Loren Eiseley: Prophet of the Pyrocene

Presented to 

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Conference, July 26-August 6, 2021, Virtual

Tom Lynch

In a recent essay titled “Writing in the Anthropocene: Idle Chatter or Ecoprophetic Witness?” Kate Rigby argues for the value of returning to earlier voices in our attempts to come to grips with the Anthropocene era we inhabit: “I want to make a case for the value of writing in the anthropocene in the mode of prophetic witness,” she offers. “Such writing would seek to disclose the catastrophic consequences of continuing on our current ecocidal path and awaken us to the possibility of another way of thinking and being: one that holds the promise of reconciling urban industrial society with the Earth” (173-74).

            Rigby makes such a case for the writing of Australian poet Judith Wright. I wish to consider a quite different writer, Loren Eiseley. I want to make the case that Eiseley was likewise an ecoprophetic witness to the emerging Anthropocene. I wish to consider how Eiseley gives us an understanding of the Anthropocene as an emergent suite of phenomena that were a million years in the making, not simply a matter of the industrial revolution or the post WWII great acceleration, although to be sure he recognized those as important inflections points. And in particular, I wish to focus on how Eiseley gestures toward an understanding of the Anthropocene as, in Stephen Pyne’s term, the Pyrocene, the age of fire. 

            Eiseley is perhaps best-known today as a mid-20th century author of works such as The Immense Journey. A skilled stylist who worked in what he called the “concealed essay,” a prose form combining personal experience narrative, scientific knowledge, and philosophy, he helped lay the foundation for the flourishing of the nature writing genre in the latter decades of the 20th century. 

            Eiseley was a dual English-Anthropology major as an undergraduate during the 1920s and showed considerable promise as a writer and a poet. He chose to become a professional anthropologist, however, but he continued his forays into creative writing. And not surprisingly this writing incorporated the evolutionary insights he garnered from his scientific studies, as well as evocative personal experience accounts of his archeological field work. These are themes that served him well as we consider him as a prophetic writer of the Anthropocene.

            Of some relevance from the perspective of Anthropocene studies, Eiseley composed his nonfiction essays primarily during the initial jolt of the great acceleration, from 1946 thru the early 1970s. In these essays he regularly addressed the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear annihilation, the rise of consumer culture, increasing urban and suburban sprawl, and the promise and perils of the space age. Eiseley saw the direction the world was trending at an increasingly rapid pace, and he sought to caution his readers to consider a different path. Though other environmental writers of his time also warned about environmental damage, most notably Rachel Carson, Eiseley’s work is distinctive for its prescience regarding matters we now identify with theories of the Anthropocene.

            A number of the key traits of Anthropocene theory are apparent in his work. Among the most notable is the idea of scale framing. In Ecocriticism on the Edge Timothy Clark argues that “As a concept transferred from geology, the Anthropocene enacts the demand to think of human life at much broader scales of space and time, something which alters significantly the way that many once familiar issues appear” (13). 

            Eiseley had anticipated Clark’s thinking in this regard. In an essay titled “Paw Marks and Buried Towns,” first published in 1958, Eiseley observes that “A man who has once looked with the archaeological eye will never see quite normally” (Night Country 81). In our context, I interpret this to mean that an archeological eye–that is, an eye that provides us with a scale frame of tens of millions of years–allows us to see our current world in a context quite different from that in which we normally view it. The archeological eye, as it were, weirds our familiar world. Our everyday behaviors can be seen as adaptive traits from our primate lineage, perhaps now often maladaptive. Our bodies reveal traces of a billion years of the evolution of life. And the archeological eye allows us to see the emerging lineaments of the Anthropocene not as an abrupt break with our past, but as part of a continuum of human and proto human behaviors stretching back a million years or more.

            I might stick out my neck and claim that no nature writer engages in scale framing to the degree that Eiseley does. Examples appear on nearly every page of his work. Frankly, scale-framing is his most characteristic gesture as a writer. Eiseley appreciated the vast time and space dimensions of the cosmos in which we live. He pondered the billion years of life on Earth. Thinking in terms of billions of years of time, or billions of light years of distance, is not easy. Dare I say it’s impossible. And it is likewise impossible to convey such an awareness in writing. This impossibility of creating a true sense of deep time, of generating an affective comprehension of planetary time scales, poses a problem, I think, for the scale-framing impulse of Anthropocene theory. 

            In his anthropological work Eiseley primarily studied the period of the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene in North America. He was, that is, attuned to the transitions between geological epochs. He well understood that climatic conditions can change and alter the world around us, imperiling not only our own survival, but the survival of many of the myriad species with whom we share the planet. In particular, he was very interested in the mass extinctions of megafauna that occurred at the end of the most recent Pleistocene glacial period, and the question of what role, if any, humans played in such extinctions. In 1935, while on an expedition to the Lindenmeier site in Colorado, north of Fort Collins, Eiseley discovered a Folsom point imbedded in the vertebra of an extinct species of Pleistocene bison. At the time archeologists had assumed humans had been in North America for only 3,000 years. Eiseley’s discovery pushed the dating of human occupation of North America back to 11,000 years BPE. 

            In his professional guise, Eiseley published an article in American Anthropologist titled “The Fire-Drive and the Extinction of the Terminal Pleistocene Fauna.” He was writing in response to Carl Sauer who had recently advanced the then novel hypothesis that “the terminal Pleistocene fauna was destroyed by hunters making wide-spread use of fire-drives in the pursuit of game.” Sauer had argued that fire-drives would have been much more effective in killing large numbers of game animals than would the other available technologies of lance or atalatl, such as the spear point Eiseley had discovered (55). Eiseley summarizes Sauer’s position that “It is Man, not the climatic shifts of the Pleistocene, [Sauer] feels, that destroyed this great fauna” (55). After assessing and questioning Sauer’s evidence and logic, Eiseley concluded that these extinctions could probably not be attributed to any single cause–neither human generated fire-drive nor naturally occurring climate change–but to an accumulation of intersecting factors, climate change and human predation being important but not singularly decisive factors.

            In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Clark has a chapter subtitled “The Fire Ape.” When I first read this chapter, I expected Clark to refer to Eiseley. But was disappointed. Clark concludes this subchapter by suggesting that “one definitive image for the Anthropocene [is] the ape of fire playing with fire.” In 1949 Eiseley had published an essay in Harpers with the same title “The Fire Apes.” And in 1954 Eiseley published an article in Scientific American titled “Man the Fire-Maker.” In these essays he explicated human history as a matter of increasing control of fire, with increasingly dire consequences. “Man the Fire-Maker” concludes with the proposal that “Man is himself a flame–a great, roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth” (57).

            It is notoriously difficult for anthropologists to determine when humans first gained control of fire. Current estimates range between 400,000 and 2 million years ago, with most estimates hovering around 1 million. Fire making is our most distinctive trait as a species. More than anything else it distinguishes us from the other animals. 

            In an essay titled “How Humans Made Fire and Fire Made Us Human” Stephen Pyne makes this point. “Just when hominins acquired the capacity to manipulate fire is unknown,” he says. “But we know that Homo erectus could tend fires and, by the advent of Homo sapiens, hominins could make fire at will.” As Pyne argues, we are a species who not only used fire but are ourselves crafted by fire: “Fire changed us,” he says, “even to our genome. We got small guts and big heads because we could cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we could cook landscapes. And we have become a geologic force because our fire technology has so evolved that we have begun to cook the planet. Our pact with fire made us what we are” (“How Humans”). 

            Pyne credits Eiseley with anticipating this insight, and goes on to outline the key historical moments. “In 1954 the US anthropologist Loren Eiseley likened humanity itself to a flame – spreading widely and transmuting whatever we touch. This process began with hunting and foraging practices, but sharpens with agriculture. Most of our domesticated crops and our domesticated livestock originate in fire-prone habitats, places prone to wet-dry cycles and so easily manipulated by fire-wielding humans.” (“How Humans”)

            In a different essay, titled “The Planet is Burning,” Pyne provides an interesting suggestion that, in all likelihood, had the planet been allowed to follow its own path without human interference, the Holocene epoch would be recognized as simply the most recent inter-glacial period of a continuing Pleistocene. And in all likelihood, except for the intervention of the fire ape, the ice would by now be returning. “The era of the ice is also our era,” he writes: “We are creatures of the Pleistocene as fully as mastodons and polar bears. Early hominins suffered extinctions along with so many other creatures as the tidal ice rose and fell. But humans found in the firestick an Archimedean fulcrum by which to leverage their will. For tens of millennia we used it within the framework bequeathed by the retreating ice, and for more than a century we have been told that we thrived only in a halcyon age, an interglacial, before the ice must inevitably return. Gradually, however, that lever lengthened until, with industrial fire, we could unhinge even the climate and replace ice (with which we can do little) with fire (with which we can seemingly do everything). We can melt ice sheets. We can define geologic eras. We can, on plumes of flame, leave Earth for other planets. It seems Eiseley was right. We are a flame.” (“Planet Is Burning”)

            We are inclined to think of our current transition into the Anthropocene era as a period without precedent, as a wholly new phenomenon. Pyne argues, and I suspect Eiseley would have agreed, that there is indeed precedent, there is indeed a narrative continuity: “So dire is the picture that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant,” writes Pyne. “We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken. There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before.”

            But Pyne disagrees with this view: “Yet a narrative is possible. Where once there was one kind of fire on Earth [naturally occurring fire], then two [human generated fires], there are now three [industrial fire]. That’s the narrative. Between them, they are sculpting a Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. That’s the analogue. Call it the Pyrocene.” (“Planet Is Burning”)

            The book in which Eiseley most extensively considers the suite of phenomena we have come to refer to as the Anthropocene is The Invisible Pyramid. Published in 1970 it was based on a series of lectures he had given in the fall of 1969 on the theme of the book’s subtitle “a naturalist analyses the rocket century.” The lectures were given within a few months of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 and during the time of the second moon landing by Apollo 12. 

            The book deploys a series of interconnected tropes, that, admittedly, mix metaphors, but that also gesture toward various lineaments of the Anthropocene as he saw it. In the gendered language of the day they were: Man the fire ape, Man the world eater, Man the slime mold, and Man the time effacer.

            In the essay titled “The World Eaters,” Eiseley connected the human mastery of fire with an exponential growth in energy usage, particularly since the beginning of the industrial revolution: “Basically, man’s planetary virulence can be ascribed to just one thing,” he writes, “a rapid ascent, particularly in the last three centuries, of an energy ladder so great that the line on the chart representing it would be almost vertical. The event, at the beginning, involved only Western European civilization. Today it increasingly characterized most of the planet” (65). 

            While Eiseley recognized the ecological damage caused by human use of fire as a species-wide trait, he also recognized, as this quotation illustrates, that the blame was not distributed equally among all humans. He acknowledges that the industrial revolution and, ironically, the scientific method, bear much of the responsibility. “Man . . . is not by innate psychology a world eater. He possesses, in his far-ranging mind, only the latent potentiality. The rise of Western urbanism, accompanied by science, produced the world eaters . . .” (115).

            Eiseley is also aware that not all human societies treat nature in the same way. He discusses what at the time were referred to in anthropology as “primitive” societies. For such societies, he offers, “Nature was sacred and contained powers which demanded careful propitiation.” He contrasts such societies with what he refers to as “Modern man,” who “has come to look upon nature as a thing outside himself–an object to be manipulated or discarded at will. It is his technology and its vocabulary that makes his primary world. If, like the primitive, he has a sacred center, it is here. Whatever is potential must be unrolled, brought into being at any cost. No other course is conceived as possible. The economic system demands it” (59). And he later blames the problem on our growing modern consumer society, which, he argues, “draws into itself raw materials from remote regions of the globe” (104). Here, the rather politically conservative Eiseley is skirting with notions of the Capitolocene. 

            In his youth Eiseley often played in the fields of wild sunflowers that grew on the edge of a prairie stream near his Nebraska home. He refers to this as the sunflower forest. Throughout his writing he evokes the sunflower forest as representing all that is best about life on planet Earth, the quintessence of nature’s beauty and bounty. He both begins and ends The Invisible Pyramid with an invocation of that sunflower forest. Aware that readers might find his book pessimistic, he writes in the Prologue: “If, in this book, I choose to act in the ambivalent character of pessimist and optimist, it is because mankind itself plays a similar contradictory role upon the stage of life.” He then continues: “If I term humanity a slime mold organism it is because our present environment suggests it. If I remember the sunflower forest it is because from its hidden reaches man arose. The green world is his sacred center. In moments of sanity he must still seek refuge there.”

            Eiseley concludes the book by linking the sunflower forest to the flight of Apollo 13. As some of you might remember–if not for having lived through it, then for the film version–an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, and its attempt at a 3rd lunar landing instead became a rescue mission. All energy was spent not to reach the moon, but to return to Earth. A topic Eiseley addressed throughout The Invisible Pyramid was the idea, widely shared during those heady days of space travel, that humans must ride the fiery plume of our rockets to colonize the solar system in order to ensure the survival of our species in the event that we made Earth uninhabitable. Eiseley was extremely skeptical of this idea for all the reasons that are obvious to most of us, if not to Elon Musk. 

            Eiseley then offers that, when confronted with the very real possibility of dying in space, the astronauts wanted nothing so much as a return to the safety and comfort of planet Earth. “The desperate crew” of Apollo 13, he writes, was “intent, if nothing else availed, upon leaving their ashes on the winds of earth.” To Eiseley, there is an ecoprophetic lesson in this: we are creatures of planet Earth. And he concludes the book with this message: “A love for earth, almost forgotten in man’s roving mind, had momentarily reasserted its mastery, a love for the green meadows we have so long taken for granted and desecrated to our cost. Man was born and took shape among earth’s leafy shadows. The most poignant thing the astronauts had revealed in their extremity was the nostalgic call still faintly ringing on the winds from the sunflower forest” (156).

            To return to Kate Rigby’s call for ecoprophetic witness with which I opened, I would suggest that in passages such as this, Eiseley’s vision “holds the promise of reconciling urban industrial society with the Earth.”