Nature, Imagination, and Process Thought
by Terry Goddard
I am reading Loren Eiseley and thinking about Alfred North Whitehead. Eiseley thought about and read Whitehead as well, and you find those thoughts in his essays. One essay that I find exemplifies an aspect of process thought is “The Flow of the River” from his book on evolution – The Immense Journey. This aspect of Whitehead’s process philosophy is the concept of ‘prehension’. Prehension is the process whereby we grasp particular experiences from our past, take them into ourselves and create something new, something novel. These past experiences evoke feelings. As Robert Mesle says, “We feel past feelings”. Of course, the feelings we experience as we remember some past event or part of our life or bit of music, are not identical to the original. The past is now experienced – felt – from our current perspective, making it new.
“As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream. In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges. Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed.” So, begins Eiseley’s description of the Platte River in northwest Nebraska and his experience floating in its waters.
Eiseley spent a great amount of time in his early years in Nebraska walking along the Platte River in search of fossils – human and otherwise. He had never gone beyond wading in the shallows, however. When he was a young boy, Eiseley had almost drowned while swimming and of course was frightened of the water. Yet on this particular day while wading in a shallow pool, Eiseley was struck by “the sight of sky and willows and the weaving net of water murmuring…on its way to the Gulf stirred me…” The thought came to him (from where?) that he was going to float in the Platte. A great adventure awaited him, he thought. As he stood in ankle-deep water he slowly decided to lay back and float out into the stream. He describes feeling the pull of the warm Gulf waters on his feet and the cool tingle of mountain spring water on the tips of his fingers. He imaged he was flowing along an ancient sea-bed and the trails of nineteenth-century prairie schooners. “I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water…” he imagined. Once Eiseley emerged from the water he noted the pull of gravity and the difficulty our bodies have to “break contact with that mother element which…brings into being nine tenths of everything alive.” Water for Eiseley, “touches the past and prepares the future.” If there is “magic on this planet,” he writes, “it is contained in water.” For Eiseley it is images of or deep memories of the ancient past that come flowing into his consciousness as he floats along the Platte. It is a flow of experience – it reads like stream of consciousness.
When I first read “Flow”, memories of lying in a cornfield behind my childhood home in northern Illinois came flooding back. I was in the second grade, 6 or 7 years old. We lived in a small farming village with a two-room schoolhouse. Out our back door was a cornfield. On hot summer days I would take my mayonnaise sandwich and a 7-Up and walk out into the fields. The corn stalks were higher than my head, and I would quickly be lost to view from outside the field. I could not see my house nor anything except corn stalks and sky. I would find a good spot between the corn rows, sit down and eat my sandwich and drink my 7-Up. Then I would lay back on the cool ground. The space between corn rows was a perfect fit for my small body. I looked at the sky and the passing clouds. The movement of the clouds had the effect that I was moving, that I was gently floating along with the clouds. Soon I was lost in clouds but continued to be anchored in the cool red soil of the cornfield. I heard the wind rattling the corn stalks and the call of the rough-legged hawk. Soon I was the hawk floating on the wind currents.
For me and I feel certain for Eiseley, our memories – these flows of experiences – are filled with feelings as moving as the waters of the Platte and as stirring as the cornfields of northern Illinois. As Whitehead claims the new, the novel is comprised in part by the flow of “drops of experience” bursting with feelings that are given new life as they meet the present. Through these experiences of remembering a time from our pasts, Eiseley and I were able to re-experience the emotions, the feelings attached to those times in new and imaginative ways. In Eiseley’s case he was able to image the deep ancient past. While I imaged being able to transcend my body and take on another form.
I am seventy-four-years-old now, and the memories I have of that cornfield are no longer the same as I had as a six-year-old. But the memories remain, changed for sure. They and many others are there in my memory bank ready to come forth when triggered by some current stimulus. In this case the stimulus was reading Eiseley. In Eiseley’s case the stimulus was laying back and floating in the waters of the Platte. All of us have a storehouse of memories waiting to be made new. Not all past experiences will bring with them happy memories, but they are part of us. Some are struggling to come out, others we suppress as best we can. They all have lessons to teach. And in some few cases, like that of “Flow” they are magical.
Eiseley and Whiteheadian thinkers have much in common, particularly the ideas that shape ecological civilization. According to Jay McDaniel, “An Ecological Civilization is an outlook on life and way of living in the world that sees something important and beautiful, something sacred, in people, animals, and the earth.” Eiseley’s sense of deep history (history of the earth) unites his love of science with his love of nature in all its forms and expressions; from the primordial ooze that first brought forth life, to the mastodons and saber tooth tigers, to the dancing fox and flowering plants, he affirms they all have value for themselves and for us.
Also by Terry Goddard: