– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Not happy drunk. Drunk drunk. Plastered by alcoholism. This revelation comes about halfway through Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s feisty memoir, A Million Years with You, and it hits the reader like cannon fire. Not that anybody can’t be an alcoholic, but in its devil-may-care honesty there comes a price: “Once you’re known to be an alcoholic, that’s how many people identify you, which could be a reason not to talk about it.” She does talk about it, in the same disarmingly pungent way she takes on all comers who try to dismiss her shrewd writings on people and animals – from the everyday, dogs, to the Ju/Wasi people of the Kalahari Desert – because she hasn’t the requisite advanced degrees in anthropology and biology.
Her observations of human and animal life chime with many readers, if her sales numbers are any indication, not despite but because of her “Ph.D. in anthropomorphism,” as critic Susan Conant sniveled, or “commonality” as Thomas prefers. You don’t need an advanced degree, or to be Percy B. Shelley, to wonder, "What’s going on in that snake or dog or skylark’s brain?" If you are interested enough, you will sit and watch. You will school yourself in the exigent art of seeing, to observe quietly and patiently. That is what Thomas has brought to the natural world, a knack for observation. To drink deeply of what is before you is to know what Sherlock Holmes meant when he said, “You see, but you do not observe,” as if seeing weren’t difficult enough – a perspective Thomas has now turned, as she crosses into her eighties, on her own life.
The book is both chronological, and chronological within its chronology: the chapters are discreet slices of her life, starting with her childhood and advancing to her late age, but there are also chapters on her husband, daughter, and son, that ferry readers back to their early years and follow them through their travails and then their gladdening, inspiriting rebounds; chapters on fieldwork and the Old Way; chapters on her drinking, writing, and getting old. She is “disillusioned with the aging because the promise of wisdom had failed me.” Don’t believe her.
Thomas’s love of writing, almost thwarted by the gender biases of the 1950s and early 1960s, is a bright light that shines throughout the memoir, all the more so when it is informed by her fieldwork, which might be in the Northern Regions of Nigeria during coups and countercoups or following a dog around Cambridge on a bicycle. She still brings much of the wonder that touched her early days in the field – “Then it would be dark, and the world of the night would open” – riveted to wildlife like a bird hypnotized by a snake, especially the big cats, who frighten and enthrall her, a combination as good as time and money.
And don’t think about substituting an “it” or “that” for the above “who.” Thomas will have none of it. This is her way to be in the world. “Not even a maggot is an it, and to refer to any animal in that manner is an affectation, an ignorant stab at science-speak.” She is brave – though she’ll have none of that talk, either – in brushes with bandits, witches, cattle raiders, and Idi Amin at his most toxic. She's also brave in standing up for commonality. “I think of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein," writes Thomas, "who famously said that if a lion could talk we wouldn’t understand him. This is far from true... Animals need to understand other species, if only to prey on them or escape from them.” She is a pioneer of the Old Way, the rules that evolution set out for each of us to stay alive. She has pugnacity, and warmth that glows when her father says to her, “I’d like to spend a million years with you.” Alone, a moment like that could make a life. Thomas proceeds to drape garlands of acuity, fellow feeling, and earthly beauty upon it.
Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review.