The Muskrat and the Meaning of Life: Loren Eiseley on Reclaiming Our Sense of the Miraculous in a Mechanical Age
By Maria Popova
In his beautiful 1948 manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning to be nourished by nature, Henry Beston lamented: “What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity.” And yet his admonition fell on ears increasingly unhearing as the decades rolled on with their so-called progress. The poet Jane Hirshfield captured this in her stirring anthem against the silencing of nature: “The silence spoke loudly of silence, / and the rivers kept speaking, / of rivers, of boulders and air.”
How to undeafen ourselves to the song of reality and redeem our humanity from alienation is what the great anthropologist, philosopher of science, poet, and natural history writer Loren Eiseley (September 3, 1907–July 9, 1977) explores with tremendous insight in a portion of his 1960 book The Firmament of Time (public library), which gave us Eiseley’s perceptive and poetic exploration of the relationship between nature and human nature.
Recounting a revelatory experience he had under a New England boat dock, amid the roar of motor boats and the bustle of rampant tourism, Eiseley writes:
As I sat there one sunny morning when the water was peculiarly translucent, I saw a dark shadow moving swiftly over the bottom. It was the first sign of life I had seen in this lake, whose shores seemed to yield little but washed-in beer cans. By and by the gliding shadow ceased to scurry from stone to stone over the bottom. Unexpectedly, it headed almost directly for me. A furry nose with gray whiskers broke the surface. Below the whiskers green water foliage trailed out in an inverted V as long as his body. A muskrat still lived in the lake. He was bringing in his breakfast.
I sat very still in the strips of sunlight under the pier. To my surprise the muskrat came almost to my feet with his little breakfast of greens. He was young, and it rapidly became obvious to me that he was laboring under an illusion of his own, and that he thought animals and men were still living in the Garden of Eden. He gave me a friendly glance from time to time as he nibbled his greens. Once, even, he went out into the lake again and returned to my feet with more greens. He had not, it seemed, heard very much about men. I shuddered. Only the evening before I had heard a man describe with triumphant enthusiasm how he had killed a rat in the garden because the creature had dared to nibble his petunias. He had even showed me the murder weapon, a sharp-edged brick.
With an eye to the assault on nature we call civilization — that perilous human impulse driven by what Bertrand Russell termed “power-knowledge,” as distinct from “love-knowledge” — Eiseley writes:
On this pleasant shore a war existed and would go on until nothing remained but man. Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. He was an edge-of-the-world dweller, caught between a vanishing forest and a deep lake pre-empted by unpredictable machines full of chopping blades. He eyed me nearsightedly, a green leaf poised in his mouth. Plainly he had come with some poorly instructed memory about the lion and the lamb.
“You had better run away now,” I said softly, making no movement in the shafts of light. “You are in the wrong universe and must not make this mistake again. I am really a very terrible and cunning beast. I can throw stones.” With this I dropped a little pebble at his feet.
He looked at me half blindly, with eyes much better adjusted to the wavering shadows of his lake bottom than to sight in the open air. He made almost as if to take the pebble up into his forepaws. Then a thought seemed to cross his mind — a thought perhaps telepathically received, as Freud once hinted, in the dark world below and before man, a whisper of ancient disaster heard in the depths of a burrow. Perhaps after all this was not Eden. His nose twitched carefully; he edged toward the water.
As he vanished in an oncoming wave, there went with him a natural world, distinct from the world of girls and motorboats, distinct from the world of the professor holding to reality by some great snowshoe effort in his study. My muskrat’s shoreline universe was edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out, but it was a world of sunlight he had taken down into the water weeds. It hovered there, waiting for my disappearance. I walked away, obscurely pleased that darkness had not gained on life by any act of mine. In so many worlds, I thought, how natural is “natural” — and is there anything we can call a natural world at all?
Eiseley considers how this miraculous encounter with the “natural” world illuminates the nature of life itself:
Whatever may be the power behind those dancing motes to which the physicist has penetrated, it makes the light of the muskrat’s world as it makes the world of the great poet. It makes, in fact, all of the innumerable and private worlds which exist in the heads of men. There is a sense in which we can say that the planet, with its strange freight of life, is always just passing from the unnatural to the natural, from that Unseen which man has always reverenced to the small reality of the day. If all life were to be swept from the world, leaving only its chemical constituents, no visitor from another star would be able to establish the reality of such a phantom. The dust would lie without visible protest, as it does now in the moon’s airless craters, or in the road before our door.
Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over time and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing.
Winking at his work as a field scientists — a self-described “man who has spent a great deal of his life on his knees, though not in prayer” — Eiseley reflects on what such encounters with the miraculous in nature reveal about the real object of science and the ultimate meaning of human life:
Since, as we have seen, the laws of nature have a way of being altered from one generation of scientists to the next, a little taste for the miraculous in this broad sense will do us no harm. We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.
The Firmament of Time remains a transformative read in its entirety. Complement this excerpt with Eiseley on the inner light that makes us human, then revisit the story of Alexander von Humboldt and the invention of nature.
Published June 22, 2017