I recall entirely too much of the false narrative of American history as imparted by my big textbook, circa 1967: Columbus’ voyages of “discovery,” the delightful relationship of settlers and Native American buddies, etc. It’s taken me most of a lifetime to find the truth, and I’m still working on it.
There is a much better way to learn. I consider myself a connoisseur of nonfiction writers’ scholarship, and say “thank you for doing the heavy lifting on this or that topic! Your charming style has informed me about great apes, professional basketball, amoebas, orange groves! I am both enlightened and entertained!!” I do wonder why more schools don’t avail themselves of this terrific way of teaching (using the works of Jane Goodall, John McPhee, Annie Dillard and the like)—why they don’t scrap the often error-filled, usually snooze-worthy textbooks altogether.
The best nonfiction combines useful information with another, deeper dimension. And so we come to my favorite read of the summer to date, Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. The writer encounters several octopuses (yes, octopi is incorrect), in the New England Aquarium and in the ocean, and learns to love these incredibly mysterious and beautiful and intelligent creatures. Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma are eight-armed wonders who can open locked boxes and show affection for friendly people (and marked annoyance towards other folks). Their skin changes color constantly as they navigate their marine world, camouflaging to protect themselves, but also revealing their moods. A giant Pacific octopus can pour itself through an opening of just a few inches (they are real tank escape artists). Montgomery observes their sophisticated behavior and asks—do these amazing creatures, so different from us in so many ways, share a “universal consciousness” with us? Do they have souls?
She concludes, "(Some say) the soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity… ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’…I am certain of one thing. If I have a soul — and I think I do — an octopus has a soul, too.”
Just as I do not feel threatened by, for example, the possibility of universal salvation, I do not think my soul is in any way diminished by considering that all living creatures may possess souls as well. If we are all indeed God’s creations, doesn’t it make sense that we each carry some spark of the divine? I found myself weeping when I read about Octavia’s tender care of her thousands of eggs, her last duty on earth. I was mesmerized when Sy stroked the smooth skin of Kali, both human and octopus soothed by this simple, affectionate interaction between species.
Will I become a scuba diver? A marine biologist? No way. But I know I'll look at these enchanting sea animals differently from now on, and respect their unique and important journeys on the planet we share.