BOOKS: Build Me an Ark & Journey of the Pink Dolphin

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2001:
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.

Shelved side-by-side in bookstore nature sections, Build Me An Ark and Journey of the Pink Dolphins are each personal memoirs of a midlife vision quest by a distinguished female naturalist. Each centers upon encounters with dolphins, as a metaphor for the whole human/animal relationship. But Brenda Peterson and Sy Montgomery are not engaged in the same quest. Neither do they draw from their observations the same or even a similar perspective.

Montgomery pursues the highly endangered boto river dolphins deep into the Amazon rainforest. Peterson rarely ventures far from home. Yet Peterson is engaged in the more arduous journey. Her first memories are 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.

Peterson’s family were 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?”

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 continues. “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.”

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 symbolic patch of green in a city which was already among the greenest in the world. She 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 to environmental reporting.

Many of Peterson’s stories have been heavily covered by ANIMAL PEOPLE, among them the anti-wolf purges repeatedly ordered by the Alaska Board of Game; the Makah whaling revival; and the marine mammal captivity debate, including the ill-fated saga of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary (detailed by Ric O’Barry in his new book, To Free A Dolphin, reviewed by ANIMAL PEOPLE in December 2000.)

The facts Peterson recounts will be familiar, along with her experience in feral cat rescue. But Build Me An Ark is not just an autobiography, nor is it a political history. Rather, Peterson explores her own ever-growing appreciation of animals, and the evolution of others’ attitudes. Her relationships with her father and mother, improving in recent years, represent 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 is Peterson’s grace in describing painful conflict. She condemns deeds, not people. She feels her own
hypocrisy in easing acquaintance with Alaskan hunters and trappers by saying she eats game meat sometimes. She does not say whether the statement is true or false; either eating animals or lying about it, she appears to admit, would be equally false to her values.

Sy Montgomery, on the other hand, declares herself a vegetarian early in Journey of the Pink Dolphins. Yet a photo
displays “A red-bellied piranha, whom we later ate.” Nor is that her only lapse into meat-eating. Where Peterson savors insight, chiefly gained from animals, Montgomery revels in sensation, of any sort. Tasting an unfamiliar fruit, for instance, Montgomery describes “flesh slippery and bitter, like a mouthful of semen. I swallow the seeds.”

That passage is audacious even for Montgomery. But throughout Pink Dolphins she affects a brazen semblance of “magical realism,” the literary style popularized by Brazlian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is not Montgomery’s natural voice; neither does 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 delivers 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 arrives at–after several thousand miles of exploration–is a chance to swim with a few river dolphins before they disappear.

Peterson by contrast opens by explaining her conscientious decision to give up swimming with captive dolphins, her most treasured rite for many years. Her narrative proceeds in a style so unaffected that it never seems self-conscious.

Even the illustrations of the authors highlight their differences: Montgomery hugs and seemingly almost rides a small
dolphin, grinning toothily into the camera, while Peterson, depicted in a painting, hides her face behind a mass of dark hair to put the focus entirely upon the expression of the beluga whale in the foreground. She is there, her posture suggests, only to hear the whale sing.

Peterson reveals her soul while keeping her personal secrets; and while she makes no such claim for herself, it is evident that she has in her own way fulfilled her mother’s ambition that she should become a Southern lady. For even as Peterson challenges her guests to reappraise their beliefs about animals and nature, with hard-earned strength in her deceptively soft voice, she makes 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 concludes with her hope for a kinder and more tolerant future: “The sea lion surfaces far off, with fish spilling from both sides of his be-whiskered 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 seems 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. –M.C.

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