For many readers of classic literature, the authors who remain with them through the years are few and for some, can be counted on one hand. Over time, Loren Eiseley, the famous 20th century anthropologist, became such a person for me. His essay, The Slit introduces his book, The Immense Journey, one of his most known works.
- Les Blough, Editor
The Slit, from Loren Eiseley's book, The Immense Journey
Loren Eiseley, "The Bone Hunter" 1907 - 1977
Loren Eiseley, "The Bone Hunter" 1907 - 1977
It was to such a land I rode, but I rode to it across a sunlit, timeless prairie over which nothing passed but antelope or a wandering bird. On the verge where that prairie halted before a great wall of naked sandstone and clay, I came upon the Slit. A narrow crack worn by some descending torrent had begun secretly, far back in the prairie grass, and worked itself deeper and deeper into the fine sandstone that led by devious channels into the broken waste beyond. I rode back along the crack to a spot where I could descend into it, dismounted, and left my horse to graze.
The crack was only about body-width and, as I worked my way downward, the light turned ark and green from the overhanging grass. Above me the sky became a narrow slit of distant blue, and the sandstone was cool to my hands on either side. The Slit was a little sinister— like an open grave, assuming the dead were enabled to take one last look—for over me the sky seemed already as far off as some future century I would never see.
I ignored the sky, then, and began to concentrate on the sandstone walls that had led me into this place. It was tight and tricky work, but that cut was a perfect cross section through perhaps ten million years of time. I hoped to find at least a bone, but I was not quite prepared for the sight I finally came upon. Staring straight out at me, as I slid farther and deeper into the green twilight, was a skull embedded in the solid sandstone. I had come at just the proper moment when it was fully to be seen, the white bone gleaming there in a kind of ashen splendor, water worn, and about to be ground away in the next long torrent.
It was not, of course, human. I was deep, deep below the time of man in a remote age near the beginning of the reign of mammals. I squatted on my heels in the narrow ravine, and we stared a little blankly at each other, the skull and I. There were marks of generalized primitiveness in that low, pinched brain case and grinning jaw that marked it as lying far back along those converging roads where, as I shall have occasion to establish elsewhere, cat and man and weasel must leap into a single shape.
It was the face of a creature who had spent his days following his nose, who was led by instinct rather than memory, and whose power of choice was very small. Though he was not a man, nor a direct human ancestor, there was yet about him, even in the bone, some trace of that low, snuffling world out of which our forebears had so recently emerged. The skull lay tilted in such a manner that it stared, sightless, up at me as though I too, were already caught a few feet above him in the strata and, in my turn, were staring upward at that strip of sky which the ages were carrying farther away from me beneath the tumbling debris of falling mountains. The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?
I restrained a panicky impulse to hurry upward after that receding sky that was outlined above the Slit. Probably, I thought, as I patiently began the task of chiseling into the stone around the skull, I would never again excavate a fossil under conditions which led to so vivid an impression that I was already one myself. The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.
As I tapped and chiseled there in the foundations of the world, I had ample time to consider the cunning manipulability of the human fingers. Experimentally I crooked one of the long slender bones. It might have been silica, I thought, or aluminum, or iron—the cells would have made it possible. But no, it is calcium, carbonate of lime. Why? Only because of its history. Elements more numerous than calcium in the earth's crust could have been used to build the skeleton. Our history is the reason—we came from the water. It was there the cells took the lime habit, and they kept it after we came ashore.
It is not a bad symbol of that long wandering, I thought again—the human hand that has been fin and scaly reptile foot and furry paw. If a stone should fall (I cocked an eye at the leaning shelf above my head and waited, fatalistically) let the bones lie here with their message, for those who might decipher it, if they come down late among us from the stars.
Above me the great crack seemed to lengthen.
Perhaps there is no meaning in it at all, the thought went on inside me, save that of journey itself, so far as men can see. It has altered with the chances of life, and the chances brought us here; but it was a good journey -- long, perhaps — but a good journey under a pleasant sun. Do not look for the purpose. Think of the way we came and be a little proud. Think of this hand—the utter pain of its first venture on the pebbly shore.
Or consider its later wanderings.
I ceased my tappings around the sand-filled sockets of the skull and wedged myself into a crevice for a smoke. As I tamped a load of tobacco into my pipe, I thought of a town across the valley that I used sometimes to visit, a town whose little inhabitants never welcomed me. No sign points to it and I rarely go there any more. Few people know about it and fewer still know that in a sense we, or rather some of the creatures to whom we are related, were driven out of it once, long ago. I used to park my car on a hill and sit silently observant, listening to the talk ringing out from neighbor to neighbor, seeing the inhabitants drowsing in their doorways, taking it all in with nostalgia—the sage smell on the wind, the sunlight without time, the village without destiny. We can look, but we can never go back. It is prairie-dog town.
"Whirl is king," said Aristophanes, and never since life began was Whirl more truly king than eighty million years ago in the dawn of the Age of Mammals. It would come as a shock to those who believe firmly that the scroll of the future is fixed and the roads determined in advance, to observe the teetering balance of earth's history through the age of the Paleocene. The passing of the reptiles had left a hundred uninhabited life zones and a scrambling variety of newly radiating forms. Unheard-of species of giant ground birds threatened for a moment to dominate the earthly scene. Two separate orders of life contended at slightly different intervals for the pleasant grasslands—for the seeds and the sleepy burrows in the sun.
Sometimes, sitting there in the mountain sunshine above prairie-dog town, I could imagine the attraction of that open world after the fern forest damp or the croaking gloom of carboniferous swamps. There by a tree root I could almost make him out, that shabby little Paleocene rat, eternal tramp and world wanderer, father of all mankind. He ruffed his coat in the sun and hopped forward for a seed. It was to be a long time before he would be seen on the grass again, but he was trying to make up his mind. For good or ill there was to be one more chance, but that chance was fifty million years away.
Here in the Paleocene occurred the first great radiation of the placental mammals, and among them were the earliest primates—the zoological order to which man himself belongs. Today, with a few unimportant exceptions, the primates are all arboreal in habit except man. For this reason we have tended to visualize all of our remote relatives as tree dwellers. Recent discoveries, however, have begun to alter this one-sided picture. Before the rise of the true rodents, the highly successful order to which present-day prairie dogs and chipmunks belong, the environment which they occupy had remained peculiarly open to exploitation. Into this zone crowded a varied assemblage of our early relatives."
"In habitat," comments one scholar, "many of these early primates may be thought of as the rats of the Paleocene. With the later appearance of true rodents, the primate habitat was markedly restricted." The bone hunters, in other words, have succeeded in demonstrating that numerous primates reveal a remarkable development of rodent-like characteristics in the teeth and skull during this early period of mammalian evolution. The movement is progressive and distributed in several different groups. One form, although that of a true primate, shows similarities to the modern kangaroo rat, which is, of course, a rodent. There is little doubt that it was a burrower.
It is this evidence of a lost chapter in the history of our kind that I used to remember on the sunny slope above prairie-dog town, and why I am able to say in a somewhat figuratively fashion that we were driven out of it once ages ago. We are not, except very remotely as mammals, related to prairie dogs. Nevertheless, through several million years of Paleocene time, the primate order, instead of being confined to trees, was experimenting to some extent with the same grassland burrowing life that the rodents later perfected. The success of these borrowers crowded the primates out of this environment and forced them back into the domain of the branches. As a result, many primates, by that time highly specialized for a ground life, became extinct.
In the restricted world of the trees, a "refuge area," as the zoologist would say, the others lingered on in diminished numbers. Our ancient relatives, it appeared, were beaten in their attempt to expand upon the ground; they were dying out in the temperate zone, and their significance as a widespread and diversified group was fading. The shabby pseudo-rat I had seen ruffling his coat to dry after the night damps of the reptile age, had ascended again into the green twilight of the rain forest. The chatterers with the ever-growing teeth were his masters. The sunlight and the grass belonged to them.
It is conceivable that except for the invasion of the rodents, the primate line might even have abandoned the trees. We might be there on the grass, you and I, barking in the high-plains sunlight. It is true we came back in fifty million years with the cunning hands and the eyes that the tree world gave us, but was it victory? Once more in memory I saw the high blue evening fall sleepily upon that village, and once more swung the car to leave, lifting, as I always did, a figurative lantern to some ambiguous crossroads sign within my brain. The pointing arms were nameless and nameless were the distances to which they pointed. One took one's choice.
I ceased my daydreaming then, squeezed myself out of the crevice, shook out my pipe, and started chipping once more, the taps sounding along the inward-leaning walls of the Slit like the echo of many footsteps ascending and descending. I had come a long way down since morning; I had projected myself across a dimension I was not fitted to traverse in the flesh. In the end I collected my tools and climbed painfully up through the colossal debris of ages. When I put my hands on the surface of the crack I looked all about carefully in a sudden anxiety that it might not be a grazing horse that I would see.
He had not visibly changed, however, and I mounted in some slight trepidation and rode off, having a memory for a camp—if I had gotten a foot in the right era —which should lie somewhere over to the west. I did not, however, escape totally from that brief imprisonment.
Perhaps the Slit, with its exposed bones and its far-off vanishing sky, has come to stand symbolically in my mind for a dimension denied to man, the dimension of time, Like the wistaria on the garden wall he is rooted in his particular century. Out of it—forward or backward—he cannot run. As he stands on his circumscribed pinpoint of time, his sight for the past is growing longer, and even the shadowy outlines of the galactic future are growing clearer, though his own fate he cannot yet see. Along the dimension of time, man, like the rooted vine in space, may never pass in person. Considering the innumerable devices by which the mindless root has evaded the limitations of its own stability, however, it may well be that man himself is slowly achieving powers over a new dimension—a dimension capable of presenting him with a wisdom he has barely begun to discern.
Through how many dimensions and how many media will life have to pass? Down how many roads among the stars must man propel himself in search of the final secret? The journey is difficult, immense, at times impossible, yet that will not deter some of us from attempting it. We cannot know all that has happened in the past, or the reason for all of these events, anymore than we can with surety discern what lies ahead. We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know.
The reader who would pursue such a journey with me is warned that the essays in this book [i.e. The Immense Journey] have not been brought together as a guide but are offered rather as a somewhat unconventional record of the prowlings of one mind which has sought to explore, to understand, and to enjoy the miracles of this world, both in and out of science. It is, without doubt, an inconsistent record in many ways, compounded of fear and hope, for it has grown out of the seasonal jottings of a man preoccupied with time. It involves, I see now as I come to put together, the four ancient elements of the Greeks: mud and the fire within it we call life, vast waters, and something — space, air, the intangible substance of hope which at the last proves un-analysable by science, yet out of which the human dream is made.
Forward and backward - I have gone, and for me it has been an immense journey. Those who accompany me need not look for science in the usual sense, though I have done all in my power to avoid errors in fact. I have given the record of what one man thought as he pursued research and pressed his hands against the confining walls of scientific method in his time. It is not, I must confess at the outset, an account of discovery so much as a confession of ignorance and of the final illumination that sometimes comes to a man when he is no longer careful of his pride. In the last three chapters of the book I have tried to put down such miracles as can be evoked from common earth. But men see differently. I can at best report only from my own wilderness. The important thing is that each man possess such a wilderness and that he consider what marvels are to be observed there.
Finally, I do not pretend to have set down, in Baconian terms, a true, or even a consistent model of the universe. I can only say that here is a bit of my personal universe, the universe traversed in a long and uncompleted journey. If my record, like those of the sixteenth-century voyagers, is confused by strange beasts or monstrous thoughts or sights of abortive men, these are no more than my eyes saw or my mind conceived. On the world island we are all castaways, so that what is seen by one may often be dark or obscure to another.