From ages four to eleven Loren Eiseley lived with his parents in a humble home at 1811 South St., Lincoln, which was then the edge of the city. Because of the trouble in his parent's marriage, his memories of life in this house are bitter. The house remains, and is a private residence. Here's how Gale Christianson describes Eiseley's life there.
The small frame house had an earthen cellar, which occasionally filled with water after a hard rain; the parlor was kept perpetually shuttered against the stinging Nebraska sun. Electrical service was not yet available to the scattered residents of Lincoln's far south side, so evenings were spent in the dim glow of kerosene lamps.
Loren's possessions were few. His favorite, a tawny stuffed lion with shoe-button eyes, accompanied him to bed each night. There was also a teddy bear and toy soldiers cast from lead, glass marbles that he kept in an old candy tin, a tiny U.S. flag of the kind given out at Fourth of July parades, and a toy hammer with a spent cartridge attached to the end of its handle--a reminder that his father had once stood at faro tables where professional gamblers still played with derringers concealed beneath their sleeves. Clyde told his son he had given up carrying a gun only after accidentally shooting himself in the leg. "You can't depend on the things," he lamented. "Familiarity breeds contempt."
Loren sensed that something was seriously wrong shortly after the family moved to Lincoln. It was a time of hushed and troubled voices: ". . . [Ours] was a house of whispers." It was also a house unto itself. Visitors rarely came, and those few who crossed the threshold were not encouraged to remain long. The shuttered and curtained windows not only kept the sun at bay but discouraged curious neighbors from establishing contact with those who dwelled within. The Eiseleys were dismissed as peculiar, though harmless and unimportant, social outcasts of their own making."
Fox at the Woods Edge , pp. 16-17.
After moving from the house on South Street, the Eiseley's spent a year in Aurora, Nebraska. When they returned to Lincoln they settled in the house at 2116 S. 22nd St. Again, Eiseley's home life was difficult, and years later he remembered his time in this house in a bitter poem "Return to a House," that is reprinted in The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley.
Return to a House
To come into this house where none may grow,
Save crookedly by malice from within,
To sit again at table with the thin
And starveling brothers of my name, to know
On this side madness, on the other slow
And groveling cowardice no wrathful sin
Could even question, is iron discipline--
I grant you that. Now let the midnight blow.
Call up the circle of the darker hells.
I, in the midmost and most fiery pit,
Outstare these damned, eat fire, know well what pain
Knifes the frail heart . . . yet calmly, calmly sit
And read from each what his dread gesture tells,
Smile in mad eyes and fancy I am sane.
One of Eiseley's strongest memories of his time in the 22nd St. house involves the small "gold crosses" he painted and set up in the back yard. In his autobiography, All the Strange Hours, he describes these crosses in conversation with the famed poet W. H. Auden.
"Then there was the period of the gold crosses," I added. "Later, in another house, I had found a little bottle of liquid gilt my mother used on picture frames. I made some crosses, carefully whittled out of wood, and gilded them till they were gold. Then I placed them over an occasional dead bird I buried. Or, if I read of a tragic, heroic death like those of the war aces, I would put the clipping--I could read by then--into a little box and bury it with a gold cross to mark the spot. One day a mower in the empty lot beyond our backyard found the little cemetery and carried away all of my carefully carved crosses. I cried but I never told anyone. How could I? I had sought in my own small way to preserve the memory of what always in the end perishes: life and great deeds. I wonder what the man with the scythe did with my crosses. I wonder if they still exist."
"Yes, it was a child's effort against time," commented Auden. "And perhaps the archaeologist is just that child grown up."
"Return to a House," The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, p. 30
All the Strange Hours , p. 27.
When Eiseley lived in Aurora, Nebraska, as he describes in his essay "The Places Below," he and a friend he calls "the Rat" spent time exploring the storm sewer system beneath the town. Though he doesn't write about it, he also explored the system beneath Lincoln. The storm sewers at Harrison and S. 16th St. were a convenient entry point. The main ones have since been grated up by the city, no doubt to keep intrepid young explorers from venturing inside.
We went down through a waste of weeds in a back lot. There were big red granite boulders from an old house lying there. A couple of kids were pecking pictures and signs on them with a stone.
"Why don't you use a knife or a chisel?" I asked, trying to be helpful.
"Can't," said the Rat scornfully.
"Why not?" I protested.
"We're cavemen. Those are cave pictures. See? 'Stinct animals. You can't use a chisel. Cavemen didn't have no chisels. We're gonna be just like 'em. No chisels either."
He eyed me challengingly. "You wanta be a caveman?"
"Why sure," I said, "only I don't know how. Where are the caves? What do we do? I belonged to something at last. I was a caveman.
"C'mon," they said. "And don't ever tell your mother."
"Okay," I said. That was easy.
"Cross your heart?"
"Okay," I said. And that one was for always, though I didn't know it.
"I'm the Rat," said the Rat, dispassionately. "This is my gang and you're in it. But 'fore you get a name you gotta prove your guts. You gotta go down under the ground. You ain't afraid of the dark, are ya?"
The group measured me. I eyed them back uneasily. "No," I said. "What do you mean undertheground?"
"Undertheground's real, you'll see all right," said the Rat.
"C'mon," they clamored, moving off through the weeds. My heart knocked a little. "I'm coming," I said.
That did it, you see. It wasn't too late then. I could have gone home, and I wouldn't have these dreams now or go down to look at the Blue Room. But I ran along after them through the weeds, shouting. It takes just that, in some unwary instant, to telescope fifty thousand years. Afterward you wonder how to get back. I doubt if the Rat ever managed it for himself. Not after seeing the way he went into that pipe.
It was the vent to twenty square miles of sky when the rains blew up. It emptied at the edge of a lake, and it ran two miles back under the town before the labyrinth began. It was dark as a vanished geological era, and in a heavy rain the pipes filled and thundered like Niagara. You didn't stay in the sewers then--not if you wanted to live--and you took good care not to get caught where you couldn't scramble out a few minutes after a storm hit.
That was the world we lived in. We never told Mother, and we avoided Father. We scrounged our own candles; we dragged food into these abysses. We scratched tribal symbols on the big tiles by candleight, as the Rat directed. We raided other bands and retreated through the sewer network. We lived as men may sometimes live in the ruins of New York.
I learned from the Rat what it was about. It seemed that a long time ago everybody had lived this way. Why they had quit was a mystery to me. The Rat couldn't answer that one. His reading hadn't progressed that far.
The Night Country , "The Places Below," pp. 19-21
Loren Eiseley's family was poor, but lived near a much wealthier neighborhood. One of the most impressive homes in his vicinity was what he referred to in his autobiography All the Strange Hours as the Rudd mansion. It is actually called Maple Lodge, located at 20th and Euclid St. Loren remembers rummaging through the trash incinerator behind the mansion and finding a special play item.
I played alone in those days. . . . I took to creeping up alleys and peering through hedges. I was not miserable. There was a wonderful compensating secrecy about these activities. I had little shelters in hedgerows and I knew and perfected secret entrances and exits into the most amazing worlds.
There was, for example, the Rudd mansion. I never saw the inside of it, but I made the discovery that in a stone incinerator, back of the house and close up to the immense hedge through which I had worked a passage, there were often burned toys. Apparently the Rudd family lived with great prodigality and cast recklessly away what to me were invaluable possessions. I got in the habit of creeping through the hedge at nightfall and scratching in the ashes for bits of Meccano sets and other little treasures which I would bear homeward.
One frosty night in early fall I turned up a gold wheel. It was not gold really, but I pretended it was. To me it represented all those things--perhaps in a dim way life itself--that are denied by poverty. The wheel had been part of a child's construction set of some sort. It was grooved to run on a track and it had a screw on the hub to enable it to be fitted adjustably to an axle. The amalgam of which it was made was hard and golden and it had come untouched through the incinerator fires. In my childish world it was a wonderful object and I haunted the incinerator for many nights thereafter hoping I might secure the remaining wheel. The flow of toys declined, however, and I never found the second gold wheel. The one I had found became a sort of fetish which I carried around with me.
Loren Eiseley Reader , "The Gold Wheel," pp. 62-63.
Since the 1860s sandstone has been dug from the Yankee Hill quarries for use in construction in and around Lincoln. These quarries filled with water and provided both aquatic habitat and sometimes a mysterious and frightening place to swim. A young Loren Eiseley spent many days in the area, and many of the childhood memories her recollects in his writings are located here. The quarries are on private property and off limits, but can be viewed from an overlook in Pioneers Park. The overlook has come to be called "hippie hill" because it was a popular hang out during the 60s and 70s. Here's a section from Eiseley's essay "The Gold Wheel."
We stood in a wide flat field at sunset. For the life of me I can remember no other children before them. I must have run away and been playing by myself until I had wandered to the edge of the town. They were older than I and knew where they came from and how to get back. I joined them.
They were not going home. They were going to a place called Green Gulch. They came from some other part of town, and their clothes were rough, their eyes wordly and sly. I think, looking back, that it must have been a little like a child following goblins home to their hill at nightfall, but nobody threatened me. Besides, I was very small and did not know the way home, so I followed them.
Presently we came to some rocks. The place was well named. It was a huge pool in a sandstone basin, green and dark with the evening over it and the trees leaning secretly inward above the water. When you looked down, you saw the sky. I remember that place as it was when we came there. I remember the quiet and the green ferns touching the green water. I remember we played there, innocently at first.
But someone found the spirit of the place, a huge old turtle, asleep, in the ferns. He was the last lord of the green water before the town poured over it. I saw his end. They pounded him to death with stones on the other side of the pool while I looked on in stupefied horror. I had never seen death before.
Suddenly as I stood there small and uncertain and frightened, a grimy, splattered gnome who had been stooping over the turtle stood up with a rock in his hand. He looked at me, and around that little group some curious evil impulse passed like a wave. I felt it and drew back. I was alone there. They were not human.
I do not know who threw the first stone, who splashed water over my suit, who struck me first, or even who finally, among that ring of vicious faces, put me on my feet, dragged me to the roadside, pointed and said, roughly, "There's your road, kid, follow the street lamps. They'll take you home."
They stood in a little group watching me, nervous now, ashamed a little at the ferocious pack impulse toward the outsider that had swept over them.
I never forgot that moment.
I went because I had to, down that road with the wind moving in the fields. I went slowly from one spot of light to another and in between I thought the things a child thinks, so that I did not stop at any house nor ask anyone to help me when I came to the lighted streets.
I had discovered evil.
The Night Country , "The Gold Wheel," pp. 61-62.
Just south of Eiseley's home in Lincoln, the city ended and open country began. He spent much of his youth roaming in the fields and along the creeks in this area. Now, much of that area is part of Irvingdale Park, whose stream was a common playing area for young Loren. Just south of the Park, across Van Dorn St. lies a pond, now part of a golf course, that was the scene of one of Eiseley's most harrowing memories, as he describes it in All the Strange Hours.
The countryside was open in those days. On one visit to Lincoln several years ago I thought it might be good to tramp out to that old pond where so many generations of boys had swum, waded, or collected. Forbidding fences warned me away. It was now part of a country club. . . . I speak no ill. If a country club had not acquired the ponds and landscaped the greens, all would have been filled in by suburban developments in any case. But this was all wild once, and the feeling that is left is somehow lost and bittersweet. The pond is there. It is not the same pond. It is "reserved." It has been tamed for rich men to play beside. Either that or the developers come. One takes one's choice. No. Not really. One has no choice.
On that winter day so long ago I had almost lost my life. I arrived at the pond and chopped an experimental hole near the shore where I worked my clumsy mud-dredging apparatus back and forth. My plan was successful. I was drawing up a few sleeping water boatmen, whirligig beetles, and dragon larvae, along with other more microscopic animalcules. These I placed in my lard buckets and prepared to go home and begin the stocking of my little aquariums. A forced spring had come early to my captives.
There were skates on a strap hanging around my neck, and before leaving I thought I would take one quick run over the pond. It was a very cold day, the ice firm. I had no reason to anticipate disaster. I made two swift passages out over what I knew to be deeper water. On the second pass, as I stepped up speed, there was a sudden, instantaneous splintering of ice. The leg to which I had just applied skating pressure went hip deep into the water. I came down upon my face. I lay there a moment half stunned. No one was with me. What if the rest of the ice broke? Even if one held to the edge one would freeze very quickly.
I waited anxiously, trying not to extend the ice-fractures by struggling. I was scared enough to yell, but it was useless. No one but a boy infused with the momentary idea of becoming a creator would be out on a day like this. Slowly I slid forward, arms spread, and withdrew my soaking leg from the hole. I must have struck an ice bubble with that one foot. The freezing weather fortunately permitted no general collapse of the ice. In one sweating moment I was safe, but I had to jog all the way home with my closed buckets.
After such an event there was no one's arms in which to fall at home. If one did, there would be only hysterical admonitions and I would be lucky to be allowed out. Slowly my inner life was continuing to adjust to this fact. I had to rely on silence. It was like creeping away from death out of an ice hole an inch at a time. You did it alone.
All the Strange Hours , pp. 164-65.
Loren Eiseley attended Prescott elementary school, located at 1930 S. 20th St. The back of the school today has many gardens where the children plant flowers and vegetables. No doubt Eiseley would appreciate that. In Fox at the Wood's Edge Gale Christianson describes a short essay the young Eiseley wrote about his plans for the future.
In 1921, in the eighth grade at Prescott School, the budding literary naturalist wrote a prophetic essay entitled "Nature Writing":
I have selected Nature Writing for my vocation because at this time in my life it appeals to me more than any other subject. I feel it is my duty to do what I can to make people realize that the wild creature has just as much right to live as you or I. They must learn that the wild offers a more thrilling sport than killing--that of letting live. Killing for the excitement of killing is murder. As in human life, there are tragedy, and humor, and pathos; in the life of the wild, there are facts of tremendous interest, real lives, and real happening, to be written about, and there is little necessity for drawing on the imagination.
The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley , p. 14.
Loren Eiseley's home life was difficult, and he needed a place to get away to. Fortunately, his Aunt and Uncle lived a few blocks away and welcomed him into their home at 1910 S. 23rd St. Gale Christianson describes Loren's Uncle Buck in this passage from Fox at the Wood's Edge.
One of the few places Loren could go without his mother's protest was the home of his aunt and uncle, on South Twenty-third Street. Buck Price always had a dog to play with and an interesting story to tell his adoring nephew, and there was steak and other good things to eat for dinner. An imposing figure if not a handsome one, Loren's attorney-uncle, who was affectionately dubbed the Colonel by his closest friends, had a large head and kindly face; thick, well-groomed hair, which he parted on the left; and soft eyes accentuated by heavy, dark brows. Though he weighed 220 pounds, his ample girth was elegantly contained in tailor-made frock coats, which he continued to wear decades after they had gone out of fashion. The high collars that circled Buck's thick neck were heavily starched; the knot of his silk tie was always adorned with a golden stickpin. He never appeared in public without a boutonniere; the flowers, like the imported cigars he smoke nonstop, were special-ordered by the dozen. Generous to a fault, Buck contributed to every worthy cause in the city. At Christmas, he loved to don a Santa Claus suit and visit the houses of his neighbors, seeing to it that every child received at least one gift, sometimes two or three.
In his autobiography All the Strange Hours, Loren recalls when he was a teenager and slept on the back porch of Uncle Buck's house.
In that day I had one bit of fortune which I will never forget. My uncle and aunt were childless. They belonged to an economic level which had been somewhat more secure, in the terms of that time, than our own. I was welcome in their home. I had been sleeping on a cot on their back porch since my father's death. Only a few nights previously I had started frantically out of sleep, clutching the edges of the cot as though I were still dozing on a freight-top runway. A whistle, blocks away, from a passing Rock Island locomotive had penetrated my sleep. Long afterward I would hear once more the howl of that whistle opening up ahead, but that was years away.
Fox at the Woods Edge
, p. 30.
All the Strange Hours , p. 19.
In his youth, Loren Eiseley, was introduced to natural history and anthropology by his visits to Morrill Hall, the Natural History Museum on the campus of the University of Nebraska. Years later, items he collected himself as part of the South Party expeditions to western Nebraska, would be displayed in the museum, including the famous "innocent assassins" skull. In Fox at the Wood's Edge Gale Christianson describes Loren's first introduction to the museum, and to evolutionary theory.
It was the affable Colonel [Uncle Buck] who introduced twelve-year-old Loren to a tall red-brick building on the University of Nebraska campus known simply as the Museum. The undistinguished-looking structure contained extensive exhibits on anthropology, zoology, geology, and archaeology, including more than four thousand Indian relics. The first label the boy read so stirred his imagination that he never forgot it: "Shoe from horse given by the Sultan of Turkey to General Grant." He wondered what had become of the other three shoes--indeed of the horse itself.
Loren returned whenever he got the chance, roaming the marble corridors for hours on end. He studied drawings of early human skulls, mostly slope eyed and primitive, and persuaded his reluctant grandmother to join him in a minor conspiracy. Loren modeled skulls of clay, takng special care to get the hollow eye sockets and heavy mandibles just right. Some of them were given teeth fashioned out of matchsticks or bits of mother-of-pearl scavanged from discarded buttons. When there were alone in the kitchen, Malvina placed the skulls on pie or cookie tins and baked them in the oven until they were hardened. Occasionally the old woman, pricked by her Methodist conscience, protested by tapping her grandson on the shoulder with a roasting fork. "Mind you, this is gettin out of hand. There's no ordinary heads in there and no young'un can tell me so. They've got that look, they have. That Darwin look. You've got to stop it 'fore the Devil gets you by the feet."
Fox at the Woods Edge , pp. 30-31
Loren Eiseley attended Lincoln High School, but did poorly. His Uncle Buck, who recognized Loren's intelligence and understood the emotional source of his difficulties, arranged for him to be enrolled at the new Teachers College High School, on the campus of the University of Nebraska. The building has since been converted into Canfield Hall, the adminstrative hub of the University. In Fox at the Wood's Edge Gale Christianson describes how Loren was enrolled in the school.
Buck knew nearly everyone there was to know in Lincoln, including Charles W. Taylor, the affable principle of Teacher's College High School. Located on the University of Nebraska campus at Fourteenth and S streets, Teachers High had been founded in 1908 as a laboratory school for university seniors who were about to graduate with teaching degrees in secondary education. It was here, under the supervision of the regular faculty, they they completed their student practicum. In contrast to Lincoln High School, where the grades often numbered over three hundred students each, at Teachers High they averaged between thirty-five and forty-five pupils, making it possible to place a premium on individualized instruction Academic standards were high, as they had been in the beginning, when the student body was composed largely of the children of university professors and administrators.
Charles Taylor, an educational progressive, was determined to make the institution more representative of the community as a whole. During his administration the sons and daughters of the professoriat were joined by those born on farms and into Lincoln's rapidly expanding working class. Taylor personally screened each candidate for admission and was particularly interested in the troubled but promising student, a natural extension of the humanistic credo that made him, along with William Buchanan Price, one of the main supporters of the local Salvation Army. It is not known whether Buck, having made prior arrangements with Taylor to accept his nephew, encountered any difficulty in persuading Loren that he should return to school. In any event, the sixteen-year-old paid his four-dollar fee to cover registration and incidentals, and became a member of the junior class of Teachers High on September 19 1923.
Fox at the Woods Edge , p. 41
As a young man Eiseley would take long walks, sometimes with a friend, out of town to a hilly area south of the town of Denton. Though we don't know for sure, we suspect his destination was at, or close to, the hills that are now part of Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. Here's an excerpt from Gale Christianson's Fox at the Wood's Edge.
Loren and Bill loved to take long walks together in the country-side surrounding Lincoln. Their more ambitious excursions took them southwest of the city to the bucolic village of Denton, a distance of some ten miles as the crow flies. Their standard fare on these expeditions was a bar of German chocolate--nourishing but not so sweet as to arouse thirst. The high hills gave them an unobstructed view of the city skyline, which was dominated by the state capitol. Near Denton they crossed three or four miles of unfenced land, which the two fancied was the closest thing to moors they might ever see. They quoted stanzas by Tennyson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Yeats from memory.
Fox at the Woods Edge , p. 69.
The woodlands along Salt Creek, now known as Wilderness Park, weren't an official park when Loren Eiseley was young. But they were a popular recreation area. A young Loren spent a lot of time along Salt Creek and in the wooded areas. When he and Mabel were courting they often went for walks here. In Fox at the Woods Edge Gale Christianson describes what the woods meant to them.
She saw Loren quite often, albeit discreetly, for the difference of seven years in their ages--which they went to great lengths to conceal--made them both uncomfortable when in the company of others. The couple spent much of their time together in private, reading favorite works, including their own, aloud. When they did venture out, it was usually to walk the winding banks of Salt Creek hand in hand, or to survey the woods now known as Wilderness Park at First Street and Van Dorn. Loren later evoked one of these fondly remembered days together in a touch inscription to Mabel in Cavender's House by the reclusive Edwin Arlington Robinson:
This to Mabel, so that when life is somewhat more dusty than it is now she may remember the wood-lilies--and how we hid above Salt Creek when it was all dappled sun-gold and leaf shadow. And having remembered that far she will think kindly of Glitter Wing, the blue dragonfly so generous that he allowed his dinner to escape alive--probably because its taste was singularly unedifying! Remember Glitter Wing, like us betrayed by summer, his destiny to forsake the sun-paths and shiver to a pinch of jeweled dust at the first touch of frost. Remember Glitter Wing--his dust was jeweled.
Fox at the Woods Edge , p. 64.
Loren Eiseley's mother, Daisy, is buried in Lincoln's Wyuka Cemetery. Long estranged from her, Loren could never come to peace with their relationship. In the chapter "Running Man" from his autobiography All the Strange Hours he describes a visit he made to her grave.
There will be those who say, in this mother-worshipping culture, that I am harsh, embittered. They will be quite wrong. Why should I be embittered? It is far too late. A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above her grave in a place called Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year's leaves in a fence corner. And it was all nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in its passing, like the maimed, discarded chicks in the hatchery trays--no more than that. For a little longer I would see and hear, but it was nothing, and to the world it would mean nothing.
I murmured to myself and tried to tell her this belatedly: Nothing, mama, nothing. Rest. You could never rest. That was your burden. But now, sleep. Soon I will join you, although, forgive me, not here. Neither of us then would rest. I will go far to lie down; the time draws on; it is unlikely that I will return. Now you will understand. I said, touching the October warmth of the gravestone. It was for nothing. It has taken me all my life to grasp this one fact.
All the Strange Hours , pp. 22-23.
During Loren Eiseley's college years, he spent parts of three summers in the early 1930s working on paleontological expeditions with the South Party of the Nebraska State Museum. These expeditions roamed from the Wildcat Hills south of Scottsbluff to the remote badlands of South Dakota. The South Party unearthed a wide variety of fossil remains, including oreodonts, mastadons, rhinos, camels, and the tools and spearpoints of early humans. Eiseley, the impressionistic and moody young poet, was deeply moved by his experience 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 notes of his experiences, notes he was later to draw upon for much of his mature writing. 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). Indeed they were correct. Many years later Eiseley remarked on the importance of his time on these expeditions in his memoir, All the Strange Hours.
Few people outside the realm of paleontology realize that these runneled, sun-baked ridges which extend far into South Dakota are one of the great fossil beds of the North American Age of Mammals. Bones lay in the washes or projected from cliffs. Titanotheres, dirk-tooth cats, oreodonts, to mention but a few, had left their bones in these sterile clays. The place was as haunted as the Valley of the Kings, but by great beasts who had ruled the planet when man was only a wispy experiment in the highlands of Kenya. These creatures had never had the misfortune to look upon a human face. Most of what we knew of mammalian evolution in North America had come from this region. All the great paleontologists had worked here. New species of animals still occasionally turned up.
The place enchanted me. I have an almost eidetic recall for those solitary years. I owe my presence there to C. Bertrand Schultz, a fellow student in geology and anthropology, who later became field director and still later director of the Nebraska State Museum. He was one of those fortunate people who know his course and did not wander. Today we are both approaching the shadows of retirement; he is one of the leading authorities on the successive faunas and geology of the middle border. I am prfoundly grateful to both him and his predecessor, Dr. Erwin Barbour. Much of what seared its way into my brain and into my writing came about because Schultz prevailed upon the museum director to allow me to work with the field party. In the timeless land, I could remain hidden.
Loren Eiseley spent much time searching for fossils in the valley of Pumpkin Creek, or what he referred to as the "Valley of the Pumpkin Seed," south of the Wildcat Hills. Named for wild gourds that grow in the area, the valley was populated by isolated homesteaders, many still living in sod houses. As Eiseley notes, many of these people were devout Christian fundamentalists, and it took some tact for paleontologists to gain permission to search on their property for fossil evidence supporting Darwin's theory of evolution. Eiseley tells several humorous tales of these encounters, such as this episode from "The Relic Men."
The devil, in the eyes of many devout Fundamentalists, occupies the bone lands, the wast places at the margins of everyday existence. I never knew but one who thought differently and who considered that God, too, might have something to do with the edges of the known.
Most men proceed under a burden of fear, and the majority of them in my youth could not stand the sight of a bone hunter. He was associated in their minds with the search for the missing link. At the very least he was apt to appear triumphantly waving the thigh bone of some creature not mentioned in Holy Writ. His ways were queer ways, and he suffered for them. At best he was regarded with tolerant amusement; at the worst, he would have screen doors latched against him.
it was that way in the Valley of the Pumpkin Seed. To compound our misery, we learned at the local newspaper office that the only impressive bone in the whole county--a veritable giant of a bone--was owned by a devout member of a sect which lent no ear to modern geological heresies. This word was carried on lagging and pessimistic feet to the Director.
"Well," he said, kicking dubiously at a loose rock in the roadway," there's nothing to do but try. He must have found it somewhere around here. What do you suppose he saved it for--a chap like that? Most of them would have broken it up for the lime fertilizer. Something curious there. Let's go and ask him. I'll go myself."
There was a road up through the outliers of the Wildcat hills, and by and by, a gate. We descended self-consciously while a horde of screeching children broke and ran for the house. It was a soddy. Forty years ago you could still see them sometimes on the Pumpkin Seed.
First there was the woman with the children peering from behind her skirts. She didn't latch the door, but she stood there with about the same stance that I remember my grandmother used to assume when she described the time she chased some Pawnee out of the hayfield.
We stopped at a respectful distance. "Good morning, ma'am," we said. "Would the Mister be about now? We would like to see that fossil bone he's got. The one people think is an elephant's bone. We heard about it in town. We're from the University."
The woman's expression did not change. There was silence for a moment, while we fingered our hats uneasily. Then she lifted her voice. "Pa," she called, uncertainly, "There's some men in the yard. Relic men, I reckon."
The Oregon trail followed the North Platte river valley as it wound towards the Wyoming border. Along the way it passed through a landscape of impressive rock formations, such as Jail and Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. When Loren Eiseley was searching for fossils in this same landscape, nearly 100 years after the height of emigrant traffic to Oregon and California, he sometimes came across remnants of the trail etched in the soft rock, remnants that remain to this day. He reflected on the meaning of the trail in a poem "Oregon Trail."
It is spring somewhere beyond Chimney Rock on the old Oregon trail now. I remember the time when the ruts of the wagons could still be seen across a half mile of unbroken short-grass prairie as though in that high air they had just passed, the rolling Conestoga wagons heavy-freighted for the Sierras, as though time was only yesterday, as though, if one hurried, a fast horse with good wind would bring you to the buckskinned outriders and the lined brown women with sunbonnets, the grandmothers, the fathers, children who became the forest cutters, wheat raisers, gold seekers, sharpshooters, range killers, users of the first Colts in the cattle wars or at the gamblers' tables-- a time a fast horse might still catch up with almost anything. I whirl my animal three times about and bend over the tracks trampling uncertainly. It is time to go home. But the other time is there tempting just beyond the horizon. I back off reluctantly and out of some shamed courtesy slip my spectacles into my pocket and raise my hand saying a wordless goodbye.
Notes of an Alchemist , "The Oregon Trail," pp. 117-119.
Undoubtedly Loren Eiseley's most famous paleontological find was the skull of a Nimravus brachyops, commonly called a sabretooth tiger, with its tooth imbedded into the bone of another of its kind. This find resulted in his most famous poem, "The Innocent Assassins," in which he pondered the nature of violence and weaponry in a way that was clearly influenced by the cold war and the nuclear arms race of his day. In his biography of Eiseley, Gale Christianson says this fossil was discovered in Toadstool Park, but research into the documents of the South Party make it clear that it was discovered on the edge of the Wildcat Hills, in a location referred to informally as Black Hank's Canyon. A lengthy exposed band of Oligocene era siltstone made this region an ideal location for the South Party to search for fossils.
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 sabertooth, most ancient cat,
far down in all those cellars of dead time.
What was it made the mystery there? We dug
until the full length of the striking saber showed
beautiful as Toledo steel, the fine serrations still
present along the blade, a masterpiece of murderous art conceived
by those same forces that heaved mountains up
from the flat bottoms of Cretaceous seas.
Attentive in a little silent group we squatted there.
This was no ordinary death, though forty million years
lay between us and that most gaping snarl.
Deep-driven to the root a fractured scapula
hung on the mighty saber undetached; two beasts
had died in mortal combat, for the bone
had never been released; there was no chance
this cat had ever used its fangs again or eaten-
died there, in short, though others of its kind
grew larger, larger, suddenly were gone
while the great darkness went about its task,
mountains thrust up, mountains worn down,
till this lost battle was exposed to eyes
the stalking sabertooths had never seen.
The Loren Eiseley Reader , "Innocent Assassins," pp. 53-54.
During his search for fossils, Loren Eiseley spent a lot of time hiking through the high plains on scorching summer days. At times his searches brought him to the banks of the North Platte River, in which he would take a dip to cool off. One time he decided to let himself drift with the flow, and years later he would craft this experience into one of his most famous essays, "The Flow of the River."
As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream. In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges. Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed. Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters. Over it the prairie suns beat mercilessly throughout the summer. The Platte, "a mile wide and an inch deep," is a refuge for any heat-weary pilgrim along its shores. This is particularly true on the high plains before its long march by the cities begins.
The reason that I came upon it when I did, breaking through a willow thicket and stumbling out through ankle-deep water to a dune in the shade, is of no concern to this narrative. On various purposes of science I have ranged over a good bit of that country on foot, and I know the kinds of bones that come gurgling up through the gravel pumps, and the arrowheads of shining chalcedony that occasionally spill out of water-loosened sand. On that day, however, the sight of sky and willows and the weaving net of water murmuring a little in the shallows on its way to the Gulf stirred me, parched as I was with miles of walking, with a new idea: I was going to float. I was going to undergo a tremendous adventure.
The notion came to me, I suppose, by degrees. I had shed my clothes and was floundering pleasantly in a hole among some reeds when a great desire to stretch out and go with this gently insistent water began to pluck at me. Now to this bronzed, bold, modern generation, the struggle I waged with timidity while standing there in knee-deep water can only seem farcical; yet actually for me it was not so. A near-drowning accident in childhood had scarred my reactions; in addition to the fact that I was a nonswimmer, this "inch-deep river" was treacherous with holes and quicksands. Death was not precisely infrequent along its wandering and illusory channels. Like all broad wastes of this kind, where neither water nor land quite prevails, its thickets were lonely and untraversed. A man in trouble would cry out in vain.
I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.
The Loren Eiseley Reader , "The Flow of the River," pp. 18-20.
In the summer of 1932 the South Party discovered a quarry on a ridgetop north of Bridgeport, Nebraska that contained a large number of bones of Miocene era rhinos. They spent several months excavating in and around the site. The quarry was on the farm of the impoverished Brubaker family and the South Party camped in the Indian Creek valley a short way downstream from the family's sodhouse. They regularly purchased milk and other supplies from the family, whose daughter would often make the deliveries. After the South Party left the site, they paid the Brubaker family for the use of their property. With that money, the family moved out of their ramshackle soddie and built a much more elaborate sodhouse, with multiple windows and two doors, an unheard of luxury in a sodhouse, especially during the Depression. That house still stands on the farm, inhabited by the current leesee of the property. Eiseley related his experiences at this location in his essay "The Last Neanderthal."
It happened in the West, somewhere in that wide drought-ridden land of empty coulees that carry in sudden spates of flood the boulders of the Rockies toward the sea. I suppose that, with the outward flight of population, the region is as wild now as it was then, some forty years ago. It would be useless to search for the place upon a map, though I have tried. Too many years and too many uncertain miles lie behind all bone hunters. There was no town to fix upon a road map. There was only a sod house tucked behind a butte, out of the prevailing wind. And there was a little spring-fed pond in a grassy meadow--that I remember.
Bone hunting is not really a very romantic occupation. One walks day after day along miles of frequently unrewarding outcrop. One grows browner, leaner, and tougher, it is true, but one is far from the bright lights, and the prospect, barring a big strike, like a mammoth, is always to abandon camp and go on. It was really a gypsy profession, then, for those who did the field collecting.
In this case, we did not go on. There was an eroding hill in the vicinity, and on top of that hill, just below sod cover, were the foot bones, hundreds of them, of some lost Tertiary species of American rhinoceros. It is useless to ask why we found only foot bones or why we gathered the mineralized things in such fantastic quatntites that they must still lie stacked in some museum storeroom. Maybe the creatures had been immured standing up in a waterhole and in the millions of succeeding years the rest of the carcasses had eroded away from the hilltop stratum. But there were the foot bones, and the orders had come down, so we dug carpals and metacarpals till we cursed like an army platoon that headquarters has forgotten.
There was just on diversion: the spring and the pond in the meadow. There, under the bank, we colled our milk and butter purchased from the soddy inhabitants. There we swam and splashed after work. The country people were reserved and kept mostly to themselves. They were uninterested in dull bones on the hilltop unenlived by skulls or treasure. After all, there was reason for their reserve. We must have appeared, by their rural standards, harmless but undoubtedly touched in the head. The barrier of reserve was never broken. The surly farmer kept to his parched acres and estimated to his profit our damage to his uncultivated hilltop. The slatternly wife tended a few scrawny chickens. In that ever blowing landscape their windmill largely ran itself.
Only a stocky barefoot girl of twenty sometimes came hesitantly down the path to our camp to deliver eggs. Some sixty days had drifted by upon that hillside. I began to remember the remark of an old fossil hunter who in his time had known the Gold Coast and the African veldt, "When calico begins to look like silk," he had once warned over a fire in the Sierras, "it is time to go home."
But enough of that. We were not bad young people. The girl shyly brought us the eggs, the butter, and the bacon, and then withdrew. Only after some little time did her appearance begin to strike me as odd. Men are accustomed to men in their various color variations around the world. When the past intrudes into a modern setting, however, it is less apt to be visible, because to see it demands knowledge of the past, and the past is always camouflaged when it wears the clothes of the present.
The girl came slowly down the trail one evening, and it struck me suddenly how alone she looked and how, well, alien, she also appeared. Our cook was stoking up the evening fire, and as the shadows leaped and flickered I, leaning invisibly against a rock, was suddently transported one hundred thousand years into the past. The shadows and their dancing highlights were the cause of it. They had swept the present out of sight. That girl coming reluctantly down the pathway to the fire was removed from us in time, and subconsciously she knew it as I did. My modern standards she was not pretty, and the gingham dress she wore, if anything, defined the difference.
Short, thickset, and massive, her body was still not the body of a typical peasant woman. Her head, thrust a little forward against the light, was massive-boned. Along the eye orbits at the edge of the frontal bone I could see outlined in the flames an armored protuberance that, particularly in women, had vanished before the clsoe of the Würmian ice. She swung her head almost like a great muzzle beneath its curls, and I was struck by the low bun-shaped breadth at the back. Along her exposed arms one could see a flash of golden hair.
No, we are out of time, I thought quickly. We are each and every one displaced. She is the last Neanderthal, and she does not know what to do. We are those who eliminated her long ago. It is like an old scene endlessly re-enacted. Only the chipped stones and the dead game are lacking.
The Loren Eiseley Reader , "The Last Neanderthal," pp. 122-124.
Loren Eiseley's work with the South Party searching for fossils on the high plains took him to the remote and desolate region of Toadstool Park. Returning to camp one evening, he saw a flight of migrating warblers passing through this rugged and seemingly lifeless landscape. In this memorable passage from "The Judgment of the Birds," he recalls how this flight of warblers caused him to reflect upon the nature of life, and the mystery of its emergence from, and return to, the chemical constituents of the rocky and dusty terrain.
On the maps of the old voyageurs it is called Mauvaises Terres, the badlands, and, slurred a little with the pasage through many minds, it has come down to us anglicized as the Badlands. The soft shuffle of moccasins has passed through its canyons on the grim business of war and flight, but the last of those slight disturbances of immemorial silences died out almost a century ago. The land, if one can call it a land, is a waste as lifeless as that valley in which lie the kings of Egypt. Like the Valley of the Kings, it is a mausoleum, a place of dry bones in what once was a place of life. Now it has silences as deep as those in the moon's airless chasms.
Nothing grows among its pinnacles; there is no shade except under great toadstools of sandstone whose bases have been eaten to the shape of wine glasses by the wind. Everything is flaking, cracking, disintegrating, wearing away in the long, imperceptible weather of time. The ash of ancient volcanic outbursts still sterilizes its soil, and its colors in that waste are the colors that flame in the lonely sunsets on dead planets. Men come there but rarely, and for one purpose only, the collection of bones.
It was a late hour on a cold, wind-bitten autumn day when I climbed a great hill spined like a dinosaur's back and tried to take my bearings. The tumbled waste fell away in waves in all directions. Blue air was darkening into purple along the bases of the hills. I shifted my knapsack, heavy with the petrified bones of long-vanished creatures, and studies my compass. I wanted to be out of there by nightfall, and already the sun was going sullenly down in the west.
It was then that I saw the flight coming on. It was moving like a little close-knit body of black specks that danced and darted and closed again. It was pouring from the north and heading toward me with the undeviating relentlessness of a compass needle. It streamed through the shadows rising out of monstrous gorges. It rushed over towering pinnacles in the red light of the sun, or momentarily sank from sight within their shade. Across that desert of eroding clay and wind-worn stone they came with a faint wild twittering that filled all the air about me as those tiny living bullets hurtled past into the night.
It may not strike you as a marvel. It would not, perhaps, unless you stood in the middle of a dead world at sunset, but that was where I stood. Fifty million years lay under my feet, fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was traveling on the farther edge of space. The chemicals of all that vanished age lay about me in the ground. Around me still lay the shearing molars of dead titanotheres, the delicate sabers of soft-stepping cats, the hollow sockets that had held the eyes of many a strange, outmoded beast. Those eyes had looked up a world as real as ours; dark, savage brains had roamed and roared their challenges into the steaming night.
Now they were still here, or, put it as you will, the chemicals that made them were here about me in the ground. The carbon that had driven them ran blackly in the eroding stone. The stain of iron was in the clays. The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorus had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.
I had 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. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and wasteland. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang. It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away our of my view.
I dropped my fistful of earth. I heard it roll inanimate back into the gully at the base of the hill: iron, carbon, the chemicals of life. Like men from those wild tribes who had haunted these hills before me seeking visions, I made my sign to the great darkness. It was not a mocking sign, and I was not mocked. As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, "What did you see?"
"I think a miracle," I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me the vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.
The Loren Eiseley Reader , "The Judgment of the Birds," pp. 45-48.