Higher Laws


The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do. Perhaps I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my closest acquaintance with Nature. They early introduce us to and detain us in scenery with which otherwise, at that age, we should have little acquaintance.  Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.

– Henry David Thoreau in Walden


Just yesterday I was speaking with one of the fathers in the class I help with at the Museum.  The topic for the day was snakes.  There was some discussion of the fear–which some of the parents had–of snakes.  “You want to touch the snake, Johnny?  Nothing to be afraid of.  We discussed how this clued the children into the idea that there was something to be afraid of.  Without this, the children have no natural fear of these smaller creatures.  Many of the children show no reluctance to touch and hold the cocroaches, millipedes, pill bugs, and snakes we have.  The parents were most concerned about the snakes biting them or their children.  They have no such concern when handling the chinchillas–one of which bites (and chews!) her holder without warning, often drawing blood.

I began the second class, by showing as many of the parents and children as I could, the tiny teeth on the articulated skeleton of a similarly-sized snake.  They are obviously not meant to pierce the skin, rather to grasp prey when working the prey head-first into the snake’s mouth.  Still, there remained this fear amongst many of the parents.

I began to wish–to myself at first, and then aloud to my coworkers–that the garter snakes would bite one or several of the parents, so they would see how harmless the bite is.  This was met with some skepticism.  I was bitten countless times by garter snakes, milk snakes, and water snakes when I was a child, and that is how I learned that they are not to be feared. 

The greatest naturalists and most important conservationists al started out, as children or young adults, hunting, fishing, or otherwise getting their hands on animals in ways which today we would not condone.  Darwin, collected animal specimens while on his voyage.  Theodore Roosevelt was an avid hunter and collector of “specimens.”  Take this famous passage from Aldo Leopold:

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold, Aldo: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 129-132. 

I am not codoning hunting.  Rather, I believe that, once again, we have skipped over the middle road.  We, as a society who cherishes the natural world, have swung too far to the other side in protecting her.  We have placed her on a pedistal.  Now, she is known only from a distance.  Most men now only know her as they know history–from what they read in books and are taught in school.  Very few experience nature.  The children don’t know that garter snakes are harmless because they were never bitten by one, and have never opened a snakes mouth with a credit card to look.

Also, because children never exert their dominance over animals and nature, they don’t place them in the category of things which require care and compassion.   If snakes are dangerous, they can obviously fend for themselves, and require no protection from us.  Regardless, reality is that we are the dominant animals on this planet.  When man is not allowed to internalize, experientially, that dominance, it is difficult for him to feel compassion for, and a sense of guardianship over other creatures.


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