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how-to-be-a-good-creature-book-cover

A Fierce Kind of Love

how-to-be-a-good-creature-book-coverI was running errands at some point around the holidays when I happened to tune in to a radio segment about tarantulas. This is not a subject I’ve ever had any interest in, and I would normally have changed the station at once, but the topic wasn’t immediately clear to me. A woman was describing a furry creature with delicate, pink-tipped feet. I tried to guess the animal, factoring in her obvious admiration. I was hindered by the detail of her holding it in her palm. When one of the hosts of the show expressed his disbelief that a tarantula could be charming, I actually recoiled. My hand, which had been hovering near the radio buttons, yanked back as if a huge spider might suddenly appear there. Who was this lunatic? In short order, I learned that the woman speaking was naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, who has been described by The Boston Globe as, “Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no slouch when it comes to loving animals. During my childhood summers, I would prowl the adjacent properties of my grandmother and aunt in rural New Hampshire, which hosted a menagerie of ponies, goats, cats and various breeds of dogs. Wildlife wandered through the profusion of flowers and the acres of trees that graced that happy place. The aunt encouraged my fascination with horses by gifting me books like Marguerite Henry’s Born to Trot and My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, which I followed with others, from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. My grandmother provided art supplies with which I would depict the pony I planned to have one day. An array of pets over the years included a turtle, fish, hermit crab and dog, but I never did get that pony.

I learned that the aforementioned spider was one of the baker’s dozen of characters featured in Sy Montgomery’s latest book: How to be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animals. The collection includes a sampling of Montgomery’s signature adventures with the strange inhabitants of exotic locales, including her first such journey. She recounts that experience in Australia tracking a trio of emus, where she slips into a level of engagement reminiscent of Jane Goodall with her chimps; she shuns the role of observer in favor of participant in order to more fully know her subjects, noting their different personalities and behaviors. However she doesn’t write solely about exotic creatures. She also shares stories about the animals she has rescued, from a runt piglet to several dogs. She begins with her childhood Scottish Terrier, Molly, and ends with a half blind Border Collie named Thurber. Montgomery writes with unapologetic passion and isn’t afraid to show the fierce kind of love she has for animals. She credits all of the animals in her life with being her teachers, which is an outlook that I share.

As an adult, I’ve had the privilege of caring for three retired racing greyhounds. The first one my husband and I adopted was a sleek brindle we named Abby. She was beautiful, smart, and a social butterfly around people, but she could’ve taken or left other dogs. Her “roo” (the howling noise favored by this generally quiet breed) was deep and beautiful, and could perhaps have been dubbed into a movie as the distant cry of a wolf. Having the good fortune to be entrusted with this special dog made both of us feel like we’d won some sort of cosmic lottery. Three months after she came to us, I received unrelated, terrible news: my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Over the next two-and-a-half years while she fought for her life, Abby was by my side as I navigated moments of pain, despair, and (false) hope. When my mother died, it was Abby who consoled me. Perched on the couch next to me with her chin slung over my leg, she did something no person could do: bear witness to a torrent of tears without feeling the need to smother it with words. The gratitude I felt for this gift was immeasurable. It was also short-lived. Five months later, Abby was also diagnosed with untreatable cancer. This time there was no silent witness to my pain. It was the moment when I realized how much I had relied on my friend. I was bereft. Then slowly, with time, I was able to find a new narrative in these events. Abby arrived before the darkest time in my life, and she stayed by my side throughout it. All I have to do is imagine that time without her presence to feel lucky all over again.

I had expected to read the memoir of an animal lover. What I actually found when I read this book was much more than the title promised. While it does recount events from Sy Montgomery’s life through a series of vignettes about different animals she has known, her own story is interwoven with those of the animals so deftly that in movie parlance she would be just one of an ensemble cast. She lives her message. I couldn’t stop reading this book, which is a testament to Montgomery’s way with words (who knew reading about octopi could be so compelling?) She also has a way of writing about connecting with wild creatures that makes it seem not that odd an event.

Sy Montgomery is the author of dozens of books for both children and adults. Those who are hungry for more can check out The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood or The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. If you’re looking to branch out, Montgomery’s recommendations include: My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall, Gorillas in the Mist by Diane Fossey and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf.

Kirstie David is the Literacy/Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the February 14, 2019 issue of the Norwood Transcript.

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