On one of my recent trips to Michigan, I was listening to Wait, Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me! on NPR. I didn’t know this before, but female octopuses throw things at those who annoy them! On the show, they jokingly mentioned that this lot included people who try to “My Octopus Teacher” them, and I wondered if this was something people were actually doing after watching that film?
Then I remembered seeing this article where people had passed around a baby dolphin for selfies, and the baby died–so I guess anything is possible, not that a cephalopod would be as easy a target. Honestly, I don’t know why we are still having this conversation. You would be horrified if a group of people walked into your home and stole your baby, ignoring his/her/their needs to death just for a cute photo op. And this issue is not at all limited to a handful of species. It may not always result in an untimely death for the creature, but it does cause damage.
As for My Octopus Teacher, I have seen a lot of criticism about it on the wider internet, some even sexualizing the bond (which is gross, and I think says far more about the thought processes of those people than does about Foster’s relationship to this creature). One opinion I read even refers to the cephalopod as his mistress, simply because of the way he spoke about her beauty. They questioned where his wife was the whole time he was falling in love with this creature. I shouldn’t need to specify this, but the film wasn’t an autobiography about him or his marriage. We can’t know the ways in which his burnout affected their relationship, and and frankly, it’s none of our damned business. Secondly, have we really become such fucking literalists? Are we really this shallow and reductive that we can’t see the beauty in what took place? Clearly some of us are–a fact which saddens me.
Many other criticisms aren’t quite so nasty but seem to take quotes out of context and appear just as reductive. In Pippa Bailey’s thoughtfully articulated piece in The New Statesman on May 12, 2021, she writes, “Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about. In places, their “relationship” feels fetishised, held up as spiritual and sacred.”
I disagree with this on a couple of levels. First of all, I never felt like Craig Foster had a lack of understanding that the octopus was a wild animal. He knew very well that she was wild. Not once did I feel like he approached her without a deep respect for her. When connections like this happen, I think it’s really a difficult thing to articulate accurately. There is so much that goes beyond what words can express. The relationship–the part that happened to him, that he experienced–was spiritual and sacred. It may not have been so for her, and that’s okay.
“I fell in love with her but also that amazing wildness that she represented and how that changed me.”
Secondly, I didn’t feel as though he assigned her human attributes. He did wonder what she dreamed about, true. But prior to that, he wondered if she dreamed at all. He had full acknowledgement of the fact that there are differences between us, even as there may be some similarities. He spoke of feeling like he himself had been dismembered when she lost an arm to a pajama shark. To me, this felt like something akin to a shamanic experience brought about by a deep compassion for this creature. Sorry, not sorry–that’s a spiritual experience. He was going through something within himself, and it’s natural to identify with others during those times. Her purpose in life was not about him, and yet she gave him a sincere gift, even if she did so unknowingly.
In another sense, I agreed with Pippa:
“Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so.”
The natural world is not ours to commoditize, but we do. We do it with animals, plants, water, land. We do it at the detriment of all beings, ourselves included–and it’s wrong–but I don’t feel this was what Craig Foster did at all. During the course of filming, he ‘discovered’ several never before seen species of shrimp. He recognized the necessity of every part of the ecosystem, including all of the creatures therein. From his experience, he founded the Sea Change Project, which seeks to use storytelling methods to “protect South Africa’s marine environment by making the Great African Seaforest a global icon.”
What Foster engaged in was immersion.
Perhaps it seems like he just jumped in the water and started playing with the octopus, but the relationship Craig Foster forged with that magnificent being was cultivated over a significant period of time. And he recognized just how special it was. It couldn’t have happened if he hadn’t allowed himself to become part of that environment.
I have talked about immersion before, and I will refer to again and again. Joe Hutto understood this with his turkey family. Craig Foster understood this, too. He understood it from his first longings echoed with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari years before. He understood it when he chose to dive without a wetsuit in order to be fully present in the water–to become part of the water. I believe the despair he felt before came from the disconnect between himself and the natural world, and I think this is something many of us can find resonance in–I know I can. In our modern world filled with walls and towers, it is easy to think of ourselves as apart from Nature, when really we are a part of Nature.
“What she taught me was to feel that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.”
Relationships must be cultivated. They aren’t formed in a split second, no matter how short a film may make them seem. What can happen in a short time is a soul recognition of bonding potential. I don’t think Foster’s relationship would have occurred with a different cephalopod. This was a chance meeting between two curious beings. She had to have the willingness to interact, and she definitely seemed to. He reached out–not in an attempt to “tame” her, or make her submissive to his will, but to connect. . . and she reached back. Unlike the people with the baby dolphin, he wasn’t there for spectacle; he was there for the spectacular. That’s the difference.
What I saw in this film was a man diving not just into the ocean, but into a remembrance of his own connection with the wild. He was changed because he allowed himself to be changed–moved in accordance with his own soul’s longing. He answered that call, and offered it as poetry to the world. That little cephalopod was the catalyst for change, and though her life had meaning before her encounter with Foster, the impact she has had on those of us who allowed ourselves to be moved by their interaction cannot be understated.