When I heard the sad news that famed British broadcaster Sir David Frost had died, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down a yellowed $1.45 Vintage paperback, The Immense Journey, by the great American anthropologist and author Dr. Loren Eiseley. The faded orange cover bearing an abstract illustration of a fish describes the book’s modest aim: “An imaginative naturalist explores the mysteries of man and nature.” The death of the celebrated television journalist stirred a long-ago memory of the lesser-known writer once called “the modern Thoreau.” With the changing climate threatening our Vineyard shores and some of Earth’s fragile species around the globe, it’s worth introducing a new generation to Eiseley’s timeless words and wisdom.
In the summer of 1970, I was a guest on The David Frost Show, a naïve 20-year-old biology major from Mills College in Oakland, Calif., on my first trip to New York city. It was an all-expense-paid bonus for being one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Girls (now women!).
The August college issue that year reflected the causes of students in an activist era. Mine was the burgeoning environmental movement. The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, following the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara offshore oil spill. My idealistic Glamour essay proclaimed a desire to be a journalist and “write with a pen sharp enough to pierce public awareness.” (Along with something about eating algae cakes as a new food source. Really?).
The show was live, and suddenly the spotlight was on the 10 college students in the front row. Mr. Frost, then only 31 himself, asked each of us a conventional softball question: “Whom do you admire most?” As I recall, most answers involved fathers or mothers. The charming Mr. Frost smiled and followed up with the proverbial “Why?” But when he came to me, I said the first thing that jumped into my head: Loren Eiseley.
I wasn’t trying to stump him. I had just read The Immense Journey for a college course and was so swept up in my newfound enthusiasm that I failed to consider whether he or anyone in the television audience knew or cared whom Eiseley was. Frost frowned, curtly said “thank you,” and swiftly moved on.
I quickly realized my mistake: The erudite David Frost clearly had no idea who Mr. Eiseley was. What was I thinking with my obscure, academic reply? My family, sitting in front of the television set in our Fremont, Calif., home, was groaning too.
I haven’t read Loren Eiseley in a long while, but with humans still failing to heed scientists’ environmental warnings, his ruminations about man’s relationship with nature seem just as timely today.
The Immense Journey (1957), his first book, was a collection of elegantly written essays on water and oceans (“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”); prairie dogs and evolution; the intricacies of cellular life; and the distinctly human characteristic of abstract thought. It became a classic, selling more than a million copies in at least 16 languages. He went on to author a dozen more books, including Darwin’s Century (1958), The Unexpected Universe (1969), and The Night Country: Reflections of a Bone-Hunting Man (1971).
Born on Sept. 3, 1907, in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. Eiseley learned firsthand about nature from the salt flats and ponds nearby and the mammoth bones in the university museum. Later, as an anthropologist, he searched for signs of early post-glacial man along the Rocky Mountains, had a distinguished University of Pennsylvania academic career, and was a distinguished fellow of countless learned societies.
But his ability to write cogently and poetically about the secrets of the natural world is what truly distinguished Mr. Eiseley at a time when science was science and literature was literature, and few crossed the divide. A Boston Museum of Science award heralded his “outstanding contribution to the public understanding of science.”
In 2007 — on the centennial of Mr. Eiseley’s birth — Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman issued a proclamation urging Nebraskans to read him and appreciate “the richness and beauty of his language, his ability to depict the long, slow passage of time and the meaning of the past in the present, his portrayal of the relationships among all living things and his concern for the future.” We should all heed his advice.
Unfortunately, in a world obsessed by pop culture, celebrities and scandal, it’s even less likely that today’s talk show hosts would recognize a philosopher scientist like Loren Eiseley. I only wish that somehow, more than 40 years ago, I had piqued David Frost’s interest and that he had gone on to interview Mr. Eiseley before his untimely 1977 death at age 69.
They were both pioneering communicators in their respective fields, teasing answers from the mysteries of nature or from some of nature’s fascinating creatures, be they politicians or rock stars. Now that David Frost is gone too, at age 74, they are both part of the modern fossil record and life’s Immense Journey.
In Mr. Eiseley’s own words: “We will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know.”
Cristine Russell, a seasonal resident of Chilmark, is a science writer and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.