Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) Lincoln, Nebraska

Loren Eiseley wrote that the brain of a writer is like an attic in which pictures from the past are stored and brought forth to be magnified or reduced in order to form a pattern. Many of the patterns he created in the sixteen books that won him international fame originated with experience he laid away during his early years in Nebraska.

He was born in 1907 "at the turn of the century when the frontier was fading," and spent most of his first 26 years in Lincoln. Already in this prairie town that grew from 40,000 to 80,000 in those years, the schools, museums and libraries were well established. These resources were available without cost to poor families such as his, and in them he found much that helped determine the direction his creative ability would take. His father, a sometime amateur Shakespearean actor, gave him the knowledge of rich and beautiful language. His mother, an untaught prairie artist, fostered in him the eye with which to see beauty. Another relative, an uncle, introduced him to the wonders of the State Museum. And Eiseley benefited from having a truly special teacher, Letta Mae Clark.

When Eiseley was five he taught himself to read in order to finish "Robinson Crusoe." His brother, Leo, had started to read it to him but had to depart when the foot-print had just been discovered. Eiseley wrote, "I began to read everything I could lay my hands on...it was a kind of vow I made to myself...to read books for the sake of reading."

That joy was his all of his life. He wrote of "the local Carnegie Library to which I used to pedal in my coaster wagon." Here, on the site of the present Bennett Martin Library in downtown Lincoln, he found such books as "The Home Aquarium: How to Care for It" by Eugene Smith. This lead him to a pond south of town (now the lake at the Lincoln Country Club) where he not only collected for his aquarium but also nearly drowned when he went through the ice.

Loren Eiseley attended public schools: Prescott Elementary and Lincoln High School. While at the latter he indicated that he wanted to be a nature writer. When he transferred to Teachers College High School at the University of Nebraska he found in Miss Clark, Supervisor of English, that special teacher that only the lucky among us find. In 1962 he dedicated "The Mind as Nature" to her, "in gratitude for counsel and encouragement in my youth."

When Eiseley was twelve his Uncle Buck took him to visit the fossil collection at Morrill Hall (the present University of Nebraska State Museum). He made "neanderthal heads" of clay and baked them in the kitchen oven. His grandmother protested that they had a "Darwin look" and suggested that he "be staying out of that building now."

But he returned again and again to look at the fossils in Morrill Hall and as a University student went on fossil digs with museum crews. He went on to attend the University of Nebraska of which he said "I never dreamed I could be more than my father until I found out I could go to the University of Nebraska for free." His bachelor's degree from there is in English and Anthropology. His advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania were in anthropology. He later dedicated his autobiography, "All the Strange Hours," to his uncle, "without whose help my life would have been different beyond imagining.

Equally important with the schools, the library, and the museum in filling the attic that was his writer's mind was the land. Of it he wrote in "The Immense Journey"; "Some lands are flat and grass covered and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by wind or time...a sunlit, timeless prairie over which nothing passed but an antelope or a wandering bird."

In an essay, "The Flow of the River," that came out of an experience along the Platte, he wrote: "If there is magic in this planet, it is contained in water...It's substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future: It moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea."

Fossils of the oldest flowering plants in the world can be found around Fairbury, Nebraska and in his essay, "How Flowers Changed the World," Eiseley wrote of their evolutionary importance. "Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they continu ed to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard bird, might be snapping at a beetle on a sequoia limb; man might be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the world and made it ours."

The title work in Eiseley's book of poetry, "The Innocent Assassins," is based on a fossil find he made in western Nebraska. "Once in the sun-fierce badlands of the west, in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones...we found a saber tooth, most ancient cat far down in the cellars of the dead time...(a) fractured scapula, hung on the mighty saber, undetached; two beasts had died in mortal combat." (This fossil is now in the University of Nebraska State Museum.) Eiseley goes on to characterize these two ancient creatures as "designed by nature to strike and strike again" and philosophizes of people, "sometime we seem wrapped in wild innocence like sabertooths."

Loren Eiseley's work is outstanding for its richness and the beauty of his language and metaphors; for his ability to portray the long, slow passage of time and the meaning of the past in the present; for his portrayal of the relationships among all living things; for his concern about the future, his awareness of how man's idolization of the machine, an unthinking, unfeeling material thing, was changing the world.

Eiseley's later writing became more pessimistic as he reflected on the effect of modern man on the world. In "The Winter of Man" he wrote, "We have come now in this time to fear the water that we drink, the air we breathe, the insecticides that we have dusted over our giant fruits. Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that comes to us from the sea...we fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made. the hatreds we have engendered...we have come to fear even the scientists and their gifts...we fear the end of man."