Sy Montgomery’s New Book Exercises her Story-Telling Chops and Inner Philosopher

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Sy Montgomery - Photo by Michael Sterling

Sy Montgomery and Thurber

“(To) Wait . . . an ironic verb, an action word, used to describe inaction. Derived from the French “to wake, to become alert to” To wait and to wake are not opposites but twins. We love NOW because it IS now. “Now” holds at once all of time in its fullness” ~ Sy Montgomery, “Of Time and Turtles”

By WAYNE KING have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, more than 200 million years ago. Even then they may have been subject to the whims of “traffic” but they have, nonetheless, withstood the test of time.

To many Native American nations, from the Navajo of the southwestern US to the Abenaki and Iroquois in my own northeast lineage, North America’s indigenous people are tied to turtles. The continent itself is often referred to as Turtle Island based on various legends that Turtle delivered North America to earth upon its back.

So you may presume, rightly, that I would eagerly anticipate this latest book by New Hampshire’s own Sy Montgomery.

After having read, listened to, and reread Sy Montgomery’s newest book, “Of Time and Turtles – Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell,” I am thoroughly convinced that had she been born into the Iroquois Nation, a matrilineal society, she would have been seen as a mystic and given a fitting honorific, something akin to “Speaks with Turtles.”

You will note that the honorific above is, like most Native American names, without gender distinction. In most Indian traditions, an individual is not officially named until well into their life’s journey. Almost always the name bestowed upon an individual is descriptive of their qualities and most remarkable traits, without gender distinction: Dances with Wolves – rather than “He Dances or She Dances”; Crazy Horse rather than “he is like a wild horse” and so on. This is fitting for both Montgomery’s book and for our times because among the many philosophical and cultural issues explored in this extraordinary book is the issue of gender distinction. Those who criticize the idea of recognizing such distinction as a “new” “woke” phenomenon would do well to remember that for at least 18,000 years our earliest Americans have been so doing.

In her latest triumph Sy Montgomery, National Book Award finalist for “The Soul of an Octopus” and New York Times bestseller turns her attention to the wonder and wisdom around one of our longest-lived cohabitants of what Carl Sagan called our “small blue dot.” Her tales of turtles and their fierce protectors carry us through stories of hope and resistance, opening up revelations and spiritual touchstones worthy of a modern-day superhero novel.

“Of Time and Turtles” is a narrative non-fiction book that follows Sy Montgomery and her illustrator, neighbor and friend Matt Patterson through their introduction to turtle rehabilitation and the heroic “two-legs” who have made it their life’s work to save, protect, and rescue turtles of all shapes and sizes, as well as the communities that have grown up around them.

The book begins with an introduction to “Pizza Man” a snapping turtle under the care of Alexia, Natasha and Michaela at the Massachusetts-based Turtle Rescue Center. But the thread of existence within Montgomery’s entire story follows the struggles and antics of “Fire Chief” a 60-80 pound, 30-odd-year-old snapping turtle, run over by a truck, his spine broken, seemingly beyond repair, and rescued by the rehabilitation team in concert with an entire fire department.

Montgomery’s discursive on time, as it relates to the slowest moving member of the animal kingdom draws on Einstein, current thinkers, and the ancients and is so insightful that even the challenges of the pandemic that had enveloped the world during the writing of this book seem to fit into the world view. Even as she bridles with frustration about the ways in which our world seems to be coming unglued she sees hope in the lessons learned from the process and the characters: two-legged, four-legged, abled, and disabled.

The narrative itself takes you through the process of falling in love with both the plethora of turtles and the people who heroically labor to protect them, leading to a mid-story crescendo involving a cold winter’s eve rescue of sea turtles on a Cape Cod beach and ultimately to two very different, but compellingly holistic, scenes – the tearful and deeply spiritual and appreciative burial of those turtles that did not survive, and the joyous release back into the wild of those who did.

Sy Montgomery, with the sensitive and stunningly beautiful art of Matt Patterson, Weaves philosophy, science, and the life-affirming moments of being, waiting, wanting, into a song of hope and action that makes the case for seeing all of the creatures of our stunningly beautiful planet as our brothers and sisters with whom we share this moment emerging from and extending into the mists of time.

At one critical point, as Sy describes the 5th iteration of a “McGyvered” contraption designed to make mobility not only possible for Fire Chief, but to enhance his capability, Matt shouts, “It’s a triumph!” and the reader experiences the pure joy of the process and the deep love that drives the persistence among these rehabilitators . . . these two-legged brother’s and sisters seeing in themselves the path to understanding what it is to crawl and swim.

Wait . . . an ironic verb, an action word, used to describe inaction. Derived from the French “to wake to become alert to” Montgomery says: “To wait and to wake are not opposites but twins. We love NOW because it IS now. ‘Now’ holds at once all of time in its fullness”

Read this book. It will give you hope in these dark times.

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Wayne D. King

64 Monroe Rd., Bath, NH 03740

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