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My Octopus Teacher's Craig Foster dives into the ocean again in 'Amphibious Soul'


The film My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man who goes diving every day into the underwater South African kelp forest and forms a close relationship there with an octopus. That man — the diver, and also the filmmaker — was Craig Foster, who delighted millions of nature lovers around the world and took home the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Now in a new book, Amphibious Soul: Finding the Wild in a Tame World, Foster describes the entire ecosystem of the Great African Seaforest at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and the transforming role it has played in his quest to seek wildness. As the book's amphibious title hints, Foster is as much (maybe more) at home in the ocean as he is on land.

Foster's incredible engagement with seaforest creatures comes through beautifully in this account. Every day for months, he recounts, he "visited the crack in the rock where a huge male clingfish lived," and the fish became quite calm in his presence. "Returning to the same places, watching for subtle changes, and continuing to ask questions replenishes my curiosity," he writes.

Foster's profound tie to place reminds me of birders who closely attend to nature in their own yard or local park. Indeed, Foster underscores that any of us can find wildness where we live: "We can all develop a more playful relationship with nature, whether that means collecting crisp leaves or smooth rocks to use in our artwork or watching the squirrel perform acrobatics outside our window."

Nature's healing power is a focus for Foster and an immensely personal one. Before he had any thoughts of My Octopus Teacher, he was burned out on long grinding hours of film-making work. He found relief in cold immersion, both in the ocean and in a home-made box containing icewater. Later though, after the immense global attention to the octopus film and therefore to him, he suffered from insomnia so pronounced that some nights he managed only 10 minutes of sleep. His body and mind were breaking down and felt a strong pull to find his way back to the wild.

To become fully immersed in the story of his quest for wild healing, it's necessary to go with Foster's flow and accept his constant, near-mystical reverence for "our ancestors." I read with a wild-seeking heart his belief that modern-day humans can recover an ancestral link to wild creatures — but also, inescapably, I read with an anthropologist's sensibilities. Is it possible to replicate "humanity's natural state?" Is there a singular way to describe our ancestors' experiences with animals? Given the long sweep of human evolution, which ancestors exactly?

Might there be a hint of romanticizing the past here? Foster writes of "our nonviolent origins" and adds that it was "only with the advent of agriculture that the reciprocity with the wild that we'd enjoyed for some 300,000 years began to break apart — and with it, our psyches." Yet there's serious anthropological scholarship that argues warfare began 200,000 or 300,000 years ago, far longer ago than the start of agriculture around 12,000 years ago.

A stronger thread in the book is the powerful connection to nature that comes with tracking. At first, I thought Foster meant looking only for animal tracks in the dirt, mud, or snow, but his definition is more comprehensive, and eye-opening: "any clue left by any creature or plant, sand or rock." Running water also may leave a track, or lightning hitting a tree.

For an amphibious soul, the height of joy comes with underwater tracking: Foster taught himself to see tracks of mollusks in the sand atop the back of a stingray, or an octopus's predation marks on a shell. How magnificent to see the undersea universe in such detail! Once again, Foster broadens out from his own experience to encourage the rest of us: "Just start small and chip away," Foster advises. In addition to looking for ground tracks, "seek out marks on plants, trees, rocks, or walls."

Foster's writing is rooted in his own learning from an array of mentors, including Indigenous individuals, and in a wish to share and spread his joy in nature. A spirit of generosity suffuses the book.

It's probably thanks to an octopus that Amphibious Soul is out in the world. Foster invites us now to recognize the intrinsic value of the Great African Seaforest ecosystem as a whole — and of all ecosystems that enshrine wildness.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. After writing about animal grief and love, and how all of us may bring about greater compassion for animals, she is now writing about cats for her 8th book. Find her on X, formerly Twitter @bjkingape

Copyright 2024 NPR

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.