Unreal Nature

June 12, 2015

Like an Insect Singing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:29 am

… “What did you find,” I asked, “specifically?”

This is from the essay ‘The Fifth Planet’ found in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1978). In this story, Eiseley and Williams are looking for remnants of a twenty-ton meteor explosion seen over the high plateau country of the American west. They are housing in the cabin of the sheep herder, Radnor:

… He was a born teacher — if he wasn’t an astronomer I’d have said preacher and been closer to the truth — and he set out to convert Radnor. He aimed to convince Radnor of the importance of meteorite observation, which might have been all right too — there’s no real harm in it if your mind runs that way — but then he added that last devilish touch that only a fanatic like Williams would have used to corrode the soul of a good sheepman.

It was unethical, to my mind, immoral really, because it is the kind of thing which the innocent amateur isn’t ready to withstand. He hasn’t built up to it with the necessary preparation. You take him, addlepated and open-mouthed, and let him look into space until his brain is reeling. Then you whisper over his shoulder something about life out there in that void, and the only way we can ever learn if it exists. And you speak — oh, I knew old Williams well, you know — of the freezing dark that surrounds us and the loneliness that comes to the astronomer in that room under the slit dome. You speak of the suns going by, and the great fires roaring in the solitude of space. You speak of endless depths, great distances all cold and still and empty of the life of man. And then far off, like an insect singing, you begin to whisper the hope of life on other planets, and whether it is true or untrue, and whether there has ever been or will be things like ourselves out there to share our loneliness. And then you tell again, how the secret may be found.

[ … two years later … ]

… “I don’t look any more,” [Radnor] said, and then repeated it. I dropped into a chair and he sat uneasily facing me on the porch railing. A sort of tension was building up steadily between us.

“I don’t look any more because I know,” he said. “I know about it already. ‘Seek and you shall find,’ the Book says. It doesn’t say what you will find; it just says you will find. Up here there are ways. Williams knew them.”

I looked past him into the night. There was nowhere else to look except out on that great windswept plateau. A long streamer of green light shot across the horizon. The stones are still coming in, I thought wearily, but with the other part of my mind I said to Radnor, putting my words carefully together, “I don’t follow you. Do you mean you found something?”

He ignored the interruption. “I believed in the Plan,” he said, “what some people call the Divine Plan. I believed in life. I believed it was advancing, rising, becoming more intelligent. I believed it might have been further along out there” — he gestured mutely. “I believed it would give us hope to know.”

I heard him, but I put the question bluntly. After all, it might be a matter for science and scientist is what I called myself. “What did you find,” I asked, “specifically?”

“The Plan is not what you think,” he said. His eyes in that strange light were alien and as cryptic as before. “The Plan is not what you think it is. I know about it now. And life — ” He made another gesture, wide, indifferent, and final. There was a greater emptiness than space within him. I could feel it grow as we sat there.

I did not ask that question again. You can call me a fool, but you did not sit there as I did in that valley out of time, while star falls whispered overhead, and a fanatic talked icy insanity at your elbow. I tell you the man frightened me — or maybe it was space itself. I got the feeling somehow that he wanted me to ask again what he had found. And by then I didn’t want to hear. Why? Well, that kind of experience is painful, and you try to forget afterward, but I think he must have hit some weak spot in my psychology, probed unaware some unexpressed deep horror of my own. Anyhow I had a feeling that I might believe his answer, and I knew in the same clairvoyant instant of revulsion that I would not bear to hear him give it.

-Julie

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