The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world

There was a time when scientists weren’t ashamed to go on record contemplating the meaning of the cosmos as revealed through the scientific method, and one of the great practitioners of this genre was Loren Eiseley. While waiting to take my daughter to school this morning, I came across this passage in his book, The Unexpected Universe, published in 1964 — one year before I was born.

Here is the kind of mythopoeic perception that Eiseley was capable to bringing to phenomenon that are now treated as mere cold facts:

A few days ago I chanced to look into a rain pool on the walk outside my window, and the beauty and the strange rhythm of the extending and concentric wavelets entered my mind. I saw that I was looking symbolically upon the whole history of life upon our globe. There, in a wide, sweeping circle, ran the early primates from whom we are descended; here, as a later drop within the rim of the greater circle, emerged the first men. I was the mammoths pass in a long, slow, world-wide surge, but the little drop of man changed into a great hasty wave that swept them under.

There were sudden little ringlets, like the fauna of isolated islands, that appeared and disappeared with rapidity. Sometimes so slow were the drops that the pool was almost quiet, like the intense, straining silence of a quiescent geological period. Sometimes the rain, like the mutations in animal form, came so fast that the ripples broke, mixed, or kept their shapes with difficulty and did not spread far. Jungles, I read in my mystical water glass, microfaunas changing rapidly but with little spread.

Watch instead, I thought, for the great tides — it is they that contain that planet’s story. As the rain hastened or dripped slowly the pictures in the little pool were taken into my mind as though from the globe of a crystal-gazer. How often, if we learn to look, is a spider’s wheel a universe, or a swarm of summer midges a galaxy, or a canyon a backward glance into time. Beneath our feet is the scratched pebble that denotes an ice age, or above us the summer cloud that changes form in one afternoon as an animal might do in ten million years.

This is mythopoeia. All of this from gazing into a little pool pelted by drops of water! It’s as beautiful as Shakespeare (who Eiseley loved as a gift from his father), and captures the exquisite drama of the human adventure in ways that few scientists’s writing can now do.

Eiseley concludes, “The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world of which we learn only through devised instruments. Through such instruments measuring atomic decay we have learned to probe the depths of time before our coming and to gauge temperatures long vanished.”

How akin Eisley’s “Where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world” is with W.B. Yeats’ “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

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