How to Be a Good Creature – Sy Montgomery

An illustration from the book by Rebecca Green

About Sy Mongomery

Sy Montgomery, is a naturalist, author and scriptwriter who writes for children as well as adults. She is author of 28 books, including The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was on The New York Times Best Seller list. Her most popular book is The Good Good Pig, the bestselling memoir of life with her pig, Christopher Hogwood. Her other notable titles include Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Spell of the Tiger, and Search for the Golden Moon Bear. She has been described as “part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson”. Her book for children, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea was the recipient of the 2007 Orbis Pictus Award and was selected as an Honor book for the Sibert Medal. (Source: Wiki)

How to Be a Good Creature – A Summary

Author and journalist Vicki Croke once asked Sy what she has learned not just about an animal’s natural history, but lessons about life from them. Sy answered: “How to be a good creature. How do you be compassionate? I think that animals teach compassion better than anything else and compassion doesn’t necessarily just mean a little mouse with a sore foot and you try to fix it. It means getting yourself inside the mind and heart of someone else. Seeing someone’s soul, looking for their truth. Animals teach you all of that and that’s how you get compassion and heart.” This is the conversation from which grew the book ‘How to be a Good Creature’.

Through the ten chapters, Sy reflects on her favourite animals and the lessons they imparted to her on life and living. The book opens with a chapter on Sy’s childhood dog – Molly – a rambuctious wilful Scottish terrier. She writes, “Though I wished I could have run after her, it wouldn’t have been to stop her. I wantr to go with her. I wanted o see the rabbit again. I wanted to learn the smells around the post at night. I wanted to meet other dogs and wrestle and chase them, to poke my nose into holes and smell who lived there, to discover treasures hidden in the dirt.” She goes on to say how she saw Molly as her older sister and wished she could be more like her – “Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” By being with Molly, Sy realised that “there was a rich vivid green, breathing world out there”.

In chapter 2, we find ourselves alongside Sy in the Australian outback where at 25, she joins a citizens science project studying southern hairy nosed wombats, her first big leap into a career of travel and writing. In the field, a chance meeting with a group of three emus ‘shifts her psyche’ and she finds herself drawn to them. In the days ahead she learns to move with them, study their habits, and know them as unique creatures (naming them Bald throat, Blackhead and Knackered Leg) that earn her deep love and admiration. She points out how the experience was invaluable to her: “To begin to understand the life of any animal demands not only curiosity, not only skill, and not only intellect. I saw that I would also need to summon the bond I had forged with Molly. I would need to open not only my mind, but also my heart.

In chapter 3, we meet Sy’s beloved pig – Christopher Hogwood! He is the runt of the piglets and his need for extra care makes him a part of Sy’s household. She writes how Chris surprised her and “taught us how to love, how to love what life gives you even when life gives you slops”. She speaks of this in particular context of her parents disowning her way of life. Even as differences dug a rift between humans, it never seemed to matter where pig and her human were concerned. She also shares how the benevolent happy pig gave her a chance to befriend a neighbourhood full of people and families. She also adds more members to her family beginning with hens and then Tess, her first border collie.

In chapter 4, Sy heads on one of her writing projects to French Guiana with Sam Marshall, a biologist in search of the Goliath Birdeater, the largest tarantula in the world – “She could smell with her feet. She could taste with special hairs on her feet and legs”. She not only meets the beautiful female spider resplendent in her lair but their camp holds Clarabelle, a pinktoe tarantula, the first spider that Sy gets to hold. She points out how ‘people are not born with a fear of spiders’ it is often learnt. As she holds Clarabelle she experiences a shift in her perspective, “Holding her in my hand I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now i saw her as a small animal. (…) She was a unique individual, and in my hand, she was in my care.” Clarabelle is able to evince the same reaction from local children. She is able to make Sy rethink her relationship with the spiders even back home.

In chapter 5, Sy continues to build on the theme of beauty and grace, and of the unique qualities of each species with the story of a little fearless ferocious ermine who steals into her hen house and manages to kill one of her beloved hens. Yet Sy is not able to feel anger at the little creature who boldly faces off against humans hundreds of times his size. She also finds that through the ermine, she is able to understand the emotion of anger better and view her difficult relationship with her mother from a new perspective – “like a struck match chases away darkness, this creature’s incandescent presence left no room for anger in my heart – for it has been stretched wide with awe, and flooded with the balm of forgiveness”.

In chapter 6, 7, 8 and 10, we not only come to know of how Chris is progressing in both, his girth and his reputation but we also meet the border collies that become a part of the Mongomery household. Be it graceful Tess, affectionate Sally or the extrovert Thurber – each with their own unique personality, bring unfathomable joy and love in the lives of their human companions. Sy also writes about wrangling with the death of her beloved animals. At 14 and 16, Chris and Tess, pass away, leaving Sy devastated and spiraling into a deep depression, dangerously suicidal. A chance trip to Papua New Guinea to study tree kangaroos alongside Dr. Lisa Dabek transforms her grief. In this strange surreal world inhabited by creatures straight out of Dr.Seuss books – echidnas, mountain cuscus and tree kangaroos – she writes, “Here in the cloud forest I found again the wildness that keeps us sane and whole.

In chapter 9, Sy speaks about her meeting with Octavia the octopus at the Seattle Aquarium. She describes the multiple meetings with Octavia where they both learn to relax under each others touch and scrutiny. We also learn here of the extraordinary abilities of an octopus, “Multitasking for an octopus is easy, because three-fifths of their neurons are not even in their brains, but in their arms. Its almost as if each arm has its own separate brain – a brain that craves and enjoys, stimulation.” Through Octavia, Sy speaks to the idea of sentience in other creatures, a concept she deepens much further in her book dedicated to this topic and experience, ‘The Soul of an Octopus’. She takes us through the short but astounding life of of the octopus – reminding us in equal parts how different and yet how similar they are to us. “Being friends with an octopus – whatever that friendship meant to her – has shown me that our world and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom – and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

The book is a vivid memoir full of all the qualities that make Sy such a beloved nature writer. Her inherent love and deep respect for other creatures shines through each chapter, paving the path for many of us to see our fellow creatures in a new light. She potently highlights the vivid unique strengths of creatures as different as ermines, emus and octopi – sharing the science through a lens of awe at the wonderous world that surrounds us. It is a book that shows us not only the enrichment other creatures and eco-systems offer to our lives but also how love can overcome the fear of the ‘other’ – an important path to consider as we, as a species, find ourselves in deep conflict with the natural world.

Further reading:

Discussion themes and questions:

  • Does the book remind you of any particular relationships you might have shared with other species? Discuss the nature of those relationships.
  • In the book, Sy speaks about both, fellow creatures she shares a home with and those that she meets in the wild. Is her approach different in the two cases?
  • Does the book make you reconsider your bond with your environment and the other species around you? If yes, share your views and thoughts.
  • In the context of the extinction of species and the climate crisis – does Sy’s approach and perspective provide us a glimpse into another way of being present as a species?