Author: Patrick Bredehoft
One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. ~Loren Eiseley
A few months ago, I picked up a copy of The Star Thrower, an extraordinary collection of essays from one of my favorite nonfiction authors: Loren Eiseley. In reading W.H. Auden’s introduction for the book, I was surprised to realize that Eiseley and I have something in common–we both worked for the University of Pennsylvania.
Of course, those careers are hardly parallel. By the time Eiseley died in 1977, he had earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Penn, along with 36 honorary degrees from other institutions. In fact, he is the single most honored member of the University of Pennsylvania since Benjamin Franklin: he was Provost from 1959 to 1961, and the university subsequently created an interdisciplinary teaching position for him, eventually named the Benjamin Franklin Professorship– a precursor of today’s PIK professors (http://makinghistory.upenn.edu/pikintro). He is the author of more than a dozen works, each of which is anthropological in theme, universal in scope, and lyrical in tone. Reading an essay by Eiseley always reminds me of the first time I read Thoreau’s Walden, although Eiseley offers far more scientific grounding and his words more easily quicken my spirit. My father first shared his copy of The Unexpected Universe with me when I was twelve years old, and Eiseley provided me with my first windows into the astonishing field of anthropology: a study of human experience that is political, historical, biological, paleontological, geological, cosmic, and in Eiseley’s case, intensely poetic.
In re-visiting Eiseley’s writing and reading more about him, I learned that he and his wife are buried in Bala Cynwyd, in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Recently, I drove out to the cemetery, and after a long walk over many hills (the grounds sit on 181 acres), I found his tombstone under a big ash tree. On a humble semi-circle of stone, Eiseley and his wife Mabel have a brief epitaph that pulls a line from his poem, The Little Treasures: “We loved the earth, but could not stay…”
My life and Eiseley’s never overlapped–he died three years before I was born–but he has been a profound contributor to my love for the earth, for science, and for humanity’s small but special place in the cosmos. I’m proud to be part of a university whose history includes minds like Franklin’s and Eiseley’s, and I hope that for however long I stay, I can contribute to that noble tradition of exploration. I know I still have a long way to go in the service of that effort, but as Eiseley once wrote, “Man would not be man if his dreams did not exceed his grasp…”