Readers who are familiar with Sally Carrighar’s books know her to have been an uncommonly perceptive observer of wildlife. “One Day On Beetle Rock,” “Icebound Summer,” “Wild Voice of The North” and especially “Wild Heritage” allow the reader a sense of almost privileged insight into what really goes on in what we call nature.
But Sally Carrighar was more than a mere recorder of behavior in the wild. She was a philosopher, too; and I suspect history will regard her as one of the truly important voices of our time.
Consider, for example, some of the conclusions she put forth near the end of her autobiography “Home To The Wilderness.”
“Many people assume that the true state of nature is anarchy. That was not what I found, at Beetle Rock or in more remote congregations of wildlife. After all the giddy and irresponsible people I had known in the human world, here in the wilderness there was a code of behavior so well understood and so well respected that the laws could be depended on not to be broken.
“There were contests for mates but once a pair-bond was established it was accepted as final, both by the couple and by anyone else who might covet either of them. It might last for a lifetime - a pact usually preceded by a rather long courtship as in the case of geese or wolves. Or it might be the species rule that it would only be for the raising of one brood or litter; but the devotion and loyalty during that time was absolute and so was the sense of responsibility on the part of one or both parents.
“A bird or animal could lay claim to a homesite simply by moving into it, but he would not do that if it already belonged to another.
“About food there did not seem to be any intense possessiveness. The remains of a kill the predator no longer wanted was community property - it could be eaten by anybody.
“Basically wild behavior is biological. The fixed traditions have been acquired through the long millions of years while the present species have been evolving; and these traditions have become established in animal genes because they are the ways that work.
“This behavior conforms to our definition of ‘moral.’ The responsible care of the young, the fidelity of mates if that is the species custom, the respect for others’ property, the fairness in taking turns, the rituals that prevent conflicts from being fatal, the lack of malice, the tolerance, the mildness of tempers: these are some of the principles of the wilderness code that have insured survival.
“Once I asked an Eskimo mother how she taught her children the difference between right and wrong. She said, ‘We don’t teach them, we just remind them. When they are born, they know.’ That may be what we mean by the innocence of small children. But do we keep reminding them of what they know? How can we, when many of us have forgotten what that behavior is?
“If we are going to try to find our way back to nature’s principles, it would seem helpful to rediscover how the animals live. The commandments recognized in the wilderness could be our lifeline to mental and emotional health. But we are apparently bent on destroying the wilderness, which could be the most tragic development in the history of the human race. For if the wilderness is reduced much further, we shall have no clues to nature’s moral sanity - none except our own now-devastated instinctual guidance.
“Job said it long ago: ‘Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell ye: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.’”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.