Sur­viv­ing the jungle 

Wild Wis­dom: A Warthog’s Tale’ by Lau­ra­da Byers

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Author Laurada Byers with students of the Russell Byers Charter School. (Photo by Ryan Brandenburg.)
Author Laurada Byers with students of the Russell Byers Charter School. (Photo by Ryan Brandenburg.)

Laurada Byers’s new graphic memoir, Wild Wisdom: A Warthog’s Tale, shares the author’s life and endurance. But before jumping in, it’s good to have a few words about warthogs and how they and their habitat inspired the writer.

Byers’s encounters with how warthogs live began when she was a 20-year-old recent college grad. She won a game-show contest and used the winnings to travel around the world, beginning in Kenya, where she came face-to-face with the animal that would intrigue her, teach her, and inspire her. Byers has since returned to Africa (including recent travels in Rwanda) and to her warthog (and other wildlife) observations with regularity. Clearly these visits offered life lessons about the wilds we each must confront.

Over the years, warthogs’ innate living strategies captivated Byers in deeper and deeper ways, bringing inspiration and identification. The animals became essential to the title and framing of her small self-published book, with unnumbered pages that fly swiftly by and a cover less than seven inches square.

Sudden tragedy

Many Philadelphians know who Laurada Byers is because of a highly publicized tragedy about 20 years ago.

On the evening of December 4, 1999, Byers and her husband, Russell, a respected Philadelphia Daily News columnist dedicated to equitable housing and schools, did what couples often do. They stopped for ice cream at a store (in this case a Wawa) in their neighborhood (in this case Chestnut Hill).

An ordinary evening morphed into horror. As they left the store, an assailant armed with a knife appeared. Russell pushed his wife out of harm’s way and the attacker stabbed him. He was able to return to the store, asking that staffers call for help—and died a few moments later. Byers continued her efforts to resuscitate him, until the police gently helped her to stop.

What comes next

A small book packs some big messages. (Image via warthogproductions.com.)
A small book packs some big messages. (Image via warthogproductions.com.)

In the depth of her mourning, a force propelled Laurada—the determination, shared by Russell’s son and daughter, Alison Byers and Russell Byers Jr., to found the Russell Byers Charter School in her husband’s memory. The school welcomed its first students in 2001, honoring Russell’s belief in education as the pathway to hope and promise.

Eight years later, in 2009, Byers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. A diagnosis of anal cancer came in 2013, when very few had ever heard about this ruthless disease. She is in remission, but the aftermath has brought harsh symptoms.

Humor, common sense, and good will abound in Wild Wisdom. Byers makes it abundantly clear that her goal is not guidance toward a “perfect” life. What jungle promises that? Instead, her words, alongside enticing illustrations of life in the wild by Natalie Hays Stewart, underscore the power of choice—it is our “reactions, not our circumstances” that “create” our individual paths.

All hail the warthog

Choice, enhanced by bravery and caring, seems characteristic of warthogs, like The Lion King’s heroic and unexpectedly intelligent warthog Pumbaa, whose “friends never stood downwind.” A spinoff animated TV series characterized Pumbaa with a loving, hopeful, poetic nature, albeit susceptible to confusion (like when he became convinced he was the mother of a newly hatched alligator). But his resourcefulness and savvy shouldn’t be underestimated—nor should any real-life warthog’s capacity for what we humans might call bravery and kindness.

Aggressively protective of their young, female warthogs will foster piglets who get separated from their own litters, as well as allow mongooses and certain monkeys to groom them to remove ticks. Warthogs do not ask their environment to adjust to them; they adjust to their environment. They prefer sprinting to fighting, but will attack both to live and to protect. In the original Lion King story, Pumbaa (along with his cynical meerkat pal, Timon) nurture and protect Simba, the lion protagonist, and then join their friend to face down the movie’s evil hyenas in a battle for Simba’s homeland.

Do these qualities remind you of anything else? Byers? Her late husband Russell? The humor and grit necessary to fight cancer and confront Parkinson’s? A prescient and, yes, painful realization that “success and tragedy are twins”?

If you fear that Wild Wisdom is depressing, it is not. It is reality—a close-up of life, each page offering testimony to hard-earned truths about endurance, determination, humor, and resilience discovered by a brave, accomplished woman. Proceeds from Byers’s book on confronting life’s unpredictable and unscripted journeys will benefit students at the school founded in honor of her deepest love.

What, When, Where

Wild Wisdom: A Warthog’s Tale. By Laurada Byers. Philadelphia: Warthog Productions, 2018. 84 pages, hardcover; $24.99. Click here.

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