“I dreamed of one day following [my Scottish Terrier] into a wild place and having her show me that wild place. ”
She is a naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and author of twenty acclaimed books of nonfiction for adults and children, including a memoir, The Good Good Pig, which was a national bestseller. She has received lifetime achievement awards from the Humane Society and the New England Booksellers Association. See more about Sy here. And visit her website.
Sy’s most recent book, Soul of an Octopus, A Playful Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, (Simon and Schuster, 2015) takes a close, highly engaging look at the world of octopuses and the remarkable ways they interact with humans. I promise you will never see them quite the same way, after reading this book.
I love the story, in your book, about the boxes. A scientist developed these three clear Plexiglas boxes of different sizes each with a different kind of lock. The successively sized boxes could be set inside one another. You could lock a live crab — a favorite octopus food–in the smallest one and then lock each box. The octopus can quickly figure out how to unlock each one to get to the crab in the smallest. One day, you wrote, an octopus named Guinevere, out of impatience, squeezed and cracked the larger box, making a two-by-six-inch crack. Later, when the scientist put two live crabs in the smallest box, one of the other octopuses, Truman, became so excited and impatient to get to them, he squeezed his body through the small crack to get inside.
Oh my God, and it wasn’t that he couldn’t open the locks — he knew how to open the locks — but he was in a hurry because the two crabs were fighting, and he couldn’t resist. I just love that because we all know what that’s like, when you want something so badly. I was that way when I first saw pink dolphins; I just ran into the water with all my clothes on. You don’t even think. You want it that much. So we can identify with octopuses a little bit, even though we can’t identify with having a body that can flow into a box through a crack. We can identify with what he wanted and how much he wanted it.
For me, the book was about relationships and how they develop, how different beings discover one another.
That is exactly, exactly it. And opening your heart and using your own soul as a tool of inquiry.
I was born in Germany. My father was a general in the army, so we moved around; I never had a home. When I was less than two, I came to the United States. We lived in New Jersey; we lived in Virginia; and even after he retired from the army, we moved around. So I really didn’t call any place home until coming here to New Hampshire.
What was the lasting impact of that?
I hate moving to this day. When I see a moving van, I feel sick. But that’s what they had to do; that’s what my dad did for a living. I understood that, but I hated it. The good side of it, of course, is that no one can make me go back to that. I have a fabulous home, now. But that’s the hardest part of my travels, now — leaving home.
Once I’m out the door, once I’m on the plane, I’m usually okay. But if I’m going away for any length of time, it’s very hard to leave my dog and my chickens and my husband; not in that order. And yet, it’s having that home, having that anchor, having a place to return to, that lets me totally love traveling and be unafraid of emptying myself out and filling myself up with the new place, because I know I have Home to return to. You have to open yourself to these new experiences and embrace how that’s going to change you and how the new animals and people and places you are leaving for to remake you.
Remake is an interesting word for you to use. As I read your book, I thought that you were being remade in the process of getting to know these octopuses.
Oh, absolutely. The whole theme of transformation is a major theme in the book, and who better to show you how to do that than an octopus who can change color and shape?
Do you remember the awakening of your interest in nature?
No, because I think it came with my consciousness, even before my consciousness. I think that’s true for most of us. Most children do love animals; most children’s dreams are filled with animals. So not only consciously, but also unconsciously, we’re drawn to animals, which makes sense, considering that until very recently, we were all hunter-gatherers, before we turned into shopper-gatherers.
If you grew up the daughter of a general and were living on bases, what were your early opportunities to interact with nature?
Well, there weren’t many. I never saw a deer or a fox, a salamander or a turtle. This is in the 1960s, and on army bases, there was no place that had a creek running through it. And the general’s lawn was, I’m sure, covered with all kinds of chemicals that killed things. But no matter where you are, there’s ants and bees and grasshoppers; there’s birds to watch.
I had pets, too. Or they had me. I had a Scottish Terrier who I grew up with like a sister. I was aware that she was a mature, finished, complete being who had senses that I did not, from whom I could learn. Just because I could feed her and walk her didn’t mean she was my inferior. As far as I was concerned, she was my superior. Not in terms of power, but in terms of what she knew. Her senses and abilities were much sharper than mine. I knew she could hear things I couldn’t. Every child knows that. She could smell things I couldn’t and know what they meant. So I dreamed of one day following her into a wild place and having her show me that wild place. No matter where you live, you can find wild animals that can teach you.
Did your parents recognize and foster your interest?
My dad loved animals, too. But, I guess what was even sweeter in its way, was that my mother wasn’t naturally an animal lover. She didn’t like squirrels and used to shoot them in Arkansas and eat them, in fact. She was petrified by my lizards that she felt were stalking her. Invariably, they’d get out in the house while I was at school and my dad was at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. And my parakeets would get out and sit on the crystal chandelier and crap on the mahogany dining room table. My poor mother! My dad and I thought this was hilarious, but it pained my mother. And yet she let me have these things. I think that was a huge sacrifice for her. But she did it for me. Both of my parents were real important in shaping me.
When you were a child growing up, did you have a sense of how your interest in animals might translate into a career?
As a little girl, I thought I’d be a vet. But when my dad was reading the newspaper, I would always want to know what he was reading because he was my hero. And what was in the papers in the 1960s that interested me was all this stuff about eagles and whales and elephants getting to be endangered because of things like poaching and even human overpopulation and pollution. Our national symbol, the eagle, could go extinct because of DDT! This impressed me very deeply, and that’s what caused me to decide I should be a writer because I might be able to help more animals that way.
[I discovered writing early.] When we began life as civilians, I went to a public school. We moved to New Jersey and lived in a regular house. In fifth grade, I wrote about a pond which was right by the library. I described it as this amazing, idyllic place. I didn’t know the name of the pond, but I called it Swan Pond, because there were swans. I’d never seen swans on a public park before, and I was enthralled! My teacher read this aloud to the class, and everyone wanted to know, where is this amazing place? But, of course, it was their own park. (Laughs)
That connects for me with your being able to find nature any place, and yet it seems to escape many people’s eye.
But a lot escapes my eye too. Here’s one example. My friend and I were walking our dogs on Main Street and this truck goes by. My friend says, “Oh my God, he’s gorgeous.” I say, “Yeah! He’s a knockout.” And she says, “He looks like Brad Pitt.” I said, “But he’s a German Shepherd.” Well, I hadn’t even noticed the driver. (Laughs)
What is it like for you to witness the ongoing political argument about climate change?
Oh, it makes me want to jump out a window. I was a science writer for a newspaper in the eighties, and we knew about it. Had we done something about it then, we’d have no problem, now. And we’re still not doing anything about it. Every single goddamn day there’s more evidence; you couldn’t get anymore evidence, it’s ridiculous. All you have to do is look at your planting guide. If you have a garden, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an environmentalist or not, if you plant a garden, you know that the garden zones are changing. If you feed the birds, you know the different birds are coming to your feeder and others are absent.
And, goodness sakes, if you live in New Zealand or even have friends in New Zealand or Australia or South America, you can see it even more clearly than we do here. We’re seeing the weather get more severe, the summers get hotter; we’re seeing horrendous drought, we’re seeing heavy snow, and it makes me crazy. The question is, what then is your response?
What then is your response?
My response is to keep uttering the prayer that is my life and my work and keep advocating for the animals in a way that I seem to be able to do. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years; I drive a Prius; we don’t buy a lot of stuff; we recycle, we try to have as small a footprint as we can. We try to vote in a way that gets the guys that get it in power. You do all of that. But the thing that can be crippling is you can get compassion fatigue from the frustration, feeling so awful about all this happening. You try to find a balance between working hard to bring to light some of these problems and not letting them crush your life.
I do believe in the power of prayer as a way to possibly change things. But there’s also value in uttering the prayer, no matter what the outcome is. Islam holds that God answers every prayer in one of three ways. I love this. In one way, God can grant your wish. Two, God may not grant that wish, but he’ll prevent something even worse from happening to you. Or three, God will wait and grant that wish after you die in Paradise and give that to you as a present.
Do you see a way out of this climate disaster during this lifetime?
Well, of course there’s a way out, but we have to get our world leaders behind us. And what we have to vanquish, unfortunately, is a characteristic of the human soul, which is greed, because it’s all about greed. I think there are even leaders who do understand that we’re destroying the planet. They know that, but they’re too greedy for those votes they can get to get now, and that money they can get from coal and gas and the oil industry, now. It’s because of greed, and unfortunately, greed is very deeply built into the human psyche. [Changing that] is a hard thing to do. But we have to do it.
[Here’s another example] I was in the Amazon in February working on a book for young readers. It’s about this counter-intuitively sustainable fishery for the little fish that we keep in our home aquariums. I was up the Rio Negro with two boatloads of fish experts who have found a fishery for these tiny little fish they call piaba, (that just means little fish). There are the beautiful cardinal tetras and many of the angelfish that we have in home aquariums and in public aquariums. They’re just beautiful, strange little fish that live in these night-dark waters.
Millions and millions of these fish are taken out of their wild habitat every year and shipped to aquariums around the world. It’s a very benign fishery. The people are fishing for these animals not with big nets or using explosives or any of these horrible fishing methods. They’re in little canoes using hollowed out gourds to scoop up exactly the fish they want and letting go the fish they don’t want right where they found them.
You would think that this would be an ecological disaster. But oddly, what it is is, a) a rescue operation, because nine tenths of those fish die when the water naturally drops every dry season. And b), more importantly for the world, is that the people who make their living fishing for these little fish will defend their forest and their rivers against mining interests and cattle ranching. All these things that come in that ruin the Amazon. The fishermen make a good living as piabaros selling these fish, so they’ll defend it.
What’s the message to children?
A number of messages; they are hopeful messages. One: that sometimes there’s a solution at hand that you wouldn’t think of. And two: local people in these faraway places can often be very wise, and we shouldn’t dismiss them as uneducated peasants. Three: who’s protecting the Amazon? These little tiny fishes. And you can have a connection in your home aquarium tank to saving the Amazon.
What is it you most want people to take away from your work?
Thales of Miletus said something like, “The universe is alive; it has fire in it and is full of gods.” And I love that saying, because it reminds us that our world is ensouled and is holy and is powerful in ways that we may not appreciate. That’s what I want people to take away from my writing.
I would say that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. But sometimes, like when we were talking about global warming, it is easy to feel like, Oh gosh, no one’s reading my stuff. And, if they do, what difference is it making? We all have those kinds of questions. Am I being effective, is there a way for me to be more effective? But you just keep uttering your prayer, and happily I absolutely love what I’m doing.
My next book coming out is for kids on great white sharks. For that one I got to cage dive with great white sharks in Guadalupe and travel with a great shark biologist named Greg Skomal off the Cape where we’re having a big resurgence. There’s tons of great white sharks out there, and they hardly ever bother you. But they’re right there, very close to some of our nation’s most iconic beaches.
What was the cage dive like?
It was great! I was interested to see how I’d feel when the great white approached. I was interested to see whether my heart rate would be going up, whether I would feel this atavistic fear or not. Well, when I went into the cage, my heart was pounding, because I was very excited, like, Oh my God, I really hope I see a shark! I was afraid I wouldn’t see a shark, was my fear.
But when the animal came, there was maybe 50 feet of excellent visibility. I see the shark from a distance, but it’s kind of a blur. Then it’s like the ocean itself gathers itself into the shape of a shark and comes toward me. I could not help but think of that passage from the Bible, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It was like the ocean became flesh and started swimming to me. And I felt very tranquil.
What an expansive world you inhabit, Sy.
I do feel that way.
And you’re always searching for more, too.
And there’s never an end, you know? You never get done with that. (Laughs)