if inventions of power outrun understanding,
as they now threaten to do,
man may well sink into a night
     more abysmal than any he has yet experienced.

on playing with a young fox

for just a moment
          I held the universe at bay

by the simple expedient
     of sitting on my haunches before a fox den
     and tumbling about with a chicken bone.

it is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish,
as Thoreau once remarked
     of some peculiar errand of his own,

there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society

how we learn

The teacher must teach men
     not alone to dream,
but to dream so substantially
     that they will never in after years
     capitulate through the demands of a passing and ephemeral materialism.

It has ever been my lot,
though formally myself a teacher,
     to be taught surely by none. There are times
when I have thought to read lessons in the sky,
or in books,
or from the behavior of my fellows,
but in the end my perceptions
     have been frequently inadequate or betrayed.

Nevertheless, I venture to say
     that of what man may be
I have caught a fugitive glimpse,
not among multitudes of men,

but along an endless wave-beaten coast at dawn.

re  discovery

Every time we walk along a beach
     some ancient urge disturbs us
     so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments
or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers
like the homesick refugees of a long war.


one does not meet oneself

               until one catches the reflection

                    from an eye          other

than human


many of us
who walk to and fro upon our usual tasks
are prisoners
drawing mental maps of escape

the secret

there are things
                         coming ashore

the gift

The power to change is both creative and destructive —
a sinister gift, which,
leads onward toward the formless and inchoate void
of the possible.

Mostly the animals understand their roles,
but man,
by comparison,
seems troubled by a message that,
it is often said,
he cannot quite remember,

or has gotten wrong.

a difficult re-entry

The nature of the human predicament
     is how nature is to be reentered; how man,
the relatively unthinking and proud creator of the second world —
          the world of culture
may revivify and restore the first world
     which cherished and brought him into being.

For what, increasingly, is required of man
is that he pursue the paradox of return.

Yet man does not wish to retrace his steps
down to the margins of the reeds and peer within,
lest by some magic he be permanently recaptured.

Instead, men prefer to hide
in cities of their own devising.


I have lifted up a fistful of that ground.
I held it
     while that wild flight of south-bound warblers
     hurtled over me into the oncoming dark.

There went phosphorus, there went iron,
     there went carbon, there beat the calcium
in those hurrying wings.

“and time future contained in time past”

we lack the penetration
     to see the present and the onrushing future
          contending for the soft feathers of a flying bird,
or a beetle’s armor,
or shaking painfully
the frail confines of the human heart

man is himself a flame —
     he has burned through the animal world
and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own

it has been said repeatedly that one can never,
try as he will, get around
     to the front of the universe:  man is destined
to see only its far side,
to realize nature
only in retreat

and if it should turn out
     that we have mishandled our own lives
as several civilizations before us have done,

it seems a pity that we should involve the violet
     and the tree frog in our departure

the mystery

In the world
     there is nothing
          below a certain depth
that is truly explanatory:

It is as if matter dreamed
     and muttered in its sleep.

But why,
and for what reason it dreams,
there is no evidence. 

A couple of readers have asked me to explain the expression après nous les dragons that I have used in several of my essays and one of my poems. It’s adapted from this excerpt from Eiseley’s book The Night Country:

Shake the seeds out of their pods, I say, launch the milkweed down, and set the lizards scuttling. We are in a creative universe. Let us then create. After all, humans are the unlikely consequence or such forces. In the spring when a breath of wind sets the propellers of the maple tree whirring, I always say to myself hopefully, “After us the dragons.” It is not out of sadistic malice that I have carried cockleburs out of their orbit or blown puffball smoke into new worlds. One out of these seeds may grope forward into the future and writhe out of its current shape. It is similarly so on the windswept uplands of the human mind.

When Eiseley says “After us the dragons” I take this to mean that, as an anthropologist (as fellow anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould explained so well in Full House) he understands that the emergence of humans (and even animals with backbones) on the planet was an improbable accident, a one in many million unlikelihood, and that the emergent forms of previous evolutions of life on our planet and all the other planets that support it in the universe were/are undoubtedly strange, unimaginable, perhaps even unrecognizable to us as life. He would be aware, too, of the evolution of birds from the dinosaurs, and their ability to survive when the dinosaurs perished. Are his “dragons” birds, strange flying reptiles? Or perhaps dragonflies, a member of the other genus, insects, that thrives on catastrophe and is so adaptable it is likely to outlive us and do well in the next phase of life on Earth? Or is he being metaphorical and referring to dragons as any strange, unimaginable, wonderful species that will rise after our fall? Or all three?

I have translated Eiseley’s phrase into French a bit mischievously, since the word ‘dragon’ in French has the additional connotations of monster, demigogue, or soldier. Another inspiration for the translation to French: It was Louis XV, the end of a line, the king who presided over a horrifically inegalitarian empire, bankrupted, its treasury looted by the rich (sound familiar?), who, realizing its instability and unsustainability, said “Après moi le deluge” — after me come the floods (as an additional historical irony, part of his empire at that time was New Orleans).

If I haven’t been sufficiently pretentious so far, I’d like to conclude with a concatenation of another quote from Eiseley, in italics below (which I only just discovered yesterday, from his 1978 book The Star Thrower), followed by one of my own poems, written 35 years ago after a night sleeping under the stars. I think they just go together, almost eerily:

With time,
the bony fin is transformed into a paw,
a round, insectivorous eye
into the near-sighted gaze of a scholar.

At night the forest is not what it seems,
The wolf, in the shadows of half-sleep, evolves into a dragonfly,
the fire into a clown, the owl into a junkie, the lady into a child in rags.
The forest becomes a desert, then a city. The clown offers a balloon to the child,
watches it rise into the crimson sky,
pulsing with ventricular booms.
The junkie becomes a priest.
Child becomes a surgeon.
Clown becomes a voodoo magician, laughs the laugh of birth and death.
Dragonfly into hypodermic, into the arm of the Patient Lover.
In the heart of the night come the mating calls.
The rapturous moans of the opium den.
On the beach of no footprints,
by the night lit by lightning,
is a scorpion with wolf’s tattered claws.
Becomes a sea-snake
rising to the song of a flute
played by a woman clothed in strips of ragged fur.
Then the shadow of a vulture,
wearing the cloth of last rites,
and the snake’s devoured.

Thanks to the many Loren Eiseley fan sites for the quotes above, especially Tom Thomson’s wonderful Earth Talk and, for the starfish story, MuttCats.

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1 Response to The Philosophy of Loren Eiseley, in Verse

  1. JanD says:

    The Star Thrower reminds me of the following observation about not killing insects that I once heard in a discussion of Buddhist precepts: To you it is a small matter but it means a lot to the bug.

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