Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) is an author I've heard of but never considered reading, being a naturalist, an area I in which I am woefully ignorant. It's a matter of good intentions but never the time to follow up. As he is also a Nebraska author, he's really someone I should familiarize myself with, and choosing his essay "The Brown Wasps" is a way to help remedy the situation. The essay appears in The Best American Essays of the Century edited by Joyce Carol Oates, but was first published in Gentry, 1956-57, and collected in The Night Country, 1966.
Eiseley was an anthropologist, educator, philosopher and natural science writer. He also wrote poetry and contributed scholarly articles to professional publications. He "experimented with nonfiction forms, developing the 'concealed essay', a creative approach that allowed him to combine his scientific and literary goals." In "The Brown Wasps" he explores memory and the sense of place, and how even if a place is gone physically we still retain a sense of it in our hearts and minds. Much like animals humans (maybe even more so than animals?) also feel the need for this familiarity--and to return to them if not physically then in our minds. I'm making it sound far more pedestrian than it is--he says it much better. "It is the place that matters, the place at the heart of things."
"But sometimes the place is lost in the years behind us. Or sometimes it is a thing of air, a kind of vaporous distortion above a heap of rubble. We cling to a time and place because without them man is lost, not only man but life."
"This feeling runs deep in life; it brings stray cats running over endless miles, and birds homing from the ends of the earth. It is as though all living creatures, and particularly the more intelligent, can survive only by fixing or transforming a bit of time into space or by securing a bit of space with objects immortalized and made permanent in time."
He goes on to give examples like a field mouse pushed out of its home with the transformation of a vacant lot into a Wanamaker store. The mouse sought refuge in his potted plants where it would burrow into the dirt. Or pigeons who daily flocked to an elevated railway in Philadelphia begging for peanuts and other scattered food scraps. As the El was demolished in favor of an underground subway, the birds kept returning .
"They listened for the familiar vibrations that had always heralded an approaching train; they flapped hopefully about the head of an occasional workman walking along the steel runways. They passed from one empty station to another, all the while growing hungrier until they flew away."
It's the memory of a tree planted with his father that brings him home sixty years later. To the shade of a nonexistent tree that had so firmly been planted in his mind.
"It was obvious I was attached by a thread to a thing that had ever been there, or certainly not for long. Something that had to be held in the air, or sustained in the mind, because it was part of my orientation in the universe and I could not survive without it. There was more than an animal's attachment to a place. There was something else, the attachment of the spirit to a grouping of events in time; it was part of our mortality."
I wonder how many of my own memories are based on now non-existent things. And I think he's right about needing that sense of place (even if it is only carried in our hearts and minds) and how disjointed life can be without it.