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October 19, 2007

One Day on Beetle Rock by Sally Carrighar

In the 1940s, Sally Carrighar spent her summers in a cabin in Sequoia National Park. She distilled her observations into this exploration of the experiences of nine creatures during a single day near the same granite cliff. The interlocking portraits are engaging and convincing. Carrighar keeps the inevitable anthropomorphization to a minimum. Her descriptions allow us to enter into the animals' sensations and impulses. A deer mouse "wanted the walls of the nook to press her all over, but however she crouched, one of her sides had no touch of shelter on it." A lizard is tempted by "a gamey, delicately tart green leafhopper." A chickaree giving an alarm call "jerked, as if he were a little bag filled to bursting with bright sound that piped out whenever the bag was jostled."

Unlike Thoreau and all his literary descendants, Carrighar does not focus on the spiritual reverberations of nature in the human soul, and she does not speak of herself. Today's nature writers, perhaps influenced by postmodernism and multiculturalism's emphases on individual perspectives, rarely attempt to enter the consciousness of other beings. Perhaps they avoid cuteness, projection, and presumption that way. They also miss a chance to help us begin to become aware of and begin to inquire into the nature of non-human minds. I am embarrassed to say that I felt surprised when this book reminded me that the animals I glimpse and don't glimpse on the trail must have continuous emotional and sensory lives.

Carrighar didn't entice me with the promise of objective knowledge of a secret kingdom. Rather, she made me wonder if I could achieve a sense of home in that kingdom through intimate knowledge. Though she never describes her own process of observation, Carrighar offers herself as a teacher. With her clear, faithful gaze, she comes as close to joining the community of Beetle Rock as a human can.