Greats of the Plains: Loren Eiseley

Emma Krab
October 29, 2021

My name is Emma Krab. I’m a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a story production intern with Platte Basin Timelapse. I’m a small town girl with a family tree that has generations of roots in this river basin. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not an ecologist. I’m not a conservationist. But, I am a storyteller with a passion to explore. I’m a lifelong writer — fond of any medium from rhetorical research to short stories to opinion columns — who’s just starting to use her curiosity and enthusiasm to tell stories that deserve to be heard.

Welcome to Greats of the Plains, a discovery into the voices you may not know of but certainly should. These are the movers and shakers of the land, water and sky we proudly call home. Come with me, and we can piece together lost memories and old essays, just maybe finding the bigger picture in the process.

Graphic by Sidney Parks.

Loren Eiseley. I had never heard his name before, but I suppose I should have. In the realm of naturalist writing — think Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau — Eiseley breathed new life into the genre. He united the natural world with the human condition, something especially powerful in our modern age of climate and environmental change. A writer, educator, anthropologist and scholar of great renown with a lifetime tie to Lincoln, Nebraska, Eiseley was made for this project.

Loren Eiseley spent his life studying nature and how we as humans interact with it. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania.

Once I started looking for him, I found him everywhere. I read a copy of The Immense Journey, Eiseley’s most famous collection of essays, and within it, his most famous quote.

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

I swear that quote haunted me like a ghost. I started seeing it printed on coffee mugs and in environmental advocacy posts on Instagram. Seeking freedom, I fled to the East Coast, and still, halfway through a cup of milk tea, I looked up and found Eiseley’s words on the side of a Boston Harbor mosaic. Everywhere I looked, someone was inspired by Eiseley.

A mosaic of Eisley’s most famous quote (and me) near Boston Harbor.

“Eiseley is one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, and is shining a light to all of us saying, ‘This, my children, is the direction I suggest you take.’”

Those are the words of Dr. Bing Chen. He’s the president of the Loren Eiseley Society, a group dedicated to raising awareness for Eiseley’s work. If I’m your guide on this adventure, Dr. Chen is the steely-eyed loner we meet in a saloon who agreed to join the adventure and then saves us many, many times from certain death. Consider him a certified Loren Eiseley expert.

Dr. Chen’s love for nature has taken him all over the world, including the spires of Tsingy Forest in Madagascar. He often takes his copy of Eiseley’s book Invisible Pyramid on his travels.

Despite the major differences in life experiences between Dr. Chen and me, we actually first encountered Eiseley at the same point in our lives — in college.

“I discovered him as a senior in engineering. One of the books was The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, and that was the spring of 1967. I remember being struck by the beauty of his writing and his prose. And I thought, ‘Oh, and he’s from Lincoln on top of this? What an interesting human being.’”

Lincoln was Eiseley’s longtime stomping grounds. He grew up in the city. According to Eiseley’s autobiography All the Strange Hours, he attended public school in Lincoln, too, when he decided he wanted to be a nature writer. After spending time at the University of Nebraska campus in his hometown, he remained within academia his whole life, which took him all across the country. By the time of his death in 1977, Eiseley had written more than 20 books and lectured around the country.

Still, Nebraska was the place Eiseley first cultivated his love for reading — and for the world of adventure waiting outside his window. In his essay Invisible Pyramid, Eiseley described the nature outside his backyard, especially a forest of sunflowers that plunged him into a Nebraska wonderland.

“When I was a boy, I once lived near a brackish stream that wandered over the interminable salt flats south of our town. Between occasional floods the area became a giant sunflower forest, taller than the head of a man.”

Brackish streams like the Little Salt Creek colored the world Eiseley’s childhood — and are still deeply important to today’s local environment. Photo by Brooke Talbott.

When I journeyed to Eiseley’s childhood home myself, I couldn’t help but feel this same sense of childlike eagerness. But this is where I hit my first snag — where Eiseley’s world of nature and whimsy and beauty starts to fade. I visited in my search to not just read Eiseley’s words, but feel them. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling of urban intrusion, of cars and bikes, concrete and gasoline.

 

How could I rediscover the lost world of Loren Eiseley?

Perhaps it’s about recreating and reimagining. When I spoke to Dr. Chen, he talked about his organization’s role in passing on the late author’s ideas to the younger generation. One of their proudest projects — a sunflower garden. He told me this:

“One of the projects we encourage is to have children grow a little sunflower in a pot. Each spring, they receive their seed and they grow it. You have a school trip to Lauritzen Gardens and the school will have a sign made in its name. Each child gets a popsicle stick with their name, and their sunflowers are added to all the others.”

Perhaps it’s about passing on a legacy. Dr. Chen is not alone in his appreciation for Eiseley, and he found an unusual ally in his quest to inform the masses of the great naturalist. Ray Bradbury — famed author of Fahrenheit 451, among others — with whom Dr. Chen corresponded for years prior to Bradbury’s 2012 death about ways to educate on Eiseley’s message. (This is also something Dr. Chen mentioned nonchalantly, and as an avid reader and Bradbury fan myself, I spent the next five minutes truly processing.)

Eiseley’s imagery lives on in the lives of his readers like Dr. Chen, who has his own sunflower garden planted at home. Photo by Bing Chen.

At the same time, without a grand mentor or an organization to direct my energy toward, I was struggling to find myself in the picture. I kept reading. There’s an essay Eiseley wrote about floating in the Platte called “Flow of the River.” I wasn’t sure what it was, but something about that piece stuck with me. Dr. Chen put my feelings into words.

He talks about the Platte River as being a conduit. Basically, the mountains rise and are thrust up between tectonic plates and gradually they erode down. Eiseley looks at this long period of time and realizes, ‘Gee, we’re also from the water.’ He takes us back to our beginnings.”

And so I return to my own beginnings. The Platte River is baked into my earliest memories. I’ve had entire summers drift by from the beaches of Lake McConaughy, a reservoir fed by the north channel. However, the South Platte has always held my heart. As long as I remember, my grandfather owned land bordering the river. I could talk for hours about kayak floats, early morning goose hunts, or walking barefoot on sandbars while digging around for arrowheads.

This is a picture of my grandfather, my younger sister, and me on the banks of the South Platte. I’m 5 years old. The dog, George, is now buried on the banks of the river.

I can’t tell you that Eiseley’s lost world can be replicated perfectly. I can’t tell you I’ve found all his crafted wonders. But listen to the sound of my river, and you’ll hear it too. Something old and new all wrapped up in one. Something we can’t totally understand, because it’s something we’re a part of ourselves. As always, Eiseley has the right words in “Flow of the River”:

“Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort. The mind has sunk away into its beginnings among old roots and the obscure trickles and movings that stir inanimate dungs. Like the charmed fairy circle into which a man once stepped, and upon emergence learned that a whole century had passed in a single night, one can never quite define this secret; but it has something to do, I am sure, with common water.”

At the end of this journey of three voices, we’ve got our textbook definition of a Great of the Plains. In his own right, Loren Eiseley was a master of the written word and a true believer in the power of the natural world. Perhaps more astonishing is the echoes of impact that carry on after his own end. Individuals like Dr. Bing Chen find his cause so worthy, they dedicate years of time to spreading it. They inform those like me, eager to learn and feel. Reading Eiseley’s words, I felt an unparalleled connection to the river that had shaped my childhood. I felt like the river was part of me.

The beauty and fragility of the natural world is out there. Go protect it, as Eiseley asked in each essay and narrative. Go explore it, as should always be more people obsessed with our planet. Most importantly, head out into that vast expanse, rife with internal discoveries and external wonders, and love some part of this earth so passionately that you become one with it.

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PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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