Life of slime: Montgomery celebrates the mystery and intelligence of the little-loved cephalopod. Photo © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

Redeeming the Octopus - the most remarkable creature of our nightmares

Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus: a Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness does for the creature what H is for Hawk did for raptors.

The Soul of an Octopus: a Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Sy Montgomery
Simon & Schuster, 263pp, £12.99

The octopus is a dread creature, so alien that it seems to exist only in our nightmares. In the sea on which his ancient mariner sailed, where “the very deep did rot”, Coleridge evoked these eldritch beasts: “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea.” For Victor Hugo, the octopus was a deathly demon, almost sexual in its devouring mien. The “devil-fish, horrible, sucks your lifeblood away”, he wrote, imagining it consuming its victim “with innumerable hideous mouths”.

The possession of more than the usual four limbs appears to have consigned the octopus to this fate. Pliny claimed, “No animal is more savage in causing the death of man in the water.” Nor is there any more terrifying vision than the vast and loathsome Kraken, rising up to drag good men and ships down to the abyss.

It’s not surprising that it has taken us a long time to reappraise the octopus, imbued with such mythical awe, as what it really is: an intelligent animal with entwining arms so filled with neurons that each of them possesses a separate personality. In the current nature writing boom– fuelled in part by new scientific discoveries – the revision of the octopus is just one in a series of natural histories, of creatures from corvids to cetaceans, which indicate that our awareness of other species is expanding exponentially. As an interviewee in Sy Montgomery’s remarkable book declares, “It’s really only in the last 20 years we could even be having this conversation. We’re only starting to understand animals.”

Doing for cephalopods what Helen Macdonald has done for raptors, Montgomery, a naturalist and author based in the US state of New Hampshire, sets off for the New England Aquarium in Boston to commune with captive octopuses. She is quickly entranced. As she plunges her arms into their tanks, the animals use their tentacles to taste her skin. Yes, they are slimy – Montgomery describes them memorably as “a sort of cross between drool and snot” – but their slime is a protective layer and a lubricant. An octopus’s ability to secrete itself in the smallest crevices (whether a cave or, in the case of an escapee from an aquarium, a water pipe) is limited only by its sole hard structure: its eerie, parrot-like beak. Captive octopuses pose a notable problem for aquarium keepers: they are just so smart. At one establishment, staff couldn’t work out why prized fish were disappearing from a tank. CCTV
footage showed that during the night, an octopus in a tank at the other end of the room was lifting its lid, crawling over to the fish tank, claiming its prize, then sneaking back home as if nothing had happened.

Yet the octopus’s most amazing talent may be another kind of subterfuge – its ­ability to camouflage itself. It can replicate complicated patterns (even a chessboard) by means of millions of chromatophores in its skin, triggered by sensory organs in its tentacles that determine the surface and even the texture of the terrain it seeks to mimic. A single octopus on a Pacific coral reef was seen to change 177 times in a single hour. This skill is not instinctive but learned.

How did such an apparently simple creature come to be so clever? Jennifer Mather, an “octopus psychologist”, proposes that the evolutionary process may have begun when the octopus’s ancestor lost its protective shell. The newly mobile animal became an active hunter and also more vulnerable – hence the need for disguise. Other studies suggest that in their ability to change colour, shoot clouds of defensive ink and construct shelters (a recent YouTube clip showing one using a coconut shell for that purpose went viral), octopuses exhibit something close to a “theory of mind”, the ability to anticipate the thoughts of other animals.

Montgomery becomes attached to her subjects – literally, courtesy of those manifold suckers. Sadly, octopuses are short-lived – many survive for only three years – so her relationships with Octavia, Athena and Kali at the aquarium are both ecstatic and fraught with accelerated life. She is unabashed in her emotional response to animals that flush red with excitement during their encounters with human beings. At one point, she describes Kali’s pupils as being dilated as “those of a person who’s newly in love”.

From Boston, we follow the author out of the aquarium and into the open sea as she learns to scuba-dive in order to get even closer to her beloved beasts. Her tone is homey (the adjective “awesome” is used liberally) and her interpretations are unashamedly anthropomorphic. Although her lively account is made rigorous by the injection of scientific commentary from various experts, emotion is never far away.

The “civilian” characters in the book have their own stories: we encounter Anna, a teenage girl with Asperger’s syndrome, and Wilson, another aquarium volunteer whose wife is dying. Both find solace in the company of octopuses. Yet these human tales pale beside those of the animal. As a creature described as possessing “intelligence without a centralised self” and whose skin expresses its mood, the octopus has an existence of a complexity that defies the apprehension we project on to it.

Most people these days see octopuses only as an item on the menu. Montgomery’s charming, eye-opening book may not change your life, but it may make you think twice about eating them.

Philip Hoare’s books include “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon