The backward dancing man

In the 1970s, when I was teaching myself how to draw and hoping to develop an artful voice, I was also reading the great anthropologist and writer Loren Eiseley.

In an extraordinary passage from his autobiography, Eiseley tells about a speech he once gave during which a rat jumped on stage into the spotlight and cavorted – dancing, tumbling, leaping – mocking his serious words. Eiseley didn’t see it, but the audience did.

Afterward, he reflected on “the trickster in every culture who humbles what is supposed to be our greatest moments.” He says of the rat that “I laughed, but the trickster always brings pain.” Then Eiseley described the roots of trickster stories with indigenous people: “Only the old people from the silent cliff houses and the horse people of the plains had known and institutionalized him – the backward dancing man, the caricaturist of order.”

To them, the “backward dancing man” was the figure from the future – a personification of accident, heartbreak, chaos, malicious humor – always dancing toward us, blind even to his own backward progress but intent on disrupting our plans, quashing our arrogance.

As a would-be artist, I was fascinated and decided to draw a backward dancing man. With swirling pen and ink lines, like a figure taking shape in a dust devil, I drew a grotesque man dancing backwards, his blind head thrown back in a lantern-jawed horse laugh, one leg down, the other up. An arm, thrust behind, gripped a stick from which dangled a fierce-toothed, hyena-like animal head. The hyena had the only set of eyes and plotted the way backward into the present – gleefully bringing death to a child, a hail storm that beat down ripening corn, a plague of locusts, drought, mischief.

My older brother, and blessed patron in those days, bought the drawing. I was poor then, so the $75 seemed the gift of a beneficent god, not of a trickster. I was so grateful – to my brother, to Eiseley – and thrilled to have made the image.

Today I think of the backward dancing man as the climate.

Freak floods, droughts, food shortages, insect plagues, species extinctions, glaciers melting, water rising. The difference, though, is that we see it coming. In the old stories, the dancing man was invisible. Now he looms like a Goya-esque giant. We all see him, hear his cackling laugh, feel the ground shake beneath his heavy boots, see the hyena head swinging from the stick, smell the rancid odor mixing his sweat and our fear.

We see this trickster because he is our own doing. We once thought, wrongly, that we could outwit fate; now we’ve created our fate and refuse to use our wits to avoid it. The real tragedy is not the backward dancing of malicious destiny, but the malicious denial of that destiny when it is in clear view.

A hallmark of the original backward dancing man is that he is perversely even-handed – even democratic. He dances backward into everyone’s good time, an equal opportunity disrupter, regardless of class, race or gender. The backward dancing climate man impacts everyone, too, but the poor first and hardest. The rich oil and gas executive, who promotes denial and benefits from the fossil fuel status quo, can buy some short-term protection.

Forty years ago I drew a picture of a malevolent, nightmare demon. It was hard then to imagine the trickster of our time – to envision the face of humbling chaos.

Today, though, it’s easy. I’d draw the man who insists on denial because he profits from it – a handsome, middle-aged man in a gray Armani suit, a confident man striding back and forth through the revolving door of his corporate headquarters and his Senate office, a man who thinks the wealth that bought him power can buy nature, a man certain that his mountaintop trophy home is safe from rising waters, a man so invested in Monsanto he has forgotten that food grows in common dirt, a man who can afford the best plastic surgeon when the hyena begins to show through, a man whose status quo is sowing the whirlwind.

Writer and artist Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine. He authored the book, “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” See his work at This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.