Skip to main content
Displaying 1 of 1
How to be a good creature : a memoir in thirteen animals
2018
Please select and request a specific volume by clicking one of the icons in the 'Find It' section below.
Find It
Map It
Large Cover Image
Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

I was recently honored with an introduction to a beguiling new baby; her name is Selah, a mysterious Hebrew word that appears mostly in the Psalms. "Selah" is considered untranslatable. Perhaps it's a musical notation, calling for a break in the singing of those gorgeous sacred songs, or it could be an invitation for instruments to join in; it might also relay an emphatic amen, a "forever," or be an exclamation of praise. Whatever its meaning, it seems to invite a pause - to open up a space for the contemplation of what lingers in the air. The word "selah" was on my mind as 1 pored over the season's gardening books, each one of which, in its own way, exhorts the reader to stop and reflect on what happens when we put ourselves back into the natural world. Margaret Roach describes such moments of joy, refreshment and wonder in the indispensable a way to garden: a Hands-On Primer for Every Season (Timber, $30), a rewritten edition of a book she first published 21 years ago about her garden in the Hudson Valley. Roach's approach is a combination, as she puts it, of "know-how and woo-woo"; she lives surrounded by "life buzzing to the maximum and also the deepest stillness." Gardens are a form of memoir. Roach surveys all that has changed in three decades, including the "it" plants now considered invasive. (She deftly uses the word "hoicking" to describe tearing out unwanted scoundrels she once nurtured.) Tissue culture labs have proliferated and oncerare plants are available at big box stores; cherished nurseries have closed. Pests are proliferating, and weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme as our climate rapidly changes. Worms aren't the blessing we thought they were (there were no native earthworms in the northern United States); some, like the jumping worms from Asia, are destructive, not only to our gardens but to our forest ecologies as well. But all is not sadness: Roach now participates in bigdata collection, logging her bird and moth counts online. With her garden containing comic multitudes of frogs and snakes, she has learned to control her phobias. Trees have grown larger than her house. Her garden has become the place "where 1 can be myself." The book is organized by season, and contains instructions on planting, dividing, mulching and designing. Everyone needs the kind of friend Roach has, who looks up from your kitchen sink and asks if you really like "looking at the door of your car every day?" That's as good a place as any to start laying out a plan. Though "A Way to Garden" will be embraced by longtime tillers, 1 highly recommend it to new gardeners. Experienced veg-hounds will nod in agreement with Roach's "13 Things About Growing Tomatoes" - and be thankful for her instructions for skins-on tomato sauce to freeze. Roach, a natural teacher, rightly loves rules: With knowhow, you're halfway to winning the battle. One of her recent New Year's resolutions was simple: "Be thoughtful, keep weeding." Which brings us to the "woo-woo." ft peeks through every page, in dazzling photographs of algae-smeared frogs and curious snakes and a few of the 179 moth species she has identified so far. But the "woo-woo" goes much deeper. "The longer 1 live in Nowheresville, with its intimate window on the natural world," she writes, "the better 1 grasp my kindredness with other local species." "A Way to Garden" - sensitive, wise, deliberate, thoughtful and splendidly bossy - prods us toward that ineffable place where we feel we belong; it's a guide to living both in and out of the garden. New gardeners who don't want to lose years (and dollars) figuring things out for themselves would do well to invest in Alan Buckingham's the kitchen garden (dk, paper, $24.99). ft's the most straightforward and informative guide I've seen in a while, from a publisher that has a knack for elegant simplicity. Buckingham offers clear, simple, well-illustrated advice for month-by-month care: Harvest your first rhubarb and your last brussels sprouts in March; sow your broad beans, cauliflower and peas in October; cloche your endives in December. When it comes time to prune your trees and shrubs, don't make a cut without consulting pruning simplified: a Visual Guide to 50 Trees and Shrubs (Timber, paper, $19.95), by Steven Bradley, who offers instructions for formative, routine and, most useful in old gardens, remedial cutting for plants that have become leggy and unproductive. Neophytes should also park near their wheelbarrows a copy of the impeccable beginner gardening step by step (dk, paper, $22.99). Those of us who have been gardening for decades forget how overwhelming it is to confront things in your yard that have a will of their own. This volume will be a gift to every millennial on my list - all of whom refused to pay attention when 1 tried to trick them into gardening so many years ago. If you build that garden, they will come - the birds, the bees and the butterflies. 1 have added lots of unruly but fragrant fennel to my beds just for the thrill of watching the stained-glass wings of swallowtails morph from dapper dotted and striped caterpillars. There are innumerable guides to identifying these beauties, wings in the light: Wild Butterflies in North America (Yale University, $35), by the photographer and writer David Lee Myers, will make you fall in love first. Myers's assured photographs are beautiful; he bears witness to the depredations of a fragile winged life, which can last from a few weeks to a few seasons; delicate hairs are worn down, wings are tattered, legs crumple and curl. Myers somberly memorializes a smashed Pipevine Swallowtail, killed in Texas when it hit the windshield of his car. Butterfly habitats tend to be "inconspicuous or 'brushy' or 'weedy,' " Myers writes, and thus we don't protect them. Don't even get me started on our flagrant overuse of insecticides. Collectively, we "grievously wound Nature," and this is not only disastrous for the butterflies but, as Myers makes clear, disastrous for humanity too. "If there's a secret here, it's in slow seeing," he declares. "In slow seeing with quick eyes." Once you've got things blooming, take joy in armfuls of flowers for your table. Stuff them insouciantly into jam jars, if you will, but there can also be loads of artifice in that art form. BLOOMS: Contemporary Floral Design (Phaidon, $49.95) is an international survey. Here are blooms to bedazzle. How glad I am for creative souls like Emily Thompson of New York, whose imagination unspools to intricately bind up devil's walking stick, wild fennel, snake garlic scapes, turkscap lilies - and octopus. Or Flora Starkey, from London, who achieves a pristine chic with white tulips marching across a table in glass bottles. Katie Marx, an Australian, strings voile hammocks, swollen-bellied with red tulips, from the ceiling, while Lauren Sellen, of Coyote Flowers in Ontario, wraps a model in pink gauze and mauve hydrangeas. A man vomits dahlias into a toilet for Lisa Waud of Pot + Box in Detroit; in Tokyo, the showman Azuma Makoto encases flowers in enormous blocks of ice or burns them in pyrotechnic performance art. Here are blooms serving political purposes and blooms that are unabashedly decadent. Mere mortals can be forgiven our bunches of daisies, sloshing in glasses of water. Sometimes body and soul crave the quiet depths of green shade. Tree lovers, rejoice. The inimitable Michael A. Dirr has teamed up with Keith S. Warren to give us the tree book (Timber, $79.95). My copy of the classic "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs," from 1997, is a repository of desire, the pages ruffled with Post-it notes for fantasies of long-ago gardens. Then and now, the authors make the case for better planting in our "urban forests." Driving around cities, they notice trees that are diseased, uncomfortable or just plain wrong. Their monumental tome will be invaluable for landscape designers, urban planners and homeowners. You can zip straight through from Abies alba to Ziziphus jujuba, though I found it impossible not to get diverted; I got no further than Clethra barbinervis before I began planting a new generation of sticky notes. The authors' voices boom through, with prose that's lively and full of character. "The patriarch of Carya species," they write of the shagbark hickory, "almost inspires love at first sight, with its earthy steadfastness." Of Elaeagnus angustifolia, the notorious Russian olive, Dirr and Warren observe: "Let's start with the bad. This plant is invasive in 31 states. ... We wish it had been left in Russia." Water hickory is "a sleeper in the magical world of Carya" and the Kentucky coffee tree sends them into raptures: "To sit beneath one is a religious experience to a tree lover: The structure feels massive like an ancient cathedral, yet its foliage is as elegant as the stained-glass windows. We love this tree." May there be a contagion of such love. A few years back, Peter Wohlleben published a most unlikely best seller in which he provocatively (and controversially) discussed the ways in which trees communicate with one another, throwing off chemical and electrical impulses to warn their neighbors of stress and danger. Recently rereleased in abridged form as the hidden life of TREES: The Illustrated Version (Greystone, $35), accompanied by lavish photographs, it's an excellent introduction to a growing field of scientific understanding of what's actually going on in those "brainlike structures" found at the tips of a tree's roots. The "well-being" of trees "depends on their community," he argues - words that don't describe our urban forests, much less ourselves, although they ought to. Trees create their own ecosystems, love their saplings, won't abandon their dead. We're just beginning to appreciate these wondrously tangled communities. Wohlleben's book about trees was the first installment in what is now a trilogy called The Mysteries of Nature. In the second volume, "The Inner Life of Animals," Wohlleben upends our assumptions about the world outside our bodies as he observes love, grief and compassion among animals. The final installment is the secret wisdom OF NATURE: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things (Greystone, $24.95). Here we read about the relationship between trees and fish, and how wolves and ravens share meat because the ravens keep watch for marauding bears. Wohlleben shares the story of a crow that thanked him for bird seed by leaving gifts on a fence rail. On the question of bird migration - are birds genetically (mechanistically) programmed for certain routes or do they learn from older birds? - Wohlleben reports on cranes that appear to decide collectively to alter their routes depending on the availability of food and breeding grounds. By the end of the book, it's clear that it's we humans who are extraordinary, in ways awful and awesome, dominating and exploiting the natural world, ceaselessly, ruthlessly, with little sense that we're imperiling ourselves and the generations to come. The balance Wohlleben describes isn't extraordinary, nor does it spring from wisdom. It's simply the real nature of life, an entangled, intermingled mess of overlap, reliance, symmetry, chaos, resilience and interdependence - the whole grand mess, lost to us when we stop seeing nature. But then someone with the compassion, generosity, curiosity, intensity and, yes, wisdom of Wohlleben reopens our eyes. I would never have guessed that someone could write an entire book about the coppicing of trees, much less that I'd find myself pleasurably immersed in what I (wrongly) thought was arcana, but, then again, any subject the poetical William Bryant Logan tackles is guaranteed to be rich and surprising. All serious gardeners should own my personal favorite (until now), "Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth." SPROUT LANDS: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees (Norton, $27.95) is a memoir of Logan's rediscovery of an ancient way of pruning trees - long out of favor, though in the rarefied circles of landscape designers, that is thankfully changing. It all started with a job. Logan is an arborist, and his firm was hired to pollard new trees in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He wasn't really sure how to proceed with this highly visible task; both pollarding and coppicing involve heavy but selective regular cutting of major branches so they sprout thick new growth the next spring. May is "the time when the coppice springs," hence our term "springtime." People once lived with nature in "creative engagement," Logan writes, and this method preserved trees while giving people all they needed to make kindling, baskets, fences and other important tools. "In coppice and pollard, both people and trees were reciprocally active." Entire forests were once coppiced, and coppicing was practiced around the globe. Logan sought out experts to learn these pruning techniques in Spain, Japan and California. In Japan, he visits a small factory where every year four square kilometers of woodland are cut to make about 20,000 tons of charcoal. The University of California, Berkeley, is, he reports, "awash in pollarded London planes." Archaeologists have studied Neolithic settlements in what are now Prance, Switzerland and Germany and have deduced that coppicing led to the invention of streets. Because it's a way of harvesting that leaves root in the ground, coppicing protects wildlife and prevents soil erosion. In ancient days, Logan notes with characteristically wry profundity, people "knew what was good for them better than we do." The naturalist Sy Montgomery offers remediation in her charming HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20). She IS the author of books about tigers, octopuses, dolphins and apes, among others. In her memoir, Montgomery makes vividly explicit what she has learned from the animals with whom she has shared her life. As a child, Montgomery mortified her socially ambitious mother by insisting that she be called "Pony," as she believed she was really a horse. She dressed a stuffed baby caiman in doll clothes and pushed it around in a pram. She revered Jane Goodall and her famous chimp studies. And by the time she was 26, the sight of three six-foot-tall emus in the Australian outback had set her on her life's path: "leaving all that I loved behind" to conduct field research on wild animals. Atiny pig with a big personality teaches her that it's O.K. to be different. Clarabelle, a friendly tarantula, as "immaculate" as a cat, visits a schoolroom in Trench Guiana on Montgomery's husband's hand. "Elle est belle, le monstre," one little girl murmurs, getting over her fear. Montgomery's description of the octopus Octavia's death, and the way she said farewell by gently but firmly attaching suckers to Montgomery's arm, brought me near tears. "You never know, even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next," Montgomery writes. And here we must pause. Selah: Pause to acknowledge that we are receiving altogether too many signals of stress and danger. Selah: Pause to ponder the complex, miraculous web of life that we inhabit. Selah: Pause to welcome a new generation, picking up wherever we leave off, learning to get back to the garden. May all our tree-huggers and animal lovers, all our writers and thinkers, hands and hearts deep in the soil (or tickling the backs of spiders), help us to see how we too might become better creatures. DOMINIQUE BROWNING, formerly the editor of House & Garden, is the founder and director of Moms Clean Air Force. She is an associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Naturalist Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus) rekindles her dormant childhood desire to talk with animals in a narrative that shimmers with grace and wonder. Ten tales poignantly personify 13 critters both commonplace and exotic, from Tess the border collie and Chris the extroverted pig to spiders and octopuses. "Many young girls worship their older sisters.... [Mine] was a dog, and I... wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable," Montgomery writes of Molly, her family's Scottish terrier. Other animals she writes about live farther from home, and Montgomery tells of quitting a newspaper job to shadow emus in the Australian Outback and befriending a tarantula in the jungles of South America. In the cloud forest of Papua, New Guinea, she rediscovers "the wildness that keeps us sane and whole, the wild, delicious hunger for life." Back on her New Hampshire farm, an ermine plundering the henhouse on Christmas offers a unexpected perspective on her difficult mother and a vivid dream of a deceased pet opens her heart to a new dog in need of rescue. Montgomery's lyrical storytelling and resonant lessons on how animals can enhance our humanity result in a tender, intelligent literary memoir. Illus. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

  School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up-When asked by a journalist what life lessons animals have taught her, acclaimed writer and naturalist Montgomery hardly skipped a beat in responding, "how to be a good creature." Here the award-winning author elaborates on what she has learned from the animals she has loved and studied. Unable to conform to her parent's idea of how a young daughter should behave, this only child in a military family found her closest ally and a beloved friend in her first dog, a rambunctious Scottish terrier named Molly, and it appears from there on in her destiny was sealed. The author has traveled the world and worked with animals in the remote locations under less-than-ideal, often physically challenging, situations. However, it was the death of two of her beloved pets and a profound depression, accompanied by suicidal thoughts, that nearly brought an end to Montgomery's career. What ultimately saved the writer was a return to work and the "wildness" of nature that she believes keeps us "sane and whole." As Montgomery demonstrates again and again, it's not only the "tools of inquiry and intellect" it's also "heart" that allows us to glimpse into a world that "is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom." VERDICT Filled with fascinating stories of encounters and relationships with animals in various locations, this moving memoir will leave readers thinking about life on Earth, the creatures we share the planet with, and that "brilliance" we have yet to fully understand.-Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Summary
A New York Times bestseller!<br> <br> National Book Award finalist Sy Montgomery reflects on the personalities and quirks of 13 animals--her friends--who have profoundly affected her in this stunning, poetic, and life-affirming memoir featuring illustrations by Rebecca Green. <br> <br> Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet's rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy's life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets.<br> <br> This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals--Sy's friends--and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.
Librarian's View
Displaying 1 of 1