Deb Baker's The Mindful Reader: Getting your arms around an octopusDEB BAKER May 23. 2015 5:35PM
If you haven't read New Hampshire author Sy Montgomery's many books on the natural world, her latest, "The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness," is a good place to start. Just as with her earlier work, Montgomery's passion for other species is infectious - if you've never given octopuses much thought before, you will after reading this book.
And they may give you some thought as well, that is, if you're fortunate enough to visit with one. Montgomery does most of her communing with octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, although she learned to scuba dive so she could meet octopuses in the wild as well. As she introduces us to the aquarium's octopuses, Octavia, Kali and Karma, she not only illuminates what scientists have learned about octopus intelligence but also introduces the staff and volunteers at the aquarium who work with and care for the octopuses. They are a smart and interesting bunch, like the creatures in their charge.
Montgomery's warmth and exuberance for both human and animal friends makes good reading, and her awe and admiration is uplifting, even when she writes about the difficulties they face. One volunteer is a teen with Asperger's who lost a friend to suicide. Another is a young woman making plans to share her life with her twin brother, who has "pervasive developmental disorder." Another is an immigrant whose wife is seriously ill. Montgomery tells their stories along with the octopuses', and she notes that the animals provide those who work with them not only an opportunity to study and learn, but also to experience the joy of relating to another species.
Yes, these people relate to the octopuses and other creatures at the aquarium. Octopuses are intelligent, curious, even playful animals who recognize people and interact with them by touching them and sometimes dousing them with a cold blast of water.
Octopuses change color and pattern on their skin both to camouflage and to express themselves. As Montgomery notes, "From building shelters to shooting ink to changing color, the vulnerable octopus must be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals, some of which it pursues, others it must escape. How do you plan for so many possibilities? Doing so demands, to some degree, anticipating the actions - in other words, imagining the minds - of other individuals." This "theory of mind" is proof to many scientists that octopuses possess a form of consciousness, although perhaps one humans are not fully able to understand.
By the end of "The Soul of an Octopus," I felt informed, moved, and inspired - which is all a reader could possibly hope for from a book. As Montgomery explains, the octopuses "have given me a great gift: a deeper understanding of what it means to think, to feel, and to know." Montgomery's gift is to offer those experiences for her readers on the page.
Sy Montgomery will be at Gibson's Bookstore, 45 S. Main St. in Concord, on June 18 at 7 p.m. to talk about "The Soul of an Octopus" and her new children's book, "The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk."
Deb Baker is adult services manager at Concord Public Library and blogs about books at bookconscious.wordpress.com and the library world at thenocturnallibrarian.com. Her opinions are her own and not those of her employer.