101: The Soul of an Octopus—Exploring Consciousness and Animal Communication with Sy Montgomery

When exploring a branch of highly evolved animal consciousness that evolved in parallel (and completely separate) from our own, Sy Montgomery is sure of one thing: “If I have a soul, an octopus does too.” If you want even the tiniest dose of confirmation, try to keep your eyes dry while watching this octopus thank its rescuer in a two-minute video that has garnered 11 million views and counting: releasing a stranded octopus. (If you have more time, Amazing Octopus: Most Intelligent Animal on Earth is a must-watch too!) 

I am over-the-moon to bring you this week's interview with Sy, who became an instant soul-friend the moment we started talking. I'm in awe of her career as a naturalist writing about and befriending pigs, tigers, dolphins, hyenas, and now octopuses (not octopi as many assume for plural form!) around the world. I love her passion for animals, and the heart with which she shares their beautiful stories and spirits. 

Sy has been described by the Boston Globe as "Part Emily Dickinson, part Indiana Jones.” Researching articles, films, and her 26 books for adults and children, she has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Rwanda, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels and pink dolphins in the Amazon. Her work has taken her from the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea (for a book on tree kangaroos) to the Altai Mountains of the Gobi (for another on snow leopards.) 

For her recent book (the one that inspired me to reach out), The Soul of an Octopus, a National Book Award finalist, Sy befriended octopuses at the New England aquarium and scuba dived and snorkeled with wild octopuses in Mexico and French Polynesia. We also talk in detail about The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood (2006), a memoir about her 14-year relationship with her pig who grew to be 750 pounds, famous within her town of Hancock, and beloved by all who met him. 

At the end, we briefly dive into her routines for such prolific writing while traveling, and her practice of reflecting beyond the details of what happened to "what that day showed me."

Check out full show notes from this episode with links to resources mentioned at PivotMethod.com/podcast/sy-animal-souls

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More About Sy Montgomery

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Sy Montgomery has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Zaire and swum with piranhas and pink dolphins in the Amazon. To research her books, films and articles, she has worked in a pit swarming with 18,000 snakes in Canada and been hunted by a tiger in India. She has hiked the Altai Mountains of Mongolia's Gobi desert in search of snow leopards and penetrated the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea to radio collar tree kangaroos. No place is too far to go to bring animals' true stories to adults and children around the world.

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Th author of the national bestsellers, The Good Good Pig and The Soul of an Octopus, as well as 26 other celebrated nonfiction books, Montgomery writes for print as well as broadcast in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible at what she considers a critical turning point in human history. "We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation," she says. "It's an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It's a great time to be alive." She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield, their border collie Thurber, and their flock of free-range laying hens.

Topics We Cover

  • Sy describes herself as part animal, animal in previous lives. In Good, Good Pig she writes, “animals have always been my refuge, my avatars, my spirit twins.”

  • In Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans she shares a story of jumping out of moving truck in India to pet a python!

  • On the genius of pigs and her beloved pig companion of 14 years, Christopher Hogwood: “Not only was Chris destined to vastly outweigh us, but we faced a growing realization that our pig was dangerously, possibly diabolically, brilliant.”

  • What helps animals feel like her friend, and vice versa: "I expect good things; I was never taught the lie that animals are out to get you"

  • Dogs domesticated us; they can read our expressions, as can horses which remember and code facial expressions

  • How animal detect our intention through their senses. For example, octopuses can taste with all of their skin; taste is a chemical sense; theory that they can taste our neurotransmitters

  • “The bliss of stroking an octopus’s head is difficult to convey to most people.”

  • The big misconception of anthropomorphism

  • "The soul is what’s holy in all of us — to be able to see that others possess this same holiness — makes the world so much more alive, move through it in a more gentle, compassionate way"

  • Sy's work observing and sharing about the lives an interior worlds of animals as ministry; witnessing that is beyond just entertaining someone: "Show them the same brilliant stuff animals have shown [her], show that beautiful face of God."

  • Love never dies; spirit of our animal friends lives on as much now as ever

  • Sy is a prolific writer - 26 books! - we also dive into her routines while traveling: notes, interview notes and recordings (reflecting on "what that day showed me")

Soul of an Octopus: Exploring Consciousness and Animal Communication with Sy Montgomery

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