“We are one of many appearances of the thing called Life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life, and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time.” —Loren Eiseley
When it was first published in 1977 it was marketed as a science book for the nonscientist, as something written by Stephen Jay Gould or Stephen Hawking would be today. This categorization is simplistic, however. This is not a book about science, merely. It is not an attempt by an expert to explain some concept to the public. “Immense Journey” is a meditation. It is a work of spirit and of soul, as much as it of anything else.
In poetic, musical prose he speaks of his own encounters with the natural world over the course of a notable career in varied natural fields. These encounters are sometimes small and seemingly insignificant—such as discovering a mouse trapped in a wastebasket below his office desk, or finding a spider in her web holding out resolutely against the cold of an autumn night by making a home in the near-warm-glow of a streetlamp. Yet in Eiseley’s mind, in his writing, these passing glimpses of natural life become something more. They become infused with meaning and a philosophy deeper, perhaps, than words could ever convey. The mouse’s plight becomes our own, seen from the broadest, godlike perspective—at many times over the eons our species had to have been in such a similar strait, perched on a precipice between furtherance and destruction, liberated from disaster only by the larger and stronger hand of providence. The doomed but pugnacious spider is life’s indomitability incarnate—its creative and irrepressible will.
Perhaps the most powerful meditation of Eiseley’s comes near the end of the book. It concerns a small falcon or kestrel he encountered early in his career while engaged professionally to collect live specimens for zoos abroad. Eiseley catches the bird, an angry and defensive male, as its mate flies off and escapes. The bird is placed in a kind of box that restricts its movements, and is left quietly overnight in the bed of a pickup truck. The next morning, Eiseley chances to sneak a peek at his prize. In a projected cynicism he first looks up and around in the sky for the trapped bird’s mate, and skeptically dismisses the social bonds of birds. He carefully takes the prisoner out of its prison-box. He sees its glorious, far-seeing eye look not at him, the bird’s captor, but mournfully up at heaven, and in a spontaneous act of unthinking grace, Eiseley lets the bird go. As it flies into clear infinity, Eiseley watches and is struck suddenly by the sound of another piercing cry from higher above. The liberated bird’s mate had been there all along, circling above the limits of a man’s eyes for hours. Eiseley watches in wonder as the two birds first meet and in a seeming dance of ecstasy, circle each other in a falcon’s gyre before flying off and away.
Years later, pondering another scientist’s naive proclamation to have discovered the “secret of life,” along with the increasingly mechanized, technological, and self-congratulatory world of machines and humanity, Eiseley remembers the falcon. He remembers the mystery of it, the inexpressible manifestation of wonder he was privileged to that day, and he knows that our re-creations, our attempts to master or even understand with thoughts and words that mystery, will never succeed. “Far off, over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away.”
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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