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In Tune With Animals

  • Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, left, and Sy Montgomery have a new collection of their Boston Globe columns about animal behavior, published by Chelsea Green in White River Junction. With them in this photograph are Thomas’ dogs Kafka, left, and Chapek, center, and Montgomery’s dog Thurber.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sy Montgomery counted primatologists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey among her role models.

Then in September 1984, the then-25-year-old journalist and recent arrival to New Hampshire interviewed Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the anthropologist whose research included Homo sapiens’ relations with animals, for an alternative newspaper.

“She was what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Montgomery said this week, during a telephone conversation from her farm in Hancock, N.H. “From the first time we met, the thing that we shared was an understanding that animals can think and feel and know. That was — and something not everyone could agree upon — that all animals were a ‘who,’ not a ‘that.’ A ‘he’ or a ‘she,’ not an ‘it.’ ”

Next thing the writers knew, they were reading each other’s books-in-progress. Eventually they co-authored a biography of Goodall, Fossey and primatologist Birute Galdikas, and took turns writing wide-ranging columns about the animal kingdom for the Boston Globe.

Their columns have been collected in a new book, Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, published by White River Junction-based Chelsea Green Publishing. They’ll read from and sign copies of the book on Wednesday night at the Norwich Congregational Church, an event sponsored by the Norwich Bookstore.

Despite an age difference of more than 20 years, they share a kindred view of the animal kingdom that goes back to their childhoods. On the 300-acre Peterborough, N.H., farm to which she would return in middle age, the young Elizabeth Marshall spent much of her time under the watchful eyes and nose of a Newfoundland named Mishka.

“She became my nanny,” Thomas said during a telephone interview from the farm. “She wouldn’t let my brother or me anywhere near the shore when we went to the beach. She really ruled us. It never occurred to me that she didn’t have thoughts or emotions or memory.”

By grade school, Elizabeth was taking out so many books about animals that “the librarian said, ‘No more animals!’ because I was supposed to be reading about people. I decided to write my own book, about a tiger.”

While her ensuing studies about people led her to a career in anthropology, including research on the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, Thomas couldn’t help noticing those people’s interactions with both the wild animals surrounding them and with their canine companions and livestock. Those observations evolved into a parade of books, from ethnological and wildlife studies to the 1990s best-sellers The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Social Lives of Dogs.

Years after the publication of her dog books, she hasn’t stopped learning about her canine companions. Chapek and Kafka, the nine-pound chihuahua and the 14-pound chihuahua-pug mix, respectively, Thomas adopted after the death of a beloved husky, are teaching the author new tricks just about daily.

“I always had big dogs until I went to the humane society and saw these two in a cage, who were so very dependent on each other that I decided to take both home,” Marshall said. “They weren’t here long before I noticed that their dependence on sense of smell is even stronger than in bigger dogs. I started to lie on the ground with my head on one side to get a sense of their horizon. It’s been very interesting to watch them. They examine the ground in great detail. It didn’t occur to me, what a little dog’s life was like. It didn’t cross my mind. Now it crosses my mind on an hourly basis.”

Montgomery also started watching animals during her formative years, when she was moving from Army base to Army base with her father.

“Being a general’s daughter,” she recalled, “I didn’t have many friends who were kids, so most of my friends were lizards and bees and birds and crickets.”

And as with Elizabeth Marshall, the young Sy Montgomery came under the influence of a dog, a Scottish terrier named Molly.

“She was a puppy when we got her, and I soon noticed that she matured faster than I,” Montgomery said. “I was quite aware that she was the greater talent. She was the mature individual. She had abilities that I would never attain. She knew where the wild animals were. I wanted to be her. She was essentially my older sister. She was fierce and strong.”

“And now, I like to think, I am.”

Strong enough to travel to the Gobi Desert, the Amazon, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, among other wild places, to learn and write about animals ranging from pink dolphins to tree kangaroos. Her 2015 book The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the National Book Award.

And Montgomery is not resting on her laurels.

“I’ve got six books in various stages of the python’s digestive tract,” she said. “I’ve got one coming out this fall and another in the spring. Even after you hand in the last draft of a manuscript, there’s always tons of stuff that needs doing. Next month I’m going to California to learn about condors, and in the spring I’m going back to see their chicks hatch. After that, I’m going to Peru and Ecuador to learn about giant manta rays.

“I think I kind of overdid it this time.”

When they’re not traveling or tending their own menageries — at last estimate, Montgomery counted Thurber the border collie, seven free-range hens, five sheep and two visiting dogs on her property, to Thomas’ two dogs and three cats — Thomas and Montgomery stay busy observing their wild neighbors in the surrounding woods and fields.

“We have very active bears around here now, eating acorns and looking for dens,” Montgomery said. “We have wild turkeys all around us. The one worrying thing is that we aren’t seeing any moose, who are having a terrible time because of the ticks. Not that long ago we used to have moose on our porch or running with the horses.”

It’s even busier in neighboring Peterborough.

“We’ve got just about everything there is in New Hampshire,” said Thomas, whose books also include The Hidden Life of Deer. “Three times, we’ve seen mountain lions here over the years. We’ve had bobcats for a while and now there are Canada lynx, which we never saw until a few years ago.

“It’s a wonderful part of the world.”

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Sy Montgomery will read from and sign copies ofTamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, at the Norwich Congregational Church on Wednesday night at 7. For more information, contact the Norwich Bookstore at 802-649-1114 or info@norwichbookstore.com.

Eyes on the Prizes

Dartmouth College professor Rashauna Johnson this week received the Kemper and Leila Williams Prize from the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana Historical Association, for her book Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions.

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, documents the movements of slaves to and through New Orleans between 1791 and 1825. The prize includes an award of $1,500 and a plaque.

For Better or Verse

Starting on Nov. 7, the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock will host a monthly gathering for “poets of all pedigree” to recite and listen to original and favorite poems. “Recite!” sessions will take place the first Tuesday of every month, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. To sign up to be a presenter, or for more information, stop by the library or email info@recitewoodstockvt.com.

Author Appearances

Northeast Kingdom author Reeve Lindbergh reads from and discusses the previously unpublished diaries and letters of her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, at the Norwich Congregational Church on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. The presentation is part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s First Wednesdays series of lectures. Admission is free.

Robert Madrygin reads from his debut novel The Solace of Trees at the Norwich Bookstore on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. The book follows a child orphaned during the Bosnian war of the 1990s who finds a new family in New England, only to get caught up in the U.S. rendition program following the 9/11 terrorist attacks because of his Muslim heritage. While admission is free, seating is limited; the bookstore is encouraging people to sign up to participate and to read the book before attending the reading. To learn more, call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.