From the Archives: Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeeezin’
The Soul of an Octopus
By Sy Montgomery
Atria Books, 2015
It requires a certain daring for an author to explore one of religion and philosophy’s most exalted, formidable topics—the soul—as regards a sea-dwelling invertebrate. If you’re naturalist Sy Montgomery, who’s written about everything from pink Amazonian river dolphins to the 750 lb. pig she and her husband lived with on their farm in New Hampshire, the search for intriguing subjects knows no bounds. If you’re a longtime reader of natural history, the prospect of intimately exploring the lives of octopuses (not octopi, as Montgomery reveals) is irresistible.
Let me start by flaunting my two biases toward The Soul of an Octopus. First, it takes place at the New England Aquarium, a genuinely magical destination that allows for experiences that are both meditative and hands-on, and that change the lives of many who enter—especially children. I’ve enjoyed dozens of visits since I was a boy, and my grown-up imagination and sense of empathy would be lacking had I not. Montgomery’s book further immortalizes for me sacred experiences that a busy adult doesn’t reflect on often enough.
Second, I don’t need to be convinced that time spent with animals—from an obnoxious pet bird to an untouchable red-tailed hawk—can lead to spiritual contentedness. More than once, I’ve been down the street in Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum when my mother calls. If it’s Sunday, I’ll rib her by asking, “Aren’t you in church?” She’ll answer, “Maybe. Are you?” Without subsuming myself every other day in the Arboretum’s 281 acres—full of chipmunks, frogs, birds, and exotic trees from around the world—I feel cross and vacant. For me, it is church.
But how do you spend time with an octopus? Do you settle for returning its alien gaze through glass, or perhaps let it wrap some of its eight arms around you? Montgomery learns that doing the latter is as profoundly disorienting as it is rewarding. The aquarium grants her behind-the-scenes access to several individuals, beginning with Athena, a forty-pound Giant Pacific octopus who has 1,600 suckers and a potentially venomous bite (from her chitinous beak). And yet, because of special skin cells called chromatophores, Athena’s whole body changes red, signifying excitement as she reaches out of her tank for Montgomery’s arms. “Her black pupil,” says the author, “is a fat hyphen in a pearly globe. Its expression reminds me of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses; serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.”
Montgomery never fails to transmit her explorer’s thrill during these interactions. Her prose is speckled with biological and philosophical asides that take for granted her subjects’ life as a “who” rather than an “it.” Some readers, while asserting that their dog or cat has a soul, might say that this goes a bit far. These are the readers for whom this book is most valuable; despite being eaten in many countries (Korea is noteworthy, where they’re butchered alive), octopuses are smart enough to desire toys for play, like dogs, chimps, dolphins, crows, and us. Here, Montgomery delivers some astonishing details that reinforce, if we had to guess, what life is like on another planet:
It is possible that Athena, in fact, knows I am female. Female octopuses, like female humans, possess estrogen; she could be tasting and recognizing mine. Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers. Athena’s is an exceptionally intimate embrace. She is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone and blood beneath. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way that no being has known me before.
Delving into her subject’s cultural impact, the author surfaces with the inevitable references to the monstrous kraken, whose pie-plate eyes and epic girth better describe the giant squid (growing up to 1,000 pounds and 30 feet long) than any species of octopus. Another passage, beginning with a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein, typifies the effortlessly conversational prose through which the octopus proves both shocking and endearing:
“If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.” With an octopus, the opportunity for misunderstanding is greatly magnified. A lion is a mammal like us, an octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.
Montgomery later says that an octopus’s slimy head—this time belonging to a female named Kali, perhaps less than nine months old—is lovelier than a kitten’s fur and a chick’s down. And that’s not even the most fabulously surreal moment in The Soul of an Octopus—that moment is stolen by an electric eel who’s been trained to swim into public view for visitors whenever a gizmo called the Worm Deployer drops food into his tank. The eel display includes a light meter that measures the animal’s voltage as it stuns prey. One quiet morning, Montgomery and aquarist Scott Dowd
had the eel tank to ourselves. Even though Scot had just fed some worms into the Deployer, the three-foot, reddish-brown eel was immobile. I wondered if he was just watchfully waiting. “Look at his face,” Scott said. “No, that eel is catching some serious Zs.” A worm dropped right near his head, and still the fish didn’t move. The eel was fast asleep.
Then suddenly, we saw the voltmeter flash.
“What’s going on?” I asked Scott. “I thought the eel was asleep.”
“He is asleep,” Scott answered. And then we both realized what was happening.
The eel was dreaming.
Unsurprisingly, the best parts of Montgomery’s latest read like a promo for working or volunteering at the New England Aquarium (or any aquarium, really). The Soul of the Octopus also captures some of the institution’s history, since the author’s visit overlapped with the ten-month renovation of the Giant Ocean Tank, a 200,000 gallon, four-story exhibit central to the aquarium experience; within are 140 different species of Caribbean reef fish, including sharks, rays, parrotfish, and a green sea turtle named Myrtle who’s lived at the aquarium since 1970. During construction, the animals were relocated to the lower level penguin display, and the penguins moved to off-site facilities.
When Montgomery isn’t detailing the lives of her invertebrate friends, she’s mentioning her human ones. We meet a slew of people during her adventure, including octopus toy-maker Wilson Menashi and high school volunteer Anna Magill-Dohan. Wilson’s wife suffers from a neurological disease, and Anna not only has Asperger’s Syndrome, but her best friend committed suicide; does Montgomery follow their trials to add emotional weight to her narrative?
Not quite. Stimulated, cared-for Octopuses only live to be about four years old. Escaping from their tank, meeting new people (to whom they may show like or dislike with a squirt from their funnels), and laying eggs that, sadly, aren’t fertilized, are the major dramatic turns in these animals’ lives. If you’ve come to this book searching only for biological trivia on sea creatures—or yet another depressing biopsy on our dooming of the planet—you’re missing Montgomery’s point. By scaling up the human element, she’s equalized the field among those in her narrative.
Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma become Montgomery’s friends, whose lives touch hers profoundly. She realizes, however, that interacting with wild octopuses—who have mastered shape-changing and often welcome humans into their ocean realm as alien visitors—would enrich her study. After some difficult practice dives in harsh New England water, Montgomery reaches El Paso del Central, in Cozumel, Mexico. Her first successful dive is characterized by relief and awe:
My mask does not flood. I’m breathing fine. Carefully, I look down, and discover a fantasy world of colors and shapes from a psychedelic poster. Except these colors and shapes are alive: fishes, crabs, corals, gorgonians, sponges, shrimp. Corals pout like the lips of giants, and point like the fingers of skeletons. Sea fans flutter more delicately than the finest lace. The sand is New-Hampshire-snow white, the water piercing turquoise, and all around us, wild animals swim by as if we aren’t there. It’s like being an invisible time-traveler to another planet. Except that this is the planet where I’ve lived for more than half a century, visiting all continents save Antarctica. And yet most of the planet has remained a distant mystery to me. Until now.
Awe is the fundamental component in Montgomery’s book. She mentions it early, in terms of the “Octopus Time” spent with Athena, minutes and hours that refuse to do anything but glide past. She likens it to psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi’s concept of “flow” in which a person’s concentration on a task or object is so absorbing that time and identity vanish. Montgomery also reminds us that, “Meditation and prayer, too, alter time perception.”
Experiencing flow—or being “in the zone”—is incredibly addictive, in the best way possible. The process can be married to anything that you already love (writing, painting, your tentacled invertebrate), and practice initiates a positive feedback loop. Montgomery was remarkably lucky to befriend the animals she did; with or without souls, they expanded her consciousness, and we can only hope that she returned the favor.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.