A Conversation with Sy Montgomery, author of THE GOOD GOOD PIG
Question: For previous books you traveled to India to research man-eating tigers, bonded with the great apes of Africa, swam with the pink dolphins of the Amazon, and tracked the golden moon bear through Cambodia. For your latest book, THE GOOD GOOD PIG, you stayed a lot closer to home. Tell us about it.
Sy Montgomery: For most of my books, I travel to jungles and cloud forests and deserts and swamps, and I get a lot of credit for not being killed in the process. I’m best known for writing about rare animals and foreign cultures in remote places. This book, though, is about the pig in our barnyard (though sometimes beyond—in his youth, Christopher Hogwood, like me, had the travel bug, only he didn’t get quite as far). The setting isn’t glamorous. Pigs aren’t endangered or exotic. Yet Christopher Hogwood’s adventures and personal charisma provided as much drama and delight as any expedition I have ever undertaken. It was he—and the interspecies family who gathered around him—who sustained me on all my voyages, and anchored me, for the first time in my life, to family and to home.
Q: Some people will look at this book and think it's about a pet pig. But Christopher Hogwood wasn’t a pet, was he?
SM: Not really—not in the sense that “pet” implies ownership. If anything, he owned me! In any case, I was certainly his valet, chef, butler, and maid. As well as his masseuse, public relations representative, and confidante.
Q: Christopher Hogwood became quite famous. What was the reaction of the real Christopher Hogwood to having a pig named after him?
SM: We wondered about that, actually. Not everyone would be thrilled to have a pig named after him—especially an elegant and handsome conductor who is quite famous in his own right (even more famous than our Hogwood was). But after Christopher’s death made headline news, we discovered that the musician actually had a link to Chris’ obit on his webpage. So he must have taken our naming a pig after him as the heartfelt compliment it was.
Q: Where do you think your affinity for animals and the natural world comes from? Why do some people seem to lack this feeling? Is it a cultural thing? Genetic?
SM: I think most humans are born with a fascination with animals—which is what you would expect from evolution. For all but the very latest moments of our existence as a species, humans who didn’t have sense enough to pay attention to the natural world either couldn’t find food or got eaten by something else. Unfortunately, now that so many of us have turned from hunter-gatherers into shopper-gatherers, this natural affinity is often overlooked or actively discouraged—a casualty of the rush to fill our lives with unnecessary plastic and electronic items.
Q: What led you to become, in the words of the Boston Globe, "part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson"? Who were some of your influences, both literary and scientific?
SM: My biggest hero was my father, a war hero, POW, army general, world-traveler, polyglot—and absolutely fearless. And before I could even read, I discovered a lifelong heroine in the pages of National Geographic: Jane Goodall, pictured humbly in the magazine, squatting and holding her hand out to a chimpanzee in Tanzania.
From the moment I could read, I favored books about animals. I adored Charlotte’s Web of course—never suspecting that I would have a pig of my own one day! I devoured everything I could find by Farley Mowat and Gerald Durrell and Hope Ryden. In college, my most profound literary influence was the man who I would later marry: Howard Mansfield, who was then and is now simply a breathtaking writer. Working with him side by side on the college paper—and since then, on our different books—has affected my own writing deeply.
Henry Beston’s classic The Outermost House, which I discovered shortly after graduating college, was a great beacon. In particular, his moving and perceptive understanding of animals provided a sort of blueprint for all my work: “We need another and a wiser 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 finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the 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 splendour and travail of the earth.”
Q: Christopher Hogwood is certainly at the heart of THE GOOD GOOD PIG, but the book is about so much more than his amazing life. Were you surprised as you were writing that so much personal material, especially about your mother and father, found its way in?
SM: Surprised and somewhat mortified! Why bother writing about a person if you could write about a pig? My wonderful literary agent, however—and later my excellent editor—convinced me to include my personal life as well as Christopher’s in the book. My own life could provide a backdrop against which his soul could shine.
Too, this book is, at heart, a book about family. Therefore I had to write about the humans who comprised my biological family as well as the larger inter-species family my husband and I made for ourselves. The contrast is rather striking—and the story defeats the limited and rather uninteresting definition of family as merely two opposite- sexed married humans and their biological offspring.
Q: Was Christopher Hogwood a typical pig or a pearl among swine? He was clearly atypical in not being killed early in his life as most pigs are, but as I read, I couldn't help wondering how many other Christopher Hogwoods never have the chance to touch people's lives simply because they end up on people’s plates.
SM: I never met a pig I didn’t like. All pigs are intelligent, emotional, and sensitive souls. They all love company. They all crave contact and comfort. Pigs have a delightful sense of mischief; most of them seem to enjoy a good joke and appreciate music. And that is something you would certainly never suspect from your relationship with a pork chop.
Q: The term for the care and killing of livestock is animal husbandry, a loaded term if ever there was one. What are your thoughts about the burgeoning animal rights and animal welfare movement as exemplified by organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)? What can people do to make a difference in the way animals, both pets and livestock, are treated in our society?
SM: I have always felt that humans are just one among a plethora sea of wonderful species—all of whom we should treat honorably.
Yet in our everyday lives, many of us end up supporting unthinkable atrocities. I can’t imagine that women who wear fur, for instance, have any idea of the cruelties of this unnecessary industry. My mother had a closet full of fur coats, including one of a leopard! And my father, who loved animals, had bought them for her! The same ignorance supports factory farming of food animals. Most Americans simply don’t know about the conditions these animals face—and sometimes when they do learn, it’s so horrible they can’t believe it.
We need to reach out to those who aren’t aware, in many different ways. Maybe it will be a billboard that changes someone’s mind, or a television show. Or maybe a book—maybe even my book. I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in my early 20s, and from the moment I finished its last page, never ate meat again. Now that I am a vegetarian, I consider every meal I make an act of love, not only for the people who’ll be nourished by this healthy, delicious, carefully prepared food, but also for the animals it spares and for the wholeness of the earth.
But there are many other ways to honor the many forms of life on Earth. Not only can we boycott those industries that profit from hurting animals and raping the land—we can also support those that protect the planet and its creatures. We can join a humane organization like The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or a conservation organization like Rainforest Conservation Fund. We can donate land, or a conservation easement, to a land trust. We can adopt animals from a shelter. We can choose to limit our family size so that we use fewer resources.
These are just a few ideas. We have so much power! In our everyday lives, by the purchases we choose or avoid every day, by the food we eat, we powerfully affect the lives of other creatures. As we learn more, and share what we learn, we’ll find more and more ways to help—and in so doing, we will be honoring all of life, and enriching ourselves in the deepest and most profound sense.
Q: I was struck by the quote from St. Francis that your neighbors put up on your barn: “Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it.” Does this quote have value outside its specific religious context?
SM: Certainly! You don’t have to believe in God to believe in kindness.
Q: Christopher Hogwood touched so many lives in his fourteen years. What was it that made him, in the words of one of your neighbors, “a great big Buddha master”?
SM: That’s a quote from Lilla Cabot, my next door neighbor, whose two little girls grew up feeding and petting and scratching and watching Christopher every day. Let me answer that in part with the rest of her words: “He taught us how to love. How to love what life gives you—to love your slops. What a soul! He was a being of pure love.”
It’s true. He loved company. He loved good food. He loved the warm summer sun, belly rubs from little caressing hands. He loved this life. And to show us how to relish this abundant, fragrant world would have been gift enough. But he showed us something else as well: that a pig did not become bacon but lived 14 years, pampered and adored till the day he died peacefully in his sleep—that’s proof we need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate seem to have written for us. We can choose a new way. We can make a more compassionate world.
That is something that great teachers have tried to tell us for eons. It took a pig to get me to listen.
Q: Your writing has a spiritual dimension to it, as others have observed, and you write in THE GOOD GOOD PIG about your membership in your local church. As the controversy over the teaching of evolution draws battle lines ever more starkly between proponents of science and religion, how do you keep a balance in your own work and life?
SM: When I was in the Amazon, researching Journey of the Pink Dolphins, I met many people who told me about the dolphins’ powers: they could transform themselves into humans, the stories said. In his handmade house built on stilts over the river, a very respected village elder, Don Jorge, told me quite honestly how he had met a dolphin who came to a festa—wearing a hat to cover the blowhole—and how this shape-shifter seduced all the women at the dance, who fell irresistibly in love with him.
On the same trip I also met a scientist, Gary Galbreath, who told an equally incredible story about dolphins. He told me that the ancestors of the dolphins were whales who walked! Only recently, he said, scientists had found not only the legs of these early whales—but also their HOOVES! (They were quite like pigs’ hooves, actually.)
What an incredible tale! Surely, though, Don Jorge would have thought Gary Galbreath’s story as impossible as Gary Galbreath considered Don Jorge’s. But both, you see, are true. They are in fact mirror images: in Don Jorge’s story, the dolphins come out of the water and dance on land; in the scientists’ tale, the dolphins start out on land and then shape-shift into water-dwellers.
Both stories speak mirroring truths, both tell us about the possibilities of transformation. The fossils tell this story as a factual, physical, historical account. The villagers tell us the same thing, but in the same way that Jesus chose to phrase His parables: these stories are metaphors, speaking a larger (“meta”) truth.
Metaphor does not need to masquerade as science. Science does not seek to replace religion. Both science and story can both be true in their own realms, both of them very real. We need only to listen for truth—and this is one thing my journeys among animals and people, from our barnyard to jungles and mountains, has helped me to learn.
Q: Is a wider balance or rapprochement possible? The biologist E. O. Wilson, writing in a recent issue of New Scientist, thinks not: “There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.” Do you agree?
SM: I am a huge fan of E. O. Wilson. He showed me his ants once—10,000 of them lived in his old office at Harvard. He said if you looked at them under a microscope you could see individual differences. His awe and delight in his ants seemed to me a holy thing. If there is a Heaven, I can’t imagine the gatekeepers wouldn’t let E. O. Wilson in.
Today there can be no doubt that religion can be horribly twisted and used as an incitement to violence. But there are also many people of all religious stripes who are working very hard for peace on Earth—peace for all of us, human and otherwise.
Q: When it comes to pigs in literature, E. B. White’s Wilbur is at the top of everyone's list. Like Wilbur, Christopher Hogwood was a runt not expected to survive. Did the two pigs have anything else in common?
SM: Both had the benefit of spider companions. Chris’ barn always attracted many species of spiders, including talented orb-weavers like Charlotte. And both pigs were able to show their human families, as well as the wider community, the power of love to reveal and perhaps even to create radiance.
Q: You mentioned your partner, Howard Mansfield, who is also a writer. Do the two of you help each other as you work, read over each other’s drafts, and so on, or do you both pretty much go your separate ways?
SM: We help one another very much. He is my most trusted editor, and I his. This book, more than any other, bears his imprint. The book is full of his recollections, gathered from his own writing and his memories, always recalled with his sharp eye and told with his marvelous sense of humor. Possibly, at least in theory, I might have struggled my way to write some of my other books, in some palsied form, if Howard were not in my life—but I certainly could never have written this one without him.
Q: As the prognosis for the health of the planet grows increasingly dire, the Bush administration displays little urgency in protecting the environment and endangered species; indeed, it seems to regard such organizations as Greenpeace as close kin to terrorists. Is there enough time to turn things around, or is it too late? Again, what can individuals do that will have any effect on the larger scale?
SM: I can’t believe it is ever too late. Otherwise I would eat the cyanide pill and stop sucking down perfectly good oxygen. Of course we need to vote the bad guys out of office. And we need to vote with every purchase, with every meal, with the words we say and the sort of life we lead. We need, at heart, to vanquish our own greed. That’s what’s corrupting us. And worse, greed—for money, for power, for cars and clothes, for stuff—is masking for us the beauty of the real world—the myriad of good souls, animal and otherwise, that enliven and nourish this sweet, green Earth.
Q: Christopher Hogwood came into your life when your father was dying, and his presence helped you endure that painful experience. Similarly, when your mother passed away years later, Christopher lent you support in countless ways. I think a lot of people have had similar experiences with dogs and cats, but it may surprise them to discover that pigs are also capable of providing this kind of comfort and understanding to human beings. Perhaps all animals can do so, in one way or another. What do such moments teach us about our relationship to other animals?
SM: Throughout human history, animals have been our teachers, our healers, our inspiration. North American Indians tell us that the bear was the original medicine woman, who taught humans how to use medicinal herbs. Robert the Bruce took inspiration for his deciding battle from watching a spider. In the Book of Job, the Bible advises, “Ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you.”
Christopher certainly did. And really, it’s no wonder that pigs can perceive human suffering and offer us comfort. Pigs are so like us that we borrow their skins to heal our wounds, and steal their hearts to replace our own faulty valves. We are so alike.
In fact, despite the fact that most mammals’ powers of observation are vastly superior to our own, our biological and, I think, basic psychological make-up is very similar among social mammals, from dogs to pigs to whales.
What about those animals who are unlike us? What about, for instance, a wild tarantula—a creature who wears her skeleton on the outside, whose face is covered with legs and fangs and clusters of eyes, who tastes the world with her feet? It is unlikely that among her many talents is an ability to understand a human’s sorrows. No matter—this beautiful creature still has the power to lessen our distress. The simple fact of her wild, vivid, precious, spidery life gives me joy—and that is powerful comfort indeed.
Q: Are there more pigs in your future?
SM: This I don’t know. But, as I write in this book, I do know this: a great soul can come to us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.
Q: Will your next book project take you further afield?
SM: I’ll always travel, I reckon, or at least till I get too creaky! Soon, I hope to begin research for a new book for adults with a co-author, my friend Brenda Peterson, on multi-species families—which will take me to Kenya and Tanzania again, and who knows where else. Also I’ll be working with photographer Nic Bishop on another children’s book on the highly endangered flightless giant parrot, the kakapo, which lives on a remote and windswept island off New Zealand. And after that, we’ll be working together on another kids’ project in Mongolia, about snow leopards. Meanwhile I hope to start a book I have been dreaming about for five years now, a book for adults about birds—and you can imagine the limitless possibilities that could offer.
From the Hardcover edition.