Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975) — a Book Review

01 July 2015


Not for most readers, but good for those whom it was intended for



Loren Eiseley’s frequently incoherent memoir — All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975) — is not for most readers.


Yet, those who hold psychic ties to the last Ice Age will relate to it — which, I suspect, was Dr. Eiseley’s purpose in writing it as stream of consciously as he did.



Ordinarily, being as oriented toward concise clarity as I am, I would hate this memoir


But I am a “primitive” in exactly the same way that Dr. Eiseley concluded that he was. And I am kin to his disorientation with Modernity’s ways. We are Quaternary period, megafauna-hunting brothers in soul.


Indeed, Professor Eiseley wrote this book at the same age that I am now.


And curiously, our geographic, educational, and occupational backgrounds share strikingly deep similarities. We even share strong streaks of familial insanity.



First — the off-putting aspects of the memoir


Connie Barlow — writing under her husband, Michael Dowd’s account with Amazon — made an insightful point about Hours that will probably occur to mainstream and psychically balanced readers who venture deeply into the memoir:



In "All the Strange Hours" you will catch glimpses of a nature mystic and supreme essayist, but only glimpses.


What you will discover (page after page) is a bitter man who even as an elder has not grasped that a failure to forgive harms not the wrongdoer but oneself.


Would that Eiseley could have loved the imperfect humans who wandered (mostly unbidden) into his life, just as he loved the pocked and predated realm of all that is nonhuman!


© 2011 Connie Barlow, Memoir as the mismeasure of the man, Amazon.com (17 November 2011)


Although I might not use the word “bitter” to describe Eiseley, I would agree that he never seems to have made peace with his tormentingly difficult placement in Time’s chronology or with many of the people who populated his challenging life.



In some respects, however, Connie Barlow’s observation is beside the point


Eiseley obviously did not care a wit about aging gracefully (or even wisely) in today’s (psycho-pop) vocabulary. That is the point to his memoir.


He was after more primal stuff.



Keep in mind that the other Amazon reviews are laudatory


Rowan W. Smith’s is eloquently representative of those:



I wept when I read it the first time; sometimes I have to put the book down when I am rereading it because the power of his words draws out feelings I was sure no one else could know about.


Yes, some of the stories are uneven, the prose not always polished. Perhaps that is to be expected when an extraordinarily insightful person turns introspective.


A bright and honest light on all the places within, including the dark ones, can cause the voice to break and the hand to shiver.


© 2001, Rowan W. Smith, If it hits you, it hits you hard, Amazon.com (28 November 2001)



The best way to get a handle on this unusual volume is via quotations drawn from it — But unfortunately . . .


Hours’ incoherent aspects require too many pages to exemplify.


One such seemingly interminable passage concerns Eiseley’s mind wandering during a speech. A rat appears on stage. Someone draws his attention to it. What is already far down from the peak of clarity descends even further into patience-testing nonsense.


There are many such passages in Hours. The book is actually constructed around them.


If you are a “get to the point” person — which I usually am — the book can be tediously errant. Midway through it, I got so irritated with unnecessarily meandering blather that I set it aside for two days. Not everyone needs to see the dross that comprises the underside of our minds. I can, for example, imagine Eiseley writing drunkenly and morosely in the undisciplined way that some people do. Not to say that he did. Just that — had he — the product could have been Hours.


Yet . . .



Eloquence in All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, however, much outweighs its frequently inept delivery


Hours is about being caught in a net of old genes and memories that frequently fool us into disbelieving Time’s unidirectional arrow. We teeter on the precipice of fearful confusion, wondering where and why we are.


As Connie Barlow’s Amazon review implied, there is not much distilled wisdom in the book. The volume does not tutor us. It is more about the stuff of a primitive’s bad dreams, failure and suffering than it is about rising above those. For people genetically and psychically like Eiseley, it offers the companionship of similar perspective.



Here are some glimpses


Regarding life’s meaning:



A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above [my mother’s] grave in a place call Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner. And it was all for nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in passing, like the maimed discarded chicks in the hatchery trays — no more than that.


To tell the story of a life one is bound to linger above gravestones where memory blurs and doors can be pushed ajar, but never opened. Listen, or do not listen, it is all the same.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at page 23) (extracts)


On freedom from ideology — succinctly taught by a Depression Era hobo:



He stood up in the firelight . . . .


“Remember this,” he said suddenly, dispassionately, as though the voice originated over his shoulder, “Just get this straight. . . . The capitalists beat men into line. Okay? The communists beat men into line . . . . Men beat men, that’s all. That’s all there is. Remember it, kid. Take care of yourself.”


He walked away up the dark diverging track.


He did not kill the illusions of youth, not right away. But he left all my life henceforward free of mobs and movements, free as only very wild things are both solitary and free. I owed him that.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at page 10) (extracts)


On escaping Time’s constant squeeze:



It was the last of my drifting days . . . .


[I]t was for me the most perfect day in the world and that is why I retain its memory, safely severed from time and reality. Every must treasure such a day into which he can retreat when the years grow desperate.


But out of all the towns and stations of those years, it was somewhere in Kansas in the wheat.


We were just there. Birds of passage with no past, no future, no desires.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at pages 61-62) (extracts)


On mind’s limits:



I guess I’m not a very good scientist; I’m not sufficiently proud, nor confident of my powers, nor any human powers.


One is supposed to flourish Occam’s razor [see here] and reduce hypotheses about a complex world to human proportions.


We trick ourselves with our own ingenuity. I don’t believe in simplicity.


Perhaps William James put things most felicitously when he said, “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.”


When contradictory truths multiply, one is forced to recognize a certain mockery is written into the very fabric of nature.


[I]n a little-known passage the great experimentalist Claude Bernard once echoed . . . . “I put up with ignorance,” he said. “That is my philosophy.”


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at pages 90-91 and 187-188 and 247) (extracts)


Regarding humanity’s links to the Ice Age(s):



[W]e, mankind, arose amidst the wandering of the ice and marched with it. We are in some sense shaped by it, as it has shaped the stones.


Like the ice, we have been cruel to the face of the planet and the life upon it. A chill wind lingers about us. With a few slight exceptions we are merciless.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at page 155) (extracts)


Demonstrating lyrical eloquence — especially affecting for those of us once connected to agriculture:



Oncoming age is to me a vast wild autumn country strewn with broken seedpods, hurrying cloud wrack, abandoned farm machinery, and circling crows.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at page 228)


With respect to age’s effect on personal utility:



Within my own lifetime I have completed the journey from my perfect day as a wanderer to an old man crouching by a wall in the October sun, glad to be left alone to his observations of insects and such small mammals as remain. Already I am as much an anachronism as the last warriors lingering helplessly along the railroad line that had destroyed the buffalo and the Indians’ way of life.


“A ya,” I start to say to one gone, “the mammoth will be passing shortly.” My voice has also changed. I know I am speaking in gutturals long gone by — the gutturals of the mammoth hunters.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at pages 68-69) (extracts)


The memoir’s last line — crafted for those (like me and possibly you) genetically born in the long ago time of high ice:



They wait for me, the dog Wolf and the Indian, muffled in snow upon the altiplano.


© 1975 Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 1975) (at page 266)



If you liked reading these extracts, you will appreciate All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life . . .


. . .  even if you have to halter your impatience, so as to excavate Eiseley’s cogency from his frequently unanchored dream state.