Build Me An Ark: A Life With Animals, by Brenda Peterson
WW. Norton (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110-0017), 2000. 256 pages, hardcover. $23.95.
Journey Of The Pink Dolphin: An Amazon Quest, by Sy Montgomery
Simon & Schuster (1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2000. 320 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Both Brenda Peterson and Sy Montgomery are famous and prolific authors now, mostly on nature and animal-related themes, having produced 17 and 21 books, respectively. Their works are often shelved side-by-side in bookstore nature sections. Searching on either name at Amazon.com is likely to turn up recommendations of books by the other, under the heading “Customers who bought [title] also bought.”
Their career trajectories might even be said to be similar in their differences, Peterson having spent much of her life teaching as well as writing, Montgomery producing nearly as many books for children and young readers as for adults.
Montgomery has produced more books that have found their way into what might be described as the informal animal advocacy canon, including The Good Good Pig (2006), and The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015).
Many of Montgomery’s books, however, recount already familiar stories, including some that are already well-known from the subjects’ own writings, including her first success, the 1991 biographical trilogy Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas and Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World (2012).
Smokey the Bear
While Montgomery is basically a journalist working in book form, Peterson, though briefly a journalist, seems to be described mostly as a literary author who writes nonfiction.
I cannot claim great familiarity with the corpus of either Montgomery’s work, or Peterson’s, but a recent Facebook discussion initiated by my almost lifelong friend Steve Wasserman’s chance mention of the Golden Book of Smokey the Bear (1955), by Jane Werner, illustrated by Richard Scarry, indirectly prompted me to recall jointly reviewing Peterson’s Build Me An Ark and Montgomery’s Journey of the Pink Dolphins, both first published in 2000 and still widely read.
Revisting that review and my impressions then, early in their respective careers, seemed worthwhile.
Identified by critics who are intimately familiar with Peterson and Montgomery’s writing as the books that established their voices, and perhaps still their most original works, Build Me An Ark and Journey of the Pink Dolphins are each personal memoirs of a midlife vision quest, centering upon encounters with dolphins as a metaphor for the whole human/animal relationship.
Peterson and Montgomery were not, however, engaged in the same quest. Neither did they draw from their observations the same or even a similar perspective.
Montgomery in her research pursued the highly endangered boto river dolphins deep into the Amazon rainforest. Peterson rarely ventured far from home.
Yet Peterson in many ways engaged in the longer and more arduous journey. Her first memories were of a playpen surrounded by deer and elk heads. Her quest began with her gradual realization that the animals she mistook for beneficent guardians were in fact dead victims.
Worse, they were killed by her father––and her father, not her high-strung and distant mother, was her primary caretaker during her infancy at a National Forest Service ranger post in the High Sierras.
Peterson tried to accept her father’s explanations of the need to kill to eat. But her only memories of her fifth year of life, in San Diego, concern her repressed misgivings as she helped to kill slugs in the family garden.
What did the animals on the ark eat?
Peterson’s family were Christian fundamentalists. Southern Baptist faith held them together as they crisscrossed the U.S., following her father’s career advancement opportunities.
But Peterson found no answers in religion. The story of Noah seemed to speak to her, as she first heard it at a small church in Montana. Then her sister asked their father what the animals on the ark ate, if the lions truly did lie with the lambs.
The lions “probably ate rodents or small rabbits, which were multiplying faster than the ark could hold,” their father guessed.
Recalls Peterson, “I was never again as easy in my mind. What were all those animals in the ark actually eating? If some of them were eating each other, then was Noah’s family also eating some of those animals, even though God told Noah to save them?”
4-H & hunting
In any event, Peterson realized, “There was no ark to be found atop these Rocky Mountains. My peers, children of farmers and ranchers, were at the advanced age of nine presented with guns. Animals were their targets. The hallowed predator/prey relationship my father spoke about with more reverence than any church sermon was missing in my schoolmates’ relationships to other animals. Montana kids saw animals as just food––or worse, target practice.
“I could not fathom the neighbor girls who raised sheep for their 4-H projects,” Peterson continued. “Lambs like living, delicate doll babies were loved, adored, even dressed up in silly fake flower hats. Then at the 4-H shows, these seeming members of the family were judged, awarded blue ribbons, given a tearful last embrace, shorn, and slaughtered. I kept my distance from these neighbor girls, knowing their affection and loyalty could never be trusted.”
The real Smokey
Eventually Peterson read the Biblical version of the Noah story, and was shattered by verse 9:20-22, which explains that Noah celebrated safely landing the ark on Mt. Ararat by sacrificing and burning the remains of one of each kind of animal he had saved.
Like millions of other American children, Peterson accepted Smokey the Bear as an icon, but that too proved disillusioning, when she met the sadly institutionalized real Smokey at the National Zoo, while her father headed the Forest Service in Washington D.C.
When that ended, the Petersons moved to Berkeley, California. Thousands of youths then were running away to Berkeley, but Peterson fled in the opposite direction, back to the more conservative ways and green hills of rural Virginia.
Brought back to Berkeley, Peterson became involved in building People’s Park, a highly politicized symbolic patch of green in a city which was already among the greenest in the world, and focal issue in a series of bloody riots that claimed at least one human life.
Later People’s Park became notorious for harboring transients, drug dealers, and a variety of criminal elements who preyed upon unwary University of California students and tourists who visited nearby Telegraph Avenue, which terminates at Sather Gate, one of the main entrances to the U.C. Berkeley campus.
Peterson successfully pursued her education; failed miserably in one of the first attempts to organize lower-echelon Forest Service workers; struggled for five years to start a literary career in New York City; and, as her father became perhaps the most destructive sawmill owner in Montana, found her way––for a time––to environmental reporting.
Much of Build Me An Ark involves topics that I covered on an ongoing basis as they evolved, including the People’s Park saga, my first topic of national note, as a cub reporter in Berkeley (see People’s Park); the anti-wolf purges repeatedly ordered since 1992 by the Alaska Board of Game; the Makah whaling revival in the late 1990s; and the marine mammal captivity debate, including the ill-fated saga of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary (detailed by Ric O Barry in his 2001 book, To Free A Dolphin. See The Ric O’Barry prequels to “The Cove” and “Blackfish”)
The facts Peterson recounted in Build Me An Ark were familiar to me, along with the experiences she narrated about feral cat rescue, since practically every cat rescuer has encountered similar.
Evolving appreciation of animals
But Build Me An Ark is not just an autobiography, nor is it a political history. Rather, Peterson explored her own ever-growing appreciation of animals, and the evolution of others’ attitudes. Her relationships with her father and mother, improving in the years before she wrote Build Me An Ark, represented in microcosm the difficulties that all animal people have in coexisting with relatives and institutions to whom animals are objects, or have no value whatever.
Of special note, then and now, is Peterson’s grace in describing painful conflict. She condemned deeds, not people. She felt her own hypocrisy in easing acquaintance with Alaskan hunters and trappers by saying she eats game meat sometimes. She did not say whether the statement was true or false; either eating animals or lying about it, she appears to admit, would be equally false to her values.
Eating piranha, & other strange meals
Montgomery, on the other hand, declared herself a vegetarian early in Journey of the Pink Dolphins. Yet a photo in the book displayed “A red-bellied piranha, whom we later ate.” Nor was that her only lapse into meat-eating.
Where Peterson savored insight, chiefly gained from animals, Montgomery reveled in sensation, of any sort. Tasting an unfamiliar fruit, for instance, Montgomery described “flesh slippery and bitter, like a mouthful of semen. I swallow the seeds.”
That passage was audacious even for Montgomery [then. I have no idea what she may have written of a comparable nature since]. But, throughout Journal of the Pink Dolphins, Montgomery affected a brazen semblance of “magical realism,” the literary style popularized by Brazilian novelist (1927-2014) and 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
This was not Montgomery’s natural voice; neither did it lift her explorations above the level of an extended travelogue, even in her concluding apocalyptic revel:
“Out of the water, the dolphin-men emerge. Joyously, each joins his lover, re-enacting the promises by which we know the fullness of the world. The botos swim, the dancers dance. But in the western sky, the Amazon is burning.”
What “promises by which we know the fullness of the world?” Though the phrase may sound deep, there is no meaning in it.
In the end, though Montgomery delivered some predictable hand-wringing about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the ongoing exploitation and abuse of forest-dwelling people, and the loss of rare species, all she arrived at––after several thousand miles of exploration––is a chance to swim with a few river dolphins before they disappear.
Jobbed out The Good Good Pig
I suspect the combination of an affected writing style with lack of meaningful insights and conclusions is why, after Journey of the Pink Dolphins, I jobbed reviewing other Montgomery titles out to other authors, except to append to a review of The Good Good Pig, about Montgomery’s own pet pig, that she did not include adequate precautionary warnings about the problematic aspects of keeping pigs.
While The Good Good Pig may have done much to dissuade readers from eating pork, a praiseworthy accomplishment, the lack of warnings against pigs as pets at should have alarmed anyone who remembered coping with the aftermath of the Vietnamese potbellied pig fad of the 1980s and early 1990s, including the subsequent collapse of many underfunded and badly managed “pig sanctuaries.”
Peterson by contrast opened Build Me An Ark by explaining her conscientious decision to give up swimming with captive dolphins, her most treasured rite for many years. Her narrative proceeded in a style so unaffected that it never seemed self-conscious.
Even the illustrations of the authors highlighted their differences: Montgomery hugged and seemingly almost rode a small dolphin, grinning toothily into the camera, while Peterson, depicted in a painting, hid her face behind a mass of dark hair to put the focus entirely upon the expression of the beluga whale in the foreground. She was there, her posture suggested, only to hear the whale sing.
Peterson revealed her soul while keeping her personal secrets; and while she made no such claim for herself, she appeared in her own way to have fulfilled her mother’s ambition that she should become a Southern lady. For even as Peterson challenged her guests to reappraise their beliefs about animals and nature, with hard-earned strength in her deceptively soft voice, she made each one comfortable, much as she learned long ago to move quietly through a forest, so as to share more intimate moments with the wildlife.
Peterson concluded with her hope for a kinder and more tolerant future:
“The sea lion surfaces far off, with fish spilling from both sides of his bewhiskered snout. I smile as in his wake seagulls skitter, dip, and steal some of his catch. Today there is enough for all of us on this beach, on this spinning, sea-encircled planet.”
Take care of the animals, Peterson seemed to say, and their magic will take care of our souls––much as she imagined those ghost deer and elk took care of her, 50 years ago, as her imaginary friends.
Not surprisingly, Peterson in 2007 founded the Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, an organization which according to its web site “responds to reports of all species of marine mammals, dead or alive, along West Seattle’s coastline,” providing health and mortality data to “government agencies and biologists who monitor seal populations and emerging disease.”
The Seal Sitters First Responders, the site says, “average 200+ responses annually to marine mammals. Of those responses, 90% are to harbor seal pups trying to warm up on crowded beaches.”