An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of June 17, 2012
Issued from the woods not far east of Natchez, Missisippi, USA

Maggie the Dog

MAGGIE'S OBSESSIOINS

Of the four dogs I coexist with here, three are mellow, good-natured and rather lazy individuals but one, Maggie, is an extremely high-strung Jack Russell Terrier whose single obsession is that of hunting, barking at, digging out and killing burrowing animals such as chipmunks. She's also very focused on loyalty to the alpha dog. Since I'm outside the most, usually Maggie is right under my feet, normally looking at me disgustedly because I'm not leading her into chipmunk wars. If I sit awhile reading a book, she positions herself nearby where she can at least gaze into a tree watching for the enemy. She can do this for hours. That's her tree-looking above.

The domestication history of Jack Russell Terriers reveals that Maggie is doing exactly what she was bred to do.

Another way of saying that is that humans programmed her to be what she is by selectively breeding her ancestors. Selective breeding for certain traits implies increasing the frequency of genes supporting behaviors desired by the breeder while reducing or deactivating genes supporting behaviors other than what the breeder wants. A mongrel's genes may dictate so many mutually contradictory impulses that the mongrel ends up just lying around. But purebred Maggie's genes give her very unambiguous orders: Dig out and slaughter chipmunks.

Maggie reminds me of myself during much of my life. Somehow I got programmed to gather information on Nature, process it, and pass it on. As a kid I used to copy information from books and rewrite it at the kitchen table just for myself, to relieve a certain compulsion that built up inside me. If you've followed my Newsletters for long, you've seen that that obsession remains intact.

I pity Maggie because she is so enslaved to her genetic programming. Why can't she just mellow out, stop disrupting her environment and simply enjoy being a normal dog? Of course the same question can be applied to me. And that leads to another question: When Maggie and I spend our days doing exactly what we want, are we exercising "free will?"

During my early years I thought that I was, but now I'm doubting it. I no longer think that if today I choose to write about a dog instead of a fungus I am exercising free will. My genes obligate me, in order to feel fulfilled, to gather, process and pass on information about Nature.

But, maybe free will does exist. If it does, I'm thinking it manifests itself in only one narrow instance: That's when we consciously decide to become more sensitive to esthetic, intellectual and/or spiritual matters, and to harmonize our lives with the world we become aware of in our higher states of awareness.

If "free will" exists, it's the freedom to decide how hard we struggle to feel, understand, and love, and then to harmonize ourselves with that blossoming, unspeakably beautiful new world we discover ourselves living in. Facebook Icon