Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, author, and scriptwriter who writes for children as well as adults. She is a New York Times bestselling author who has written over 20 books. Sy’s most popular book is The Good Good Pig, the bestselling memoir of life with her pig, Christopher Hogwood.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life? I was born in Frankfurt Germany while my father, then a Colonel in the US Army and a survivor of the Bataan Death March, was stationed there. Because we were military, we moved a lot. I remember little of my childhood because of a brain injury. But the best thing that happened to me as a child was Molly, our Scottish terrier, who arrived when I was 3. It was she—fierce, feral, and unstoppable—who showed me what I wanted to do in life: venture into the wild and learn from the animals their secrets.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I could go back to my childhood and youth and tell that desperate, young person “one day, you will live your dreams, and wake up every morning crazy in love with life.”
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” If you are kind and thoughtful, if you work hard and give back, not only will you accumulate knowledge and skill–but also genuine friends who will help you. Both are essential.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I write about this in HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE: A MEMOIR IN 13 ANIMALS. After our first border collie, Tess, and our pig, Christopher Hogwood, died of old age months apart, I fell into a depression that I could not shake. I looked forward to nothing. I took joy in nothing. I hated myself for being so ungrateful for the gift of my life, my marriage, our beautiful land, my friends—but I had fallen into an abyss. I planned to end my life. But I had some duties to perform before I did this. They included writing THE GOOD GOOD PIG in honor of Christopher, and another book for young people, SEARCH FOR THE TREE KANGAROO, that I had contracted to write. The latter took me to Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula, into a largely trackless cloud forest, where Dr. Lisa Dabek, one of my dear friends, studies Matchie’s tree kangaroos. It’s an incredible world, filled with moss-hung trees and animals that look like the product of a collaboration between Dakin toymakers and Dr. Seuss: spiny long-nosed echidnas that trundle along tripping on their own snouts; orange and yellow kangaroos that live in trees, dining on orchids; birds of paradise with gorgeous plumage and elaborate dances. The first pair of tree kangaroos we found, Lisa named after Chris and Tess. And there, in this magical place hung curtained with moss and orchids and trees that looked like bearded wizards, among animals whose secret lives few had ever chronicled, and with a team of researchers who were animated with curiosity and compassion, I found that I fell back in love with life again.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Gratitude. I am so grateful to be alive on this sweet, green Earth, at a time in history when animals need my voice.
What is your morning routine?
This depends on where I am and what I am working on. I might wake up at dawn in a tent in the outback, or a hammock in the Amazon, or a ger in Mongolia. I might need to get on a boat or a camel or an elephant, or sit in a blind and watch animals, or use radio telemetry to track someone. But if I wake up at home, which I love, the time depends, again, on what is going on. Often in summer, there’s a wren singing at 5:30, a great way to wake up! I feed my husband, the writer Howard Mansfield, and our border collie, Thurber, and then walk Thurber for about an hour in the woods, before settling down to write. Thurber gets another couple of hikes during the afternoon and evening. I take care of chores like returning phone calls or emails, doing interviews, writing letters, or reading. I work out 3 or 4 times a week for an hour each (these days on Zoom) and volunteer at Turtle Rescue League.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Regular workouts and a vegetarian diet. When I worked as a newsroom journalist, I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day–but once I set out on my own as a freelancer, I realized I need to be pretty strong for someone my size, age, and sex to do what I do—which might include scuba diving, hiking for hours at altitude, or working in the debilitating heat. I’ve been working out at least three times a week for at least 30 years and eschewed meat for four decades. (I quit eating meat in my 20s to spare animals, but soon found it was great for my health, too. I quit smoking twice, and the second time did the trick.)
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Having worked as a newspaper journalist with daily deadlines was hugely helpful to me. Not finishing on time is simply not an option. But when working on a long deadline, such as a book, I dedicate my mornings completely to writing. I ignore the phone and let the answering machine get it. In the afternoon, I use a kitchen timer when I take on other tasks, to make sure I don’t fall down a rabbit hole. And when things get hectic, I set priorities, often as triage. What absolutely must be done today or else the world implodes? That’s what I focus on like a laser, and I forgive myself if the house doesn’t get vacuumed, my nails need cutting, and my desk looks like a natural history museum that was struck by a hurricane.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Henry Beston’s The Outermost House. It is a chronicle of the naturalist’s solitary year on a Cape Cod beach, observing the migrations of the alewives, listening to the music of the waves, feeling the hot sun on the dunes, and smelling the keen, vivid reek of hot salt grass but it is also a book of worship, one that helped me to define the prayer that is my life’s work chronicling the natural world. It is a book that today continues to shape an emerging American consciousness of a spiritual connection to the land. It is a book that helps redefine spirituality itself.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“We need another and a wise and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move vanished and complete, gifted with senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”—Henry Beston, The Outermost House.