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Lessons from the octopus my teacher

“What she taught me was to feel you are a part of this place, not a visitor and that’s a huge difference.”

Craig Foster is a wildlife film maker and founder of the Sea Change Project in South Africa. I don’t know how many of you have seen his recent incredible Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, but if not, I can highly recommend it. For me, not only did I find it intensely beautiful to watch, it also served as a hugely informative part of my ongoing fascination and exploration into reconnecting with the natural world – one which includes both sea and forest.

The documentary is mostly filmed in amongst a kelp forest just off the Western Cape in South Africa. Suffering burnout and disillusionment from years of working relentlessly on film projects around the world, Foster decided he needs time out and wants to rediscover and recapture the connection he’d felt to the natural world as a young boy. He begins by swimming regularly in the cold Atlantic waters that fringe that coastline and like many, quickly discovers the mental health benefits of cold-water swimming as his body floods with endorphins, making him feel more alive than he had in a very, very long time.

The occasional swim quickly becomes a daily feature. And despite the cool water temperature, he goes in without a wetsuit so that he feels more a part of his environment. Then, one day he begins to notice and over time, interact with a female octopus. The more he learns and is present with her, the more he begins to feel the boundaries between himself and the octopus begin to dissolve and so unfolds a process of transformation for Foster. He marvels at how everything in the wild is interconnected and how everything works together and exists for the greater good. By visiting the same area every day, he notices changes and occurrences that he would not otherwise have done if he’d just ventured there once. And he begins to see himself as part of the whole, not an onlooker, not separate, not different. What he sees in the octopus, he sees in himself.

It sounds strange until you’ve seen the film, but in the same way that we fall in love with our pets, so Foster falls in love with his octopus. He also falls in love with the wildness that he now feels truly part of and through that process he begins to reconnect the broken relationship he has with his son. Importantly, he falls back in love with life itself.

These times are undoubtedly tough. Even when we live with others, we can feel alone, cut off from our friends, relatives and neighbours. Just like the little octopus, we briefly venture out and then scuttle back into the safety and confines of our caves and close the door. And the longer this goes on, the more confidence we lose in ourselves and our ability to socialize and feel a part of something.

But there is a way. Even if human contact is not abundant right now, we can turn our attention to something else in the meantime - something to see us through. We can begin to feel a part of something other than human connection and begin to get curious about how to create connections with the environment we live in and around. Why not watch the documentary (if you haven’t already) and take some lessons from it? Try visiting the same place in nature each day (or as often as you can) and see what emerges?

Don’t go half-hearted, go all in and importantly, take with you your utmost curiosity, your senses and your wildest imagination.

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Helen Taggart
Helen Taggart
Jan 28, 2021

A wonderful documentary and an excellent summary which has given me more food for thought. Thank you Justine.

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