Sy Montgomery Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

You’re unlikely to find a more passionate animal lover than Sy Montgomery. She’s the author of National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus and her related piece “Deep Intellect” is one of Orion’s most read and loved essays of all time. When not answering our questions, you can find her exploring woodlands, deserts, cloud forests, and ocean depths all over the world. Or tending chickens back home with a border collie at her side.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do? 

Enjoy its company. (If it’s actually in the bed with me, I will move it.)


What is your most treasured comfort meal? 

Sweet potato soup made with coconut milk and ginger.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not? 

I would love to look down on our Earth as I imagine God does, and bless and reverence her.


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic? 

Many—often by mistake and invariably my fault, except for mosquitoes and leeches. Interestingly, neither a bite from a California condor (who had just had her head up the rectum of a carcass) nor one from a pig (who I had been unwisely hand-feeding from below) became infected. Though minor skin surgery at a doctor’s did. Moral: get pigs and vultures to bite off your skin cancers.


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest? 

All of the above.


My favorite tree in the world is ___.

The giant silver maple in our grotto.


Nature would be better without ___.


What is something you’re looking forward to?

Swimming with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic next week!


Do you like scary movies?

No, I get enough scares from the headlines.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

I once performed successful CPR on a baby painted turtle who had drowned.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Our beloved Christopher Hogwood, a runt pig who grew to 750 pounds and lived fourteen years till he died in his sleep. I never had to worry about burning the pancakes with Chris around.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

Probably not good enough to convince most birds, but I can do a barred owl call well enough to get an answer.


What are some of your favorite words?

Apricity (the sparkle of sunlight on snow), exsanguinate (to drain of blood, as mosquitoes nearly did to me in the Amazon), and abomasum (the fourth stomach of a ruminant).


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

Our first border collie, Tess; Fire Chief, a snapping turtle who has overcome paralysis after being hit by a car; Flipper, the dolphin star of the TV show; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, my best friend.

Read more about Fire Chief and his turtle pals here!

You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

Boringly, I would use this to catch up on work!


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek, and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it?

Hot chai.


Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Morning person.


Are you optimistic about the future?



Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

Get caught in the rain, especially during the salamander migration—no better place to be!


Sweet or savory?



What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Hopefully dog vomit. Otherwise, you walk right into it and spread it all over the house.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

I desperately miss my friends Wilson, Anna, Kali, Octavia, and Karma from The Soul of an Octopus, who have passed.


Where did you grow up?

Frankfurt, Germany; Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, NY; Alexandria, Virginia; and Westfield, New Jersey. (Military family.)


Are you the same person you were as a child?

No. As a child I was powerless, a prisoner. I love my autonomy today.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

Heart of Gold by Neil Young.


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager?

I can’t remember. Probably watching Star Trek reruns and doing homework. I think we had Bible study on Saturday, not Friday.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Exactly where I am now—Hancock, New Hampshire.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?



You’re in a desert island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

Swiss Army knife. Matches. Tent. The Same Ax, Twice by Howard Mansfield.


What would you like to be most remembered for?



What flower would you want tucked in your lapel (or pinned to your breast) when you die?



If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

Octopus—I would love to taste with my skin and pour my body through small openings. I wouldn’t live very long, but it would be such an interesting experience.


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Sy Montgomery is the author of more than twenty-one books for adults and children, She has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Rwanda, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels, and pink dolphins in the Amazon. Her work has taken her from the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to the Altai Mountains of the Gobi. Her books include National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus, How to be a Good Creature, Birdology, and The Good Good Pig. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield, their border collie, Thurber, and their flock of free-range laying hens.