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Author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Dreaming of Lions

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Reading through your life story, it’s clear that you were amazingly open to new experiences, approaching them like an observer who arrived with few previously held ideas. Do you think that it takes that kind of openness to see and understand animals and people in new ways, as you’ve done throughout your career?

I do, really, and also I’ve found that however valuable formal education on a subject may be, it has a down side too, most especially in the very recent past when the scientific view was that animals didn’t have consciousness. Perhaps some don’t, but learning has been found in thousands of animals by now—from parameciums to caterpillars to elephants and birds—to say nothing of consciousness—and some of the most important discoveries were made by people without PhDs, who were not disabled by “facts” they’d learned. Elephant infrasound, for instance, was found by Katy Payne, a friend of mine without formal training but with terrific abilities for observation and a very open mind. If I say so myself, I wrote an article for The New Yorker about cultural differences in lions, which caused a bit of a stir.

Early on, it seems, you understood the ways of the animals in your life. Did that start with your first “real” nanny, Mishka? Without Mishka, would the world have had pleasure of reading books like The Hidden Life of Dogs?

I’m sure it wouldn’t. My nanny was a Newfoundland dog named Mishka who was established as a family member before I was born. She was rather strict. She wouldn’t let me cross a street or go near the ocean even though the sea by the beach where we went was shallow, but she loved me and was good to me and let me rest curled up against her or sit on her back. Our other dog, Taffy, was younger than me and was a playmate. We would play and Mishka would watch. Nobody had told me that dogs didn’t have consciousness but do plenty of thinking on their own, and figure things out without human help or training, a fact known to most pet owners which the scientists have so recently recognized, so Mishka was my window to the animal world and I’ve been looking through that window ever since.

In the fifties, your dad retired from Raytheon, which he cofounded, and the family packed up and left for the Kalahari to study the Bushman culture. That was quite a departure from your life in Cambridge, MA, and it introduced you to a new sphere—one you call the “Old Way.” Can you tell us how that experience shaped your life?

It shaped my life forever, because I learned what it’s like to live completely in the natural world, which for thousands of years our ancestors shared with all other life-forms on the planet, ending only with the Neolithic a few thousand years ago. Ever since then I’ve viewed everything through that lens.

Carl Safina calls you “the last best writer to have deeply witnessed with her own eyes the people at the cradle of humanity” and you’ve shared those insights in the classic The Harmless People and The Old Way. But what was it like to first meet this world with 19-year-old eyes?

I learned almost everything from the Bushmen, but one thing sticks out most conspicuously, which is that whining and complaining are cultural, not natural. A biologist with us had set a hidden trap for hyenas, but somehow a girl about my age was walking there and stepped on it. She couldn’t free herself, nor could she sit down. So she stood on one foot for most of the day, obviously in great pain and also in considerable danger because she was quite far from the encampment and thus exposed to predators. Her uncle was hunting, and happened to see her. He hurried to help her but couldn’t free her so he gave her his spear to lean on while he went to find the biologist. Her foot was badly wounded, and I was astonished that she didn’t cry or complain. Instead she smiled calmly and chatted with people about this and that while we disinfected and bandaged the wound. You’d think nothing had happened and I was amazed. I thought the Bushmen had better nervous systems than we do, stronger and more advanced, but of course their nervous systems were the same as ours. It was their mentality and their outlook that were stronger and more advanced.

After you were married, you returned to Africa alone, with your two young children, to continue your work. But you found yourself caught up in the early throes of a terrifying coup and took some extraordinary actions. Can you tell us about that?

The coup took place in Nigeria, where I learned what it was like to be scared to death, but the only extraordinary action I took, as far as I remember, was to see whether or not the Premier of the Western Region had been killed. Everyone was phoning everybody else (if their phones were still working) so I said I’d find out, and drove to his house where I saw him lying dead on the lawn. Dressed in his underpants. A soldier came rushing up to me, told me I was in terrible danger and should leave at once, so of course I did, realizing that this adventure may have been unwise.

In Uganda I met Idi Amin, then a colonel in the King’s African Rifles when Uganda was a British protectorate. Nobody knew then how dangerous he was, but he’d just had his soldiers kill an entire compound of innocent Kenyans and some of their cattle, for which he’d crossed an international border, and because he’d passed our camp, he wanted me to drive the corpse of one of his victims to a government post maybe 50 miles away.

What do you do? Drive your little children 50 miles with a corpse in the car, or leave them behind with Idi Amin? I talked myself out of it by presenting myself as a helpless woman who could barely drive, which Idi Amin was only too ready to believe.

How did your life as a writer begin?

My life as a writer began just before I graduated from college. I had wanted to major in biology but my parents wanted me to major in English Literature so I did although it was boring, but at least I could take writing courses for credit. My grades were merely average if that, but the grades I got from the writing courses pulled my average up and I actually published one of my short stories.

Then I was called in to be interviewed by the dean of Radcliffe, as were all graduating seniors. She asked what I was going to do with my life. My biology dreams would never come true, so I’d never thought about it, and I suddenly realized I was supposed to know. The only thing I seemed to do successfully was write, so I said, ” I guess I’ll be a writer.”

The dean blew up. “You guess you’ll be a writer?” she shouted. “Have you any idea, any notion at all, of what it takes to be a writer?” She must have seen my grades. “Well,” I said, “I was co-winner of the Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest and my story was published in The Best American Short Stories. My agent thinks I could be a writer.” The dean gasped. I think it was the word “agent” that did it. This nothing-special student, this nobody wearing jeans and sneakers without socks had an agent? She stared at me for a moment, then said, “Why did nobody tell me?”

I should have felt guilty. I didn’t know I was supposed to tell her. But actually I felt triumphant and I’ve remembered that moment all my life.

The publishers at Knopf kept an eye on that contest, and one of them asked if I’d like to write a book.

I said, “Why not?” I started writing The Harmless People in a serious manner although I’d written parts of in class; it was published by Knopf a few years later. William Shawn, who was the editor of The New Yorker, saw it and asked if I’d write something for him, so I went to Uganda, lived among Dodoth pastoralists, and wrote Warrior Herdsmen. The New Yorker published it in its entirety and it also came out in hardcover. I went on and on from there.

As for biology, I joined the American Society of Mammalogists, did a little reading, did a little field work, and wrote about animals or about people who were involved with animals, or about people who lived in pre-Neolithic conditions and had to abide by the rules of Nature that govern everything except people in industrialized countries, and I’ve been fine ever since.

You are fiercely honest in your book about personal challenges—whether dealing with serious injuries to your children, your husband’s illness, or your own struggle with alcohol. That’s a gift to your readers, but what was it like to turn your gaze inward? You’ve mentioned that you’re not self-reflective by nature.

I was hugely surprised by my own autobiography. I’d never thought about how I came to like the natural world, or why my husband and I got along so well, or why I thought my children were doing the right thing by getting thrown in jail maybe thirty times or risking their lives in the Himalayas, and I was astonished when I found out, which I did simply by thinking about that sort of thing—for me a whole new experience.

It’s clear that you lived life your own way, and operated in fields like animal behavior and anthropology in ways that bucked the status quo. What kind of challenges did you face as a woman—and as someone who immersed herself in experiences vs. in degrees—in these male-dominated fields?

I think that because I hadn’t done graduate studies in these fields, I wasn’t taken too seriously. But so what? I saw what I saw and wrote what I wrote, and today some of my books are assigned reading to people entering those fields. One reason is that these books are not written in science-speak, which many readers find incomprehensible or boring. If only scientists knew how fascinating their findings are, and used common parlance when describing them. As for male-dominated fields, since I was more or less a nothing anyway, it didn’t matter that I was female.

You and your husband, Steve, lived many years on land in New Hampshire that your father had purchased when you were a child, and where you grew up exploring the woods with him. To this day, the land and its wildlife are central to your life—your connection to Old Way, if you will. Can you tell us what it’s like to find that kind of solace, and window to the wild, right outside your door?

Oh, there’s nothing like it. I came to live here after I’d inherited the property from my dad (in 1980, by which time my children were grownups) but the land has been home to me since childhood and I love every moment I spend here. From the mice and overwintering ladybugs in my office to the bobcat who lives in the woods nearby to a whitetail doe and her daughters who as I write this are crossing the field to see if I’ve put corn out for them (I did—it’s ready for them) all are living in the Old Way.

And I’ve conserved the land forever. Other people will probably live in the house some day, or they’ll tear it down and build another, but they can’t mess with the woods or render the wildlife homeless.

Throughout the years, your life changed at many times, and in many ways, and often quite unexpectedly. In Dreaming of Lions you recount all those changes with the kind of extraordinary insight that can come only from a life lived as a keen observer. When you learn to see the world differently, is it ever possible to stop? And does seeing things for what they truly are allow some comfort in harder times?

I think all of this is true. If your information comes from something beyond your own kind, you can’t help but benefit.

I watched a lion roar at the setting sun—he’d come to a special rise of ground to do it and he lay down there, propped on his elbows, and roared until it went below the horizon. That’s what he’d come to do. As soon as the sun was gone he stood up, turned around, and walked back the way he came.

I knew two wolves who sang together as the sun was rising. When the first bright part of it showed they sang a song in two parts until it was above the horizon. Then they stopped. They did this every morning, said their owner. But not if the sky was cloudy. They had to actually see the sun.

I saw a vole cover her eyes with her hands when she was cornered by two cats who were about to kill her. (She couldn’t have escaped but I saved her.) I saw a raccoon do the same thing when he thought he’d be hit by my car. (I swerved across the road and missed him.)

I was doing a chore in a fenced area in Namibian wildlife park when a lioness appeared and lay down outside the fence to watch me. But not with much interest. She seemed a bit bored and so was I. After a while I happened to yawn and she yawned. I waited a bit and yawned again to see what would happen and she yawned again. She did this several times until she realized I was messing with her.

When you know that the things you think and feel are more or less universal, at least to mammals—the wolves and the lion expressing perhaps a certain acknowledgement of the sun’s importance, the lioness experiencing empathy (it’s different than sympathy)—and when you see that people aren’t the only ones who have these feelings, you feel you’re part of something universal (earthly universal) and you feel a kind of calmness. “We’re all the same,” you say.

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My Life in the Wild Places

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