A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery
Understanding something that belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets.
This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.
Sy Montgomery has lived the kind of life that I, and many over post-Romantic creatives, have always dreamed of. Equal parts Steve Irwin and Eliza Thornberry, she’s lived her life steeped in contact with the earth’s most beautiful, bizarre, and fascinating creatures. Not just content to live among them, she writes about them in world-renowned books, papers, and documentaries meant for both adults and children in an effort to expose them not only to the animals, but to the importance of each’s existence and why we ought to concern ourselves with preserving them moving forward.
How to Be a Good Creature acts as an autobiography for Sy’s life thus far, in the most fitting way possible: by examining special relationships or turning points in life she’s had among the creatures she so loves, from the sweetness of her first dog, Molly, to the completely absurd emus she follows in the Australian outback. Her writing is honest, poetic, tangible, and vulnerable all at once. When she writes about trekking up through a cloud forest to find a species of tree kangaroo, shortly after experiencing the loss of not one, but two of her most beloved friends, one cannot help but feel sweat pouring, heart constricting with grief, lungs full of thick forest air. It was a startling talent she has, and one she proceeds to use well.
The animals—Chris, Tess, Sally, Octavia— provide the core of each scene and each lesson Sy writes, yet along these encounters and relationships we are given a peek into Sy’s intimate life as well. Her parents came from high social-standing, military stock and never could wrap their heads around their daughter’s sudden choice of career and spouse. Even on her father’s death bed, there was a cold distance created that she never quite managed to circumvent. Sy becomes deeply attached to her pets, her friends, and spirals into such a deep depression after the loss of them that she makes a quiet pact to end her life after finishing A Good, Good Pig, if her spirits haven’t improved. These are the more extreme moments, yet Sy never backs down or hides from her own, deep-running emotions, no more than the animals would around her.
In this way, too—this deeply unapologetic, passionate, vulnerable way—I believe Sy proves herself a feminist icon and a force to be reckoned with. She is a woman who was expected to marry well and pursue a boring but respectful career, and ventured off that path straight into the wilderness to research, catalogue, and share stories of animals no one had thought to study much before. She chose a spouse, a life partner, who shared her passion for science and research and who supported her endlessly throughout her career, against her parents’ expectations and with full trust in her own judgment. She does work to not only educate the upcoming generations on the special animals inhabiting this earth, but also on ways to preserve them, to respect and love them, and to lose all fear in the pursuit of trying to make this a better place for us all to live alongside one another.
That is the thesis of How to Be a Good Creature, above all else. It is growing quiet and getting close to the bizarre and the often ignored or reviled (like the tarantula, Clarabelle) in an effort to learn what they contribute and how they might relate to you as a fellow creature of the world. It is learning complete joy and generosity, single-minded ferocity in pursuing life and goals, forgiveness, and unconditional love.