Loren Eiseley’s Ecopoetics and His Archeo-poetry
By Tom Lynch, Professor of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Loren Eiseley’s literary reputation today rests almost exclusively on the significance of his nonfiction nature essays, which deservedly stand as influential exemplars of creative nonfiction science and nature writing. However in his early years as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska Eiseley had the reputation as an important and promising poet, and he published poetry in a range of literary journals. Most notably, his work appeared in the earliest editions of Prairie Schooner, whose editorial staff he joined in 1927, the year after it began publication under the guidance of Lowry Wimberly. And, not limited to his own school’s journal, his poems were published in a variety of other venues, even in Harriet Monroe’s prestigious Poetry magazine during the era when it was publishing the likes of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Roethke, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams. In short, as a young man Eiseley was immersed in the lively poetry world of the 1920s and 30s and poised to become an important voice in that world.
Eiseley graduated (after 8 years) with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and Anthropology and chose to pursue graduate studies in Anthropology, eventually receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the eminent and mysteriously shamanistic professor, Frank Speck, a teacher Eiseley idealized and who became the subject of his essay “The Last Magician.” Among the many things Eiseley learned from Speck was that a sense of wonder and mystery was not incompatible with rigorous scientific inquiry. Eiseley’s poetic publications, however, diminished during this time, and he ceased publishing poetry altogether shortly after taking his first teaching job, at the University of Kansas in 1937. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1950s and 60s, even as his reputation as a popular writer of science and nature essays grew, and as his publications and accolades multiplied, he nevertheless continued to refrain from poetry–from publishing it, that is, but not, it would seem, from writing it.
Through these years, while outwardly conforming to the sober and responsible demeanor of a scientist, Eiseley had continued to scribble poems among the data and scientific trivia accumulating in his notebooks. In the Preface to Notes of an Alchemist he explained the long lacuna in his poetry career this way:
When I was a young man in college I wrote poetry. Other interests and the realities of the world I faced led me in the end to another vocation. I kept notebooks through the years, however, professional notebooks scrawled with scientific trivia and other matters of archaeological or biological interest. In these books an old habit of my student days persisted. I occasionally jotted a poem amidst the pages merely because, like a trade rat, I was making some kind of obscure interchange within my mind–keeping the ledger balanced as it were–an artifact for a poem or a poem for an artifact. (11)
In his later years, as his academic career drew to a close, and being known as a published poet could no longer taint his professional reputation as a scientist, Eiseley released three collections of poetry: Notes of an Alchemist in 1972, The Innocent Assassins in 1973, and Another Kind of Autumn, posthumously published in 1977.
In general, Eiseley scholars have tended to overlook Eiseley’s poetry. At best they have seen it as a useful apprenticeship laying the foundation for his real work, the crafting of his nonfiction prose essays. That this prose is so often praised for its poetic qualities has not seemed to suggest that his poetry itself might deserve a closer look. In recent years, however, an approach to poetry has emerged, generally called ecopoetics, which provides new opportunities for exploring and explicating poetry that exhibits the sorts of characteristics represented in Eiseley’s work. Ecopoems tend to differ in some key ways from other more traditional nature poems. (An analogy might be made with feminist poetry: while many poems have women in them, only a small subset of those could be considered feminist poems. Similarly, while many poems have nature in them, only a few of those could be considered ecopoems.)
Let me quickly summarize some of the characteristics of ecopoetry. Terry Gifford proposes that ecopoems differ from traditional nature poems in their engagment “directly with environmental issues” (3). And J. Scott Bryson argues that ecopoems are distinguished by three characteristics: “an emphasis on maintaining an ecocentric perspective that recognizes the interdependent nature of the world”; “an imperative toward humility in relationships with both human and nonhuman nature”; and “an intense skepticism concerning hyperrationality, a skepticism that usually leads to an indictment of an overtechnologized modern world and a warning concerning the very real potential for ecological catastrophe” (5-6). Anyone familiar with Eiseley’s work would recognize these characteristics as a fair summary of many of the principle concerns expressed in both his prose and poetry.
I want to offer that Eiseley was an early practitioner of what we now call ecopoetry who struggled with some of the same issues that bedevil ecopoets today, including how to incorporate scientific ideas and vocabulary into his poetry; how to express empathy for other animals without colonizing their subjectivity; what, if anything, we humans can learn from the experiences of our fellow creatures; the implications of our technological advancement for our survival; and how to generate a sense of cosmic, geologic, and evolutionary time and space scale in the limited medium of language. Furthermore, Eiseley adds a key feature that is implied but unstated in some of these definitions of ecopoems and that I think we ought to consider essential to ecopoetry: an appreciation for the evolutionary matrix of contemporary humans.
An evolutionary perspective is key to shifting us from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric understanding of our place in the cosmos. A humbling awareness of the myriad permutations of living forms through cosmic and geologic time, and of the vast array of random chances that accumulated to bring about our present status as Homo sapiens, can only serve to shift our understanding from the anthro- towards the eco-centric, fundamentally altering our perceptions of what it means to be a human being on a planet we share with 30-100 million other similarly evolved and enduring species. As Gilcrest argues, among the key factors that lead to the emergence of ecopoetry was “the development of a geological and evolutionary sense of time that served to de-emphasize the importance of human experience and human history” (2). Eiseley was among the earliest to incorporate this sense of time into his poetry.
Ecopoems generally recognize that over the past few centuries nature has been increasingly injured by human activity. Eiseley was well aware of human abuse of nature, both of the natural world in general, and of animals in particular. Very few of his poems could be described as unreflective portrayals of an idyllic nature. Rather, they show both overtly and by implication the injury we humans have caused to the rest of the natural world. In particular Eiseley seems to have a profound and life-long sense of empathy for animals. Indeed we could consider him an early champion of what today we refer to as animal rights. In the poem “Changelings,” for example, he discusses the abuse of animals, an issue that troubled him from his earliest boyhood to his final years.
My childhood was preoccupied with dreams
of how to free all animals immured
in shabby local zoos,
in boxes foul,
in crates from which
the heaven-sweeping hawks
still scanned their wide dominions
During his undergraduate years, when Eiseley was beginning to write poetry in earnest, he also spent parts of three summers as a research aid on paleontological digs in the panhandle of western Nebraska. These expeditions, known as the South Party and sponsored by the University’s Morrill Hall Natural History Museum under the leadership of Bert Schultz, unearthed a wide variety of fossil remains, including oreodonts, mastadons, rhinos, camels, and the tools of early humans
Eiseley, the impressionistic and moody young poet, was deeply moved by his experience searching for and digging up fossil remains in the rugged reaches of the short-grass prairie, and his time on these expeditions served as inspiration and material for much of the writing he was later to do. Indeed during the time he was digging bones, Eiseley was also making literary sketches of his experiences. Several of his colleagues remarked to Gale Christianson that Eiseley, though not required to keep field notes of the digs, nevertheless kept a notebook handy and they suspected “he was not keeping the kind of notes [the others] kept and that he was indeed recording things that he observed–whether it was mountains, flowers, stones, or whatever–and that he was writing down some of his deep thoughts . . .” (131).
Among the many things Eiseley learned on these expeditions was that evolution was not just something to read about in books, but something that could be touched, not just a matter of intellectual imagining, but of tactile sensation. Evolution was a phenomenon that could not only be contemplated in the mind but felt by and in the body. As he explained in the Preface to The Innocent Assassins“
I . . . was born on the Great Plains and was drawn almost mesmerically into its rougher margins, the Wild Cat Hills and the Badlands, where bone hunting was a way of life. Few outside the profession of paleontology realize that the eroded areas called “Mauvaises Terres” on the maps of the old voyageurs contain the finest Tertiary fossil beds to be found anywhere in the world. Most of our knowledge of the successive American faunas is derived from excavations in those sterile, sun-washed regions. As a young man engaged in such work, my mind was imprinted by the visible evidence of time and change of enormous magnitude. To me time was never a textbook abstraction. Its remnants lay openly about me in arroyos, in the teetering, eroded pinnacles of Toadstool Park, or farther north in the dinosaur beds of Wyoming. Finally, through some strange mental osmosis these extinct, fragmented creatures merged with and became part of my own identity. . . . I was one of the bone hunters, but I was also something else, a fugitive assuming the animal masks of many ages. (12)
Eiseley’s most spectacular find was undoubtedly what has come to be known as the “Innocent Assassins” skull. It is the skull of a Nimravus (popularly but erroneously referred to as a sabretooth cat) with its tooth piercing the humerus of another of its kind.
The poem opens with an evocation of a landscape that resembles Toadstool Park:
Once in the sun-fierce badlands of the west
in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones,
runneled by rains, cut into purgatorial shapes,
where nothing grows, no seeds spring, no beast moves,
we found a sabretooth . . .
And indeed in his biography of Eiseley, Christianson identifies Toadstool Park as the location of the find (131).
However analysis of the records of the South Party shows that the actual site of the find was in Black Hank canyon of the Wildcat hills south of Chimney Rock. This change in location suggests that Eiseley took some liberties in his portrayal of the landscape where this find was made, making it more barren and lifeless than in fact it was. Such a setting is appropriate to the ominous mood of the poem, but should caution us about taking Eiseley’s poetry as literal field notes. And this is not the only alteration he made. He also changed the bone that was pierced, referring to it as a “scapula” when in fact it is a humerus. One suspects that the reason for the change was that “fractured scapula” simply sounds better. In this poem Eiseley sees a striking tableau of a possible, and to him quite likely, human future. Like these Nimravae, we too can be destroyed by our own too fierce weaponry. The Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction scenario would seem to have been played out by these two creatures.
Eiseley has other poems of this type, in which a found object leads to insights and speculation. These include “The Little Treasures,” in which the found object is a flint blade; “Arrowhead,” in which he finds a flint arrowhead; “The Beaver,” in which he uncovers a beaver skull; “The High Plains,” where he discovers a “pink catlinite bowl of an indian pipe”; “The Hand Ax,” where he stumbles across an incongruous stone ax; and “An Owl’s Day,” in which is found a bone needle, a flint knife, and the bones of an owl. Poems of this sort seek to evoke both awe and humility, anxiety and hope, and work to internalize in the reader a subjective and visceral appreciation for the place of humans within the vast panoply of evolutionary time. In such poems we often experience a sudden and perhaps disorienting enlargement of our psychic horizons. Initially, our attention is drawn downwards to some small object that has been exposed on the ground. Excavating that object from the shadows, the poet illuminates its implications, and our perspective suddenly leaps to encompass vast dimensions of space and time. Sharing the archaeologist-as-poet’s perspective, we glance up from the unearthed artifact to the landscape around us, and that landscape is forever altered. Through the intervention of the artifact, the familiar, drab ground on which we stand becomes numinous. Leonard Scigaj has proposed that ecopoets “provide models of altered perception that promote environmental awarness and active agency” (22). Clearly Eiseley’s poetry in general, and his archeo-poetry in particular, do just this. After we have read them, our world never looks quite the same.
Bryson, J. Scott. Introduction. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Ed. J. Scott Bryson. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2002. 1-13.
Christianson, Gale. Fox at the Wood’s Edge: A Biography of Loren Eiseley. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 2000.
Eiseley, Loren. Innocent Assassins. New York: Scribner, 1973.
—Notes of an Alchemist. New York, Scribner, 1972.
Gifford, Terry. Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
Gilcrest, David W. Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics. Reno: U of Nevada P, 2002.
Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1999.