I’ve been reading Loren Eiseley (anthropologist, author) this evening and trying to organise some impressions from this year’s upheavals. Eiseley’s writing is like fingerprints on glass. His thoughts are so distinctly, uniquely ridged, and so misty-invisible.
At one point he describes a junkman with a ‘broken old horse’ and a cart of discarded things. Then-sixteen-year-old Eiseley saw him on the corner of ‘R’ and ‘Fourteenth’ street in 1923, slipping away with a cartload of incidental scraps – the symbol of all of us, and our memories. So an observant teenage boy fastened on this incidental scrap of another person’s passing, and sealed it up in his mind. He held the junkman and the donkey suspended at an intersection of time until he wrote them down in this essay.
‘I have seen a tree root burst a rock face on a mountain or slowly wrench aside the gateway of a forgotten city. … Life, unlike the inanimate, will take the long way round to circumvent barrenness. A kind of desperate will resides even in a root. It will perform the evasive tactics of an army, slowly inching its way through crevices and hoarding energy until someday it swells and a living tree upheaves the heaviest mausoleum.’
(from ‘The Last Neanderthal’)
Eiseley died in 1977, fifty-four years after 1923, and one year before I was born – but this junkman, symbol of the vanishing past, has still not slipped across ‘R’ street into oblivion. Because the sensitive feelers of Eiseley’s awareness inched through the crevices in words, and burst into witness and meaning again in my mind. And now you (if you read this) see the junkman and the broken horse, too.
What does it mean? I read a few paragraphs this morning about how the future, as unknown, is a place of chaos. But so is the past. The connective strands of meaning have dissolved and only the incidental scraps show here and there – even as memory. We know it Meant and Means something: something worth keeping: how can I forget the junkman now? My mind will cling to him like precious currency – like the silver dollar a child can’t spend because it feels so much more valuable than a dollar, in ways that defy market valuations.
The few paragraphs I read this morning referenced dreams as one way we spin chaos into order. Dreams are a borderland where we interpret all these jutting artifacts and make guesses at their significance.
But I wonder how many silver dollars this year will leave anyone to dream over, if we live shut away from one another. If our older people who are slipping away from their own and other’s memories are sealed up behind impenetrable walls. Memory even as a largely dissolved tissue, as unexplained objects here and there, is ineffably precious. Worthy of dreams, and of planting in crevices of time, till those objects burst into bloom in someone else’s mind. But are we making memories?
Shouldn’t we have learned from our proximity to death that life is meaningful – far too meaningful to value by state-regulated markets? Far too fraught with significance in everyday gestures to allow those we love, and their incalculable jumble of habits and memories, to slip through our intersections forever?
Death is compulsory. Loren Eiseley in his quest for bones is never unconscious of that. But his words witness – with the jutting figures of a broken horse and a junkman in my mind – that our awareness of another tenuous life is a seed with stubborn roots. I see the junkman because Eiseley saw him. I remember him because Eiseley did. That is at least partly what he means.
‘I have learned from these that love which endures the night
May smolder in outward death while the colors blaze,
But trust my love – it is small, burr-coated, and tight.
It will stick to the bone. It will last through the autumn days.’
(Loren Eiseley, ‘Winter Sign’)