Great Minds

100_1176Throughout my career in the ecological sciences there have been two people who I have admired from a distance.  These two great men stood above the rest.  They were more than brilliant in the natural sciences, they were capable of conveying complex thoughts to anyone who was interested and who would listen. 


The first was Loren Eiseley.  I first discovered him by accident at the library in my late teenage years.  I picked up a copy of The Immense Journey and looked at it briefly.  I was intrigued so I signed the book out and brought it home.  I opened the book after dinner and didn’t put it down until I finished sometime early the next morning.  From that point forward I read everything by Loren Eiselely that I could get my hands on.  Not only was he a great anthropologist, but an incredible naturalist.  A man who understood the universe as something that was so complex that it was inexplicable.  And yet he explained much of our natural world eloquently.  Before biomimicry was even a word, Loren Eisely coined the idea that man did not invent anything, he merely copies what already exists in nature.  Though I never had Dr. Eiseley as a professor, and I never attended one of his lectures or a presentations, I was granted the gift of knowledge through my readings of his great writing.  Books like Night Country,  The Invisible Pyramid,  Unexpected Universe, and Darwin’s Century not only brought me joy but taught me to search for my place in the natural world.


Loren Eiseley was admired by other great writers.  Men like W.H. Auden and Ray Bradbury.  Can you imagine being a writer and being admired by these two great authors?


Sometime in the mid 1970’s I remembering waiting in great anticipation of his autobiography All the Strange Hours.  When it became available I bought a copy immediately.  I dove into the book with the utmost anticipation.  The book was written beautifully, the subtitle, I believe was The Excavation of a Life, and yet I was bitterly disappointed.  Eiseley could not have been more clear about his disappointment in humankind.  He made me believe that there was no hope for the human race, that we would never understand our place in the natural world, and for that, we would be doomed.  Still a young man I wanted to believe in the future, not only the future of the planet, but the future of the human race.  His thoughts devastated me and I went on my own way to eventually find a new hero.


At some point in the late 1970’s I became aware of James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia principle.  I was fascinated with his intellect.  Although not the gifted writer Eiseley was, he was a nearly unparalleled thinker.  Although many aboriginal tribes believe the earth to be one living thing, Lovelock brought this notion to the modern world.  Many thought his theory poppycock, but it began to gain momentum and popularity until in the mid 1980’s he gained much universal recognition.  I spent hours and hours reading essays he wrote.  I loved his book Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth.  I was fascinated with the simple principle that our planet was one living organism, organic and inorganic working interdependently as one form of life.  It made perfect sense to me.  After all, aren’t all single cells composed of organic and inorganic parts?  Life and biology had new meaning for me.  The world was a different place to my new way of thinking.


For years I have believed in this principle and use it in my own teachings and writings.  This theory, although very complex in nature, is also very simple.  It is so simple, in fact, that as I began to understand the principles of Gaia I felt its’ truth right down to my very core.  It seemed synonymous with the native american legend and lore I had studied and enjoyed.  It just seemed simply true.


And so it was the greatest of disappointments when I recently read that Dr. Lovelock thinks that the world is doomed; that man has pushed the planet over the proverbial edge.  It is too late, he proclaims, the world cannot recover from man made climate change!


I believe that it is this loss of hope that will cloud the human mind.  We cannot even hope to think clearly if there is no future. 


For years I have wondered if the planet would survive the dramatic changes that will be brought about by climate change. In thinking about this I imagine the origins of the earth.  An organism developed form noxious gasses that cooled to become the foundation for Gaia.  Billions and billions of years of slow change, mind boggling slow change, that one step at a time, formed the living organism that we have today.  The planet has gone through massive continental collisions, huge land masses drifting across the oceans, long periods of toxic atmospheres, asteroids crashing into our planet that have wiped out dominant life forms forever, unimaginable volcanoes that have spewed ashes into the atmosphere and blocked out the sun, and ice age after ice age where miles of ice advance rototilled the surface of our planet killing everything in its path, and still the planet survives.


Why is it we think that this climatic change will end our planet?  The answer to that is simple in my estimation. I think it is because of two reasons.  The first is that we are possibly responsible.  The second is that we cannot imagine the planet without us, even though we are a new relatively new species that has only recently appeared on the scene. 


The planet will survive.  The question is will humankind survive.  I can only pray that we still have enough hope to see the errors of our ways and the courage to change what we do, how we think, and who we are in relation to the earth.


Who is my new hero for the natural world? That’s easy, Janine Benyus who spends her life teaching humankind about biomimicry.  Ms. Benyus tells us if we really pay attention to our planet and its countless miracles we can figure out how to solve almost any problem.  Check her out. 


Written for March 2009.

  • Kenneth

    Hi! Do you have a copy of the immense journey? A pdf format may do? How i wish i’ll be able 2 read it.. Tnx.

  • bill

    Hi Kenneth
    Thanks for reading “Great Minds” on My copy of The Immense Journey fell apart years ago. Perhaps you can get a used copy from an on-line bookstore. Also most libraries carry a good stock of Loren Eiseley books. Good luck! Let me know how you like it. I also recommend The Invisible Pyramid.


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