Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist and a writer I would love to have met, but I can't, because he'd dead, so I'll have to include him in my imaginary dinner party of dead people that would also include Samuel Johnson and James Boswell and a bunch of shifty-eyed, too-smart-for-their-own-good weirdos with creepy laughs and flasks below the table. He actually seems like a pretty decent guy, though, so he'd probably show up with a bottle of wine and volunteer to help with the dishes.
I'd never heard of him until I was in the LC 574 section of the San Francisco Public Library on a rainy Saturday, stacking up every book that had "desert" in its title. His books aren't about deserts, but the they netted me anyhow, and I slid aside my stack to pick up The Night Country and The Unexpected Universe. There's an intelligence about his work that is both gentle and frantic: it seems in every chapter that he's wandering somewhere, for no purpose that he reveals, and whether in New Mexico or Kansas or somewhere between, he connects with this great spooky weightiness of the central United States: a glowing blue pool in a rural basement, an elderly man who keeps his massacred aunt's skull in the china cabinet. You know, just like your last road trip.
Eiseley writes about people, places, and ideas with a drifting flaneur-ness, deep interest and inquiry without a punchline, time drifting forward and back. One of the best stories is that of the Rat, the leader of a band of boys who explored the labyrinthine sewer systems beneath the city where Eiseley grew up, and who invited the young Eiseley to join them.
The boys squirm through the sewer lines on their bellies, nearly meeting their end when an open hydrant flooded the chamber where they were hiding. The Rat is their leader and explainer:
That was the world we lived in. We never told Mother, and we avoided Father. We scrounged our own candles; we dragged food into these abysses. We scratched tribal symbols on the big tiles by candlelight, as the Rat directed. We raided other bands and retreated through the sewer network. We lived as men may sometime live in the ruins of New York.
I learned from the Rat what it was about. It seemed that a long time ago everybody lived this way. Why they had quit was a mystery to me. The Rat couldn’t answer that one. His reading hadn't progressed that far.
Eiseley's always in situations with skulls and caves and subterranean adventures, but he draws from them these maxims that make you nod, like yes, totally, that's exactly what that's like:
Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.