Our first inkling may have come from Ringo Starr. In 1968, he, with the help of George, wrote An Octopus’s Garden. What? Well, after eating squid for the first-time aboard Peter Sellers' boat, Starr was informed by its captain that squid is in the octopus family. He went on to tell Ringo about how octopuses travel along the seabed picking up stones and other shiny objects and create gardens with them. Enchanted, the Beatle penned, “I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’s garden.”
Years later I learned a bit more about octopuses. A sea animal with a soft round body and eight long arms called tentacles, octopuses have a complex nervous system and excellent sight, and are among the most intelligent and behaviorally diverse of all invertebrates. On the one hand, they are considered asocial and indeed spend most of their lives alone. On the other hand, they have been seen playing with other fish and in my post titled, Octopoda: a love story*, I described what must have been, at the very least, connection.
There’s more. From a new program on Netflix titled, My Octopus Teacher, we learn that the attraction, affinity, and affection shared with our dogs or other domesticated pets, may be alive in cephalopods, too.
Here’s the story. One day, Craig Foster, a free-diver (no tank) and wildlife photographer, is exploring a deep blue pool of what for the moment is calm water. On the ocean floor he sees a strange shape: an octopus balled up and hidden by a self-built ruse of rocks and shells. As soon as she sees Foster, though, she abandons her armored artifice and swims away.
But Craig is fascinated by her deceptive tricks and returns again and again to the sea hoping to find her little garden cave. After he locates the den, he visits her day after day. Eventually she realizes that he is not a threat. She reaches out a tentacle and touches his own outstretched hand. Its suckers explore his skin. One time, after a scary moment, she hugs his bare chest. What could be described as a too-ugly-to-look-at sea creature is now recognized as a beautiful, lovable living being who has taught Foster to become sensitized to the “other.” The program ends on a true-to-nature note but not before Craig watches her brilliantly and strategically twice evade death-by-pajama-shark.
Love among humans is a current, a piece of nature romanced by valentines and poetry. But it is also a reconciling force available to the profound presence of mind and authorial voice of the autonomous subject. At its best, it encourages an affinity, affection and attraction that transform ordinariness into beauty and the strangeness of another into communion if not accord.
Think about it. The anxieties that accompany modern life keep us busy, preoccupied and often times only superficially involved. Our spoken and performative communication (and even our thoughts and listening) may be perfunctory efforts as we just go through the motions or, as they say today, as we just phone it in. Yet we suffer and may brutalize or marginalize others when we withhold evidence of our love. We suffer, too, if we don’t heed love’s call on conscience, on affinity and compassion, on affection and contribution, the call on what we can offer another that is not surface business, but rather a deeply humane way of being.
We can hear these calls as moral obligations which they are. But we can also hear them as a means to aesthetic and emotional satisfaction and the expansiveness that leads to genuine care, concern and generosity.
*Octopoda: a love story