MANCHESTER, N.H., May 27, 2015 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- In a certain way, Sy Montgomery's arm-in-arm encounter with a giant Pacific octopus was inevitable.
The naturalist and author—who is also an affiliate faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program—had grown up believing that all animals (not just humans, and not just some animals) have personalities, and experience thoughts and emotions.
"Well, any child knows that this is true," Montgomery said. "They see the truth of it every day. But somewhere along the way, this gets driven out of us."
Not so with Montgomery. "When I was growing up, all my closest friends were animals," she said. "So I just never stopped believing what I saw."
Which means that she grew up in a world that erects fences much too high —she also believes—between the human and non-human. This was an idea she explored immediately in her first book, "Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas" (1999).
"Famous women, on one hand, and on the other, charismatic apes who share almost our entire genome," Montgomery says. "It was easy to identify with these apes."
Over the past several decades, through nearly two dozen books for either adults or children, Montgomery has sought direct encounters with animals that have shared ever smaller portions of our genome: pigs, bears, tigers, cheetahs, tapirs, tree kangaroos, dolphins, cockatoos, snakes, and tarantulas, to name a few. The fences she has attacked have been ever higher and stouter.
"And yes, it's taken me this long to get around to a marine invertebrate," she said, laughing. "So the question here was whether a human being could enter into a relationship with a creature so entirely alien as an octopus."
In fact it was a question answered to the author's satisfaction with her first introduction to Athena, a giant Pacific octopus at the New England Aquarium.
"She turned red as she slid over to my side of the tank," Montgomery said. "I asked if it would be okay to touch her, but I never had a chance—instead all these arms came boiling out of the water to embrace me. It was an electrifying, life-changing experience."
Montgomery stood grasped by the tentacles of a large and venomous animal, one whose sixteen hundred suckers can each lift thirty pounds. Even a small octopus can deadlift a quarter ton. The naturalist might have been pulled beneath that freezing water in an eye blink.
But not only do octopuses have emotions, they wear them on their sleeve, as it were. Their chameleon-like pigment changes provide camouflage, but also signal mood. Athena was experienced around people, and a red octopus is an excited one. At Montgomery's touch, Athena turned white, the color of relaxation. She was ready to be friendly with her visitor, to touch and be touched, and at that moment a beautiful friendship was born.
Montgomery would visit Athena several more times, and then grieve when she died (octopuses have a lifespan of only three to five years). But Montgomery would meet and befriend others at the New England Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium, and don scuba gear to help study wild octopuses off Mexico and French Polynesia.
Along the way she became intimate with one of the most remarkable creatures on this planet, one whose capacities for intelligence, strength, speed, sensory apprehension, and subterfuge are just beginning to be plumbed.
And though octopuses in the wild are solitary, they demonstrate that startling capacity for affection as well. "Octopuses seemingly relate easily to humans, quickly learning to pick up cues from their keepers, who make a game of hiding food, and in turn play tricks on them," said Kirkus Reviews in its starred review of "The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness."
Montgomery's book has just hit the shelves, delivering a host of surprises, and winning nothing but acclaim from advance reviewers. "Prose as gripping and entwining as her subjects' many arms," said Booklist in its starred review. "It garners an A rating," said Digital Journal. "A fascinating glimpse into an alien consciousness," concludes Kirkus.
Montgomery's story is also about the aquarium keepers who live and work with these animals, and who recognize that this indeed is a consciousness inside their tanks, and one not so entirely alien. "They know stuff that would be branded as heresy if spoken by a scientist," Montgomery said.
But that, she believes, has to do with the narrowness and prejudices of our own consciousness. Whether ape, dolphin, or marine invertebrate—any child knows that there's a soul over there on the other side.
A writer, explorer, and defiant child such as Sy Montgomery only seeks to remind us.
Photos accompanying this release are available at: