"The Soul Of An Octopus" Review by Mark Billingsley

"The Soul Of An Octopus, A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness" by Sy Montgomery

"The Soul Of An Octopus" is one of those rare and lovely books that deftly and sensitively explores the subject of a narrative but are in no wise constrained by it. Sy Montgomery does for the octopus what Lawrence Anthony's "The Elephant Whisperer" did for elephants and Farley Mowat's "Never Cry Wolf" did for wolves. These narratives broaden the scope of our understanding and perception of non-human intelligence and challenges us to reconsider the narrow confines of what we consider "sentience" to be. The purpose of these narratives is to make us pause and give thought to the magnificent creatures with which we share this little blue jewel and the realities of their lives and existence.

When I started reading this book I was taken back to a time when my wife and I were in the delicate negotiations of a more involved liaison dangereuse and she assured me that me learning to scuba dive was in my future if it was going to become our future. After becoming certified, I was so enthralled and fascinated with the new world we were delving into that, at first, I didn't appreciate the extraordinary qualities and behavior of the few octopuses that we managed to interact with in the wild. At that time they were little more than fish with tentacles to me, unique but quickly lost in a background of oceanic beauty. One wonderful, playful dive with an extraordinary octopus changed all of that for me.

Sy Montgomery does an excellent job of expressing the wonder and enchantment of communicating with intelligent, emotionally sensitive animals. She writes lovingly and respectfully of her relationships with several of these delightful creatures at the New England Aquarium in Boston in the course of her research for this book. Up until this point she was best-known for her lovely book, "The Good, Good Pig, The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood", a memoir of her life with the estimable and enlightened Christoper Hogwood. She also has a highly-recommended series, entitled "Scientists in the Field", for younger readers that explores the habitats and lives of rare and endangered animals and the efforts to save them from extinction. In order to comprehend the depth of Ms Montgomery's enthusiasm and commitment for wildlife (domestic and otherwise), one only need look at the extensive catalog of Ms Montgomery's published work, which encompasses a vast array of diverse subjects, creatures, sciences and scientists.

As I had already known, knowledge that Ms Montgomery confirmed, illuminated and expanded, octopuses are, incredible animals. They are shape-shifting, color-changing, problem-solving animals of preternatural skill. Octopuses routinely solve "locked-box" puzzles in order to get at the treats inside, crabs being a particular favorite. Aquariums and marine laboratories expend a lot of time and energy devising ways to keep octopuses in their watery domiciles, and often, a lot of money when they fail. One aquarium in Santa Monica had it offices flooded, incurring thousand of dollars in damages when an eight-inch-long two-spot octopus began experimenting with a valve in its tank. More than just an examination of the traits and habits of these remarkable creatures, it is also a story of the people; volunteers, researchers, friends and colleagues and the remarkable ways in which octopuses inspire their lives.  Montgomery, in her recollection of anecdotes and personal experiences, creates a compelling narrative of their living presence and the community that reveres them. Considering the vast differences that separate the octopus and us, it is difficult to imagine how one might develop a rapport with an animal with which we share so few physical attributes (our last common ancestor was a type of marine worm that lived several hundred million years ago). Besides the obvious differences of terrestrial land-based mammal versus marine mollusk there is also the fact that we don't even share the same blood chemistry (their blood is green since they rely on copper to carry their oxygen rather than iron) not to mention that their brains circle their waists (or what passes for a waist in an animal that has nothing resembling a coherent shape) and resides partially in their tentacles. However, Montgomery's articulate and heart-felt writing attests to the truth that we can, and do, develop a strong and uncanny rapport with some of the most divergent forms of life on the planet.

As a nature writer, Sy Montgomery is one of the very best, dedicating her life to traveling the world; researching, investigating and writing about its wondrous animals and magnificent ecologies. When she writes about her relationships with Octavia and Kali, the two giant Pacific octopuses that are the main characters in "The Soul Of An Octopus", you almost feel as if your there, feeling the exquisite caress of their strong, graceful tentacles, being soaked to the skin by a jet of forty-five degree seawater because that is an octopus's idea of a joke, or saying a sad goodbye to a dear friend who just happens to have eight tentacles. Montgomery writes about her subjects, both human and non, with humor, empathy and compassion, deeply exploring their relationships to each other and the worlds that they inhabit. I will be reading many more of her excellent natural history narratives and essays. 

Mark Billingsley

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness Cover Image
ISBN: 9781451697711
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Published: Atria Books - May 12th, 2015

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ISBN: 9781451697728
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Published: Atria Books - April 5th, 2016

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