How To Be A Good Creature

Journeying across generations and species, How To Be A Good Creature by Sy Montgomery is a celebration of friendship transcending time, place, and genes. Featuring charming illustrations by Rebecca Green, How To Be A Good Creature is a textured weave of auto-biography, naturalism, poetry and philosophy. It is a love letter to the complex beings who call Earth home, a celebration of life in all forms, from outback Emu’s, to a Tarantula named Clarabelle in French Guiana.

Each creature Sy meets with has its own story and a lesson to impart. Her pig, Christopher Hogwood taught her ‘how to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops’. Her friend summed him up as a great big Buddha master,

Studying at the cloven feet of this porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savour this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children…

After my parents had disowned me…Christopher helped create for me a ‘real’ family – a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.

At a New England aquarium, Sy meets Octavia, an octopus from the Pacific Northwest, who shared with Sy that ‘profoundly beautiful’ devotion of a mother tending to her eggs and without realising, imparted a profound message onto Sy,

Thousands of billions of mothers – from the gelatinous ancestors of Octavia, to my own mother – have taught their kind to love, and to know that love is the highest and best use of a life.  Love alone matters, and makes its object worthwhile.

Yet, a mother octopus never leaves her eggs, even to eat. Octavia would starve herself to death in her devotion to her children.

I realised, too soon, Octavia herself would be no more. But love never dies, and love always matters. And so it still fills me with gratitude that Octavia tended her eggs with such diligence and grace. For I could face the inevitable fact of her dying with the knowledge that she would do so in the act of loving, as only a mature female octopus at the end of her short, strange life can love.

Being friends with an Octopus, ‘whatever that friendship meant to her’ writes Sy,

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.

Country Life, Owen Davey, 2020

Rachel Carson, in her work The Edge of the Sea, remarked on the transfiguration that occurs when we come into contact with the unknown – unknown places, unknown creatures. When we enter a new world, or when a new life enters ours, ‘fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective’. Without ever meaning to, those who come into our lives enlarge us.

Those we love expand us and teach us to love in new and hitherto undiscovered ways. In love, it is not a matter of ‘the more you give the less you have’ but rather, ‘the more you give, the more you have’.

Each creature that comes into our lives is different, and demands something different of us. We adapt, adjust, and in the process, expand on the quality of love we are able to provide. This message is at the heart of How to be a Good Creature. Sy loved her dog Tess, writing that

Never before had anyone relied on me so completely. Never before had anyone loved me more deeply. Never before had I experienced grace so profound.

And when Tess died, Sy believes she could never come to love again, until Sally came into her life. The death of Tess was not the end of Sy’s love. Rather, the life of Tess expanded Sy, and gave her the ability to love in new and yet unexplored ways.

Those we love enrich the complex tapestry of our lives. When the time comes for those we love to leave, we can see this loss as a negative space of a new beginning, filled with potential.

Each person I have welcomed into my heart gave me something I did not have before, and each one prepared me (often without realising it at the time) to be a better creature. Being utterly unique and special (as we all are), each person expanded my ability to love in different ways and made me a better person for it.

To be a good creature is to listen and learn from those around us, to embrace those lessons and continue our journey to always become better versions of ourselves.

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