Interview with Sy Montgomery
by Jeannine Stronach*
Sy Montgomery is an award-winning writer who has profoundly changed the way her readers look at animals. She is the author of 7 books for adults and 6 books for children; she also writes a popular nature column for the Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "Living on Earth." Her latest book for adults is The Good Good Pig, the captivating story of Sy's adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood. Her most recent book for children, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea was the recipient of the 2007 Orbis Pictus Award and was selected as an Honor book for the ALA Sibert Award.
The Boston Globe called you "Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson." How did two such disparate characters end up in the body of one person?
I think the Indiana Jones part came from the time I worked in a pit with 18,000 snakes... But unlike the movie character, I was not surrounded by poisonous vipers, but by harmless little red-sided garter snakes, each as cute as a squirrel! My work has earned me a sort of Girl Danger reputation: I've been hunted by a swimming tiger, handled a wild tarantula, been bitten by a vampire bat, motorcycled through areas still thought to harbor landminesthat sort of thing. But surviving the so-called danger (most of the time I am perfectly safe) isn't the thrill for me. The thrill is seeing the animalsand I'll go just about anywhere and try just about anything in order to do this.
It's a huge honor for me to even be mentioned in the same breath as Emily Dickinson. I could never be as splendid a writer as she though perhaps I share some of the ecstasy that powered her poetry. When I find myself swimming with pink dolphins, or face-to-face with a kind of bear no scientist has ever described before, or watching a wild tree kangaroo in a cloud forest, my life feels full enough to contain all the blessings of both adventurer and poet.
When did you start to write books for young readers?
Shortly after, I met Nic Bishop. He's the wonderful photographer with whom I have collaborated for Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, The Snake Scientist, The Tarantula Scientist and hopefully many other book projects to come: including a forthcoming one that will take us to Mongolia this August in search of snow leopards.
Nic and I met at a nature writing conference at Boston's New England Aquarium in the mid 1990s where I was a speaker. After my talk, Nic approached me, explained he was a wildlife photographer specializing in books for children, and asked if I might be interested in working with him. He could have been an ax murderer for all I knew. But I gave him my address anyway. I had already made a point of writing for young readersI contributed to magazines like Ranger Rick and Cobblestone - and as a conservationist, I realized that children are the most important readership a writer can reach. So I was thrilled with Nic's idea and awaited his photos to see if he was any good.
When they arrived in the mailWOW. His were some of the most fantastic wildlife photographs I have ever seen in my life. Nic specializes in photographing small animals like frogs, spiders and insects. His photos capture the majesty, the dignity, the individuality, and especially the vivid, other-worldly lives of these little creatures.
From the moment I set eyes on them, I knew what we should do: create a line of nonfiction adventure books for kids that told, with equal parts photos and text, true stories about passionate people whose love of wild animals leads them to solve scientific mysteries and to dedicate their lives to protecting these animals and their homes. Expanded to include other authors and highlight researchers in additional fields of science, our idea became Houghton Mifflin's Scientists in the Field series.
Your online bio says that you were once bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica. So, are you a vampire now? What other peculiar perils have you had to face since you started writing about animals?
I've been a vegetarian for 25 years, and nothing has changed since the vampire bite! In my work I have been chased by an angry silverback gorilla, swum with electric eels and piranhas in the Amazon, and been skillfully undressed by an orangutan. I've had to climb six stories up trees, swim for hours in strong river currents, and hike steep, slippery trails into cloud forest at altitude until it seemed my heart would explode. I got dengue fever in Kalimantan, was bitten by a venomous caterpillar in India and was held up by an armed guard in Rwanda. But perhaps the most peculiar peril I have faced as a writer was the danger of offending my hosts when I was invited to a Dayak tewa in Indonesia. It's a ceremony in which the local people celebrate the re-joining of the halves of the soul which are said to part at death. Among other festivities, they dig up a dead person and rebury them, and at one point the celebrants are offered tuac - rice wine flavored with the corpse of a fetal deer, drunk from a human skull. And where do they get the human skull? The Dayaks were, until recently, headhunters. So you can see why one would be eager not to offend them by refusing their hospitalityeven though tuac is not exactly my, er, cup of tea...
It seems to me that one of the hardest things about writing nonfiction is knowing where to start - that is, what can you assume readers already know and what can you tell them that's new? It seems that might be even harder when you are writing for kids. How do you decide how much basic or background information to put in to your books?
Oddly, I haven't had trouble with this, perhaps because when it comes to animals, I find that kids are generally extremely well-informed. They love animals and care about them and love to watch them. Though kids might not always do this in the classroom, take them outside and they're great at paying attention. Most of them haven't yet bought the lie that what's important in life is cars and clothes and money and status. They naturally pay attention to the natural world. It's in our genes: for millions of years, that's what we did for a living. Until recently we were hunter-gatherers, and if you didn't pay attention, either you couldn't find food or something, like a sabre-toothed Smilodon, ate you while you weren't looking. That's why they soak up information about animals so easily. It makes my job easy!
To write your latest book Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, you had to make quite a long and sometimes arduous journey to the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea. What inspired you to write about such an unusual animal in such a faraway place?
One book often leads to another. I met Lisa Dabek when she invited me to speak on my adult book, Journey of the Pink Dolphins, at the Roger Williams Park Zoo were she then worked as Director of Conservation. She generously invited me to come early and offered to give me a tour. We never got further than the first animal we sawPaul, a Matschie's Tree Kangaroo. I couldn't take my eyes off him! He looked like something Dr. Suess had made up. And when Lisa told me about the work she was doing in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with these creatures, I immediately thought of doing a kids' book. Here was a living creature better than any made-up Pokemon character or stuffed toyand a chance to learn about it that offered true-life adventure in the astonishing landscape of the cloud forest! Then to top it all off, the photographer I work with, Nic, had spent his teen years in Papua New Guinea and spoke fluent Tok Pisin. What could be better?
There was only one problem: it turned out Lisa had been studying the kangaroos for seven years and had only glimpsed them twice... Because they are hunted, they flee the minute they see a person. This wouldn't work well for photography.
But Lisa and I kept in touch. I immediately recognized her as one of those special people I wanted to stay friends with forever, regardless of whether we got to do a book together. One day, years later, I got the phone call I'd been waiting for. Lisa had found a population of tree roos who hadn't been hunted in a generation. Our book was a go.
And here's another astonishing piece of luck. That first day I met Paul the tree kangaroo, I'd brought a guest along: Joel Glick, whom I had met many years earlier, when he was in junior high and I had just published my first book. Joel had grown up dreaming of studying wild animals in exotic places. At the time we met Lisa, Joel had just returned from studying monkeys in Kenya and was about to embark on a two year project studying mountain gorillas in Uganda. Lisa visited Joel there, and later ended up hiring Joel as her field coordinator in Papua New Guinea! I dedicated the words of the book to him.
In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo you talk about how the Papua New Guineans have themselves taken on the cause of protecting the kangaroos, even donating land to preserve habitat. How important is it to involve the people who live in or near critical habitats in conservation efforts? How do scientists approach people who may come from very different cultural backgrounds from themselves?
It is absolutely critical to involve local people in preserving the animals and plants and landscapes where they live. Scientists need to be aware of local knowledge and not dismiss things out of hand as superstition. What we need to do is learn how to listen for truth.
Let me give you an example: in the giant mangrove swamp known as Sundarbans, I was researching these strange man-eating tigers who swim out after your boat and eat you. Nobody knows why the tigers are so aggressive. I wanted to find out. It's hard to study something that is trying to eat you, so I turned to the local people for answers. They told me tales that sounded impossible. "The tiger flies through the air," they said. "The tiger can become invisible!" But what they were saying was completely true: a tiger can't flap its wings like Tinkerbell, but it certainly can leap for 20 feetand that's flying. The tiger can't go see-through, like Casper the Friendly Ghost. But because of its exquisite camouflage, it can hide behind a single blade of grasscompletely invisible. And it turned out the local people understood completely the mystery of why these tigers are so unlike tigers elsewhere. The scientists just didn't understand what they were saying.
Happily, Lisa's not like that. Lisa understood from the start she would have to work in partnership with the local people. She knew that she would need not only their cooperation, but also their knowledge and skills to make her project work. The local people I met are strong, brave and smart. They are almost supernaturally gifted trackers. They are the most stalwart defenders of the environmenttheir environmentthat you could dream of. The local people have now donated even more land for conservation than what we reported in the book: now more than eight times the size of Manhattan! In the local school, a teacher told me that the village considers conservation just as important a subject for kids to study as science or math. Don't you wish our leaders were wise enough to realize that?
In your book you quote Lisa Dabek as saying, "I really believe the future of conservation is with kids. The more kids around the world understand the importance of protecting plants and animals, the better off we'll be." What are some of the ways Lisa worked with kids in Papua New Guinea? What can young people do to protect the environment?
Supporting the school in Yawan village was one of Lisa's top conservation priorities. She knows the future of the tree kangaroos rests with these kids. Her project brought visiting teachers to work with the local teachers in many villages, so they could learn from each other. With money from the zoo and other conservation organizations, she established a scholarship fund so more local people could become teachers. She organized an art exchange between PNG and Western students. PNG students joined the International Bug Club and learned about local insects and insects around the world. Both the adults and kids appreciate Lisa's efforts very much. She's so beloved in the villages where she works that there are several children now named Lisa!
Lisa shows kids both in PNG and here at home that young people can be powerful protectors of our environment. There are so many things we all can dofrom helping migrating frog or salamander cross a busy street, to joining a beach cleanup, to writing letters to the newspaper to support strong conservation laws. We make ordinary choices every day that profoundly affect wildlife. Do you eat organic? You're saving fish and animals whose water won't be poisoned by chemical runoff from farms. Do you avoid buying stuff with excessive packaging? You could be saving sea turtles, who won't find a plastic bag that ends up in the ocean, mistake it for a tasty jellyfish, and choke on it. Do you try to buy things made locally? You could be helping whales. Buying things made overseas contributes to ocean traffic, which is now so jammed with freighters that the engines' noise interferes with whales' ability to communicate with one another.
Sometimes kids can be more powerful voices than adults. For instance, did you know that palm oil, a major ingredient in many packaged cookies, is threatening the world's population of orangutans? Orangutan habitat is being rapidly burned to make way for plantations to grow palm oil - and the orangutans are being burned along with the trees. Imagine if kids organized a letter writing campaign to the cookie companies that use palm oil! And if the companies didn't respond, imagine if those kids organized a public demonstration and boycott of those companies! I can tell you now, that would save the lives of tens of thousands of orangutans. Think of all the good those kids could do. And think of what a powerful civics lesson this could be. This is just one example.
Nic Bishop's photographs in Quest for the Tree Kangaroo are absolutely beautiful. Robin Wingrave's illustrations in the book are lovely too. How do you work with photographers and artists on your books?
Nic and I work differently from many other writer-photographer collaborators. Nic, for instance, doesn't take pictures merely to illustrate my writing; neither do I write merely to caption his photos. Nic and I usually conceive our books together, plan our trips together, and work on-site side-by-side. We witness both the story and the images at the same moment. Then, when we saw Robin's gorgeous art, we knew we just had to commission some of it for the tree kangaroo book. Maps are very important in our books. In other books I have been lucky to have the talented Liddy Hubbell create them and adorn them with drawings of some of the animals of the region: but Robin's maps for the PNG book, adorned with his incredible paintings of the creatures we were seeing, were extra-special because Robin was actually a member of the team and part of the story itself.
I should add that I have also worked with two other talented photographers on other projects. Both are close friends of mine. Dianne Taylor-Snow, whom I met in Borneo while she was working with orangutans, has accompanied me on expeditions to India, Bangladesh, Peru, Brazil, Thailand and Cambodia. Her photos have appeared in three of my books for adults, and she provided all the photographs for my children's book Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon. And Eleanor Briggs, a photographer who lives in the same village I do, accompanied me on my second trip to India and took the photographs in my Spell of the Tiger and my children's book, The Man-Eating Tigers.
Since you returned from PNG have you heard any news about the animals your team was able to radio-collar there? Have any important discoveries been made that might help the kangaroos?
Yes! The collars are designed to fall off and they then emit a signal which allows you to find it and decant the information it has recorded. When Christopher's fell off, folks thought that was the end of seeing him but he was actually recaptured and is doing fine. So was Joel, who is now an adult male. He has been re-collared to see if his range changes now that he is a grown-up tree kangaroo. Now the researchers are starting to get an idea of the tree kangaroos' range. Males and females have different sized ranges (males' are bigger) and it appears they may overlap. Knowing how much land each tree kangaroo needs will be essential in estimating population size in a given area, and in making sure they have enough land to thrive on. 2006 was an extremely successful season. Lisa and her team collared six animals, thereby increasing the sample size dramatically.
I love the way you incorporated the Tak Pisin language of PNG into Quest for the Tree Kangaroo. Has the book been translated into Tak Pisin? I bet young readers in PNG would love to read about the roos and your expedition there.
Thank you! I would love to see my children's books translated, so kids in other countries could read them. My adult books have been or are being translated into Korean, Japanese, Dutch, Italian and German, but so far my kids books are in English only. I'm hoping to find ways to change that. Happily, though, the kids in the villages Lisa works with in PNG have all read the book in English.
Can you tell me a little about some of your other books that focus on wildlife in the Pacific Rim or South Asia?
Search for the Golden Moon Bear took me to Cambodia, Thailand and Laos in search of a mysterious golden bear previously unknown to science.
This book, too, arose from a previous book. I had met biologist Gary Galbreath in the Amazon, while researching my books on pink dolphins. He had told me about a strange bear he had seen almost 10 years before on a trip to tropical China. Living in a cage as a sort of village mascot, it was unlike any bear he had ever seen. It had a beautiful golden coat, round ears, and a white crescent at the chest. There are only eight species of bears known on Earth, and none of them looks like this. He had always wanted to go back to China and find out more - but China is a long way away. And what were the chances he had discovered something utterly new? He thought maybe the bear he had seen in China was just a wierdo.
A year after I met Gary, I was at a birthday party in my hometown in New Hampshire, and met a young Cambodian man named Sun Hean. Few people were talking to him because his English was difficult to understand, but I was eager to ask him about Cambodia's wildlife. I knew Cambodia had two species of bear, both jet black. I remembered Gary's golden bear. Had Sun Hean ever seen a bear in his country that wasn't black? He was taken aback by my question. He told me there was a mysterious bear living on a palm plantation that had everyone confounded. It looked like no bear anyone had ever seen. It had a mysterious golden coat!
I called Gary immediately, and arranged for the two men to meet. Both whipped out photos of golden bears, taken 10 years and 10,000 kilometers apart. That's when we started planning our expedition. Little did I know this would not only lead me on a voyage of discovery, but to four separate expeditions in three countries. Each was a roller-coaster ride from hope to horror and back again - from hideous black-markets selling endangered animal organs as medicine, to Buddhist temples where monks chant for serenity and wisdom. Ultimately Search for the Golden Moon Bear became a book about as much about redemption as about science. I wrote two versions, one for adults and another for kids. Both share the same title.
Soon I hope to be headed back to Australasia again. When they next nes - and we don't know when, but we are hoping for next year - Nic and I plan to research a kids' book on the effort to save New Zealand's endangered kakapo, a flightless, nocturnal giant parrot.
Quest for the Tree Kangaroo made me want to quit my job, go back to school, and become a zoologist - then I remembered that I'm 44 and have a kid to raise! Oh well, maybe in the next life. Is it one of your intentions to inspire young people to become scientists?
I would be very happy if my books helped kids to see that science isn't only done by men in white coats working with test tubes in laboratories. One of the scientists we profiled, Tarantula Scientist Sam Marshall, told me that as a kid he thought science was all about memorizing stuff from a big book! When he found out what science is really about - essentially solving cool mysteries about what you love most - it changed everything. Now he is the top expert on tarantulas in the world.
So I'd be very happy if my books could spread the message that science is fun. But my main intent in all my work--for both adults and kidsis to inspire readers to be conservationists. As you know, we can help animals no matter what our profession. As Quest illustrates, animals need all kinds of people on their side: zoologists, yes, but also lawmakers and teachers, writers and photographers, illustrators and zookeepers, professionals and volunteers. And of course, they need not just folks from the high-tech Western nations; the local people who live where the animals do may be the most important conservationists of all.
How do you measure a book's success?
Of course I want to help create a beautiful book. I want to honor the people, animals and landscapes that inspired me to write. I want each of my books to be a prayer of thanks and praise for this planet and its marvelous creatures of all species. But most of all, the success I want is for my books to change readers' livesthat they make readers care enough to make it their life's work to protect this sweet green world and help keep it whole. That's a tall order, I realize, but one well worth a lifetime trying to fulfill.
I don't know whether any of my books are successful by this measure; I may never know. But that's OK, because a book can keep on doing its work in the world, speaking to readers, long after the author is gone.
Are there any other books or resources for young people about animals or conservation that you'd like to recommend?
Oh, goodness, so many! Of course I heartily recommend all the books in the Scientists in the Field series, not just those I've written. Nic wrote and photographed a fantastic book, Forest Explorer, which is basically the toolkit I would have dreamed of with which to explore my neighborhood forest and its creatures.
Books of fiction also are full of excellent and true observations of natural history. Look at Charlotte's Web! Though spiders don't weave words in their webs, they do weave in messages. Scientists now know that certain spiders make patterns in their webs, visible to insects but not to us, that look like the nectar guides on certain flowers. It's like putting up a billboard for a dinerbut false advertising: it's the spider who gets to eat, not the bug!
I love Lynne Cherry's classic The Great Kapok Tree, and also the book she authored with my friend the ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, The Shaman's Apprentice. I love Efrain of the Sonoran Desert, written by my friend Gary Nabhan with Amalia Astorga, a Seri Indian Elder. It's the story of a Lizard's life among the Seri Indians. I could go on and on...
*Jeannine Stronach is the manager of the PaperTigers: Books+Water' Kiriyama Book Prize
Posted March 2007
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