teachers, Honduras, Erling Duus, Loren Eiselely, Nebraska, Writing   Leave a comment


Erling and Loren

“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.”

Loren Eiseley

The teacher’s name was Erling Duus. He informed his students on that first day of class in Environmental Ethics that there would be no exams, and the only assignment, other than the weekly readings, was to write one paper about anything the class had discussed that semester.  Those were the only instructions, which immediately freaked people out because they want details. How long should the paper be? “Any length” the teacher responded.  Student questions continued and his response was basically that how and what we did for the assignment was entirely up to us. Students concerned with grades need specifics to ease their minds and feel more assured about reaching a top grade. A few others hoped the questions would stop before the teacher started giving more guidelines. We had free reign to do what we wanted, to be creative, to escape from the limits of parameters and they were going to blow it with their questions.

Many students did not enjoy his laid back style of teaching. The demands of the class were entirely up to the students. No tests and only one assignment made for an easy class but if the student read the fascinating authors of our assigned and suggested readings, what an opportunity Mr. Duus had given us!

One handout we received was a passage from a Nebraska author, Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). How does a writer put marks on a page that reach through time and grab a reader?  Writing that is universal and touches readers from one generation to another and another, but individual enough to feel that just you and the writer alone have experienced the same.  After reading the passage by Loren Eiseley, I remember a sense of frustration and anxiety. I asked my teacher, “Mr. Duus, what if I had not taken this class? I might never have found Loren Eiseley. What if I had never found him? How many other writers are out there that I need to know and will not discover?

A good teacher connects a student to people and ideas that reach into that student’s place of wonder causing more questions, more desire to know.  About the time of my Eiseley period, I visited Lincoln, and went to the state capital. Much to my delight I saw a row of sculpted busts of famous Nebraskans. There was my man Eiseley. My fingers felt the shape of his brow, nose, chin, and cheekbones.

Mr. Eiseley left Nebraska and held a distinguished chair in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which confirmed his standing as an author. The fascinating thing about Loren Eiseley and what gave his critics ammunition was his bridging of empirical science with social science. His skill at showing his wonder in the writing of scientific subjects was rejected by the scientists as less, partly because the average non-scientific reader embraced the writing. Eiseley allowed his awe to be present in the work and set the stage, or page in this case, for nature writer Annie Dillard or for writer’s such as E. O Wilson, biologist, researcher in sociobiology and biodiversity who writes scientifically, but believes that art, science, religion, and all constructs of humankind are all part of viewing our humanity in a holistic and conciliatory way.

In Eiseley’s autobiography, he writes of finding a Victorian hand mirror that belonged to his deceased aunt. He remembered that his mother had one just like it when he was a child, but his deaf, angry, frustrated mother had broken hers at some point. His childhood was difficult. He remembers the last time that he saw the twin mirror. It had a broken handle. Eiseley writes, “Mostly things like that did not exist in our house. Finally it disappeared. The face of the child vanished with it, my own face. Without the mirror I was unaware when it departed. Make no mistake. Everything in the mind is in rat’s country. It doesn’t die. They are merely carried, these disparate memories, back and forth in the desert of a billion neurons, set down, picked up, and dropped again by mental packrats. Nothing perishes, it is merely lost until a surgeon’s electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the relentless nights or even in the day on a strange street in a hurdy-gurdy place.  Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was. You will find the bits and cry out because they were yourself. Nothing can begin again and go right, but still it is you, your mind, picking endlessly over that splintered glass of a mirror dropped and broken long ago. That is all time is at the end when you are old – a splintered glass.”

Loren Eiseley and Erling Duus both encouraged all who read their work or were their students to pursue lifelong learning.

While working as a teacher’s aide in Bridgeport, I met a co-worker from the Dalton area and she told me that her older brothers and father camped with Loren Eiseley on her family’s land when he traveled to Western Nebraska on archeological digs. She brought a letter that he had written to her brothers. I held the letter and read his words. It was as exciting as feeling the shape of his face that day in the capital building.

Erling Duus moved to Honduras, taught and wrote for  a Honduras paper in the 1990s.

Sadly Erling Duus died in 2000 of colon cancer. He sent a letter to friends a month before he died when he knew he had not long to live. He ended the letter with these words, “I can without impediment read a letter so invite letters from you for as long as we share this air and these many beauties. I give you my hand, and then beyond those limitations interwoven in the strange mingling of time with the arching and resonate radiance of eternity, I embrace you all forever.”

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Posted February 1, 2011 by strongjacksonpoet54 in Essays, Uncategorized

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