Author Sy Montgomery with a friend. (Photo / Vicki Stiefel)
On Friday, 16 October 2009, I interviewed Sy Montgomery over the phone.
Leslie Thatcher: In the review Truthout published of many of your books I describe what I believe you write about. I'd very much like to hear your own sense of why you write and what you write about.
Sy Montgomery: I write about the relationship between people and the rest of animate creation and I write about it because I think things have gone askew. [At this point, Ms. Montgomery excused herself to remove a tick from her dog Sally.] I try to offer a different model of how to love and honor the rest of the animate world. My books offer a few different models:
It Begins in Wonder: Sy Montgomery's World â€¢
Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas offered a totally different model of how scientists could interact with their subjects, of how they could use emotions and intuition as tools of inquiry. They revolutionized ethology.
When I went to India and talked with people who live with tigers, they worship the tiger even though 300 people there are being eaten every year. They have an intimate understanding that we need predators in the world to make it whole.
Again, when you go to the Amazon and people tell you the crazy stories about dolphins who can seduce us and dance with us and take us away to another world, there is a truth there that we have lost. That truth is the transformative power of relationships with the dolphins.
No matter where I go, I'm being blessed by that Buddhist promise: When the student is ready the teacher appears. Teachers are always appearing for me. Our job is to recognize the teacher whether it has two legs, fours legs, eight legs or none - quite a few snakes have taught me a great deal over the years. My job as a writer is to understand what the truth is - whether it's in another language or in another kind of truth-telling than the one we're accustomed to.
Would you talk about how you came to write "Walking with the Great Apes" and the conditions under which you did the research for it?
Before I could read, I was seeing pictures of Jane Goodall holding her hand out to a wild chimpanzee on the cover of National Geographic, and as a preliterate being I thought this was the way it should be: Animals are our teachers and our healers and I wanted this to be a kind of homage to these women who had shown us that truth. I had discovered in my preproposal research that the three had all wanted a book like the one I intended to be written.
To do it, in just the way that they learned from the apes, I got to walk in my heroines' footsteps and got to visit all their research sites. My first major expedition for this book was to visit Borneo at Birute's site. You cannot imagine the difficulties of research in the jungles of Borneo. The film melts inside the camera. Your tape recorder swells so you can't play the tapes back. At the end of the day, you're plucking fat, black leeches out of your bra. There were not even any pathways cut through the forest when Birute first went out there with her then husband.
One of the problems is that there are all these formerly captive orangutans who think it's great fun to spy on humans and wait until you leave your stuff where they can drink your shampoo or eat your soap. Once, this female orangutan unzipped my little shift dress - they understand zippers perfectly - and lifted it off my head and put it over her own head. I think it looked quite a bit cuter on her, really. One logistical problem occurred when an orangutan ate my taped interview with Birute. The orangutan knows you really want your stuff back and thinks it's a hilarious joke that you keep hoping until the last vestige of the tape they are chewing disappears that somehow you'll be able to retrieve it. Since then, I take extremely extensive notes and make sure I have backup.
This was my first book and the original publisher, who had signed on halfway through the project stopped doing trade books, and I only had a small advance. The thing is when you love something this much, you find the money you need. You find a way. You hitchhike; you sleep in airports.
Yes, I got dengue fever in Borneo and strep I had to be hospitalized for in Thailand. But with time, you forget all that and only remember the adventure.
I heard NPR's recent story on the Interoceanic Highway South just after completing "Journey of the Pink Dolphins," much of which takes place in the Peruvian Amazon, and felt devastated. Would you talk about your work in the Peruvian Amazon and the implications of the highway for the people and the fauna you have worked to protect there?
The Interoceanic Highway is an unmitigated disaster. Roads are absolutely the worst, not only for ecosystems, but also for the local peoples among whom roads spread disease, prostitution and other forms of exploitation. While there are exceptions, many of the people who live there don't want the highway. Even in Hancock, New Hampshire, whenever they even straighten a local road, we see an increase in accidents and road kill. At the Rainforest Conservation Fund [a nonprofit in the Peruvian Amazon to which Montgomery has contributed, including her service as a Board member], we're strengthening protections for our reserves to give the people there the tools to protect their own area. A lot of the people who live there would be mortified should big, Japanese fleets come and fish out their entire food supply and then go back to Japan and make a fortune, leaving the riverinos high and dry. Right now, they don't know how to defend themselves against that and one thing RCF can do is provide those tools.
I found the relationship you developed with Girindra Nath Mridha of Sundarbans to be one of the most moving of the many rich human relationships woven through your work. Could you talk about how you met and the connection you shared and also let us know whether you have had any news of him since you wrote the new afterward for "Spell of the Tiger"
I haven't heard from him and it absolutely kills me. I continue to write and I'm still in touch with one of the translators I worked with. Jamespur, the town he lived in, was totally flattened in one of the cyclones. It's possible his house was swept away with every paper in it. If he's alive, I know he'd do everything possible to get in touch with me, unless he's lost everything including my address. When I went back with National Geographic, they had all the photographs I had sent framed - which would have been a very expensive thing to do there - in their house and he showed me all my letters, which he kept in a special box.
India is an emerging power and people may be running around with cell phones in Calcutta, but in Jamespur and the surrounding villages, there are no telephones. I've tried to get one of my translators to go out and look for him, but that's a big thing to ask.
Girindra's letters were like light from a star.
I pray to God that he's somewhere. We're about the same age, 51, and people in Sundarbans are lucky to live to be 51. There's not a day I don't think about him.
Or about Christopher Hogwood, I expect?
I feel Christopher is with me and I'm not one of those people who communes with spirits, but it's just so obvious he's running my life: He resurrected my books from the dead; he bought my husband a sports car.
I'm serious. Howard's book about Christopher had nothing to do with my book. An agent called him about an article he had written for a defunct magazine about Christopher and wanted to know whether Howard would be interested in writing a children's book. Howard had never done anything like that, but it intrigued him and so he wrote the book. He pressed "Send" to send it to the agent - they didn't even have a contract - and when he came back to the computer, it was sold and he went onto eBay and bought a Miata.
This pig is looking after us.
Imagine it, he's now loose in the universe. He's not stuck in a pig body any more, so people write me from Portugal and all over; it's been translated so extensively: Portuguese, Italian, Dutch (and now the book is fixing to be translated into Chinese) and I have heard from readers in Brazil, Australia, Italy, Holland....; people who love pigs, people who never thought about pigs before. There's a large print edition, so I get letters from blind people. He's brought me so much love.
It's so easy to feel alone and strange and, yet, I feel buoyed up by this great community all around us. We're all doing this work of Tikkun of restoring. It's great time to be alive to be able to justify all the oxygen I've been sucking up all this time.
Over the last not quite 20 years, you have visited forests and jungles of Tanzania, Rwanda, Borneo, the Amazon, Papua New Guinea, Sundarbans straddling India and Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and French Guiana, not to mention the woods surrounding your New England home - to name only the ones I can remember. You have spent time with officials, indigenous people and foreign scientists in these places and observed both destruction and preservation. Are you willing to make any generalizations about what practices and/or attitudes further the preservation of the nonhuman world?
What's screwing things up is greed. People think it's poverty, but it's not; it's greed. I think greed is a little easier to get a handle on than poverty. Greed is what causes poverty. Everybody likes to blame deforestation on poor people. But as you read in "Search for the Golden Moon Bear," moon bears are going extinct because rich people want their organs for elixirs. Because rich people will pay a great deal of money for their body parts to eat.
The bush trade prospers because people want to eat delicacies and will pay to do so. You can't just blame the local people: They'll eat insects. It's greed that makes everyone rush out and kill everything in sight.
I think it's wrong to blame everything on poor people. They're not what's eating away at the natural world.
At the end of "The Good Good Pig," you write apropos of the choice to raise a pig as a beloved pet who lived a long good life: "we need not 'be practical' all the time. We can choose a new way. We have the power to transform a story of sorrow into a story of healing. We can choose life over death. We can let love lead us home."
Your life and your books model those choices very powerfully: Do you also have concrete suggestions you'd be willing to share about how others may begin making those new choices?
At the end of all of my books, I offer a whole list of organizations that are working to preserve the natural world. People can contribute time or money to those organizations or others involved in preservation of the natural world.
We can change our diets slightly or dramatically. The main cause of greenhouse gas emissions is not transportation, but meat production.
We can limit our family size. As a way to stop gnawing away at the universe, deciding to put fewer rich Westerners on the planet is a great choice.
The other day, I was reading a woman's magazine while waiting to get a haircut and there was a story about this woman who was diagnosed with MS and was totally freaking out about it. Her friend told her she needed to give 29 gifts in 29 days. It's so easy to give a gift: to volunteer time, to tell someone else about something they can do. We can give a gift to the earth every time we eat a meal or make a decision to buy or not to buy something. You're always making a choice. Because there are now so many of us on the planet, even our tiny choices affect one another. It's so easy to make good, generous, life-affirming choices in everyday things.
If you can't be the next Jane Goodall, volunteer, write a check, choose not to have octuplets or not to fry up that bacon. Help a child learn to read. There's a whole lot that's possible.
It's easy to get compassion overload and to feel overwhelmed, and the only antidote to that is to turn around and do something, even just that one small thing in a way that will open the world up to new possibilities. We get sucked into thinking that things "have" to be a certain way. So many people just assume you can't just not send your own pig to slaughter. You don't "have" to do anything. You can do anything you want. We fail to apprehend what is within our control. Many people ask me why I don't have a cell phone because they assume you have to have a cell phone. Some people really do need to have one, but I don't. A key component in cell phone manufacture is the mineral coltan, which is mined in chimp and gorilla habitat.
People may expect you to have four kids, eat meat, turn your pig into bacon, but you don't have to. I have a friend who has never owned a car or a house nor held down a full time job, but he lives a very dignified Thoreauvian existence. There are so many options out there. We excuse things that pain us because we say we have to, but we don't.
Christopher taught me and other wise people and animals around the world have also taught me that the range of possibility is much greater than we're conditioned to imagine.
Pick up something that you can do something with. If you're doing just one good thing that makes you feel empowered, you're doing well.
We do have the choice not to obsess about what upsets us and carry on about those things. If we let those things run our lives, they win. You can sometimes harness your own demons. In a writer's case, you can use your demons to harass you to get the impossible thing done on time or to make you write more. What is true for our inner demons can also be true for the demons outside of ourselves as well. We can make them what martial artists call worthy enemies.
Sarah Palin got this close to the presidency of this country. George Bush was president. I don't know why we don't make a sandwich out of them, but the important thing is to make good choices for yourself.
What are you working on now?
Yesterday, I was reading the galleys from my new books about birds. My first research, as you know, was on emus. The new book for adults is entitled "Birdology," a title I got from a sermon I attended by a visiting Unitarian Universalist pastor. I try to convey the essence of birds through adventures with seven different species including our chickens at home, the ladies and the cassowary - the species that kills the most people of any bird. A children's book is also coming out, "Kakapo Rescue," about a giant, nocturnal, flightless parrot, who is extremely rare and only lives off the south shore of New Zealand.
New Zealand committed the ecological sin of bringing in outside species that eat ground-nesting birds and have wrecked the ecological balance. The Kakapo is not extinct, but for a long time it was thought that the entire population was male, when a dramatic discovery of some living females occurred. It's been possibly the most concentrated, dedicated battle to rescue a species from the edge of extinction ever. For five years, we'd wait for a nesting event by the telephone and it finally happened two springs ago. I basically ran out of the door in my bathrobe to get to New Zealand. All my children's books are for fourth through eight grade children, who are a pretty sophisticated audience. This is a very dramatic and emotional book.
You mentioned learning from snakes?
Well, their experience of life has to be so different: They have completely different senses from ours and they move so differently through the world. Mostly, my experience has been of their patience. Cobras in Thailand and Borneo don't bother you. I had the experience of watching a photographer trying to set up a tripod in the Borneo jungle, but this root kept getting in the way. Then we notices, it wasn't a root, but a cobra, patiently sitting with its head inflated as though saying, "I'm a cobra, please could you move. I am not a root." I was very impressed that it should so patiently wait for this dullard mammal to get that it really needed to move.
As Henry Beston said in one of my all-time favorite quotes,
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."
Thank you so much, Sy Montgomery.
Leslie Thatcher is is Truthout's French Language Editor and sometime book reviewer. Chelsea Green provided reviewer copies of the four Sy Montgomery books it has published.