Interview with Sy Montgomery, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
The Soul of an Octopus
(Atria/Simon & Schuster)
Sy Montgomery’s vibrant writing life has been forged from an awe-inspired curiosity about Earth’s animals. A naturalist and documentary scriptwriter who has penned over twenty books for adults and children, Montgomery has peered into the hidden world of the Amazon’s pink dolphins; gone searching for man-eating tigers; been lovingly assaulted by the globe’s only flightless parrot; and taken an expedition into the “Tarantula Capitol of the World.” A master of decoding scientific complexities, her work focuses not only on animals, but also the individuals who study them. Her adventurous spirit and poetic prose prompted The Boston Globe to describe her as “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”
In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery becomes enraptured by the New England Aquarium’s resident octopuses and the cluster of aquarists and volunteers who care for them. The cephalopods’ extraordinary intelligence and distinct personalities propel her both into the water and into a nuanced exploration of consciousness in which she examines “what it means to think, to feel, and to know.”
Laura Clark Rohrer: The Soul of an Octopus is built around the question, “What is it like to be an octopus?” How did you approach writing a book in which you seek to understand the unknowable?
Sy Montgomery: Well, I think I have a wonderful capacity for ignorance. (Laughing) And I’m exploiting my own hunger to know. The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.
The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.
LCR: Is there something unique about octopuses that allowed you to connect with them so deeply, or do you find yourself connecting with other animals on that level?
SM: Oh yeah, I have always felt deeply connected to different animals because, as a child, I didn’t feel there was a separation to start with. Most of us as children don’t feel that separation. Most of us as children, our dreams are filled with animals, and we can still feel the connection to our own past as hunter-gatherers who had to pay attention to the natural world and feel part of it. So that’s who we are, and to embrace the rest of animate creation is our own destiny as humans. And it is extremely dangerous for us to lose that. We’re now seeing the results of what happens when we lose that. We get pollution, we get overhunting and deforestation, and it starts to come back and bite us.
LCR: It almost seems to be rooted too in selfishness, where we forget about the other entities that we share the world with. You point out in your book that the underwater world of the octopus actually dominates much more of the Earth than humans do. It’s convenient, it seems, to ignore that other beings have feelings.
SM: Oh yes, because then we can do all kinds of things to their habitat and to them. It gives us license to treat them badly if we pretend that they don’t think, feel and know. And we’re starting to realize that when we do that we’re poisoning ourselves, we’re poisoning our own world, and we’re poisoning our own spirit.
LCR: So have you gotten any flack from the scientific community for arguing that a cephalopod has a soul?
SM: Interestingly, no. Nature reviewed my book and gave it a fabulous review. But the Wall Street Journal did not. I was thrilled they reviewed it, but it was the Wall Street Journal that said, We can’t know about this.
LCR: Do you think that shows that some scientists are more open to the possibility that animals are thinking, feeling beings than the public is?
SM: The public, I think, is ready to embrace that. Take, for instance, your own dog, your own cat. These are creatures who are experiencing the world in a vivid and important way. They love their lives as we love our lives and [we think] that their lives matter and that if we have a soul they have a soul.
But there are now scientific conferences about animals’ emotions and animals’ intellect. Science is looking at this. I mean, not all of science is, and some scientists work very hard to maintain what they see as a right to cut animals up and look into their brains and squash them and then look at their juices.
Animals are such great teachers for us. We’ve known this, you know. Part of what it means to be human is recognizing the connection that we have with other species. So I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.
I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.
LCR: Would you say that’s the environmental message within this book?
SM: Yes, yes. It’s the environmental message, it’s the spiritual message, that’s what it all boils down to. It’s the how-to-be-a-happy-person message.
LCR: Having octopus friends helps you become a happier person?
SM: Absolutely. I would go home every day from the aquarium every Wednesday singing in my car, top of my lungs. I was filled with elation, just bubbling with elation. I loved those days.
LCR: Were you at all surprised that an octopus could have that effect on you?
SM: Yeah, I guess I was because, here is somebody separated from us. We shared an ancestor half a billion years ago with this animal. And they just are way on the other side of the divide. They don’t have any bones at all. They can pour themselves like water through tiny openings, they can taste with their skin. They are as alien as you can get. If you look at made-up space aliens, none of them are as strange as an octopus and—could I be friends with someone like that? Well, yes, I could and I could care for them very, very deeply.
I look at probably one of the greatest ethologists of all time and that is Jane Goodall. And how did she study chimpanzees and reveal to us the lives of these animals in a way so startling that it caused us, pretty much, to re-define humanity? Well, yes, she used objective methods but she also was unafraid to use her empathy, her intuition, and her emotions. She used her relationship with the study animals as a tool of inquiry and I did that too. I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.
I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.
LCR: It seems you used that same approach to understand human characters in this book. Did you expect to tell both the stories of the animals and those of the humans that connected over the aquarium tanks?
SM: I didn’t. I had no idea, frankly, that the people would be so great. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation that everyone I met connected with an institution was somebody who I just loved. It’s an extraordinary situation. These are great people. Their stories were kind of like the setting for the jewel that is the octopus’s life because you could see so many parallels. It was great to be able to look at these different situations that people and animals both were facing.
LCR: Some have framed your book as a really good argument against trapping wild animals in zoos and aquariums. What do you say to that?
SM: Well, there are very forward-looking people who can see a day when we don’t keep animals in captivity against their will. But when you think of the world as it is now—in the wild, [octopus] lay 100,000 eggs. Now, why is the ocean not full of octopus? It’s because every one but two of those tiny babies are killed, and in most cases someone eats them alive. So the life that you might have in captivity as an octopus might start to look pretty good if you’re being kept in a place where you are not only safe but there’s something interesting for you to do every day.
So from the standpoint of the individual, probably an octopus lucky enough to live in the New England Aquarium is having a better life than the typical Giant Pacific octopus in the wild who, every single day, has to worry about being torn limb from limb. So, I don’t feel that the octopus that’s kept at a good aquarium is being subjected to horrible cruelty. I think that they can have a very good life in captivity, but at the same time I totally applaud the leaders who are looking at a day when we really look at what the animals want and the value of their lives to them and not just the value of their lives to us.
LCR: You had never gone scuba diving before working on The Soul of an Octopus. Had you done any kind of underwater research before?
SM: No, I had stayed tethered to the air. I love to swim and stuff, and I’d done a book on pink dolphins, but I’d never done scuba. And since then, I’ve done a book which is coming out next year for younger readers on great white sharks [The Great White Shark Scientist], and I got to dive in the shark cage and that was just fantastic.
LCR: And you came back with all of your legs and everything else?
SM: I was in a cage. In fact I was interested whether I would be frightened. Not only was I not frightened, but I felt an enormous sense of tranquility as the shark approached. The shark was not menacing at all, none of them were that we met. But the feeling I had when this animal was approaching when I was in the cage was the sea had gathered itself in this shape of a shark and was coming toward me.
It was like John 3:16, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s what it felt like, the sea became flesh and came swimming towards me and all I could feel was this great sense of … of tranquil awe as this beautiful creature, as lovely as a knight in white satin, came effortlessly swimming towards me and it was just a privilege that I had, to be in the company of this beautiful fish in his world. That was great.
LCR: It sounds like all of your work becomes spiritual on a level. Is observing animals in the wild your own form of religion?
SM: Well, I’m also Methodist! (Laughing) I still do The Lord’s Prayer and all that kind of stuff. But there’s more than one way to God, and one great way to get to know someone is by studying their works.
LCR: Lovely! What were you doing when you found out that you were a Finalist for the National Book Award?
SM: Oh, this was funny—I was playing with my puppy! But what is more interesting is when I found out I made the longlist. That was when I was in the car with Wilson, driving to the aquarium. I was giving a talk that night about the children’s book [The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk] with Keith Ellenbogen, and when I was introduced for the talk, person introducing me got to tell 200 people that our aquarium was starring in a book that was longlisted for the National Book Awards and everyone just erupted into applause. It was unbelievable.
Laura Clark Rohrer is a writer and magazine editor based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her science writing has appeared on Smithsonian.com. She is the senior editor of Pitt Magazine.