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Real-life Eliza Thornberry recounts exotic adventures

By Brendon Field
On March 28, 2014


Naturalist and novelist Sy Montgomery shared her adventures with exotic and domestic wildlife at a reading Wednesday night at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Conover Auditorium.
Montgomery, who has traveled to the Gobi Desert and the Cloud Forests of Papua New Guinea, opened her presentation by explaining that animals are teachers. One example she mentioned was that humans learned herbal medicine from bears, who practice it themselves. She explained that her pet pig, whom she bio-graphed in her book "The Good Good Pig, The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood," actually taught her how to better live with people.
Montgomery said growing up her closest friends were plastic dinosaurs, insects and her parakeet. She originally wanted to go into the veterinary field, but decided writing would be more beneficial in the fight against extinction. Her first book focused on zoologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas who studied the great apes, although Montgomery said her work looked more at the relationship between the scientists and the animals.
"I wanted to study the most charismatic predator I could of, tigers," Montgomery said of her second book, specifically the tigers of the Sundarbans, the swamp forests of southern Asia. She said the tigers in this region were known for hunting in the flooded waters and attacking travelers by climbing directly into their boats, joking that when her husband expressed fear for her safety, she said she had nothing to fear because tigers were man eaters, and she was a woman.
She recounted a tale of natives, called the Bonobibi, who would traverse the dangerous forests in search of fresh honey; risking not only tiger attacks but bee stings that the Bonobibi claimed could cause pain that lasted for years. She also said that despite sometimes losing one of their own to the tigers; the Bonobibi had no desire to kill the animals themselves. Rather they worship a tiger god, along with a forest goddess.
"They remember what we appear to have forgotten, that our survival is linked with theirs," Montgomery said.
Felix Samuels, a 6th-semester English major, said he enjoyed the language Montgomery used in her reading.
"Her writing was incredibly descriptive," Samuels said. "She had the privilege of actually being there, and her writing really brought you into those places."
Montgomery next shared her adventure in the Amazon Rainforest, whose river are home to pink dolphins. She said Amazon natives refer to the dolphins as "boto," and believe that they are shape shifters who can steal humans and bring them to the underwater world, Encante. She described the rainforest as, "where unfathomable tragedies combine with unquenchable desires."
Montgomery said she is currently working on her newest book about the Giant Pacific Octopus. She described her first interaction with an octopus in a tank as a moving experience.
"Her white suckers face up like a person extending a palm for a handshake...It pulls me like an alien's kiss," she said. Montgomery said she then stroked the beast's skin, which promptly turned white. Montgomery later learned that this indicated the octopus was relaxed, and said that octopi can taste with their skin and experience many of the same emotions humans do.
Montgomery writes for both adults and children, but says she enjoys writing for children more because of their curiosity. Her first children's book focused on snakes, because "Adults are scared of snakes, kids are not... Get 'em before they buy the lie that all snakes are out to kill you." Montgomery said she is planning to focus her next work on Great White Sharks, and in a few mnoths she will be diving in a shark cage in Guadalupe.
"I liked how she told her own stories and then included the animals. She showed it's all doable, it's inspirational," said Laura Ruttan, a 4th-semester English major.
The reading also featured readings from students who won the AETNA Contest for Creative Non Fiction. The undergraduate winner was Michael Jefferson, whose story, "Carry That Weight," focused on growing up under his father's attorney reputation. The graduate contest resulted in a three way tie between Abigail Fagan, Erick Piller and Kristina Reardon who shared their stories, "On Guns," "Two Busts: Pericles and Huey P. Long" and "Cardboard Boxes," respectively.
Montgomery complimented all the students on their ability to bring themselves to the page and saying, "I'm delighted to be celebrating words, words are a great deal."
She ended the reading by saying, "May you meet many wonderful teachers everywhere, with tentacles, with backbones, with skin or with fur."

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