Born 10 February 1898, Cleveland, Ohio; died October 1985
Daughter of George B. and Perle Harden Wagner
In Home to the Wilderness (1973), Sally Carrighar tells a sad story. Partially disfigured at birth by a high-forceps delivery, she was abhorrent to her mother, who once attempted to strangle her. The psychotic woman, loathing even her daughter's touch, sought to deprive Carrighar of all love and openly urged her to commit suicide. Carrighar was rescued from utter wretchedness by her father's devotion, her own remarkable determination, and the supportive atmosphere of Wellesley College. She tried various artistic careers: pianist, dancer, and film production assistant, only to have her mother repeatedly snatch success from her. While undergoing psychoanalysis, Carrighar attempted to establish herself as a fictionalist, failed, and "abandoned words." Convalescing in San Francisco from depression and heart disease, she began feeding the birds outside her window. The birds became fellow creatures; a mouse nesting inside her radio actually sang to her, and in a revelation she understood her vocation: nature writing. Words need not be abandoned, only the bizarre human world of madness, violence, greed.
After seven years of study, Carrighar published One Day on Beetle Rock (1944), a narrative treating the interaction of various species in a Sierra Nevada habitat. Carrighar discovered that she could portray this interaction effectively by adopting in successive chapters the point of view of specific organisms and describing how a dramatic natural event (e.g., a flash flood) affects them. To present the "consciousness" of a female mosquito is of course risky, for the writer appears to be anthropomorphizing nature. But the literary strategy of Beetle Rock proved itself in One Day at Teton Marsh (1947), about the Grand Tetons; Icebound Summer (1953), about the north coast of Alaska; and The Twilight Seas (1975), about the blue whales.
These objective narratives, in which the narrator never speaks in her own voice, are only a portion of Carrighar's corpus. Her personal writings give a good introduction to the land and people of northern Alaska. Moonlight at Midday (1958) narrates her adventures researching Icebound Summer in the tiny village of Unalakleet; it examines Eskimo life, both the traditional ways and the changes wrought by the white man. Wild Voice of the North (1959) is the story of her husky, Bobo, whom she rescued and cared for while living and writing in Nome. Carrighar has worked in other genres as well: a play, As Far as They Go (1956), celebrates Alaskan history and pioneer life. An historical novel, The Glass Dove (1962), portrays a young girl whose farm home in southern Ohio becomes a station on the Underground Railroad.
Wild Heritage (1965) is Carrighar's most ambitious work. It synthesizes much of the pioneering work in the field of ethology and includes many of Carrighar's own observations from her years in various wildernesses. The work treats life experiences which humans share with animals: parenthood, sex, aggressiveness, and play. She is especially concerned with what tendencies of animals are learned. In reporting her observations, she uses the technique of her nature narratives, dramatizing the behavior of a single individual of the species.
But one finally returns to Carrighar's autobiography, Home to the Wilderness, for her most deeply felt writing, for her observations that man's morality originates in nature, for her comments about females as naturalists. Nature was Carrighar's healer and vocation; she could approach it with naive joy, reverence, and awe. But she also knew it as a scientist who relies only on objective observation. That Carrighar successfully combined these two modes of cognition is perhaps her greatest achievement.
Exploring Marin (1941). Prey of the Arctic (1951). Blue Whale (1978).
NYHTBR (28 Sept. 1947, 19 July 1953). NYT (10 Dec. 1944). NYTBR (28 March 1965). San Francisco Chronicle (25 Sept. 1947). SR (20 March 1965). SRL (24 Feb. 1945). Weekly Book Review (26 Nov. 1944).