In her latest, “The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty,” she takes on a species right next to her New Hampshire home.
Like its 2015 National Book Award finalist, “Soul of an Octopus,” ostensibly about her relationship with octopuses at Boston’s New England Aquarium, “Hawk” is a mix of first-hand testimony and research. Much of the story centers around visits to the farm of the late falconer Nancy Cowan in Deering, NH in 2005.
You could call this one Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. Raptors are, after all, “living dinosaurs”, as Montgomery writes. Their ancestors are theropods, including the velociraptor and the tyrannosaurus rex.
“The dinosaurs didn’t go extinct,” Montgomery told me in a recent phone interview from his home in Hancock, NH. “They just turned into birds.”
“Hawk”, currently no. 10 on the New England Independent Bestsellers list, features pages of photography by Tianne Strombeck. You can catch Montgomery in a virtual presentation on the book via Smithsonian Associates on June 30.
Q. So why the hawks?
A. When my husband heard [in 2005] an advertisement for the New Hampshire School of Falconry, he said, “You need to call this lady and take some falconry lessons.” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see a bird like that up close?”
Q. And what did you learn from the falcons?
A. The transformative value of loving someone without expecting them to love you back. It frees you as if you were made to grow wings. So many relationships are transactional. Getting to know the falcons allows you to have a different kind of love – an extremely pure and wild love that opens your soul.
Q. You clearly state in the book that falconry is dangerous. What hooked you?
A. To be so close to pure savagery. I was not afraid. It was worth taking the risk to be so close to these birds. Any bird you hunt with has the ability to fly away.
Q. I was fascinated by what you wrote about their vision, that birds can see colors that we never dreamed of.
A. Birds have more types of color receptors – more receptors of all kinds – in their eyes. When you think about it, your eyes are really parts of your brain that stick out through two holes in your skull. We are all in the same world, but they experience this world in a richer way. They can see incredible detail.
Q. You have done so many amazing things in nature. Where do hawks fall in terms of spooky animal encounters?
A. I’m not afraid of animals, period — I’m afraid to go to a cocktail party. I’ve been cage diving with great white sharks, and when I saw him swimming towards me, I felt great relief. Because I was afraid that I would not see a great white after my flight to Guadalupe Island. He was like a knight in white satin.
Q. How many countries have you visited to meet animals?
A. I have never counted, but I have been on all continents. The most exotic location is probably Papua New Guinea. I went to get a book on tree kangaroos. We went to the cloud forest. It’s like going to Eden if Eden had leeches sticking in your eyes. Apart from the leeches, it really is like being in heaven. Animals are like toys invented by someone on acid – quirky, fluffy, lovable creatures with giant eyes.
I don’t know if I could do it now at 64. When I went there I had altitude sickness and hypothermia. At some point, I got lost in the forest. I’m pretty sure I would have died if the photographer hadn’t noticed my absence and started looking for me.
Q. Were there other times when you almost died?
A. I have been in areas where kidnappers often go looking for Westerners. I had a gun pointed at my head twice. Both times I wasn’t scared — I was irritated. Once I was sure the person wouldn’t pull the trigger; the other time I was doing my first book and I was going to be damned if someone killed me first.
I was in Rwanda and this person was sent to escort me to the mountain gorillas. He wanted my money and I wouldn’t give it to him.
Q. You are a prolific writer — I counted over 20 books you have written for children. What triggered your last, “The Seagull and the Captain of the Seas“, based in Gloucester?
A. A friend forwarded me a Boston Globe article about a seagull that had a friendship with this schooner captain. I said, Oh, my God, that would be a great little children’s book.
For tickets to the virtual Smithsonian event, visit https://smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/streaming/
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.
Lauren Daley can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.