Sy Montgomery writes and talks about animals not as things, but as beings.
“It’s a who, not a that,” said the popular naturalist and best-selling author in a recent phone interview from her home in Hancock, N.H.
Editors who’ve tried to change her wording have met with the threat of being tasered, she said.
The distinction is key to Montgomery’s decades-long exploration of other species. On her quest to truly know animals she’s been bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, worked in a pit of 18,000 snakes in Manitoba, been
hunted by a tiger in India and undressed by an orangutan in Borneo.
Her latest book, “The Soul of an Octopus,” explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus that Montgomery describes as, “an intelligent alien, stranger than anything we can find in outer space.” She discovered they like to be gently touched, just like a dog, horse or person. They have individual personalities. They play. Those in captivity are often occupied with toys like Legos or even contraptions that allow them to create art because it turns out bored octopuses are a hazard. One example being an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium named Lucretia McEvil who constantly dismantled her tank. The Boston Globe columnist’s book was a National Book Award Finalist and named Library Journal’s Best Sci-Tech Book of 2015.
It was selected as this year’s Common Read at the University of Idaho where Montgomery will speak Monday, Oct. 3.
It’s not the first time she’s been to Moscow, Montgomery, 58, noted. She visited UI to unravel the genetic mystery at the heart of her 2009 book, “Search for the Golden Moon Bear,” working with professor Lisette Waits, head of the university’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Before her latest visit, the enthusiastic author talked to 360 about her life’s work.
360: Why did you choose to focus on octopuses for your latest book?
Montgomery: All of my work is really about relationships between people and animals. We’re just one of many thousands and thousands of species on this planet and most books are written about only one species, humans. Most of my books are written about terrestrial vertebrates. Most life on Earth consists of marine invertebrates, so I wanted to know one. As a naturalist I kind of felt like a fraud if I didn’t because this is most of animal life. … It expands our imagination and moral universe to care about somebody who is a marine invertebrate.
360: “Soul of an Octopus” has proved very successful.
Montgomery: It’s freakish. I gotta tell you, I could not have been more shocked if I’d been hit on the head by a meteor. I knew I had to write it. … I knew it was the most important book I’d ever written. I just didn’t know if anyone else would (think so).
360: How did you know it was the most important book you’d ever written?
Montgomery: (The octopus) is an entrée to a very big world. Talking about the nature of consciousness itself is a big subject. In the past when I’ve written about an animal, that animal is an individual, it’s a someone. It’s a who, not a that. … This book was about that problem. It was about whether to understand that animals love their lives as much as we do and are individuals as much as we are. Are we anthropomorphizing or seeing the world how it should be seen? That was what the book was really about. If we can accord individuality and personality to marine invertebrates, this world is far more animate and conscious and magical than we ever dared dream before.
360: You’ve had a love for animals since you were a child.
Montgomery: I think most kids, if given a chance, would too. If given a chance and if not tamped down by society and forced to swallow the lie that what matters is power and money and clothes and things. The first impulse is to connect with the living, breathing green world. It either gets discouraged or it gets usurped by screens and by less important things which seduce us as children.
360: You say that animals have taught you how to be a good creature. How have they done this?
Montgomery: They teach you, among other things, that you never know what is going to happen next and when all is lost it may not really be lost because the natural world is infinitely redeeming. They teach you about the many different kinds of love, that there’s more than one right way to do things and they show you there are teachers all around us. … Our job is to recognize them as teachers and to listen for the truth.
If You Go
Who: Sy Montgomery, author of “The Soul of an Octopus”
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3
Where: International Ballroom in the Bruce M. Pitman Center, University of Idaho