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Featuring guest Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery | Soul Deep Sameness

Sy Montgomery shares her love for all creatures and calls for us to reach into our limitless compassion to care for them.


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pencil and watercolor of octopus tentacles and a snapping turtle

This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2

Sy Montgomery shares her love for all creatures and calls for us to reach into our limitless compassion to care for them.

Description

Sy Montgomery has been writing about animals for over 30 years and has befriended many fascinating creatures in those years. Both turtles and octopuses, subjects of two of her books, are ancient relatives of ours, separated from humans by millions of years of evolution. That hasn’t stopped Sy from connecting with individuals of each of these species, learning something about their amazing and special capabilities but also finding a surprising commonality that allows for a deep connection. In the conversation Sy shares her love for all creatures and calls for us to reach into our limitless compassion to care for the creatures that make our world bright and beautiful. 

This conversation was recorded live in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the BioLogos Creation Care Summit on October 7th.

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  • Originally aired on October 19, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God, I’m your host Jim Stump. 

Today’s conversation was recorded live in Grand Rapids Michigan at our Creation Care Summit. It was a day-long event filled with great speakers on topics about how to better care for the world we have been given. Our guest is nature writer, Sy Montgomery. She has been writing for many years now, having published more than 30 books for both children and adults about tigers and apes, various birds, and her pet pig. Her book The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards. And her latest book, hot off the press, is about Turtles, called Of Time and Turtles.

We focus primarily on those two creatures for our conversation: the octopus and the turtle. These are really fascinating in and of themselves, and we could easily spend the whole time just talking about their own lives and abilities. But the conversation comes back around to how these creatures might make us think about ourselves too. Octopuses and turtles are very, very distant relations of ours on the evolutionary family tree — you have to go back hundreds of millions of years to find our common ancestors. Yet in Sy’s work, I feel like they are mirrors that can be held up to us — maybe those funhouse mirrors that distort or exaggerate some features of us, but what we see is recognizably an individual with personality, and agency, and emotions, and attitudes. They’re not people, right. They don’t have moral responsibility for their actions. But we can still ask about souls. There is a long tradition in both Hebrew and Greek thinking that all creatures have souls of some kind. And we’ll talk some about how these creatures are impacted by climate change, and what our responsibilities might be for caring for them and the rest of creation. 

This was a really delightful and even touching conversation, as Sy shared about her friends, these creatures, and during the live recording we had a few pictures scrolling of them. There’s a link in the shownotes where you can find those if you’d like to see them too.  

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview 

Stump:

Sy, welcome to the podcast and to the Creation Care Summit. We are so glad you’re here.

Montgomery:

Oh, I’m so glad to be here. This is already been such a blast all day long.

Stump:

Oh, good. Well, we’re going to talk a lot about creatures today, whose stories you’ve so deftly told in these books, but let’s acknowledge right off the bat that we too are creatures, both in the biological and the theological sense, and our stories intersect with the rest of life on the planet. So could we hear a little bit of your own story? Where’d you grow up? What was your family like?

Montgomery:

I grew up all over the place. My father was a general in the US Army. He was a hero and I got in trouble in Sunday school once for saying I loved him just this much less than God. But when I was… Before I could actually speak, I was born in Germany. My parents took me to the Frankfurt Zoo. And as toddlers do, I broke free of my parents’ hands and by the time they realized I was gone, they discovered I had gone apparently into the hippo pen.

Stump:

Oh my.

Montgomery:

Where I felt perfectly at home, but where my parents were just having a fit, they could not get me out of there fast enough. But my people have always been animals. When I was real little and I could speak, I told my parents I had this existential problem that I was actually… I didn’t identify as a little girl. I didn’t identify as a little boy. I identified as a horse. And then my mother went to the pediatrician who told her, “Oh, she’ll grow out of this.” Which I did when I discovered I was actually a dog.

Stump:

So keep the story going a little bit. You eventually went off to college, not for zoology or anything, but is journalism. Why that?

Montgomery:

Yeah. Well, I triple majored and they wouldn’t give me the fourth major, which would’ve been biology. So my majors were magazine journalism, French language and literature and psychology, but I took a lot of biology. And what had happened was when I was little, what I wanted to do… I was born in 1958 and if you loved animals, you became a veterinarian. But when I began to read, my father would share with me stories from the New York Times and what were the stories in the New York Times that a little girl who loves animals wants to read about. Well, all the animal stories were about how everyone was going extinct. So right about the time I began to read was when I decided that I might be able to help more animals as a writer than even as a veterinarian.

Stump:

Nice. Your books are not explicitly about faith, but you’re not shy about the fact that you’re a Christian in your books either, and your faith comes through there. Did you grow up in a faith tradition? And I wonder how that has influenced or informed your work today.

Montgomery:

Well, my mother was Methodist and I grew up in the Methodist Church. My second high school, First United Methodist Church of Westfield, One East Broad Street, was the center of my whole world. And with one of my best friends who is now a pastor, retired pastor. That’s right, we’re old now. We used to… When I trade stories with friends of what they were doing as teenagers, I would sneak off into the woods with Herbie and Jack and we’d take our bibles and we’d read in the woods. My friends are shocked.

Stump:

That wasn’t the direction I thought that story was going.

Montgomery:

I know, but that’s what we did. That’s what gave us joy and still does today.

Stump:

Nice. So now you live with your husband Howard in New Hampshire. And all the critters that you’ve boarded, tell us about some of them that are at the house now, and we’ll talk about some of the ones on the screen in a little bit.

Montgomery:

Well, right now, besides Howard, I’ve got Thurber who is a blind in one eye, eight-year-old border collie, and the greatest guy. He’s so in love with life. This dog, he sings to the radio and one of his favorite CDs, he actually wrecked it because he figured out that if you mash something on the dashboard with your paws, it can change the channel. And he ruined the entire CD player, but it was actually a Canadian Christian rock band and he loved this. But it’s now imprisoned in the CD forever and I’ll never get it out. And I also have three baby Blandings turtle who I am, I hesitate to say homeschooling, but I often say that by mistake. Head starting, which you do with a state permit. You raise up these little native turtles from an area where we protect their nesting site and we raise them up till spring and then let them go. And they’ve spent the whole winter growing instead of just trying not to get eaten and freezing to death. So I’ve got those three.

Stump:

Okay. So for the rest of our conversation, I want to zoom in on turtles and octopuses. And yes, I learned that is the correct plural of octopus, not octopi, from reading your book. We’re going to put some photos up on screen here of some friends of yours. And I wonder if you might go through and just tell us briefly who each of these creatures is and how you came to know them and what they mean to you.

Montgomery:

Oh, this is Octavia. Oh, she’s such a beautiful girl. She was not the first octopus that I came to know. She was the second, the first, Athena, was the first octopus I ever touched, and I was absolutely astonished to see her eye swivel in its socket and lock into mine. The minute that my friend Scott took the lid off her tank, she turned bright red with excitement and slid up to greet me. And soon her arms were boiling up out of the water, and of course I plunged my hands and arms into the water to meet hers. And I was covered with her soft questing suckers and it felt like being kissed by an alien. And I—

Stump:

Wait, so that’s good or that’s not good?

Montgomery:

Well, it was going to be a problem because when I got home I had all these hickeys to explain to my husband. So after we met, she died very quickly after that. Octopuses don’t live very long. They only live three to five years, and most of that time you don’t even know them because when they hatch, they’re this big and they’re not living in the aquarium, they’re living in the open ocean.

But the next octopus I came to know was Octavia, and we became very good friends. I met her shortly after she arrived, and at first she wanted nothing to do with me. I would offer her a fish on these tongs and she just didn’t want it and offered again, didn’t want it, didn’t want it. But then the next time I tried, she grabbed the fish, she grabbed the tongs, and then she grabbed me and was pulling me into the tank. And I was elated, of course, but I wasn’t going to fit. It didn’t feel like aggression, it felt like curiosity. And the next time we got together, which was the following week, we were fast friends and she let me feed her and pet her. She was obviously happy to see me because they go towards you as opposed to away from you. And if they’re unhappy, they’ll either go away. They often will change color. They often make an eye bar when they’re irritated and sometimes they’ll squirt you in the face with freezing cold salt water.

Stump:

Let’s move the next picture. Who else do we have up here?

Montgomery:

That’s Karma. And she came after Octavia. Octavia I knew till her death and she actually had laid eggs and the eggs were infertile, but she was protecting them and being a good octopus mother.

Stump:

These are both at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Montgomery:

At New England Aquarium, yeah, yeah. She’s an octopus who actually came up to say goodbye to me as she was dying. It was an astonishing thing. And Karma, oh, Karma was such a sweetheart. She was playful and affectionate and cheerful, and not all octopuses are. Octopuses are as distinctive as we are in a way that we can perceive. I think everybody is as distinctive as we are, but we don’t always see it. But we can see it with octopuses. And this is often reflected in their names. There was one at the Seattle Aquarium, they called Emily Dickinson because she was so shy she never came out from behind the filter. And there was another one named Leisure Suit Larry, because his arms were all over you. You would peel one arm off and two arms would go on.

Stump:

Fun. And what’s next? Who’s next, I should say.

Montgomery:

Oh, look, that’s Fire Chief. He’s about my age and he’s a snapping turtle. He’s 42 pounds and we met at— He is with the artist of, actually going to be three books that we’ve done together, Matt Patterson. We got to do physical therapy with this injured snapper for two years. He was hit by a car when he was crossing a road and his back legs and tail were paralyzed, his legs started to come back and Matt and I got to do physical therapy to help his legs and tail recover. And at one point, this entailed a wheelchair. At one point, we walked him with a sling, but his legs got better, his legs and tail now move and he now lives up the street from me.

Stump:

Nice. Let’s talk about some of the unique abilities of each of these guys. Is that also Fire Chief?

Montgomery:

That’s him, yeah. Gosh, there’s a lot of pictures of him. He’s so handsome.

Stump:

I want to talk about some of the unique abilities of both octopuses and turtles here, starting with octopuses. So lots of us have heard how clever they are. They can pass these various sorts of tests and do puzzles and so on. Might’ve seen the terrific documentary, My Octopus Teacher. Talk a little bit more about the mind of an octopus. I mean, again, these are invertebrates, right? Separated a long way from us.

Montgomery:

Yeah, half a billion years of evolution separates us.

Stump:

What do we know about their minds? What did you learn about their minds as you were working with them?

Montgomery:

Well, one that they’re very emotional. They often will change color when they are flooded with emotion, as do we. You can’t necessarily tell all the different emotions that they’re having, but you can tell when your octopus friend is annoyed or frightened or happy or wanting to play. We had one octopus, her name was Kali, who basically held us at siphon point. They could squirt water at you from their siphon, which they used to jet through the sea. And she would just douse us with water till we gave her a fish. She wanted to eat first and play later. But not all of the octopuses felt that way. Others wanted to play with the bucket the fish was in more than they wanted to eat the fish. They’re very, very playful and they love to play with the same toys that we do. They love to play with Legos. They love Mr. Potato Head and they like to take things apart and occasionally put things together.

So they’re very, very smart, but their nervous system is totally unlike ours. Their whole bodies are so unlike ours. I mean, they have not one bone in their whole body. They can change color and shape. They can pour their bodies through a tiny opening. A severed arm of an octopus can go off and do stuff, like hunt for stuff, like find stuff I could not find. And they can still change color even if their severed arm can change color.

Stump:

That’s part because they have a lot of neurons in their arms.

Montgomery:

That’s right. And some people say they have nine brains. And their brain itself doesn’t look like our brain at all. And many people wouldn’t even know it was a brain. It’s a circle around their throat. And whereas we have four very visible pieces of our brain, scientists are still debating whether the various octopus species have like 50 or more. So they’re very, very different from us. I did not expect to find so much commonality with someone so distantly related to me. I did not expect to be able to read them and understand them or befriend them. I was just so gobsmacked by the affiliation, the friendship that was possible with someone so different.

Stump:

And that’s remarkable too in that octopuses in the wild are not normally very social with each other, are they? Aren’t they fairly solitary?

Montgomery:

Generally they are, although since my book came out in 2015, there’s been more work done and octopuses may be far more social than we know. There was one site discovered in Australia where so many octopuses gathered together, they call it Octopolis, and they found another one they call Octlantis. And there are certain species of octopus who do seem to live communally and some species of octopus who seem for a while to guard their mates and live with their families. So this is something we never expected to find.

Stump:

Interesting. There’s a scene in your book where you’re in the South Pacific off looking for octopuses and it’s a Sunday morning and you decide not to go with the rest of the group. And instead you find a chapel that’s called the Chapel of the Octopus or something like this. And in the book then there’s a little reflection where you’re asking questions about the soul and what is the soul, what do we mean by this even? And it’s not entirely clear, but then ultimately you conclude, “If I have a soul, and I think I do, an octopus has a soul too.” That might sound shocking to some ears today, but it actually is not a keeping with the tradition of thinking about the soul, even in the Christian tradition that acknowledged other creatures have souls too. Why is this important to you to uphold the soul of an octopus?

Montgomery:

Because I’ve always felt that all of God’s creation is holy and has a connection to us. I always read Genesis to be a family story. I never felt isolated from the rest of creation. I never wanted to be isolated from the rest of creation. My best friends growing up were of many species. And it makes me feel far more at home in the world to know that we can celebrate the differences that we have with other creatures. I am thrilled that whales can speak in voices that travel across the sea and that octopuses can change their color and shape and that sharks can detect the electrical signature of your heartbeat. I’m thrilled by all these voices that we don’t hear that the rest of animal creation can, but I’m also thrilled by our sameness. And I think that goes soul deep.

Stump:

There’s another scene in the book where you overhear some people, I think it was at the museum or at the aquarium in Boston of somebody asking if the octopus that they’re watching, “Does she know you?” And you say, “Of course she does. Of course she does.” And then talking about Octavia and Kali, is that the name of another one of them?

Montgomery:

Mm-hmm.

Stump:

You write, “They’ve changed my life forever. I loved them and will love them always for they have given me a great gift, a deeper understanding of what it means to think, to feel and to know.” Can you elaborate on that anymore, what your own relationship with them has been?

Montgomery:

Yeah, it was transformative and revelatory and I came across a quote attributed to Thales of Miletus that kind of encapsulated what they showed me so starkly and brilliantly as stark as the night sky with its stars. The universe, he’s alleged to have said, is alive and has fire in it and is full of gods. And to me what that says is our world is alive with souls. It’s incandescent with God’s love and that all thinking, feeling creatures are holy and it’s our job and our privilege to reverence them.

Stump:

[pauses] Last night, Colin and I were out to dinner with Sy and she said something to the effect of, “I just need to warn you, I might get crying a little bit when I talk about these.” [speaking with emotion] And I think Colin said, “Well, Jim might first.” So. [audience laughs]

Montgomery:

You should try eye makeup. [laughter] It’s a good deterrent.

Stump:

I want to come back to this relationship, but let’s go a little bit through turtles here now too. Of Time and Turtles was written during COVID, so there’s this really interesting juxtaposition between our sense of time during the pandemic, which was altered by these very different lives we led and turtle time. What’s turtle time like? Tell us a little bit about turtles and how they live their lives and what time means to a creature that can live as long as this.

Montgomery:

Well, what turtles have is time. They arose at the time of the dinosaurs and they’re with us still. They managed to survive the asteroid impact 66 million years ago, and the ice ages. They might not survive us though because they’re very, very endangered. But many turtles live very long lives. One died not long ago at the age of 288 and was alive when George Washington was alive. And they know stuff. We know that turtles—we tend to dismiss reptiles intelligence, but the few tests that have been done on them show that they remember things and that the species that have been tested actually learn mazes more quickly than laboratory rats. They don’t run them as quickly, but they are tied to a different kind of time than we are. And during the pandemic when the clock and the calendar were just ripped away from us, 9:00 to 5:00 gone, school gone, even church, so many people couldn’t go to church. We couldn’t go to birthday parties or Christmas parties or even funerals. All these markers of our days were taken away from us. But during that time, I was hanging with these ancient patient, storied, long-lived creatures, and I was tied not to what the Greeks called Kronos, the clock in the calendar time, but what they called kairos, sacred time. The sacred turn of the seasons, the kind of time that doesn’t run out like sand in an hourglass or shoot forward into the distance like an arrow, but the kind that accumulates like riches and connects you to eternity. And that was very healing for me.

Stump:

I love there’s a line you quote from a novelist in the book that, “Old things are better than new things because old things have stories in them.” So these turtles have a lot of stories and you tell us a bunch of stories in the book. I want to make sure I don’t give away too much that prohibits people from going out and buying copies of the book here, but I want to tease a few of these stories out of you because they’re really remarkable. And you probably need to start by telling us a little bit of the background of you and the artist, Matt, your friend, and the Turtle Rescue League, and who they are and what they’re doing and how you got connected with them.

Montgomery:

Well, I started doing kind of turtley things mostly after I met Matt, which was like six years ago. I had a friend though who was protecting nesting sites, and together we would go out there and protect some turtle nesting sites but I wanted to get to know individual turtles. And the best way to do that, that I thought, because it’s so hard to reconnect with your turtle friend once they’re in the wild, is at a turtle rescue where some of the patients are there for years. So I’d heard of Turtle Rescue League and I’d gone to a turtle summit there, which they had for turtle rehabilitators. And I came away as stunned as if I had visited lords. There were turtles who they looked like a road crayon practically smeared all over the road. Their shells were cracked and one of them had two broken legs and I was going… I mean, what was left of this turtle?

Well, she was released, healed in whole after a couple of years with Turtle Rescue League. They were putting back together these broken creatures and they were going to go back into the wild and be able to make more turtles, not just for a year or two, but in some cases decades. So I wanted to be part of that miracle. And little did I know that I would be doing so during such a broken time in human history when we were beset by this disease, we didn’t know what it was, how you got it, how to cure it, how to treat it. And then there was so much political division and the whole world was on fire with environmental catastrophe. To be able to work with them, literally putting back together broken creatures at a fractured time was an amazing blessing. And I found whenever I do these books, if you just put yourself in the hands of God, he has always sent me animal guides who will show me what I need to share. It’s a received gift.

Stump:

At any given time, how many turtles are at the Turtle Rescue League being rehabilitated?

Montgomery:

Oh, well this is amazing. The league is actually just the basement of these two ladies suburban house. It’s a 10,000 square foot basement, and at any moment they will have between 250 to 1,000 turtles in their house.

Stump:

Okay. So one of the scenes is I think during nesting season when they know that… What is it? That turtles are migrating to go to a certain pond or something? And we of course have built lots of roads between these ancient nesting grounds that turtles are no… they are going to keep going anyway. And so they’re crossing roads and they’re being hit and the Turtle League is on call. Give us a little flavor for what that series of days was like when these calls are coming in and where you’re going and what you’re doing and what you’re finding and how you deal with all of that.

Montgomery:

Oh man, sometimes it is just so hectic. One time we were out releasing baby turtles who had hatched in the incubators. Sometimes patients come in who are pregnant and they lay their eggs and we hatch the eggs for them and then let the babies go. Sometimes patients come in who die, but we can save their eggs. So there’s a lot of releasing of babies that goes on. But meanwhile, people are calling in because there’s a snapper run over by a car here and there’s a boxy over there and there’s a painted turtle over here. One day a turtle came in, I kid you not, he had an arrow through his neck and it was worse than an arrow because when we looked it up in the Cabela’s catalog, it was the bolt from a medieval weapon used to pierce armor.

Stump:

A crossbow bolt.

Montgomery:

It was a crossbow bolt. And amazingly though, Alexxia, for the excellent reason that Natasha is blind, that she does all of the surgeries. Natasha does a lot of the brooding of the turtles. She was able to remove that bolt and set him free that very day. And he was a great big snapper. And he never gaped. He never hissed. He never tried to bite her the whole time she was trying to pull this thing out of his neck. No one was restraining him and he was not anesthetized.

Stump:

So you say in the book, “It was shocking for me to hear that turtles are one of the most endangered major groups of animals on the planet.”

Montgomery:

Yes.

Stump:

Why is this? Tell us.

Montgomery:

I know. We think they’re so common.

Stump:

Because it seems they’re everywhere, aren’t they?

Montgomery:

I know it. It seems like—because we see painted turtles who are piling on top of each other, basking in the sun, and we think turtles are doing fine. And painted turtles are some of those turtles who are still common. They’re still common, but they’re less common than they used to be, and so are snapped. But there’s over 350 species of turtles in the world, and some of them are already extinct in the wild and existing only in assurance colonies at places like Turtle Survival Alliance. That’s the TSA that you like. I have a T-shirt that I like to wear when I go through TSA at the airport, so they think I’m on their side, but they are raising up these turtles to be released one day into the wild when again, they’re free.

And of course all the usual suspects are at work here. Habitat destruction, roads are particularly deadly for turtles for obvious reasons. Global climate change is particularly bad for turtles because one, your nesting beach, if you’re a sea turtle, it can be gone. And two, for many species of turtles, the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature. If it goes up just a little bit, you’re going to get nothing but males or nothing but females for that species, which is horrendous. But there is also a really big, scary, horrible trade in endangered turtles. In some cases for prestige pets, in others for traditional Chinese medicine. Most of traditional Chinese medicines, pharmacopeia is plants, but a small handful of remedies are using animals and not one of them works. So there’s the dual tragedy of you’re killing some animal and the sick person isn’t getting any treatment.

People see these old virile turtles, 90 years old and, “Oh, maybe that could be me if I eat the turtle.” Well, you do better to eat your own fingernails, which is what is covering their shells anyway. But anyway, all of these things are working against them, and 61% of all turtle species are threatened with extinction or extinct in the wild.

Stump:

So there’s a really touching moment in the book. Maybe we can see a picture of Fire Chief and Sy and Matt up here again. There’s this really touching moment when you and Matt are hanging out with Fire Chief here who is rehabilitated, and you both reach out and caress the head of a really big snapping turtle and even other people there that are around them were, “Did you say this [inaudible 00:31:46]?” Then you write this about us, the three of us, which are you and Matt and Fire Chief. “The three of us give ourselves to the moment. For Matt and me, it brings rare relief to enter a world without clock, without calendar, without speech, without worry, lost and found in the pleasurable communion of two species, skin on skin in turtle time.” So you’ve shared this. For all your life, you’ve been doing this, but what is it about connecting with another species that’s so meaningful and special that’s different than connecting with another human even in some ways, right?

Montgomery:

Yeah. Well, I think it widens your circle, your capacity for compassion. It broadens your world in a really important way. These are animals who are perceiving the real world, God’s world in a real way, but sometimes their perceptions are outside of our own perceptions. So even though I may not be able to hear infrasound, for example, or I may not be able to taste with my skin as some animals can do or sing with my knees for that matter, knowing someone who does brings you that much closer to that sensuous saver of this beautiful life and brings us closer to our Creator, and brings us into that realm of awe and wonder. So I think that’s…

I’ve always been able to do this and I don’t think there’s anything special about me. I think kids can do this and we take them away from that path. We tell them, “No, no, you should only pay attention to one species.” And I think that’s such a tragedy. It’s like saying you can only eat one kind of food or you can only listen to one kind of music or even one piece of music. So it’s such a joy to be able to commune with the rest of creation in this way. And I think it’s really open to all of us if we just don’t shut it off.

Stump:

And snapping turtles in particular, I’ve grown up being around them occasionally, but was always warned to keep your distance. But it doesn’t seem like you’re too worried about that.

Montgomery:

Well, no, no. And there were some snappers that we knew at the hospital who you had to handle carefully because you’re a monster. Most people who encounter snappers and who get snapped at, they’ve rushed up to the animal. The animal is where it belongs, and you are probably not because the land belonged to the turtle long before it belonged to us. And often people are trying to pick them up and move them. Well, they don’t want to be picked up and moved.

Now, they need to be picked up and moved if they’re crossing a road, but there’s ways to pick them up that won’t scare them and they won’t snap at you. They will never attack you. They will never rush off and attack you in your yard. People are afraid that it’s going to swallow their children, but no, they’re not. They’re not. They do us a huge service. People don’t realize they’re kind of the vultures of the pond. They don’t eat the ducklings and the loon chicks and this kind of… Many people think they do, but that’s not what snappers do. They are detritivores. It’s so much easier to eat something that’s already sitting there dead on the bottom of the pond than try to kill someone with your face.

Stump:

Especially if you’re not very fast, right?

Montgomery:

Yes, that’s right. So that’s what they do. And just think you’d be up to your lips and dead fish if it weren’t for these guys.

Stump:

In the next scene in the book is releasing new baby snapping turtles that have hatched, you call it a sacred moment. Describe that scene a little bit for us. These are babies that you’re letting out that are probably going to live for 175 years and this is their first moment of you releasing them into the… What’s that like? What’s to send a little turtle out for 175 years?

Montgomery:

It’s so fabulous because unlike a lot of young creatures, they are born looking exactly like miniatures of the adult. So they look like darling baby grandmas and grandpas right away. And they have those long, the snappers particularly have those long dinosaurian tails with the osteoderms on the back that look like the spikes on Stegosaurus tail. And they are often very strong and brave. They’re ready to take on this world. They have an appetite for this glorious world. And even though lots of things eat baby turtles, they’re going to go out and just meet life head on. They’re born with so much knowledge, and God has put that knowledge in their genes and we don’t have that. I am in awe of what they already know. It feels like you’re watching the wisdom of the ancestors leading them on. There’s this great feeling of continuity to let a little baby turtle go into the water.

Stump:

So were these being incubated at the Rescue League? Where were the eggs? Tell us a little bit of this story itself of how this happened.

Montgomery:

In that particular scene… There were a number of times that we released babies, but I know the page that you’re on there.

Stump:

143.

Montgomery:

A mother snapper had made a nest inches from the edge of an asphalt parking lot. And first the asphalt was going to heat things up so badly, those eggs might not have survived. And if the babies did hatch out, in three steps, they’d get run over by a car. This was at the Teamsters Union in one of the towns in Massachusetts that Turtle Rescue League covered. So they called us and we dug those eggs up and incubated them and then released them. So some of those babies, I held the egg while it was hatching. And again, a wonderful thing.

Baby turtles have an egg tooth. It’s not really a tooth, it’s just this little tiny, tiny, tiny white thing that looks like the tip of a needle at the edge of their beacon. Later it’s resolved, and they use it to get out of their egg. And often the first thing you see when a turtle is hatching is this little hole and a little eye looking out of that hole out into the world. And sometimes you’ll see a hand coming out of a bigger hole into the world. Some of them hatch almost explosively. Some of them take 24 hours to get out of their shells. It’s as varied as human births, but you always feel like you’ve been catapulted back to the beginning of the world when you see these things happen. And it’s so wonderful to be reminded that there are new beginnings. Every season there’s new beginnings. Every day brings us an opportunity for a new beginning. And during COVID and during times of strife, it was a huge blessing to have that truth literally in the palm of my hand.

Stump:

So 175 years from now, these turtles are going to be in their dotage, their old age. What’s our world going to be like then? So you talk about the other turtle that was alive for 228 years and how much our world has changed since then, the way that we are changing the world that is affecting these turtle’s worlds. So you mentioned the climate change with the problem with the temperature of the eggs determining the sex. And so I think it was somewhere in New Zealand that already most of the turtle species there are female. So that’s obviously a problem. Another one of the climate issues that you mentioned is changing sea water and how this affects the migration of certain sea turtles. And you participated then in a sort of rescue operation for turtles on Cape Cod because of that. So explain why these turtles are getting beached there and then tell us a little bit about the rescue operation.

Montgomery:

This sounded almost impossible. There was a huge snowstorm and Matt and his wife’s Aaron, their house had no power. And we left our house in New Hampshire to go to the beach in December during a snowstorm to look for reptiles. It was very peculiar.

Stump:

As you do.

Montgomery:

Yes, right. Well, what’s happening is that Cape Cod is part of a large body of water that is warming faster than any other. And the turtles who are swimming out in the cape that’s so warm that they don’t leave the safety of those waters for the Atlantic until it is too cold in the Atlantic for them to swim because they’re reptiles and they can’t move. So they are cold stunned, and now they’re just floating in the water and we are waiting for a storm to wash them back up on the beach where we can rescue them and take them actually eventually to… New England Aquarium has a quinsy facility.

You can’t warm them up right away. You have to just warm them up one degree at a time. The ones that we were rescuing were Kemp ridleys who are the most endangered of the sea turtles. It was just amazing. You don’t expect to see them on the beach at all in Cape Cod, much less in the winter, but stranger things have happened. It was such an amazing thing to be part of this, saving the life of somebody who can live for so long and knowing that if you were not there at that exact moment, that turtle would die.

Stump:

I want to ask a question now and ask it carefully because it might sound a little heartless or calloused. I’d be surprised if anybody here actually feels this way, but I’m sure most of us know people who might feel this way and even we ourselves aren’t always sure how to answer this question. So let me ask it with apologies for how it sounds. Why should we care so much about the turtles? Why spend all that time and energy and money on saving turtles? There’s no shortage of human problems we could address, individual human lives that we could make better. Shouldn’t we focus our limited resources on them instead of turtles? How do we answer that?

Montgomery:

There is no limit to compassion. There is no limit to love. And turtles actually are the foundations for many ecosystems on which we all depend. People do not realize this, but maybe we do because there’s a lot of cultures around the world that have this idea of the world turtle, the turtle that is carrying the world on its back. In China, there is a goddess called Ao, whose… She’s a giant tortoise and her legs are holding up the heavens itself. They feed so many creatures with their eggs. Their babies are eaten by a lot of creatures. But beyond all this, turtles are a wonder near at hand. Everyone can recognize a turtle. Everyone gets to see a turtle. It’s not like an octopus that you have to go to an aquarium to see one. We’ve all seen them and we can do so much, easily, to help turtles. When we observe them, having them in our world, what they’re filling us with is the thing that we need for our souls more than just about anything else. Everybody from life hack folks to philosophers will tell you what gives us joy in our lives is awe. We need more awe in our lives and I am in awe of these amazing creatures and it is very easy to help them.

Stump:

I wonder if there’s a way of framing the answer to that question too, particularly in Christian theology. I’m reminded just this morning from Jonathan Moo who was talking that said, “It’s difficult from a purely secular perspective to argue for why there is intrinsic value in things.” So we can talk about the pragmatic value and what they do for our ecosystems, but you started pushing there toward, but they’re good in and of themselves, which this is Genesis 1 now, that these things are good, they’re good. And so when we see them broken, that should move us, shouldn’t it? I mean, shouldn’t we… There’s a way of asking that question I just asked that I think some faith communities might say, “Yeah, the more important thing is to help humans.” And I am wrestling with trying to point out why from our faith perspective, we ought to be more concerned about turtles than people of no faith. Shouldn’t we?

Montgomery:

I totally agree. I totally agree. And the idea that we just have these tiny little drying up pools of compassion that will be gone. We have limitless love and compassion. Turtles, God loves turtles. He came up with them earlier than us. I mean, and I always say in defense of snakes. Well, remember the Garden of Eden, God let them stay.

Stump:

I also suspect that people who ask such questions about why spend so much time and energy, haven’t actually spent much time in direct contact with these creatures the way you have. And something about that connection. I mean, you see these pictures. Obviously, you spend time with these things and you develop that sort of connection. It moves you to recognize their innate worth. It’s not like you’re somehow being tricked into thinking these are really valuable. It’s the spending the time with them that actually lets you see the true value of it.

Montgomery:

No, that’s so true. And people talk about anthropomorphism and say you’re projecting human emotions and human thoughts on animals, but that denies evolution and it denies Genesis. We are all from the same parent. We’re parents. We are all one family. And why should consciousness thought, emotion, arise in just one species?

Turtles are so surprising though. Even though we think of them as common, they do stuff that no one thought they did. You know the part where they talk about the voice of the turtle, and it was supposed to be, “Oh, they left out the voice of the turtle-dove.” Well, they have voices. They just tested 50 species of turtles randomly to see if they had anything to say. All 50 species use vocal communication. And they have ears not like ours, but they can hear a human whisper. They have all kinds of amazing capabilities that we didn’t know. But if you pay attention, which has been likened to a form of worship, if you pay attention to almost any species that God created, you see the Creator’s glory.

I mean, as a creative person myself, I’ve just written a bunch of books, but what hurts me the most is when somebody’s trashing my book. Well, imagine you created an entire planet and the universe and folks are trashing it. What worst thing could you possibly do in the world? And on the other hand, what could give the Lord more joy than seeing us praise him through respect for his creation of which we are apart? And how horrible to pretend that we’re separated from the rest of the family. Think of the mothers and fathers that you know, who’ve just been torn apart because one kid’s not talking to them or they’ve separated themselves from the rest of the family. It’s horrible. I don’t want to be separated from the rest of the family. I want to get closer to the rest of the family.

Stump:

All right, one more story from the book that I want you to tell here, which involves giving CPR to a baby painted turtle. So first you have to say why you had these turtles at your house and how happy your husband was about you having turtles at your house. And what happened that the little baby needed CPR. And then how did this go?

Montgomery:

Oh, this was so amazing. Well, I’ve mentioned that we did nest protection at this one site where five species of turtles nest… These two ladies, a retired science teacher and a librarian have been protecting this nest site for 15 years. And they have allowed thousands of baby turtles to hatch who otherwise would’ve been dug up by predators. So some of these babies we take home and headstart them so that they can spend the winter growing and eating when otherwise they would be brumation and not growing. And that gives them a leg up. Fewer animals can eat them. Fish, for example, cannot eat them when they’re a little bit bigger. Frogs cannot eat them when they’re a little bit bigger. And because so many strikes are against turtles, anything we can do to help them is a good thing. So I have a permit to raise these guys. And my first four were paints, little painted turtles. They were named after… Well, my husband helped me name them after painters: Monet, Manet, Bonard and Seurat. And every morning—

Stump:

Impressionist turtles, I think, right?

Montgomery:

Yes. Well, and you know how much Monet loved lily pads.

Stump:

Right.

Montgomery:

So every morning I would make the sunrise for them by turning on their heat and UV light and look forward to seeing their sweet little faces. And I only saw Manet, Bonard and Seurat, and Monet was gone. And oh my gosh, where was he? I looked under the floating kale and he wasn’t there. I looked behind the filter, he wasn’t there. I found him under the floating dock that allows them to bask and freakishly one of the suction cups that held it to the side of the tank had come undone and he was stuck overnight in this thing. I pulled him out and his neck was completely limp and his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving and I couldn’t feel any kind of a heartbeat. He was dead. I just screamed and my husband came running down and our dog was very upset. So Howard took him out so that he wasn’t going to be upset. And that’s when I started CPR. And I knew that you could do CPR because of my work with Turtle Rescue League and Turtle Survival Alliance, but it’s not the same as CPR in a person.

CPR for a turtle, you move their arms and legs back and forth and back and forth to restart the heart and the lungs. I did this for 45 minutes on a turtle the size of a coin and he came back to life. [applause] And I released him with my husband Howard that spring with the other turtles and he’s living in Turtle Paradise. And here’s one other wonderful thing, is I’ve spoken about this at a couple of readings and signings and stuff that I’ve done, and two people that I know of have since done CPR on turtles and they have come back to life.

Stump:

Well, that is remarkable. There are plenty more stories about turtles in Of Time and Turtles, which I heartily recommend. It was such a fascinating read for me and even more fascinating to get to spend some time with you the last couple days and hear these stories in person and get to know you. What critters next for you, Sy? Where are you going next or which new species of personality are you going to form some bonds with?

Montgomery:

Oh, I have a new book that I’ve done with the National Geographic on octopuses on a new research since I published The Soul of an Octopus in the spring. I have a picture book for kids on baby hummingbirds coming out in the spring, and next August I hope to be diving in Ecuador to work on a book on giant manta rays.

Stump:

All right. Well, we will look forward to that. Join me in thanking Sy Montgomery for being here with us. Thanks so much.

Montgomery:

Thank you too.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners, like you, who contribute to BioLogos.

Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Photos from Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery and Matt Patterson holding fire chief, a snapping turtle.

Fire Chief, a snapping turtle.

Sy Montgomery with Fire Chief, a snapping turtle.

Karma, a giant Pacific octopus.

Sy Montgomery with Octavia, a giant Pacific octopus.

Featured guest

Sy Montgomery with Cheetah

Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery is the author of over 30 books for both children and adults. She writes about animals including octopuses, turtles, dolphins, tigers, and birds. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and various other creatures who she shares her home and care with.


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