What I’m Reading: The Night Country

The Night Country, by the late Penn anthropologist Loren Eiseley, is a collection of fourteen essays united by the themes of nightime, darkness, or dreams. Some of the essays are memoir-ish, recollecting Eiseley’s strange and lonely childhood with a deaf mother and mostly absent workaholic father in Lincoln, Nebraska. Others are about some of the odder, darker encounters he had on archeology expeditions. Others still are ruminations on insomnia, or creatures who live in the dark.

My favorite essay, I think, is one near the beginning called “The Places Below.” It describes his first real childhood friendship with an older boy named Rat. Rat led a gang of boys, and his favorite thing to do was to explore the drainage system under their neighborhood, which they could travel through for miles. He would generally take his gang with him, but at some point, Rat realized that he and Loren had in common a love for dark, hidden places, so special underground locations he saved for the two of them alone. Loren draws parallels between these early adventures and his later archeological explorations in remote and inaccessible caves. This essay reminded me of my own college days and weekends spent spelunking with the Sewanee outdoor club.

Another interesting essay is “The Relic Men.” In this one, Loren and an assistant travel to a remote hill country somewhere in the American southwest to work on a dig. While buying groceries in the local town, an elderly man approaches them, inquiring if they’re the archeologists on the dig, and claims he knows the location of an ancient statue of a beautiful woman that he has never shown anyone else. Loren suspects it’s nothing but is intrigued nonetheless, and agrees to see what the man has found.

He and the assistant meet the man the next morning at his remote homestead, really no more than a hovel where the man lives alone. They take a long journey deep into a rocky landscape devoid of human habitation. Finally, they come across the “woman:” a rock concretion that does look remarkably human-like, but only by coincidence. It holds no archeological or geological interest. He is about to tell the man the truth, but when he sees the rapt expression on the elderly man’s face upon beholding the rock formation, Loren realizes this concretion has acquired huge significance for the old homesteader during his long lonely life. Instead of the truth, Loren tells the man it’s an ancient relic of great significance, but far too fragile to move. The man should protect it by telling nobody, that future generations of scientists might discover the stone woman and properly take care of her.

Eiseley’s language is poetic and vivid, although he does pile it on a bit thick in a few places. A couple of the essays are sort of philosophical meditations that I found abstruse. But the majority of them are beautifully done, lyrically written, and fascinating in subject matter. I suppose the overall theme of the book is that the man of science can uncover a great deal of knowledge, but there will always be limits to our ability to penetrate a veil of mystery and unknowability that cover the world. That place where man can pass through but not fully comprehend is the Night Country. The book was written in 1971 and I believe at that time was considered a somewhat important work. It deserves to be more widely read in our own generation as well.

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