The Bone Hunter as Poet: Death in the Essays of Loren Eiseley

February 05, 2022 Doruntine Aliu
The Bone Hunter as Poet: Death in the Essays of Loren Eiseley

Death is inescapable. It’s a shadow, a mere ghost, always lurking behind us, reminding us of the vulnerability of the human condition. It takes the shape of a rat creeping up on us at night while we are asleep. It feels like a surreptitious wave, lapping up closer and closer at our feet with the passing of time. The symbols one can attribute to death seem endless. Yet all of them are somewhat meaningless. After all, how can one speak of death without ever experiencing it? The moment we do experience it, we’re not here to speak about it.

Yet, the concept of death is one of the most important and complex recurring ideas in literature. For Emily Dickinson, death is a loud fly, incessantly buzzing behind her ear. For Dylan Thomas, there is a space in which rebellion against death can become manifest: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light…” For Edgar Allan Poe, only love can survive and transcend death, or at least that’s what he tells us in “Anabel Lee.” For American biologist and essayist Loren Eiseley, however, death is a profession.

An anthropologist deals with death all the time. He or she observes the remains of dead beings: skulls and bones. Only through constantly dealing with death, can the anthropologist understand those who are alive – humans – and their role in the universe. According to evolutionary theory, death is, inherently, a good thing. The species that are less adapted to their environment will ultimately go extinct and their “weaker” genes won’t get passed on to the next generation, allowing the more adapted species to prevail. As such, the death of any living thing serves a purpose for those that are alive.

Loren Eiseley’s confrontation with death begins in “The Slit.” In this essay, Eiseley travels through an old silent prairie filled with black pits that refuse to give back any of the sun’s light. In this land, he comes across a slit — a crack in the earth — which, according to him, has been forming for 10 million years. The cavern reminds him of a grave, and as soon as he goes inside, hard reality begins to vanish, ebbing away from him: “the sky seemed already as far off as some future century I would never see.” His descent carries the undertones of a visit to the underworld of the Greek mythology.

In the slit, however, he doesn’t encounter souls, spirits, or any of the gods of Hades. What he sees is a skull, “staring straight” back at him. To Eiseley, nature isn’t passive, it does not simply stand there waiting to be observed. It moves constantly, shaping his journeys, forming an interwoven pattern with his thoughts and perceptions. Nature is not simply this “timeless prairie,” but also the depths of the earth hidden from our sight. Nature is the skull gazing back at him, stuck in some gateway between the underworld and the Earth’s surface, between the past and the future.

In his inimitable style, the picture Eiseley paints is hauntingly similar to Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing. An aging Saint Jerome is concentrated on his writing; on the other side of the table sits a skull, staring at him. Jerome is rushing against the clock, trying to finish his last words before death takes him away, before he turns into ashes and bones. What Caravaggio seems to be telling us is that death is always at the table with us, waiting for the right moment to put an end to our weary existence.

Eiseley is neither a saint, nor is he writing at a table. In fact, he is out in the wild. But the skull is there. And although it belongs to an unhuman species that has already disappeared from the face of the earth, he can relate to it:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.

Eiseley recognizes the inevitability marking our human condition – we are all destined to die, just like any other creature on earth and just like Earth itself. What is more, we are a part of the unending process of evolution. Hundreds and thousands of species and creatures have died to pave the way for the human being to emerge, from the first cyanobacteria to our closest ancestors – the great apes.

The skull is situated deep in the slit, which, as Eiseley points out, is a kind of petrified image of time. Time for Eiseley is a dimension that we cannot transcend, a dimension that we’re stuck in – a prison. We’ve lived here on Earth for far too little time to understand time’s greater implications. Even a simple statement such as “the Earth was created 4.5 billion years ago” is mysterious. How much is 4.5 billion years exactly?  It would take someone 135 years (way more than the average human lifespan) to count to 4.5 billion. All other known dimensions have become penetrable, except time.

The skull Eiseley finds inside the slit is not the only artifact of a bygone era. The slit itself is. Such geological formations take millions of years to develop through the erosion of soil and seismic activity. Perhaps Eiseley observed the slit’s structure as a lumberjack observes a cut tree. Each ring inside a tree trunk represents a year, which allows us to estimate the tree’s age. Similarly, the layers of soil and rock which make up the slit’s walls represent the millions of years they took to form. In other words, the slit is a physical manifestation of time’s passing. The deeper you descend, the farther you travel into the past.

Ancient civilizations perceived time as “circular.” But the more we understand evolution and cosmology, the more we tend to perceive time as irreversible. The past as such, Eiseley says, has become clearer and clearer, just like the implications of our collective future. But when it comes to one’s own fate, at an individual level, we are, each one of us, left in darkness.

In “Big Eyes and Small Eyes,” Eiseley writes about this “individual darkness.” Darkness, just like death, is one of nature’s limitations. We are not meant to cross into the darkness and meet its creatures, just as we are not meant to transcend time or know the exact moment death will come for us. But this particular darkness has always fascinated the human mind. Eiseley calls it “the night tide.” It is always around us,

invisible, imperceptible almost, unless it is looked for—and yet, as you grow older you realize that it is always there, swirling like vapor just beyond the edge of the lamp at evening and similarly out to the ends of the universe.

Strange creatures populate this world of darkness and they often come into contact with us – such are, for instance, rats. In art and literature, rats have often been used as harbingers of decay and death. In Albert Camus’ The Plague, rats give the first omen that the plague is coming. In Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” rats help the narrator escape Father Time and death itself. However, there is something different about Poe’s interpretation of rats that deserves some more attention.

Poe understood the cliché symbolism of rats in literature. The story is almost always the same: when rats appear alongside a character who is in peril, they signal that the character is bound to die. However, Poe reversed this narrative and introduced rats as saviors. In a way, he elevated them from lowly, dreadful rodents to powerful, almost mythical creatures capable of transcending the dimensions of the universal order.

This distinction is important because Eiseley, too, understood that rats are not a one-dimensional and simple manifestation of death or chaos. His viewpoint is illustrated by the two encounters with rats in “Big Eyes and Small Eyes.”

In the first one, a friend of Eiseley’s is terrified when a rat steps out of the darkness in an obscure hotel room. Feeling something on his legs, the man lights up a match:

The match flared, and in that moment a sewer rat as big as a house cat sat up on its haunches and glared into the match flame with pink demoniac eyes. That one match flare, so my friend told me afterward, seemed to last the lifetime of the human race. Then the match went out and he simultaneously hurtled from the bed. From his incoherent account of what happened afterward I suspect that both rat and man left by the window but fortunately, perhaps, not at the same instant. That sort of thing, you know, is like getting a personal message from the dark.

The convolution of time in this encounter – a match flare becomes “the lifetime of the human race” – is very appropriate as a statement to the rat’s mission as a messenger. Similarly, our own perception of time changes when we face death, as our life flashes before our eyes and seconds stretch into eternity.

In the second encounter, Eiseley observes “a more frightening intellectual quality about the situation.” He is not caught off guard by a messenger of death. Instead, the rat pays him a visit during a philosophical discussion at a dinner table. As Eiseley’s host waxes lyrical about man’s destiny as conqueror of the world, the rat appears under the speaker’s chair “like a messenger from space,” unimpressed with human self-righteousness. Twitching its whiskers “with a cynical contempt for all that white-gowned, well-clothed company,” the rat relays a much more existential message than the simple inevitability of death.

The rat here reminds Eiseley of where humanity comes from — the “individual darkness” that is a part of every rat and every human. In a sense, humans and rats alike belong to that darkness, and there is nothing we can do to escape it. Whether we conquer the world or not, there is no denying that we come from darkness, and to darkness we shall return. In that encounter, the rat represents the millions of years it has taken humanity to emerge from this darkness and build a brave new world of its own — albeit, at the cost of forgetting its true roots.

Any other man would have been frightened into existential stupor by this notion. But being an anthropologist, Eiseley understands that both death and darkness are not alien, scary concepts. They still make him anxious as a person, but he understands their greater role in the absurd play that is human existence.

Darkness and death are essential to the human quest for knowledge about our nature and the nature of the universe. We often look to the stars – most of which are dead at the moment we observe them – to find out more about the universe. We study bones of long-extinct creatures and remnants of vanished civilizations to find out more about our own history. Similarly, we gaze deep into our own souls to make out the true purpose of our individual existence.

And no matter where we look, we always find traces of the primordial nothingness, whether it is manifested by death, darkness or the merciless passage of time. The truth is, this nothingness is our best friend. It is always there for us, diffuse among the glittering starts in the depths of space, hiding in the shadows of our unconscious — just beyond our reach, just beyond the horizon of human understanding.

Crossing this horizon is a difficult journey that takes a special kind of selfless determination. But as long as brave writers like Loren Eiseley keep trying to make the trip and come back to tell their stories, humanity can keep on raging against the dying of the light.

This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment in ENG 340 American Nature Writing with Professor Olga Nikolova.