“I hadn’t been a person who was overly sentimental towards animals before. I realized I was changing […] You start to care about all the animals. You realize that everyone is important.”
Craig Foster – My Octopus Teacher
A few years ago, documentary filmmaker Craig Foster suffered a burn-out from years of non-stop work. He needed to slow down. His mind went back to raw nature, to the wild, and he remembered his early days as a writer and a director when he was living with the African San People.
“They were inside of the natural world. And I could feel I was outside. I had this deep longing to be inside that world.”
Many of us are no stranger to the desire to tap into what Henry David Thoreau referred to as "the tonic of wildness". I only need a couple of months of hard work for the longing to head into the mountains to resurface. For Foster, it brought him back to the South African kelp forests where he made an unexpected friend.
Why Sustainable Change Needs More Than Data, And How ‘My Octopus Teacher’ Achieves It
Wouldn’t it be great if information was enough to move people to action? To change? However, presenting others with facts won’t make them fundamentally alter their behavior. According to Tali Sharot, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and director of the Affective Brain Lab, facts often underestimate the influence of what makes us human. Our desires, system of beliefs, our fears, pleasures, are prime motivators in which choices we make, not the numbers or hard truths we see before us.
Of course, reality is often a bit more complicated than that. Our cultural backgrounds, state of mind, and ability to empathize also play a part. But it does help explain why scientific reports or even masterful documentaries such as Dominion and Cowspiracy, tend to mobilize the kind of person already perceptive to hearing the message. For those who are hungry to strengthen their conviction and their power in debate. For others, the change will still seem like a road they are not ready to take.
My Octopus Teacher is not a direct call for animal rights or environmentalism. It starts out as a human story and then invites us to look more closely at the world around us. This is what makes it so powerful.
My Octopus Teacher follows Craig Foster who, in an attempt to re-establish balance in his life, goes back to the wilderness that defined his childhood. He explores the South African underwater landscapes and almost instantly, he feels his energy returning to him. The waters are rough, filled with predators, and cold, reaching temperatures as low as 7 degrees Celsius. Still, he decides to dive without a wetsuit and oxygen tank. He wants to be his true, natural self to feel part of the ecosystem and effectively maneuver the thick, kelp woodlands.
Part of the excitement of exploring true wilderness is in discovering the exotic. When Foster comes across an odd construction of shells, he isn't sure what he just stumbled upon. “Even the fish seemed confused…” Suddenly, an Octopus bursts out. It sheds the shells and swims away. Foster realizes that he has come across a creature that can teach him something. He decides to follow it.
The Power Of Storytelling
She uses a shell as a shield against this odd shiny thing – a camera.
She plays with a group of hallucinogenic fish.
She escapes a shark by creating an armor of rocks and shells, and subsequently maneuvering on its back, riding it.
She meets Foster’s son…
At first, Foster is merely curious. But it doesn’t take long for his trips into the kelp forests to feel like a visit to a friend. He is keen to connect with the ethereal creature.
The boundaries between her and I seem to dissolve … just the pure magnificence of her”
Foster’s poetic narratives raise the point that we can’t help but humanize animals. It is the easiest way for us to understand them. But that shouldn’t make his experiences any less valid. There is a part of the scientific community that feels utilizing our subjective experience in assessing an animal’s body language, is a valid way to collect data. That we, animals ourselves, can pick up on signs of discomfort or joy instinctively. Even though there are numerous scientists who discard that thesis as unempirical, their human perception of what deserves the label of “valuable”, such as an animal’s emotional intelligence, does still play part in selecting who they choose to protect.
Stories told from a real-life experience have something very honest that can reach people before scientific reports do. Our culture of influencers proves that this is what we are hungry for. The first-hand accounts from those who have been there. But this also comes with responsibility.
However powerful the story, science still plays a part. And Foster takes this responsibility seriously. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t research the animal. He learns everything he can from reports drawn up by experts. He uses this to create a complete picture based on his own observations by tracking her and thinking like an octopus, while still enjoying the human experience of connecting with raw nature.
Enter "The Forest Mind": The Bigger Picture
While Foster repeatedly finds mirroring traits between himself and his octopus friend, he also taps into the intricate ecosystem around him. He begins to see how everything is connected. The octopus is at the center of what he refers to as “the forest mind”, an entity more awake and intelligent than him. A giant underwater brain, as he calls it, that has been operating over millions of years, and where every tiny creature plays a role.
Foster's musings may sound a little too otherworldly. But it is a sensation commonly experienced by those who spend long periods of time in the wilderness. My own experiences in the wild, especially the Nepal Himalayas and remote parts of Bolivia, were not only physically and psychologically challenging, but intensely spiritual. I felt a great sense of belonging. On my first day back into a crowded town, it felt like every loud person was intruding and every building was a prison.
Frances Kuo, professor of natural resources, environmental science and psychology at the University of Illinois, describes how scientists can study the urbanized human in much the same way they would other animals torn away from their natural habitat. Without it, they observe how we more easily resort to aggression and break social patterns. More recent data suggests that the corporal as well as mental health we tend to experience when in nature has empirical validity. Foster’s feeling of flying through a mythical kelp forest could just be a symptom of balance returning to him.
For Foster, the balance came with a renewed appreciation for our natural resources and an urgency to maintain them. When he heads out into the kelp forests with his son, he is pleased to see a fine marine biologist in the making. But most importantly, he observes in his son what's at the core of sustainable change and what can only come from extended periods of time spent in nature – a gentleness.
Foster’s journey through the kelp forest can be seen in the new Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, or read in the book, Sea Change. The Sea Change Project consists of a community of scientists, journalists, storytellers and filmmakers devoted to promoting the conservation of our underwater paradise through the power of stories.