Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Sy Montgomery. The transcript is divided into the following clips:
- A deep love for animals
- Working with photographer Nic Bishop
- Teachers everywhere
- From Farley Mowat to National Geographic
- Adventures out in the field
- Keeping a field journal
- Kakapo Rescue
- Swimming with pink dolphins
- The Good, Good Pig
- Writing opens up the world
- How to write a persuasive letter
- Tough topics
- An excerpt from Quest for the Tree Kangaroo
A deep love for animals
When I was growing up, I naturally felt attracted to other animals. I didn't have a lot of other children in my life growing up. But that was fine, because I had lots of other friends. They just happened to be squirrels and crickets. And I had an Anolis lizard, I had a wonderful Scottish terrier named Molly, who was the equivalent, I guess, of a sister. I was an only child.
I always felt that here were these creatures around me who knew secrets that I didn't, and I could tell, my Scottish terrier could hear things that I couldn't hear. She could smell things that I wasn't experiencing. So by having friends who were members of other species, I kind of hooked into this wider world.
And at that time I didn't know, for example, that crickets' ears are on their knees, you know. I didn't know that spiders can taste with their feet. But I did know they had something to teach me. That they were the teacher. I was the student. And I think this is what kind of pre-adapted me to go forth and write books on these subjects, with that kind of excitement and deep respect for the teachers that were all around me.
And it actually was many years later that I learned how much fun kids were, from our 750-pound pig, Christopher Hogwood. He was the subject of a book that I wrote called The Good, Good Pig, and he was kind of the center of our life there, in Hancock, New Hampshire, where I live with my husband, and right now, a small flock of hens, and a border collie named Sally. But when Christopher was there, we also had a number of other animals, and he instantly attracted around him this great family of other people's children, and visiting aunts and uncles, and the neighbors, he was like this great magnet. People would bring their garbage, basically. We'd invite them over for dinner and a show. They'd bring Christopher Hogwood dinner, and the show was watching him eat it.
I write everything I can, because you never know what's going to work. I write about conservation. I write about animals and people, and how we can live together on this earth, and this is why I write for adults, I write for kids, I sometimes write for television. I write for radio. And all my books, all my articles, all my commentaries are all the same love letter repeated over and over.
I'm trying to reconnect us with the rest of our family. They may not look like us, they may have more legs than us, or fewer, in the case of snakes and worms. But all of my books, written for kids or adults, and all my articles, they're saying the same thing. It's trying to reestablish this connection that humans I think naturally have with the rest of animate creation.
But when we start to lose that, that's when we get the mess we're in, with pollution, and deforestation, and overpopulation, and global climate change. I think it's particularly important, though, to write for children now, and I'm concentrating increasingly on doing that.
Working with photographer Nic Bishop
The photographer I've worked with the most, and who I love to work with, is Nick Bishop. He's a Kiwi; he's a native of New Zealand. And he came up to me at a conference at which I was speaking, and he was not— well, he's kind of like me. We both — unless you're all dressed up to speak or be on TV or something, we both kind of look like we woke up beneath piled leaves.
And so this kind of bearded, disheveled-looking guy comes up to me, and says, hey, how would you like to write children's books. We can go around the world and I'll take the pictures. Well, sure, that sounded good to me, but I wanted to see his photographs. What I really wanted to see in the photographs was how he behaved around the animals.
Because you can tell from the expression on the animal's face. Even if it's an insect. And when I looked at Nick's extraordinary pictures, that's when I knew. He knows how to make that creature comfortable. And bring out its good nature, its good, happy nature. And you can see even on the faces of snakes, on the faces of katydids, on the faces of crickets. And on the faces of the larger mammals that we — we've worked with, from tree kangaroos to snow leopards.
And he knows to wait until that animal's comfortable, and that he's bringing our readers what that animal is really like. And he's not putting the animal into any kind of stress. And that's important. A lot of photographers, it's just like the paparazzi. And when you're dealing with a wild animal, you don't have the right to go striding into its habitat and steal its picture, or frighten it.
You shouldn't be able to take a snake, pick it up, stick it in the refrigerator until its so cold it can't move, and then take its picture. That's wrong. I don't wanna inconvenience these subjects. And neither does he. And that's why he's just the greatest, greatest person to work with.
There's a wonderful Buddhist saying that I often share with audiences when I speak, and it's this: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So for me, there were wonderful teachers who were in the front of the classroom. There were wonderful librarians in the public library. But the teachers were also the crows, and the earthworms, and my dog, and my parakeet, and you know, the lizard that you would meet when you travel.
They're everywhere, and our job, I think, is to recognize those teachers, because they're all around us. I had a fantastic journalism teacher in high school, Mr. Clarkson, who I will never, ever forget. And before I met Mr. Clarkson, I think I thought a lot about being a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals. But Mr. Clarkson, and also reading newspapers as I was growing up, really showed me the power that we have with our words to help animals, none of whom will ever read anything. Some of them might eat the paper the words are printed on, but The problems that animals face in this world, they're all, almost all of them, of our making. Inadvertently. People don't want to ruin the habitat for snow leopards, and most people love snow leopards. You know, if you met a tree kangaroo, you would never wanna hurt it. It looks like a Dakin toy designed by Dr. Seuss, you know?
But as a writer, you can show people what's happening, and hand their power back to them, to protect this sweet, green world. And other writers, other animals, Mr. Clarkson in the front of the classroom, all these teachers have showed me that.
From Farley Mowat to National Geographic
I remember even as a little girl, reading a book called Cleo, I mean, they were all about dogs and horses, I read all of the "Lassie" books. Farley Mowat's books, I later met Farley and stayed at his house. He was such a gentleman, so gracious, a fabulous guy. Gosh, reading magazines, National Geographic, when I later got to work with National Geographic, and that wasn't with the magazine, but with the television. That was pretty fabulous.
Hope Ryden and her many wonderful books. She's written on beavers, she's written on wolves. I would read anything, anything by her. And just the idea, I mean I'm married to an author. Authors were my heroes growing up, and now I get to see one at breakfast every day!
Adventures out in the field
When Nick and I created "Scientists in the Field," what we were looking for was to be writing, not just about some animal, a bunch of facts about it, we wanted to provide some real drama. We wanted to take kids on a real, exciting, real-life expedition. And our books have narrative. And there wasn't a whole lot out there. Not only do we have a narrative, but we have these great heroes and heroines in our narratives, who I think are great role models for kids. Scientists— a lot of people who are working in science in the field today— didn't even like science when they were growing up because they thought it was a big book of answers you had to memorize, and not a process, and not an adventure, not exploring. But that's what it is. And in the field, as a scientist, you're really using so much more than science too, aren't you?
I mean, you're MacGyvering in the field. You're using everything you ever learned. And for me, to do these books, I've had to use my physical fitness skills. I've had to swim for hours. I've had to ride camels, ride horses, and elephants. I've had to learn foreign languages. And it really helps to know one foreign language. And boy, even if you don't learn the whole language, just being able to say hello in Bengali or Mongolian or talk pidgin, really makes people happy to see you.
All the stuff I learned as a Girl Scout, I've used in researching these books. And scientists need that. I think that field science or writing about field science is just one of the most fun and exciting and demanding and thrilling jobs you could ever have. I feel like I'm the luckiest person on Earth.
I always go to the library first thing, and of course I read all that I can about Mongolia if I'm going to write about the snow leopards, or New Guinea if I'm writing about tree kangaroos, or Bengali culture if I'm going to go to West Bengal. So, the research really does start in the library. And I try to see any films about my subject. But a lot of what we do, and scientists and field theory, is the science is unfolding in front of you. You couldn't get it in a book. So the story is really happening in front of you, and what you want to do is go to the field with your heart full of all the background you can get. But you also want to be very receptive to this very stuff that is gonna happen in front of you. Maybe for the first time ever, anywhere.
And it invariably does, because the universe is just so full of gifts for us. And the teachers are going to come out of the woodwork and show us the way.
Keeping a field journal
When I'm in the field, I have several different notebooks, and one of them is just a little pocket-sized thing that I just write stuff down. I have another notebook for interviews that I conduct. And probably the most important is my field journal. And at the end of every day, instead of just sitting there writing a diary, what I do is I write a narrative. I write a story.
I write what this day taught me. What was kind of the theme of the day. And believe me, at the end of the day, it's the last thing you feel like doing, you know. Because you just sprained your ankle, or you hurt your hand on a stick and you're really tired 'cause you walked 15 miles and your camel was in a bad mood, or whatever. But you make yourself do that. And a lot of my sentences and paragraphs are pulled almost directly from that field journal.
And so if there's an immediacy and excitement to the books, it because it really came out of the field journal as it happened.
I have a brand-new book out. This was probably my most emotional expedition yet for kids. It's called Kakapo Rescue. Nick took the pictures, I wrote the words. We waited five years for the opportunity to write this book. It's about this extremely rare parrot that only lives on tiny islands off the southern coast of New Zealand, and rarely nests.
But when it does, this bird has inspired the most elaborate and the most compelling effort ever in the history of the world to save a bird. When we went, there were fewer than 90 of these kakapos on the planet. They're giant, flightless, nocturnal parrots. They can weigh up to 11 pounds. They look like a monster parakeet.
They're very, very friendly, very intelligent. And Nick and I for five years had kept our springs free, because they might nest. And every spring we'd like wait for the call to see if they were nesting. And then finally, they did, and I got on the plane with less than two weeks' notice, and just flew to New Zealand. And we went to this island.
And to be part of this effort. Every single one of these birds is so important, because there's fewer than 90 there. Every bird has a backpack with radio telemetry so you can follow the bird everywhere it goes. The scientists know where every bird on the planet, every kakapo is at any given time. And every nest has a pair of nest nannies attending to the nest.
Volunteers, who have also waited for years for this opportunity, set up a tent right outside the underground nest of this giant nocturnal parrot, and in the nest, which is quite big, there's a video monitor. So they can see what it's doing every second. And they also have set up this little infrared beam so that when the mother parrot leaves the nest, it breaks that beam, and a doorbell sounds in the volunteers' tent.
So the volunteers, when she leaves the nest, she's going to get something to eat. The volunteers then put on all their warm clothes, 'cause this is in the latitude known as the "roaring 40s." It's cold. It's the middle of the night. They put on all their clothes. They stagger out to the nest.
And they take out the little baby and put a warm blanket on it. I mean, how cute is that? Every chick. It looks like a little wet piece of tissue. Baby parrots are very funny-looking critters. I mean, baby humans are kinda funny-looking too, but. They're so ugly they're cute. But here you are, holding — they're only — when we got there, we got to hold the only kakapo chick on the planet.
And that was so thrilling. And that first baby chick died when we were there. And we all wept. The scientists, the volunteers. And it was horrible that this dear little thing lost its life, but it also was like the only chick on the planet. But then we were there when another one hatched, and watched it hatch from the egg. So you get to be part of that, and you get to share that with your readers. And you really show them that there is nothing on this earth more important than what these people are doing, trying to save this species from extinction. And it really is worth a very great deal of effort, and a very great deal of care.
And even if our readers never see a wild kakapo, which many of them are not going to do, knowing that our planet has this wondrous, 11-pound, flightless, funny, smart bird who can live to be 70, 80, 100 years old, that has memories of stuff that, you know, your grandmother isn't gonna remember. That this bird continues to exist and adorn the earth, I hope that matters to these readers after you've taken them on that expedition.
And these parrots, and the volunteers, and the scientists, they were such great teachers. And to be able to bring back the immediacy and the emotion of that expedition was a really great privilege. So right now, that's my favorite of all the kids' books that Nick and I have ever done together.
Swimming with pink dolphins
Oh, I've gotten to have all kinds of great experiences doing these books. I've made four trips to the Amazon. I swam in a tributary of the Amazon with pink dolphins, who came to know me every day. That was amazing. Amazing. I've also swum in the Black Water River tributary of the Amazon, in which you can't see anything. It's like you're swimming in space. You can't see anything around you. And one day I'd had some minor surgery on my foot, and I had a bandage on it, and someone came along and took that bandage right off. I have no idea who it was. Could've been an electric eel as long as a limousine, because I know there were a lot of electric eels there. We would see them. I know I washed my hair in a place that had a resident electric eel. My hair used to be straight. No, I'm just kidding. I've gotten to hike in the Alpine Mountains of the great Gobi in Mongolia. Pretty amazing. To research Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, I met with Nick Bishop and a scientist, Dr. Lisa Dabek, and our whole team to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea. We were surely the only non-native people ever to set foot in that cloud forest at 10,000 feet.
That was amazing. And I've traveled in southeast Asia to all kinds of wondrous places. Sometimes you feel like you're in some kind of a dream. I remember the first night I woke up in a tent in the Gobi. And I got up and I was wandering around under the stars, and in the distance I saw some horses that were grazing. And I thought, oh how lovely. Those are really big horses.
And then I thought, they're really lumpy horses. They were camels! And they were just kind of sharing the desert with us. That was just great. So many wonders you get to see, and to see them, all you have to do is just go there. You know? And be ready. And the teachers will come out of the woodwork.
Animals have senses that we don't. They are perceiving realities in our world that we don't. But if you're with an animal, you're kind of seeing that reality. Seeing with new eyes. For example, tarantulas can taste with their feet. One time I was holding a tarantula, and it was a nice tarantula, but we hadn't met before.
And the animal had never been handled before, to my knowledge. It started picking up its feet in a way that I know that's often a threat gesture. They rear up, like a horse, you know, and often they show their fangs. It wasn't showing its fangs to me. What was happening was, I was standing in a warm place, and my hand was sweating. And it was going, "eww!"
So there I was with this animal who was tasting the world with its feet. Same thing— any bird that you ever meet, that bird sees colors that we don't even have names for. Their eyes, and their brains are different from ours, physically different from ours. They see all these colors that we don't know, and they probably shimmer the way that iridescent feathers of, say, hummingbirds shimmer for us.
And elephants, they can hear infrasound. So can whales, they can make infrasound. Sounds lower than what we can hear. Sounds that can travel, in the case of whales, halfway around the globe. So they are perceiving the same world that we live in, but in a way that we can't access. But we almost access it, being in their proximity. And we're sharing that same reality.
So your reality really opens up when you're in the presence of an animal. It's like you're being invited into their world, which is really our world, and in that way they expand our world in a way that a person doesn't. And so, I feel very lucky that so many of my friends are animals. And to restrict your interest, I think, to just one species, is cutting yourself off from this great green world in a way that a lot of people may not appreciate.
It's almost as if Imagine a person who only listened to one kind of music, or only ate one kind of food. If you ate nothing but hot dogs, or if you were surrounding yourself with only the color pink. Well, when you have friends who are other species, that is mind-expanding, and world-expanding. And you feel much more at home, I think, on the earth.
The Good, Good Pig
When I wrote The Good, Good Pig, it was the hardest book I'd ever written. I mean, for other books I've gotten dengue fever and laid in some cockroach-infested hut, and been hunted by tigers and bitten by a vampire bat and all these things. But writing about someone who I'd loved and lost was miserable. Every day I was miserable.
I didn't want to write at all. I had to, though. Because when Christopher Hogwood died, it was a headline news. It was the lead story in our local paper. It was the lead story in the Metro section of the Concord Monitor, Concord, New Hampshire, our state capital. The outpouring of love from all the friends, literally around the world, convinced me I had to write his story.
And I had to put my story in, too. I didn't want to do that either. But my literary agent, my wonderful editors, they encouraged me to do that. They told me, you know, your life is like the setting in which the gem that is Christopher will shine. So, The Good, Good Pig is a book about family. And not just the family to whom you're genetically related, because my family included someone with a flexible nose-disc and a curly tail.
You know, my family included dogs and the children next door, who were not my kids, but they were certainly part of my family. Families are made out of love. They're not made out of genes, they're not made out of blood. And that's what that book said. Writing it was like walking on ground glass, every single day. It was a chronicle of everything I'd lost. But I'm so grateful I wrote it, because now, it has healed me of that loss.
And now, I've heard from so many people who have lost someone they loved, or whose biological families weren't quite what they always wanted. People who've been rejected by people they love, but accepted by animals. So many folks, they are now part of my family. And Christopher had this great knack. He used to let himself out of his pen. He was a genius. We would close it with bungee cords and all kinds of locks and things, and he would get out, he would go visit people.
It wasn't that he didn't like his pen, it was just that he liked to visit people. And he made friends everywhere he went. And now that he is out of body, he's now in all these different languages. He's now around the world, and he's still bringing me friends. He's still bringing me blessings. Being dead hasn't slowed him down one bit.
Writing opens up the world
I think writing helps with everything. Writing forces you to look inside, and it forces you to share. And those are two things that heal us, beyond a doubt. And if you use your writing too, as a way to honor something bigger than yourself, it's just going to bring you all kinds of blessings, as it has me. I always wrote as a little kid, even when I thought I'd be a veterinarian. We had — in the house, I had a newspaper with a circulation of three. It was called the Daily Happenings, and I was the only contributor. And my mother and father and I read it, and the dog could not read it. The first story was, "General Montgomery elected best man in world!" because of course my father was the best man in the world.
But writing has always helped me understand the world. It's helped me expand my world. It's helped make friends. And it's a transformative thing.
How to write a persuasive letter
I think that young people can do some of the most persuasive writing that there is. Many times, adults will listen to a child when they won't listen to another adult. And I came across this amazing statistic from my friend Cindy Thomashow, who's an educator, and she told me that adults who have children learn something like, I think it's in excess of 70% of their environmental news from their children. Kids are bringing the message home. So, kids who can write are going to get an enormous amount of attention, because people care about what kids think. And also, kids don't have that hidden agenda that a lot of adults have, and that leaders suspect, so what I would advise kids who are trying to write a persuasive letter, is first of all, get past the whole writer's block thing.
Pretend that you're writing to your friend. Pretend that you're writing to your parents. Write about what was most important or surprising to you when you found out about this issue. And I also think, respect, the person that you're writing — respect your reader. Know that they are just as smart as you; they just aren't as informed as you, otherwise you wouldn't be writing.
So bring as if its a gift to your letter the information that you wanna share. And trust that your reader is gonna care. When you're writing about saving animals, often the first thing I start with is how great that animal is. Tell something about the orangutan. You know, how intelligent they are. How, you know, the orangutans are always the best lock-pickers in the zoo, for example.
Tell about their emotions. Start with a little story. If you have had a friend who was an orangutan, or you know one at the zoo, or if you've read something about an orangutan, make that orangutan a character, who you care about. Make it personal. And then, in your letter, put the ball in the reader's court. Tell them what they can do. Tell them what they should buy or not buy.
Tell them who they should vote for or not vote for. Tell them what they can do to help. Because it's important to make people care, but then you've gotta give them that next step. What do I do next? So give them that next step. And remember the power that you have as a kid. You don't have to be a voter. You don't have to have a lot of money. But people are gonna listen to you, because you're a kid.
And they're our most powerful allies, I think, in the environmental movement.
I think that kids are far tougher than a lot of us realize. I remember being a kid. And I was pretty tough. And remember that our kind, until very recently, children were right there, not just with the nuclear family, but with the entire tribe or band. And tiny children witnessed birth. They witnessed death. They witnessed sickness. They witnessed gruesome injuries.
They also witnessed miracles and wonders. And kids can do it. So, I don't really think there's much information that kids can't cope with. I mean, certainly, if you don't have the language skills to understand a big word, that's one thing. But I think kids are smart, and I trust them. One of my books takes place in Southeast Asia. It's called Search for the Golden Moonbear.
And it talks about land mines. And there's a picture of an amputee. And when you also think of reading things like nursery rhymes, they're quite gruesome. Some of them were about the Black Death, you know. 'Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes ' — that's about the Black Death! Kids can take it. So I don't hide anything from my readers. I think that they're gonna take it and run with it.
An excerpt from Quest for the Tree Kangaroo
I'm Sy Montgomery and I'm going to read to you from Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea about the Matschie's tree kangaroo. "The Matschies live in a lost world on a Stone Age island in a land that time forgot. That's how people still describe New Guinea, it's the second largest island on earth. Only one island, Greenland, is bigger.
Only the Amazon has more tropical rain forests, but New Guinea has many other different habitats for animals to live in besides tropical rain forest, from seashores to coral reefs to glaciers to cloud forests. New Guinea was mostly unexplored by outsiders until the middle of the 20th century and for good reason. The place is full of jungles, steep mountains, erupting volcanoes, dangerous mudslides, aggressive crocodiles, poisonous snakes, and tropical diseases.
The few explorers who survived expeditions there noted another hazard, the local people sometimes had people over had dinner, literally. Headhunting cannibal tribes sometimes ate people, clothes and all, except for their shoes. They gave the shoes to their pigs to eat. Things have changed. Headhunting fell out of fashion. It's thought that nobody eats people there anymore.
But still, especially on the eastern half of the island, the nation known as Papua New Guinea, few roads mar the wilderness, ancient forests remain unexplored. New species are still being found. Here you'll find birds that grow tall as a man. cassowaries remind you of dinosaurs. They sport tall helmets of bone growing up from their blue and black heads. Long, skinny black feathers hang from their bodies like hair.
Because they only have tiny stumps for wings, cassowaries can't fly, but they sure can fight. They can leap into the air and slash at their enemies with claws as sharp as razors. Other birds like the pitohuis have poisonous feathers, and still others are so beautiful they're called birds of paradise. Strange animals abound here. The triok is a beautiful black and white striped possum with a pink nose and huge black eyes. The fourth finger on each hand is more then twice as long as the others. All the better to fish grubs from holes in rotting trees. The echidna is a spine-covered, worm-eating mammal who lays eggs instead of giving birth to live babies. Dorcopsis is a fat little kangaroo who grows no longer then your forearm. The pademelon is another who sleeps in soft beds of grass.
The couscous lives in trees, its eyes are huge, its fur thick and soft. It holds onto branches with pink hands and a pink grasping tail. But perhaps the most amazing of them all is the Matschie's tree kangaroo. It lives only in one place in the world, the cloud forest of the Huon Peninsula on the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea.
The western half of New Guinea is part of the much larger nation of Indonesia. New Guinea isn't exactly the sort of place you'd expect a typical kid growing up in New York to end up, but Lisa Dabek wasn't typical.