Over the course of the 4+ years of cranking out these blog posts, I’ve mentioned our friend Sy Montgomery more than once. We visit her and her equally amazing husband Howard Mansfield at their place in Hancock, New Hampshire every summer on our returns to our home away from home. Those visits and Sy’s postings on Facebook always reveal new excursions into the world of living things by this intrepid life whisperer that open new ways of understanding my place among nature’s creatures.
Sy has written more than 30 books, but there are three in particular that have worked their special magic on me. The first, The Good Good Pig, is about the pig that she and Howard adopted. Christopher Hogwood, as they christened him, went from being the runt of his litter to weighing in at 750 pounds. The book had special meaning for us because we visited Christopher every summer while he was still alive. Those encounters sold us on the idea that humans could cross the species boundaries to form real and complex bonds of love and understanding.
Cat and dog lovers have always known this, but most humans relate to pigs in a purely transactional way. You feed them and care for their health so that you can later kill and eat them. Knowing Christopher and enjoying the antics Sy described in the book of his beer guzzling and his unauthorized excursions into the town where he tore up neighbors’ property, despite which they returned him home lovingly. That big guy made me proud not to be a pork consumer.
The Soul of an Octopus, which brought Sy a National Book Award nomination, presented an even greater challenge to my relation to the natural world. The book recounts her encounters with these misunderstood and underestimated creatures, both in the wild and in captivity. The captive octopus resided in the New England Aquarium in Boston, close enough to Sy’s New Hampshire home to allow for regular visits. During these encounters a real relationship developed across boundaries that most of us find unbridgeable. The octopus reacted to Sy’s presence in ways that expressed her pleasure, in contrast to the human visitors she was averse to, witness the way they became targets for the water she spat at them when they came close.
Reading the poignant account of this cross-species relationship was a real paradigm shift for me. Living things relegated by us to a lower rung on the ladder of being are capable of awareness and relationship. We can share Sy’s grief when the octopus begins her slow descent to the death that awaits them once she has laid her eggs.
Sy’s most recent book grows out of a long stint volunteering with the Turtle Rescue League in Southbridge, Massachusetts alongside her work partner Matt Patterson, a wildlife artist. TRL is devoted to the care of injured, abandoned and displaced turtles. It is overseen by two incredibly devoted women who have found their purpose in life in the incredibly arduous work of healing the shattered bodies of turtles, many of whom have been run over by cars and trucks as they cross busy roads moving between their winter and summer habitats. Hence the subtitle of Sy’s book: Of Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell. I’ll talk about the main part of the title later.
Week after week, Sy and Matt return to TRL to do whatever needs to be done for inhabitants of this loving home, from building and maintaining their environments, to overseeing the exercise and rehab work some of them need, to collecting eggs from the shallow nests where their mothers have deposited them. These eggs will be hatched in TRL’s incubators and released into the wild. Many of the turtle varieties are endangered, so those eggs deserve special attention since, left to their own devices most of them would become victims of the predators that view them as pricey delicacies.
Sy creates vivid portraits of many of the residents of TRL who acquire colorful names, usually based on the circumstances in which they’re found – Pizza Man, Fire Chief, etc. As with the octopuses, real relationships develop between their care givers and these strange creatures, who predate even the dinosaurs. I have to admit that I haven’t retained much knowledge about the various sub-species of turtles who pass through, but I do recall the individuals and cheer their recoveries or mourn their losses.
This much would suffice to make an engaging book. There is a chapter in which Sy and Matt join TRL staff on a rescue mission to a beach where sea turtles are being washed ashore in ways that will lead to their deaths without the help of their human Samaritans. I read it with as much excitement as the sections I read in Kon-Tiki oh so long ago about its encounters with life-threatening storms.
But there’s more, the part that explains the centerpiece of the title Of Time and Turtles. Because turtles live such long lives – some have been known to live as long as 200 years — the sense of time that surrounds them unfolds at a different rate than it does for us frenetic humans. Even their injuries heal at a different rate. It happens that Sy’s work with the turtles coincides with the Covid years which caused astonishing disruptions in the time sense of many people. As an example, my guesses at how long ago significant events in my life occurred are now way out of line with the reality.
It’s as if Sy’s time with the turtles and our Covid time put us outside the traditional linear understanding of how things unfold. In the Jewish view of the events in the bible there is the following concept: “Ain mukdam v’ain m’uchar ba’torah.” There is no early and no late in the torah, which suggests a more circular view of time that challenges the idea that events are stacked like dominos forever poised to fall in exactly the same sequence.
Sy quotes a scientist who speaks about “warm-blooded chauvinism,” the assumption that human views on understanding the natural world are the only possible ones. Once again, Sy has helped me step outside my skin into a universe of much broader and more diverse realities. Our creaturely arrogance is so profound it takes a hell of a book to accomplish that.