The Bookshelf: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas on Her Life in the 'Wild Places'

Dec 23, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent her life writing about animals and people with curiosity and compassion. She’s studied people in Africa and imagined the lives of human beings thousands of years ago. She’s also investigated the hidden world of dogs in a book by that name. Now she’s written a book that looks back on that life. It’s called Dreaming of Lions: My Life in the Wild Places. She has done so much traveling in her 85 years on this planet, but the road has led her back to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she lived as a child, and where she served on the town’s select board. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke about her new book at her kitchen table. Scroll down to read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of their conversation.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery.

2.   The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben.

3.   Among the Bone Eaters by Marcus Baynes-Rock.

4.   The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson.

5.   The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. "The 'Why' in all cases is the same. In one way or another, the first four books address what I believe are the most important scientific findings of the past one hundred years, that life-forms other than people have consciousness—plants have this too  if in a plant manner—and also cooperate and do many other things we once thought possible only by humans. In other words, they show the oneness of our planet’s  life-forms, and that we are very far from being unique in having such abilities. We certainly l think we are unique, or  thought we were, and The Ancestor’s Tale gives reasons for why we’ve held this fantasy for so long."

You’ve been pretty much a life-long Peterborough resident, correct?

Well, yes. My parents came here in 1935, and it’s kind of been home to me ever since. But my husband and I have lived all over the place. We‘ve lived all over the place. We lived in Nigeria for a while, and we lived in Virginia for a long time. We lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But this was home.

And where we are now in a family residence, right? Or at least a family plot of land.

Well, my dad was the sort of person that didn't want to see the smoke of his neighbor’s chimney. And in those days the farms were being abandoned and sold at a very low price. He bought hundreds of acres and the whole area was then divided between me and my brother. And then the most of it is on a conservation, too, but it’s essentially one family, yes.

So we’re here of course to talk about your new book Dreaming of Lions. And I guess I should apologize because in the book it says you write from very early in the morning until very late at night. So we’re interrupting your writing time today.

Oh, no. Well, I mean, for a very good reason for me.

Is that true? So you normally write from dawn to dusk?

Yeah, for some reason I get up a five about around three. My dogs want to get up at three, and there’s not much choice.  Dogs are scratching you and barking, so you have to get up. And I do. But it’s a very good time to work. From four a.m. to nine. Five hours there. The phone doesn’t ring. You can’t do anything else. You can’t make phone calls. You can’t go anywhere or shop or anything. There’s something to do with that work, so it’s very good for the concentration. It’s quiet, it’s perfect. I like that time very much.

So in this book or write a lot about Africa, your time in Africa, and one of the things you’ve said in the book was that sort of all of your writing has its roots in some way in your time in Africa. What is it about your experience there that makes it so, such a foundation for your work?

Well for various reasons, which I’ll explain later. We went into 120,000 square mile area that was unexplored. And the people there, nobody knew, we were so certainly the first non-bushmen or non-san people who had ever been in there. And the people were pre-contact. And the way they lived, and the way they solved their problems, and what they valued and what they didn’t value was our way of the human way of life for thousands and thousands of years since we became human, really. Since we came out of the trees, just about. And gradually becoming what the san lived when we saw them, that informs a lot. I mean, that’s a big thing to know. And I see everything through that window.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her writing studio.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

One of the things that struck me about the people you’re writing about, the thing that you mentioned in this book, is that they’re so good at observing. Yes, they had an eye on the future, but they were also really good at living in the moment and observing. They could look outside and know so much about the soil and the trees around them. And that seems to be something that the average person here in this country nowadays has lost.

Oh, completely we’ve lost it. We’ve lost it completely. First of all they didn’t look outside, they were outside. But if you live in the natural world as they did or as any life form does, any mammal or bird at least, you have to live in the moment. You have to pay attention to what’s going around you all the time because at any moment a predator can appear or an opportunity of some kind can appear, so you look and listen. This is very real for them.

Interestingly enough, it’s a little bit like meditating. When you meditate, you open your mind and let all in, so to speak. Well that’s what they do all day. They let it all in. And I think it gave them a mindset that’s a little different from ours, it’s not…it’s different, I can’t quite say how.

They don’t have nervous anxiety fits, although they certainly would be no reason for them not to be anxious about things. I mean, in other words, the san were our ancestors, as you may know. We are much the same then as we are now in most ways, I’d say.

Do you meditate?

Do I meditate? Well, yeah. I was walking along the street in Peterborough one day and I ran into a friend. We were in front of the Unitarian church and on their billboard that they have outside there were meditation sessions, and she asked me if I meditated and I said, “Oh, I’d like to but I can’t because little thoughts keep coming in.” And she said is what you do is you look up through the trees and the clouds at the sky and you let it all in. And I did that.

And by golly, my mind cleared and I felt great, and I was quite surprised. And it then occurred to me that if you’re doing that, it’s like listening instead of talking. Thinking is like talking, you’re putting thoughts out. Meditating is letting it in. And I noticed then a few days later I heard coyotes howling, and a little later a deep growling noise. What was that? And I noticed when I was listening, I was just standing there. I was thinking anything. I was waiting to hear what was going to happen, or what might have made the noise. I never found out. I haven’t a clue. It might have been a bear had encountered the coyotes or something.

Anyway, the letting it all in is very much like listening and when you live in the natural world and have to pay attention to what’s around you, that’s what you’re doing, you’re listening. You’re letting it in. Like meditating.

Like meditating. And thinking about writing, is writing the opposite of meditating?

Yeah, it’s the opposite of meditation. You put it all out and what your thinking about is what you’re putting out. You don’t even hear if there are growls coming behind you. You wouldn’t know.

You write in your book that your studio which is, we’re sitting in your kitchen right now and across the driveway is a where your writing studio is, and you said you’re able in this writing studio to pause and look up and watch, and then simply go back to your writing and finish the thought that you may have paused.

Yes. We can see the same view from the kitchen that we see from the—it’s a field and the woods, and the edge of the field. And a lot takes place out there. You can just lift your eyes for a minute. There it is.

A lot like wildlife.

It’s a lot like wildlife, yeah.

I’m reminded of a passage from the book where you talk about you being in English class and looking out the window and not only watching the squirrels but eventually being able to distinguish individual squirrels.

Yes. Yes. What they said in the class I haven’t a clue at the time.

But you knew the squirrels.

I knew the squirrels, yeah.

Which seems like a remarkable ability to me to someone who isn’t so verse in wildlife.

To identify an animal as an individual?

Well, I guess what I’m picturing is from a distance being able to see and identify individual squirrels. To me they all mostly look gray.

So do many wolves, deer, lionesses, the lion you usually know who he is. Any population of animals look alike to us. We, I think, look alike to them. No! Not necessarily! Many animals are good. Chickens. An octopus. Certainly dogs, wolves, cats are very good at recognizing individual humans, we’re not nearly as good at recognizing individual cats for instance unless they’re our own.

It’s a skill. And it comes from living in the natural world that you have to have it, and we don’t. We’ve done quite something to ourselves by kind of isolating ourselves away from the natural world. We’ve changed who we are very much, I think.

In this book, you have a variety of essays about just some of the remarkable that you’ve been a part of and that have happened to you. We can talk about a few of those. One of them is that you were in Nigeria during a coup.

Yes.

And you write that you had the experience of knowing what it’s like to be a civilian during a time of war, amidst the war, where killings were happening around you. And I bring this up because of what’s happening in Aleppo.

Oh yes, I know.

And you having been in what may be a similar situation, I’m not quite sure, but what are your thoughts as you hear about what’s going on in Aleppo?

Terrible. Terrible things. And one certainly feels for the individuals. I mean, you don’t know who’s shooting at who. First of all the Nigerian situation wasn’t even one half of one percent as bad as Aleppo. It was here and there that kind of stuff, but Aleppo is everywhere, it’s just horrifying I think. Horrifying. I’m kind of speechless about it. It’s the magnitude of it, it’s the number of people. Millions of people.

Certainly. And the starvation that’s happening there does not seem to be something that you experienced while you were in Nigeria.

No, we didn’t experience hardships like that. And we didn’t have to get up and escape from where we were staying. It was just gunfire and you don’t know who’s shooting who, and you see soldiers, you don’t know which side they’re on, and you’re there in major confusion. Not anywhere near the scale of Aleppo. And nobody was bombing us. So it was just soldiers. Just soldiers, but I mean, that’s very different from being bombed, and I imagine never having been bombed, and thank goodness.

In addition to being caught up in that particular conflict you write in this book about a variety of personal and family challenges among those your daughter was in an accident and she was paralyzed, and your son had a head injury. And you’re husband got very sick and he passed away last year. Sorry for your loss. And you also struggled with alcoholism. So these are some really tough things to write about.

Well…

Maybe I presume to say they were tough. What was the experience like writing about these things?

There was so much of it. It was easy to write about. It’s not that you get used to it or anything, but you learn from it. My daughter was quite something. She was 17 and she was run over by a tractor and paralyzed. She was in rehab just after she got out of the hospital she was in the rehab unit. And she was in there. She just sort of decided, “Okay this is the hand I’ve been dealt, how am I going to play it?” And she played it extremely well. She and the group that she works with are very much responsible for the fact that there’s accessibility for on public transportation.

Right she fought for the ADA, right?

Yes, that part of the ADA is thanks to them. And she’s been in jail I boast about this constantly 30 times or more.

More times than Al Capone.

More times than Al Capone. She knows the inside of jail. She can tell you how to act if you get arrested, what to do, and when you go to jail what should you do and how do you deport yourself and so forth. She’s very good advice and she knows most of the jails in the country, I’d say. [Laughs.] And I’m terribly proud of her.

But that’s one way to look at something bad happening. She fortunately just by luck didn’t feel sorry for herself. And if you feel sorry for yourself, then that’s your tragedy and you live with it, and people who had that experience didn’t take care of themselves, or they killed themselves.

Or were killed.

Or were killed, yeah. She’s happily married, they have a house in Austin, Texas. Lots of friends, got awarded citations by the Austin city government, and so forth and so on. And they’re very happy, and they think of being disabled as nothing special, and they manage perfectly well.

My son, too. He had a brain injury because he was a mountain guide. He was the first American to guide legally in France, in the Alps. And he had a sort of nothing accident. He was going another skier client down a well-known off-trail slope in the Alps. The snow had melted down so that a white stones stood up and he tripped on it and he hit his head. Well, that’s a nothing accident, if you will, but he did get a brain injury. He and his wife meditate regularly. He lost a large part of his brain, but he got back almost everything. You’d never know if you met him that anything ever happened. There’s no sign. Except he doesn’t see to the right, his peripheral vision to the right isn’t perfect, that’s about it. And he forgets stuff, but good grief, I forgot more than he does.

He had a Korean neurologist who knew about meditation, and he said it was because of the amount of meditation they did that his brain had preserved itself, and I think that’s quite worth knowing.

And one of the other things you wrote about here, one of the struggles you’ve gone through, is struggles with alcohol.

Yeah. When I was growing up, everybody drank. They had rules. You’d drink cocktails in the evening, but if it’s a morning celebration—you had alcohol for everything. For marriages to funerals, there was alcohol at the gathering. And there was wine or whatever in the morning and sherry at noon, and cocktails at night, that kind of thing.

And so everybody drank and it was seen as good, and I certainly did. When I was in Nigeria I got scared or panicky and had a very scary experience and had a drink to calm that. From then on I just drank too much. But I quit, so that was good.

But, as you write, it’s always sort of there in your mind like a pilot light. Which I thought was a fantastic analogy.

You mean having had that happened?

Having alcohol and having that sort of feeling with it, the condition of alcoholism. It’s always there in the background.

That’s from AA.

The pilot light is their analogy?

I don’t know about the pilot light, but the pilot light is always on. You know where it is, and it knows where you are. That kind of saying, which is all very true. Another valuable saying is I’m not drinking now. I will not drink now. And you say that in 10 minutes, and the next 10 minutes, and so forth. Somehow people find that a very soothing kind of helpful kind of way of looking at it. And I think AA is wonderful. I wish I could go more often. I used to go all the time. The meeting I like best is in the morning, but I’m working in the morning so don’t go now, but I’d like to resume going because I like the people so much.

Let’s talk about Steve.

Yeah.

Because he’s such a positive presence in this book.

Oh, yeah.

You have a wonderful story of the moment you met. The moment you first saw him. Tell us that story.

He was a friend of my brother’s, and he came to see my… they were at Harvard and I was at Radcliff. They came and he was in the house, and he was lying on the floor. I remember everything. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and I thought, “Gee that’s an interesting looking guy.”

And he remembers me. I was wearing a dress for some reason, I don’t usually but I was. And he remember me coming down the stairs. And the thing that surprises me when I look back, I liked him because he had a motorcycle and a fantastic sense of humor. It didn’t matter what else. And he liked me because of a physical characteristic, [laughs] which I’m not going to say on the radio.

Oh, come on!

He said, “You had a nice ass.” And I thought really? Honestly? Here’s this person fully developed person and that’s all he noticed? But the marriage worked out very well. We were 18 when we met, and 84 when he died. We were both the same age, just about. Oh, no. We were not the same age, he was nine months younger than I was. And I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t.” Because women then did not go around with younger guys. Never.

So you learned he was slightly younger and you were devastated.

Yeah I was devastated. And I thought this star crossed romance will never be. But we made very good friends, and eventually he was drafted. And I went to the train station to say goodbye to him, but then I got on the train with him, and we went to New York, and we went to New York to New Jersey and in New Jersey the bus was there to pick up the soldiers, and I couldn’t get on the bus, so I had to go back by myself, and I was thinking I’ve never felt so alone in my life until he died.

This happens to half of all the people in the world who have had long loving relationships. Half of them have had it happen to them, happened to me happens to them. It’s something to think about.

Another story that I loved reading in this book, Dreaming of Lions, was the story about the rose-colored pillow.

[Steve] worked in the political spectrum all his life, but when he retired he went to his first love which was history, central European history. He spoke Russian, Czech, German, French well. He spoke some Hungarian and some Italian, kind of. He wouldn’t even say he was bilingual in Czech although the Czech wouldn’t have agreed. He had an American accent.

So he would go to the Czech Republic for three months, come home for three months, go back for three months, to research the subject of his interest which was ethnic conflict after World War I. That conflict explains much of what happened later.

But I would go visit him. He had an apartment. I was visiting him and we decided to go to Austria. So we drove, and it’s a day-long drive over a difficult road, and when we got to Austria I didn’t have my passport. And this was the thing that was so great. It was his reaction, he said, “Oh that’s too bad. We’ll go and get it.” So we turn around and go get it.

How long was that?

A day. And also all night. And we decided, we were walking home and I saw a pillow in a store window and thought that would look nice on the couch but no, it’s too expensive, we won’t get it.

But Steve later bought it for me. He completely forgave me. He was never angry at me, he just thought, well, this is what we’ll do, and then he bought me the pillow so I would feel better about what had happened. And we went to Austria. We had a nice time.

But just a remarkable story that he wasn’t angry. He gifted you after you made a mistake.

[Laughs]

Well it’s like you say in the book. You quote Freud in saying “To be happy in life you must marry the right person…”

And do the right work.

“…and do the right work”. So this may be a good time to transition back to the work aspect of your life. You started your writing career with a writing contest, correct?

Yes, that’s right.

Tell us about that.

Well, I just wrote a short story about a Harero woman in Angola. And I sent it to the Mademoiselle fiction contest, and Sylvia Plath and I together won the prize. We won the prize and I thought, “Well, that’s nice.”

I can’t remember how I started to write book, my first book, called The Harmless People, about the san. And then the editor of The New Yorker asked my agent why she hadn’t shown the book to him, and she said she had, but whoever saw it turned it down, then he asked me to write another book, and that’s kind of how I started writing all the time.

That was the year I graduated and the Dean wants to talk with all the graduates to see what they’re going to do. My mother came with me to see the Dean. The dean asked what I was going to do and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I hadn’t a clue. And I didn’t realize she’s think of that, so I didn’t have an answer. The only thing I did that I was good at was writing. So I said, “I guess I’ll be a writer.”

And she blew up. She said, “You guess you’ll be a writer? Do you have any idea how hard it is to be a writer?” And I said, “Well, my agent thinks I can be a writer. And I won the contest and I published a book, I have a book contract with Knopf, so I think, yeah.”

And she said, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” And I hadn’t known that I was supposed to tell her, so.

And the story ended up in Best American Short Stories, too, right?

Yeah.

Which is an incredible feat for any experienced writer, but this was your first short story.

It was my first.

I’m just going to flat out say I’m jealous. I’m just going to admit that.

[Laughs]

So earlier this fall you won a lifetime achievement award for your work. Congratulations on that. Is there a way you could summarize your life’s work? Is that even possible?

You mean the writing part?

Yes.

Oh, I love writing. I love to do it. I really love to do it. My problem is, I mean, accuracy is second to what the words sound like, so it’s all about what the writing sounds like, and if it’s wrong, oh well. If it sounds good, that’s good enough for me. I’m not that careless, and I do try hard. But I was reading this morning I was looking at a book I had written, The Hidden Life of Dogs, and I see a mistake in it. Okay? But the sentence is gorgeous!

So it’s going to stay that way? You’re not going to call your editor and say, “Let’s reprint this one”?

It’s a very small error. It said the number five instead of the number three. Three was correct, five was wrong, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all gone now.

And the sound of five in that context was better than the sound of three?

I guess it was, yeah. The sentence was a great sentence whether it was five or three, so that was the most important thing, the actual information in the sentence was a little less important than what it sounded like.

So sound and rhythm are very important to you?

Yeah, I mean a sentence should be a good sentence. The inner ear hears this stuff when you’re reading it you’re kind of hearing it. I read other people’s work thinking, “Oh my goodness. You should never have those words in there, you should have them at the end of the sentence.” That kind of thing.

Because a  certain sound, as you write here, unlocks a certain portion of the brain?

I think it does, yeah. I think it does. I’m mustn’t overstate the inaccuracy, because I try very hard to be accurate, and I re-read stuff and I edit everything I write hundreds of times before I finish it, before it’s finished.

As you say here, “Revise, revise, revise.”

Revise, revise, revise, yeah.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

I was born into a family that had a big Newfoundland dog, and she became my nanny. She would not let me do certain things, like go near water or cross the street. She would just stop me, or she would pull me back, and I would get angry and frustrated.

I was as tall as her when she was sitting up. Our eyes met. And it never once occurred to me that she didn’t have consciousness or had thoughts or emotions. Never once. So she and I at the time knew more than the scientists, because science at the time said animals at the time did not have consciousness.

Somebody pointed out that, of course, that if you’re a scientist you have to prove what you’re saying, and thoughts can’t really be proved, so they had to choose whether they did or didn’t, so they chose the no rather than the yes, which was a gross mistake, but they made it.

Only now is that part of things, is that element of things, coming into being and being recognized and understood. I mean, really? At this point? With dogs for thousands of years. Dog owners, pet owners knew. Lots of them did, some didn’t. To me that’s a very important thing and I try to put that into the book I’m writing now.

So what is the book you’re writing now?

I don’t know what to call it. It was called The Unknown World or also A Walk Through the Reaches of Time. I don’t know what it will be. I’m not there yet. It’s about life as it developed: bacteria, protis, nobody knows what a protis is, but they will when they read the book. Animals and fungi, which are related. They have a common ancestor. And plants. And how these things manage and how, what became what, that kind of thing.

It’s to give an idea of what’s around us. If you’re going to be inside, at least read about the outside. It’s fun to write. It’s not finished, but that’s one of the points that it makes.

My friend Sy Montgomery, she wrote a book about an octopus.

The Soul of an Octopus.

It’s doing very well. And who would have thought that an octopus could think, could recognize a person byt looking at the person, and distinguish one individual from another and act accordingly, and solve problems and it’s just a fabulous thing for people to know, and it’s good that this kind of information is getting around.

An octopus is related to an oyster or a clam, a very different life form than us. But, the important thing is that most life forms, even trees – has anybody seen The Hidden Life of Trees? Fabulous book about trees. And most life forms certainly only – does anybody know what a eukaryote is? No.

Not since biology class in high school.

[Laughs] And the paths they’ve taken are very much the same, and obviously it shows what works. And it explains why we are who we are, why we do what we know or have the abilities that we have, and other creatures including trees have similar abilities which they approach in slightly different ways, but the similarity of everything is so interesting. And this book tries to address that subject.

Well, Elizabeth I hope we get the chance to talk about that one when it comes out.

Oh, I hope we do!