Unreal Nature

November 23, 2013

The Thread

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man.

This is from The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley (1960):

… Just as there existed the balanced, self-correcting machine of the heavens, and the balanced, self-renewing machine of the earth, so life was similarly linked in the great chain of unalterable law. All was directly under the foreknowing care of the Divine Being. Nevertheless, by the early eighteenth century it began to be whispered among English naturalists “that many Sorts of Shells are wholly lost, or at least out of our Seas.”

… The hint of extinction in the geological past was like a cold wind out of a dark cellar. It chilled men’s souls. It brought with it doubts of the rational world men had envisaged on the basis of their own minds. It brought suspicions as to the nature of the cozy best-of-all-possible-worlds which had been created specifically for men.

… All the way back into Cambrian time we know that sunlight fell, as it falls now, upon this planet. As Lyell taught, we can tell this by the eyes of fossil sea creatures such as the trilobites. We know that rain fell, as it falls now, upon wet beaches that had never known the step of man. We can read the scampering imprints of the raindrops upon the wet mud that has long since turned to stone. We can view the ripple marks in the sands of vanished coves. In all that time the ways of the inanimate world have not altered; storms and wind, sun and frost, have worked slowly upon the landscape. Mountains have risen and worn down, coast lines have altered. All that world has been the product of blind force and counterforce, the grinding of ice over stone, the pounding of pebbles in the mountain torrents — a workshop of a thousand hammers and shooting sparks in which no conscious hand was ever visible, today or yesterday.

Yet into this world of the machine — this mechanical disturbance surrounded by desert silences — a ghost has come, a ghost whose step must have been as light and imperceptible as the first scurry of a mouse in Cheops’ tomb. Musing over the Archean strata, one can hear and see it in the subcellars of the mind itself, a little green in a fulminating spring, some strange objects floundering and helpless in the ooze on the tide line, something beating, beating, like a heart until a mounting thunder goes up through the towering strata, until no drum that ever was can produce its rhythm, until no mind can contain it, until it rises, wet and seaweed-crowned, an apparition from marsh and tide pool, gross with matter, gurgling and inarticulate, ape and man-ape, grisly and fang-scarred, until the thunder is in oneself and is passing — to the ages beyond — to a world unknown, yet forever being born.

“It is carbon,” says one, as the music fades within his ear. “It is done with the amino acids,” contributes another. “It rots and ebbs into the ground,” growls a realist. “It began in the mud,” criticizes a dreamer. “It endures pain,” cries a sufferer. “It is evil,” sighs a man of many disillusionments.

Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life.

… One thing alone life does not appear to do; it never brings back the past. Unlike lifeless matter, it is historical. It seems to have had a single point of origin and to be traveling in a totally unique fashion in the time dimension. That life was ever a fixed chain without movement was a human illusion; that it leaped as some mystical abstraction from one giant scene of death to another was also an illusion; that geological prophecy proclaimed the coming of man as Elizabethan astrologers read in the heavens the signs of coming events for kings was an even greater fantasy. Instead, species died irregularly like individual men over the long and scattered waste of eons. And as they died they must, as Lyell foresaw, be replaced in as scattered a fashion as their deaths. But what was the secret? Did a voice speak once in a hundred years in some hidden wood so that a nocturnal flower bloomed, or something new and furry ran away into the dark?

Creation and its mystery could no longer be safely relegated to the past behind us. It might now reveal itself to man at any moment in a farmer’s pasture, or a willow thicket. By the comprehension of death man was beginning to glimpse another secret. The common day had turned marvelous. Creation — whether seen or unseen — must be even now about us everywhere in the prosaic world of the present.

My previous post from Eiseley’s book is here.



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