Friday, May 20, 2011

Knowing

Once when Bertrand Russell and [the biologist] Julian Huxley were dining together, Sir Julian described the habits of an obscure amphibian. Lord Russell, so great a mathematician-philosopher, listened with humble absorption and at the end said, "It's nice to know things."
I take this delightful anecdote from Sally Carrighar, a nature writer not nearly as well known as she should be. She relates the anecdote at the beginning of the chapter in her autobiography, Home To the Wilderness, that recounts her going away to Wellesley College in the fall of 1918.

Wellesley was one of those places where a young woman of Carrighar's generation could get an education that assumed a woman's intellect was equal to a man's. Science was very much a part of the curriculum. Her course in zoology opened her eyes to the fact that "it's nice to know things." Her courses in composition planted the seed that later turned knowing into art.

I discovered Sally Carrighar in the late 1970s when I started presiding over a course called The Naturalist -- reading, nature study, journal keeping, writing. I read the books that brought her success in the 1940s -- One Day on Beetle Rock and One Day at Teton Marsh -- was impressed, and added them to our reading last. Here was a woman living alone in the wilderness and developing remarkable relationships with the wild creatures around her, whose lives she describes as if from inside their own being. Her influences were not other nature writers, but the scientists to whom she went to "know." Lots of nature writers have lived alone in the woods, from Thoreau to Annie Dillard, but no one else I know of has been able to enter quite so completely the hearts and minds of the animals she wrote about.

All of this was a bit of a mystery until I read her autobiography, a book I'd recommend to anyone. (Apparently not still in print.) It begins with a birth that was exceedingly traumatic for mother and child. Sally's beautiful and vivacious mother never seems to have put the trauma behind her. She henceforth treated Sally with humiliating disdain, refusing even to listen to her voice, even suggesting to the sickly young girl that she might kill herself (something Carrighar attempted to do in her mid-thirties). Even when Sally was an adult, her mother couldn't bear to be with her.

Home To the Wilderness is the story of a brave and sensitive girl and woman climbing out of a hell not of her own making. As resources she had a kindly, although often absent father. Music. An uncanny rapport with animals. And knowledge. Reliable, scientific knowledge of the natural world that she used to enter silently and attentively into its innermost workings. She died in 1985 at age eighty-seven.

When I first read Sally Carrighar those many years ago, I came away with the one thing that still keeps me busy in my golden years. It's nice to know things.