Loren Eiseley: "The Immense Journey" Book review
Book Review – “The Immense Journey”
I often wonder, as I sit down to read any Loren Eiseley book, which Eiseley will be there to greet me. Will it be Eiseley the forsaken child, Eiseley the teacher, or Eiseley the wandering philosopher? Who, indeed, is Loren Eiseley? An “imaginative naturalist,” according to the cover of his book, The Immense Journey. An anthropologist, a scholar, a poet, a genius. Eiseley wears all of these hats. He is the teacher who backs away from the podium after an engaging lecture to make a quick dash for his office. He is a member of the expedition who hunts for bones, sleeping by the blazing campfire at night. Indeed, what makes Eiseley so fascinating is that he is a complex and multi-faceted individual. But it is Eiseley the storyteller—the consummate raconteur—whom I most want to read when I’m curled up with a book for the evening.
Like the narrator of a play who observes the drama unfold from the sidelines, Eiseley observes the story of life unfolding throughout history, recounting some of it to us in his own story. “Forward and backward I have gone, and for me it has been an immense journey” (13). By the time we read these words we have come to realize that Eiseley is not just talking about his own life’s journey. Eiseley’s narrator is metaphor for the journey of all humankind through the vast dimension of time and space—a journey filled with perplexity, delight, and impermanence. Eiseley might refute that, if he were alive today. He claims he does not pretend to speak for anyone but himself.
“I have given the record of what one man thought as he pursued research and pressed his hands against the confining walls of scientific method in his time. But men see differently. I can at best report only from my own wilderness” (13).
What is important, he says, is that each person have such a wilderness, and see—truly see—what wonders exist there. Life is fluid and transient. There is no permanence. Perhaps there is no meaning except for the story itself. As Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “’Seems like we’re just set down here,’ a woman said to me recently, ‘and don’t nobody know why’” (2).
Why, indeed? Just as life is said to imitate art, life and story have a hermeneutic relationship. Life is story, and story becomes life. Naturalist writers like Eiseley have a dual responsibility of educating readers about the processes of nature and entertaining them with a memorable story along the way. The naturalist’s essays frequently become rambling, reflecting stories.
This is not to say that the stories are completely factual, particularly in nature writing. John Murray, editor of numerous Sierra Club anthologies, would contend that it is sometimes necessary to embellish the truth to tell a good story, and scores of naturalist writers would agree with him. Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey and other acclaimed nature writers have admitted to artistic license. These admissions have sparked much controversy within the academic discipline of ecocriticism, the study of literature and environment. After all, the thinking goes, if you can’t trust a nature writer, who can you trust?
But the narrative of the story has a meaning that elevates the tradition beyond traditional interpretation, for the story and the storyteller are both timeless. The story is told and retold, passed down from one generation to another. We know very little about the storyteller except through his or her stories, and that is enough. The stories are what will survive over time.
Eiseley’s story in The Immense Journey begins on a sunlit, timeless prairie, a vast expanse of grasses and sunflower forests sprung up from the ooze. Enter the storyteller on horseback, riding languidly across the prairie until he sees something. He dismounts and begins to explore the Slit, the body-width crack in the sandstone walls, coming eye-to-eye with an animal skull. As he begins to chip away at the rock, digging out the skull, his mind begins to wander. “The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?” (5).
This is the question the storyteller asks himself as he imagines the possibilities, traveling back and forth in time as his hands are occupied in the present with digging. Who knows if the storyteller actually set foot on the prairie? What is important, as Eiseley himself says, is the journey itself. “Do not look for the purpose” (7).
The storyteller is a time-traveler and a wanderer, not constrained by the physics of being fixated at any point in time. The storyteller transcends time because the messages in his stories are universal and timeless.
In his essay, “The Bird and the Machine,” Eiseley travels to an abandoned cabin in the valley. The cabin, having already reverted back to the wilds of nature, conjures up images of concrete and steel in the city taken over by birds “after the last man has run away to the hills” (187). Eiseley, the storyteller, has come to capture birds for the zoo. He drips with blood to catch his prey, but releases the young hawk in the morning.
“It must have been that he was already so far away in heart that he never felt the release from my hand,” Eiseley writes (191), but in the next second the bird is gone. And suddenly from the sky far above, the creature who has awaited the fate of her mate utters a cry of such joy that the sound reverberates across time to the quiet of the storyteller’s breakfast table and the pages of the book.
The cries of a young sparrow hawk and the stillness of a soul in captivity are not just Eiseley’s stories. They are our own. We hear the stories and remember them, retelling them from generation to generation. Through language, our stories become interwoven with Eiseley’s narrative, for we are all, at heart, consummate storytellers.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974.
Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.