Eiseley’s approach is that of the essayist who links personal experience and philosophical reflection. Each of the book’s twenty-five essays might stand alone as an exploration of one period in the writer’s life. Like other prominent nature writers, Eiseley is a scientist with an overabundance of imagination, one who thinks in terms of visual images, symbols, and metaphors. Events and discoveries are analyzed for what they reveal or suggest beyond themselves. His mother’s broken mirror, which he examined as a child, becomes a symbol of her troubled psyche after he sees an identical one still in good condition that belonged to an aunt. A memory of early childhood, a prison escape that ended violently, becomes symbolic of humankind’s lifelong quest for self-fulfillment. These and other images and symbols serve as structural motifs whose recurrence links the isolated essays in the autobiography.
An awareness that somehow time is alien to the individual invites Eiseley to muse over vast stretches of the past. Thus, he concludes that humanity, a product of the ice ages, scoured the earth like the ice, leaving great destruction. The individual life is like the pieces carried along by a glacial stream, fanning out at the end and leaving fragmentary remains.
Yet, Eiseley is troubled by some uses of the past, including the excavation of early human remains by anthropologists. He had done such a thing himself, exposing the remains of Native Americans, a practice that he could justify only on the grounds that science, not commercial exploitation, was being...
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Eiseley’s retrospective on life from the vantage point of old age contains little didacticism. Ever the explorer, the man with a quest, the narrator continues to ask probing questions and to reflect on the meaning of objects and experience. The book will disappoint any young reader who seeks to find in autobiography a guide for life or practical recommendations about living. Eiseley demonstrates the existential point of view that, despite adversity and hardship, a person can discover individual meanings in life and can contribute (modestly to be sure) to humanity’s understanding of the world and the civilizations that have inhabited it.
Willing to view life metaphorically as a game, Eiseley has no illusions about its significance. From his studies of paleontology and archaeology, he grew accustomed to counting time in past millennia, and he acknowledges that the individual life can represent only a minute particle of existence. The pessimism that permeates the book is summed up in the repeated passage, “Behind nothing/ before nothing/ worship it the zero.” The narrator accepts the rules of the game and plays as well as he can, resigned to the reality that for him the game will soon end. What remains will be the broken shards of experience, selective memories of others, and whatever writings survive.