AUTHOR SY MONTGOMERY writes that “we are on the cusp of either destroying the sweet green earth, or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation.”
“It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures,” she adds, saying, “It’s a great time to be alive.”
In 33 books for adults and children, including her latest, “The Hawk’s Way,” she’s made connecting with our fellow creatures her life’s work and celebrated those connections. She has explored relationships with a range of animals, not just obvious ones like dogs, but from tarantulas to octopuses, pigs, and more.
In her just-out book “The Hawk’s Way,” it’s the birds that she calls “the tigers of the air,” raptors, the birds of prey. We talked about hawks, and what they (and other organisms) have to teach us.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “The Hawk’s Way” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the May 30, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘the hawk’s way,’ with sy montgomery
Margaret Roach: Hi, Sy, finally we get to talk.
Sy Montgomery: I know, I love this. Thanks so much.
Margaret: Is this book Number 31; is that right? Did I count right?
Sy: Oh, you counted right on my website, but in reality, I haven’t caught up with it. It’s really, I think 33 now.
Margaret: Wow. You’re a crazy woman, so good for you [laughter]. So number 33 will have a book giveaway with the transcript, as I said, over on awaytogarden.com. So that’ll be fun. And speaking of connection with our fellow creatures, you and I connected not long ago after I wrote in the “New York Times” garden column about kind of books that comforted me in times, hard times, like the world has been having and books about nature and where I find solace in them and yours were some of the books I mentioned and you reached out and so here we are. I mentioned then that one of my favorite of your books is the one called “How to be a Good Creature,” which made me very happy when I read it years ago.
Sy: Oh, I’m so glad. And I also, it was a huge compliment to be in the company of so many other terrific books that I too loved.
Margaret: Oh yeah, like I’m crazy for… William Burroughs and May Sarton and yeah so many. Those are some of the older ones and some of the more contemporary ones. So yes, it was fun to be able to shout some of those out. So a theme of all your books is, I think, what animals teach us—if we’re receptive, if we’re listening. Tell me some examples of some of the lessons learned or overall themes of some of your connections?
Sy: Well, one is just how amazing life is [laughter] that we as humans, although I don’t mean to dis humans. I married a human, I have friends who are human, but we are only experiencing a small sliver of life. And if you know other species, animals like sharks, who can sense the electrical current in the heartbeats of their prey, or dogs and whales, who can hear sounds that we don’t. And creatures like dolphins and bats, who can see with sound and the many animals who see in detail, that’s almost unimaginable to us, such as hawks.
Once you realize that they are experiencing this world in a far richer way than we are, the world becomes a little more accessible to us and more dazzling and more holy.
And it makes us feel more at home on this earth. If all of our friends were just white middle-class woman writers-
Sy: …our lives would be impoverished. I mean, even though I’ve lots of wonderful friends who fit that description. If we only ate chocolate ice cream we would soon be sick, because we weren’t getting a complete diet. And that’s the way so many of us are if we restrict ourselves to friendships with just the human species.
Margaret: No, I completely agree. Now you’ve focused on the topic of birds in various works. Are you a birder or bird watcher or bird person or whatever? Is it just for your work, or do you go out birding. Tell me about your relationship to birds before we get into hawks?
Sy: Well, I’m not a normal birder in that I don’t go out ticking off species with my life list. But I’ve always loved birds because these are the wild animals that we commonly see every day, no matter where you live.
Sy: So for a significant portion of my youth, I lived on an army base, and this is not exactly the wilds, but you were always seeing birds. And I had a parakeet when I was growing up, when I was little, and his name was Jerry. He was a beautiful green parakeet and he was the first male ever to make love to me.
Sy: I was 7 and he threw up on my finger [laughter]. I was of course enchanted and I wasn’t quite sure why he was throwing up on my finger, but I had the feeling that it was an act of generosity and that he was… I kind of knew he was trying to feed me. I later discovered that Konrad Lorenz had birds who adored him, jackdaws, who adored him. And they expressed their adoration by puking up worms into his ears.
Sy: They were just trying to feed him. And that was the only opening they could find. So what’s not to love about somebody like that, right?
Margaret: Right, right, right. And I love also that you point out something that I sort of had an epiphany about a million years ago, is that birds are an animal, one of the only animals I can really think of, that like us, are on two legs, are walking around, hopping around, walking around—they have two legs they’re bipeds, right?
Margaret: So I feel that identification in a way, even though we have no wings, and they do. I feel that sort of, “Hey, they have these two legs,” and I always crack up when I’ll see like a raven walking around the yard, or watch a hawk walk. I mean, they strut around and-
Sy: Yeah, I love, I love ravens. They look like they’re holding their… They look like guys in black coats holding their hands behind their backs-
Sy: … as they stride around in the courtyard perhaps of the university.
Margaret: Yes. So birds are also, as you point out in the book, they’re sort of dinosaurs or descendants of dinosaurs. Tell us a little about that.
Sy: Yeah. I love this because one of the things that devastated me as a child was learning that dinosaurs were actually extinct. I didn’t care that there was no Santa Claus or no Tooth Fairy, but the fact that the dinosaurs were gone, I just couldn’t deal with it. But then I learned they aren’t gone. Their descendants, their direct descendants, are at your bird feeder right now. They’re eating worms off your lawn right now. And for those who eat meat at Thanksgiving, they’re in the middle of your Thanksgiving table [laughter].
And they are the direct descendants, not just of our friends like Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, who walked around on four feet. But they are the direct descendants of the Theropod dinosaurs who were the meat eaters. Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptor, and that ferocity of those meat-eating dinosaurs you see, when you look into the eyes of a hawk more clearly than anywhere else.
Margaret: Yes, you do indeed. You do indeed. And I remember years ago talking to the ornithologist, Pete Dunne, who had written a book called “Hawks in Flight,” and expressing to him squeamishness about hawks, like Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks where I live, picking off songbirds at my feeder in winter and how I felt guilty, I felt responsible.
And he very patiently said to me, “You know, Margaret, that hawk was going to eat that equivalent of that bird elsewhere. You just witnessed it, but you didn’t cause it.” Do you know what I mean? He was very-
Margaret: … considerate. “That is their diet Margaret, it’s not your fault.”
Sy: Right, right. We all have free will and the hawks have free will and we have free will, but it’s not within their free will to eat a broccoli [laughter].
Margaret: No, it’s not, no. So this book is mostly about sort of your experience learning to hunt with the hawks. So it’s different from hawk watching in the fall or whatever, during the migration. You write about their “fierce, wild glory” and that thy’re “predators, not pets.” And I think your husband characterized hunting with a bird of prey, having one, is like having a loaded gun.
Margaret: So tell us about a little bit about that journey?
Sy: Yeah. A lot of people just thought like, what have you, gone insane?
Many people think falconry is you have this cool looking bird on your glove period. But that’s not it, the bird doesn’t care one way or another if it’s on your glove. The reason the bird is going to stick around you is if you manage to convince that hawk, that you’re not going to do anything stupid and that you will be a useful junior hunting partner to them. And hunting is the last thing in the world that anyone who knows me would expect me to be doing.
Margaret: Yeah, you’re a vegetarian.
Sy: Forty years. I know back when-
Margaret: Me, too.
Sy: … all you did was cut things into smaller and smaller pieces. There were no impossible burgers then. And just seeing a dead squirrel on the highway breaks my heart. And suddenly I found myself holding the heart of a baby chicken in my falconry glove, trying to urge a Harris’s hawk out of tree and to land on my hand. So it was quite a transformation.
And what happened with my heart was, pretty much the minute I got up close and personal with the first Harris’s hawk I ever met, and her name was Jazz. One look into her eyes and I fell crazy in love with this incandescent wildness. This was like a ferocity with no evil in it. It was a wild incarnate. And I wanted what that bird wanted. I wanted desperately for her to experience her white-hot happiness of doing what she was made to do. Which was to hunt.
Margaret: Right. You just said, you looked into her eyes, and their vision is incredible. Birds’ vision is incredible. And you write about that, too, in “The Hawk’s Way.”
Sy: Yeah. As primates, we depend on our vision a lot, and our other senses are pretty lame. I mean, we don’t smell hardly anything compared to what a lot of animals do. And our hearing is pretty sad, but we’re proud of our eyesight. But we are like Mr. Magoo compared to a hawk from hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. They look down and they can see literally for miles. And they see in detail what looks like just nothing to us. You know, when you’re in an airplane and you look down on trees, you see like a bunch of broccoli? They see all the individual leaves.
Sy: They think fast, too. When we look at a hummingbird, we see a blur of wings, but they can see each wing beat. And they see colors that we can’t imagine. And things probably have an iridescence to them that we don’t see as well. So they are, in this way, gathering the world through their eyes, their huge eyes, way more than their brain. They are gathering more of life in this way than we can ever experience.
Margaret: You mentioned, I think, in the book also that the proportion—and I had never thought about this, but of course, it’s right—the proportionate sort of real estate that their eyes occupy on their heads, compared to say ours, is quite a lot larger percent, right? There’s more real estate for their vision.
Sy: Oh yeah. An owl, for example, if we had eyes that are proportionally the same size in our head as an owl, our eyes would be the size of oranges.
Margaret: Oh my goodness, right, exactly. And, yeah, unimaginably large [laughter].
Sy: It would be cool, wouldn’t it?
Margaret: Yeah. A lot of power, a lot of power. And of course with something like an owl, many of whom hunt at night, there’s that extra special… I’m totally, and this is a complete digression, but I’m totally fascinated by creatures of the night, and the special aspects of vision, the special physical elements of the eye and how it can see at night and all of that equipment, so to speak, that we don’t have. That’s another form of vision that we don’t have.
Margaret: That many creatures on the night shift do have including tiny insects.
Sy: Oh yeah, absolutely. And like we were talking about earlier, night is half of existence and we know so little of it.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, no, until I started watching moths maybe 10, 12 years ago, I had never really… I had no idea who was on the night shift in my own garden, and yet I knew the place so well, I thought, but I didn’t know half its creatures.
Sy: I know. And they’re so beautiful.
Margaret: Right. And many of them they’re creatures of the night because it’s a primary anti-predation device to lurk around in the darkness, right, and not get seen. Yeah. So there’s a lot going on out there [laughter].
Sy: Oh God, I love moths. We have a Caterpillar Lab not far from us.
Margaret: Yes, yes. I know.
Sy: Moths are celebrated and people think, “Oh, they’re just sitting around eating your sweaters.” Well, no.
Margaret: No, not at all.
Sy: No, it’s crazy.
Margaret: Not at all. And speaking of birds, they’re also feeding birds because a lot of birds, especially songbirds, depend on the production of caterpillars from moth species to feed their young, and fledge a healthy family each spring. Caterpillar is baby food, right?
Sy: That’s right. And so birds are the gardener’s friend, right?
Margaret: Yeah. In many ways, in many ways. Yeah. I was wondering if the one lesson from when you’re going hunting with a hawk on your glove and all this stuff, and you’re luring it back to your glove with these tempting gross treats [laughter], for those of us who are vegetarian, of animal parts and so forth. Is one of the lessons that—and you kind of alluded to this before—that you’re not in charge. That this is the hawk’s mission. Do you know what I mean?
Sy: Yes, absolutely. And I think this is something that we humans need to learn over and over and over. That we need to respect the others, and not feel like we have to be the boss all the time. Because when we think we’re the boss, what do you end up with? Global climate change and an ocean that has more plastic than fish. So yeah, let’s be reminded that we can take a back seat, and if so then we can touch some of the knowledge of these other creatures. We can step aside and let their powers lead us. And then we are open to their lessons, and their ways, and their wisdom.
Margaret: Right, and you’re not doing it because, like you write, that a hawk isn’t going to love you back, right?
Sy: Yes, and that too is very liberating. You know, so many of the relationships that we have in this world are fundamentally transactions. You know? I mean, it’s true, of course, you love your spouse and your children and your friends, but you do expect something in return.
Well, with a hawk, they’re not going to love you back in the way that we expect. They’re not going to comfort you when you’re sad, or come to your aid when you need it. But what they’ll let you do is witness their glory and be humbled before it and that is a huge and a holy blessing.
Margaret: The only time I was ever, I mean, I have them here all the time in the garden and sometimes they come sometimes like a juvenile Cooper’s hawk or whatever will kind of strut up to the back [photo above]… I have a glass door on the back porch, and they’ll see a reflection, and they’ll shut up and they’ll look at who’s in the mirror so to speak [laughter], that kind of thing. So sometimes they see them up close that way, but the closest I’ve ever engaged with a hawk was at New England Falconry, Chris Davis’s place.
Sy: Oh yeah.
Margaret: I went to fly a hawk, not hunt, but just fly, and put the glove on and that whole thing. And they’re very heavy for a bird.
Sy: Yes. And when they fly and smack on your glove, the force with which they hit your glove… Weren’t you surprised at that point?
Margaret: I was because of course I think of birds as featherweights, ha-ha.
Sy: Right. They are, they are. Their feathers weigh more than their skeletons in most species. And they’re made of air. They’ve got all these air sacks and giant lungs and a big old heart. They’re mostly air, and yet when a hawk lands on your arm, something substantial has happened.
Margaret: Right. So ultimately I don’t think you decided to have a hawk that lived at your place. That was your hawk for hunting. Is that correct?
Sy: That is correct. I had chickens at the time, and the hawk would definitely kill the chickens. The other thing was, I travel a lot for my work.
And who would take care of this hawk? Well, my husband, who didn’t want to do it [laughter], so I stuck with my marriage and my chickens. But you know what happened, which is amazingly cool, is that just last year, a dear friend of ours moved to Hancock, and he’s a master falconer.
Margaret: Oh, how funny.
Sy: He came with his young hawk, Mahoud. So now right on my street I have a friend with, with a hawk who I know pretty well, and we can fly together anytime we want.
Margaret: Huh. That’s amazing. So I have to confess some jealousy to some of the other animals you’ve met. Octopus, oh my goodness [laughter].
Sy: Yeah. Yeah.
Margaret: That must have been one of the wackiest ones?
Sy: Well, you would think, because we’re so distantly related, the last common ancestor we had was half a billion years ago.
Sy: And you would not think that you could make friends with someone that different. Someone with no bones, and who can taste with all of their skin, and whose mouth was in their armpits [laughter]. But I found that with every octopus that I’ve gotten to know, that octopus has clearly recognized me. I’m not projecting; they have done studies on this, and we know octopus will recognize individual humans, even if they’re dressed identically. And the octopus would choose to leave its lair, to come over just to play with you.
Margaret: Right. Yeah. Just, there was a documentary not long ago, a couple years maybe. I can’t remember the name of it right now, but-
Sy: Was it “My Octopus Teacher”?
Margaret: Yes. And you know-
Sy: Yes, wasn’t that great?
Margaret: Yes, because I had read your book and then I, and I watched that and I was just like, oh my goodness. I mean-
Sy: Yeah, that guy is terrific. And he actually was free-diving without a tank, without oxygen.
Sy: In really cold kelp forest. Which I mean, first of all, the kelp forest is on the other side of the country and even if it was outside my house, I probably could not physically do what he did. And boy was he lucky, though. Because I mean, he was brave, he was strong, he was smart. He was creative. But he was also very lucky, because that octopus did not get eaten during the year or so that he knew her. And that is the fate of most octopus is to get, to get eaten. In a tank at an aquarium like New England Aquarium, I had the luxury of knowing I would find my octopus friend every day.
And she knew that she would see me. And I think she looked forward to seeing me as much as I looked forward to seeing her. Maybe for different reasons. But her curiosity about me was just evident. It was extremely clear, she was very curious. And she was very smart and she liked that I was different and I liked that she was different. And I think we both kind of came at this relationship with kind of, what is it like to be you? I want to know.
Margaret: Hmm. Well, that’s actually a really good question for us to approach any connection with another organism, another creature. Isn’t it? That question?
Sy: Yes. And each other.
Margaret: Good, good, good. Well, so many other millions of questions I could ask you. We are virtually out of time. And I want to remind everybody that we’re going to have a book giveaway of Sy Montgomery’s 33rd, not 31st book, “The Hawk’s Way.” And I’m so glad to finally speak to you. I’m glad that little funny mention ended up bringing us together because we have many friends in common and many writer friends and so forth and yeah. So it was about time [laughter].
Sy: Yeah. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much.
enter to win a copy of ‘the hawk’s way’
I’LL BUY A COPY OF Sy Montgomery’s book “The Hawk’s Way” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box farther down the page, by answering this question:
What hawk species is most common around you, or maybe visits your garden?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 30, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).