The Lake of Lousy Metaphors

The past few months in the nourish-n-cherish household have been a whirling vortex of activity. I enjoyed most of it, but one night I felt exhausted. A sense of being spread too thin washed over me. I tried chuckling at Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote in The Lord of the Rings,  ‘like butter scraped over too much bread’, but what came out was a whimper. 

I walked over to the window, and gazed outside. The view of a spring night with its flowering plants and trees bursting with young leaves is beautiful. The faint moonlight breaking through the clouds above, makes for a serene scene, and made me reach longingly for Thoreau at Walden Pond, though it was well past midnight.

 

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Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, and lived there for 2 years 2 months and 2 days. What emerged from this minimalist living of Thoreau’s was the great writings, that to this day offers us wisdom. (In case you run away with this notion of my acquiring wisdom, I  assure you, that I am in no such danger. I am still firmly rooted in the hustle and bustle of the human village.). The book I read was a graphic book meant to introduce Walden Pond to those who draw like me (stick or easy sketches – the actual sketches were of course better than any I produce). The words and captions belonged to Thoreau, and I enjoyed the drawings – minimalist sketches to match a minimalist lifestyle. 

In the book, Thoreau refers to the calming influence of observing nature, and how if you stay still in the woods, you will notice things that are otherwise not revealed. I let the book flop on my tired torso, and threw my mind back to the day the husband & I managed to get a day to ourselves in the wilderness. We went on a strenuous hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls. It was a beautiful day to hike. Several cascades trickled across our paths, and we jumped joyously across them. The water trickles are the highlight of that hike, and we thoroughly enjoyed splashing ourselves with the fresh water from the snow melt. It was steep going, and we huffed and puffed our way upwards. 

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The trailhead helpfully said, that one must not under-estimate the hike, and that it would take 5-6 hours for average hikers. The husband, in his typical fashion, said it would only take 4 hours. I haha-ed somewhat helplessly at this optimism that has been my bait and mate, and said 6 hours it is. It took us 5 and 1/2. So there.

I was keeping my eyes out for some wildlife, and I was disappointed to find that apart from some squirrels, there really wasn’t any other wildlife of note. Of course, animals have learnt to keep away from wild humans. I remember reading somewhere that the only large animals to survive the Anthropocene stampede are those that are domesticated.  All others, we have managed to slowly wipe out. 

On the hike, it was a perfect day, the skies were a brilliant blue, the weather neither hot nor cold, anywhere you pointed the phone, you got a pretty enough picture ( I paid for this by spending an hour deleting 98% of these photos). The steps and switchbacks were exacting a toll on the calf muscles that I paid for the next day. Then we turned a bend, and there in front of us was the spectacular Yosemite falls crashing and thundering its way down to the Merced river. Loud crashes probably meant large shelves of ice chipping and crashing into the depths below. The mists created rainbows. It was marvelous. One could stand there for hours watching the waterfall. 

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It was mighty lucky for us to enjoy Yosemite like that. For just a few days later, a storm engulfed the region, and Yosemite valley was evacuated, several rivers ran swollen and we heard of tragic mishaps and washed away roads. I thought also about how on our recent trip to the mountains, we had narrowly missed a snow storm.  There is something eerie about knowing how close one was to mishap. I was yanked back to the present by the goose-bumps on my skin, and I held the Walden at Thoreau in my hands as if looking at it for the first time. Maybe that is what the wise mean when they say ‘Enjoy the present’, and ‘Savor the moment’ and so on. I opened Thoreau slowly, mentally leaving the human village behind, and entered a sanctuary of peace and calm. I  retreated into the book for several blissful minutes, like a deer in the meadow at a rare moment.  

Thoreau had written about Walden Pond itself: 

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful feature. It is Earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. “ 

I dipped my feet into the lake of sleep, thought of what a lousy metaphor that was, and drifted off.

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The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals

The Lord of the Trees

I gazed out of the window feasting my eyes on The Lord of the Trees working hard so early in the morning. The trees went past their blooming-flowers phase to the sprouting-young-leaves phase in the past few weeks.

“How can anyone who has spent any time observing life like this, feel like not preserving it?” I asked. Us not looking after Earth well enough for future generations is a pet peeve that regular readers of this blog know.

“Because I don’t think people stand and gaze at squirrels like you do when one is already late for school in the morning”, came the crisp reply and I nodded sadly hastening to bustle about for the morning tasks.

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The squirrels have resumed lording about the trees like they own them, which I suppose they do, since they are in them so much. I see them lovingly scraping bark, and checking out the fruits . I fight a losing battle every year trying to save the fruits from them. Friends have suggested fruit nets, but I haven’t the heart. They are the ones that live there, and sometimes I like to think of them sunning themselves on the branches while I am in a drab looking conference room surrounded by tonnes of concrete to pay for the land that these trees rest on. I only wish they would eat the whole fruit before tossing them to the ground, or hiding them away somewhere for the Winter months.

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I cannot deny that it is nice to see the little creatures busy again. The winter months are a little slow for them: though they do not hibernate much (apparently, they do not have enough body fat to sustain them through long cycles of hibernation), they sleep a lot. I wonder how their burrows are, and whether they feel the difference between night and day when they emerge from their deep burrows into the spring time bursting with flowers, fresh leaves and the promise of fruit. 

A few days later, the son and I picked out a book in the library called Morris Mole by Dan Yaccarino that dealt with a similar subject. The book was about a mole who was a wee bit different from his brothers and sisters.

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Morris Mole – By Dan Yaccarino

One day when the moles ran out of food in the deep deep burrows, the eldest moles wanted to dig deeper down, but Morris had an idea that nobody listened to. So, he “dug deep down in himself and found courage”, to dig upwards.

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Morris Mole – By Dan Yaccarino

When he emerged into the spring time, he is enamoured and baffled by the big wide world up there. 

This world also offers him the rare gift of friendship with creatures unlike himself such as a fox. 

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Morris Mole – Dan Yaccarino

The book made me think of how some seemingly little occurrences and thoughts have the power of transformation in them. Would Morris Mole have discovered this wondrous world overhead if he had not paid heed to that little crazy idea and acted upon it?

A few days later, I stopped to observe a squirrel again. This time, it was sitting by the roadside, and sniffing a mustard yellow flowery plant with a contented look on its face. The photographers up at the National Geographic magazine would have been able to get a picture of just such a thing. As it turned out, by the time I fumbled in my pockets, and took out the phone, dropping the keys in the process and finding some tissue marring the phone screen, the squirrel scampered probably laughing to its burrow. But I have the image in my mental eye: I hope it will remind me to enjoy the present when plans shadow life, or life overwhelms reflection. 

All good things are wild and free – Henry David Thoreau

I wish we could all dig deep down inside us to find the determination to set aside some time to spend with living, growing things that are very different from ourselves – observe a bird sing, marvel at a squirrel on a tree, look at ants carrying food, watch a spider spinning a web, or feel the wind against our faces knowing that it just rustled that beautiful tree top nearby. Maybe that will open up a way of living that is much more rewarding and satisfying like the world Morris Mole found overground.

 

 

The Big, Little and Half Domes at Yosemite

The grandparents arrived, and the grandchildren are reveling in the attention, food and companionship that grandparents bring in their wake. The pater is the Self Appointed Head Counsel for Advice in the household. When you take out a slice of bread, and don’t know how to bite it, he is the authority to seek out: Bread is best eaten when toasted with ghee on both sides in a frying pan, not toaster, and then you must liberally spread jam or even condensed milk. This new fangled chocolate on everything is not good for health, and one must keep away from large doses on chocolate on everything, he says to the children who have perfected the Art of Pacifying Thaatha (Thaatha – Grandpa) with a smile, and fleeing with the chocolates. The teenaged daughter is particularly adept at this. One time, he was advising her on how to leave the house for School without causing mayhem in the morning. “Remember, I went to School for 60 years!” said the old man. (He was a school teacher.) 

“Clearly, it wasn’t enough!” said the tongue-in-cheek grand-daughter to much mirth on Grandpa’s side. I don’t quite understand the rhythms of relationships between grandchildren and grandparents.

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Anyway, point is: Thaatha can give life advice on anything. Grandchildren can ignore life advice on everything. So, an easy truce prevails with each doing exactly what they want to do, with affection and love. It is a sight to behold.  

In other news, April rolled along, bringing Spring break in its wake, and off we went to Yosemite National Park for a few days. Gazing over the rain washed Yosemite valley, makes one think yearningly of the phrase: Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile. 

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Yosemite is a poet’s heaven, an artist’s dream, a hiker’s paradise, a parking headache, and a last minute accommodation seeker’s nightmare all rolled into one.

Luckily for us, we found a beautiful house about an hour away from the park’s valley. The second day of the trip,  the grand (children and parents) opted to stay in the house enjoying the environs nearby. This gave the husband and I an opportunity to sneak off on a hike, and we enjoyed the day and the views it gave us.

That day, the former school-going grandfather and current elementary-school-going grandson also set out on a hike of their own near the house.  

They were asked to take a phone along, and this suggestion was advised away saying the younger generation relies too much on technology, and that good common sense will always lead you in the right direction. “Especially on a walk, just note down the important roads and junctions, and you will increase your memory, …

“Okay okay Thaatha – you come back and teach me how to take a walk okay? I am only going to lie down and read today. Sure, you don’t want the phone? Okay! Bye! “ said the teenager and plonked herself on a couch that looked like it was made by fairies, and stuffed with dandelion twinkles.  She ruled the heavens of her imaginations with queenly delight and grace the whole morning.

Out in the streets, the walk started out sweetly enough. Grandpa advising his grandson on how to notice all the road signs, and distinguishing features, so they don’t get lost. About 2 hours later, the pair of them rolled up to the home in a police escort vehicle to much agitation in the household. The grandfather got himself out, somberly shook hands with the young officer, and his stentorian voice could be heard “ Thank you very much Officer. May God bless you. I am very sorry for the inconvenience caused to you, and we very much appreciate you bringing us home. ”

The son was seen shyly high-fiving the officer. 

“What happened?”, went the collective pry, and after a weary sigh, the duo set out to explain their walk.

The grandfather had started off by advising the little fellow about how not to lose his way. “Take note of the road name, and you can always find your way back.”, said Big Dome to the Little Dome. The Little Dome said, “Oak Dr, Oak Road, Oak Trail, Oak Grove, Fountain Road, Fountain Circle. “

“Don’t remember them all, that would confuse you.”

“But you said …”,  and off they went giving and imbibing life lessons for all of us.

About a mile afterward when they decided to come back was when the fun started. It was a confusing place to get to, and several times the same road names looped one over the other. Was it Fountain Circle, or Fountain Drive that they had passed last. What about Lion Cove? Was Lion Cove parallel to Fountain Drive or perpendicular to Fountain Circle? The poor things went round and round in circles, till Officer Dave had driven by. The Little Dome helpfully rattled all the street names he remembered, and Big Dome apologized for having forgotten the route, though he remembered the name of the street the house was on. The police officer was most gracious and helpful to the grateful duo, and gave them a ride to the house on the prairie.

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Thereafter, for the rest of the trip, Big Dome was teased about remembering the names of the streets, and landmarks. “Thaatha – this is Half Dome. Always remember that rock, and you will not get lost in the valley. If you get lost, keep walking towards Half Dome. From up there, you can see everything clearly, and can find your way.”

Never a dull moment, and that is just as life should be.

Henry David Thoreau At Walden Pond:

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this Earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we live life simply and wisely.

Also read:

Slay The Dragon, Not The Parrot

The Dance of the Butterflies

Magical March gave us the immense satisfaction of walking to school under magical rainbows,  leprechauns had wreaked havoc and left treasures, my mother got to see her father for the first time at the age of 73, we had a beautiful trip playing in the snow, the doting grandparents arrived and the children have been reveling in the social rainbow that enveloped them.

Out in the natural world, the hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic (cows grazing – get it, get it?), the cherry blossoms send sparks of joy piercing through the soul every time I look at them, and the butterflies have been dancing the dance of joy. Rain showers cleansed the Earth, and all nature around us seems to be smiling benevolently.

 

One beautiful evening, I stepped out on a walk with my little son. Elementary school children derive a certain pleasure in crouching and looking at ants, snails or ladybugs. This time, however, we crouched down to look at a furry, black caterpillar. After reading Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, everyday for months at a time with each of the children, I did not think that I would be enamored sitting and observing caterpillars, but such is the infectious enthusiasm of youth. (The Wind in the Reefs – Working title of The Wind In The Willows)

I found myself excited and thrilled to crouch and watch the caterpillar make its short journey across the concrete path back into the sidewalk where the bushes grew. I still find it amazing that these creatures metamorphose into butterflies. Eggs->Caterpillar(larvae)->Chrysalis(Pupa)->Butterfly has to be the most magical thing in our daily existence next to rainbows.

Later that week, the crouch with the caterpillar made me reach longingly for the book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – Joyce Sidman

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Maria Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the seventeenth century.  Written by the children’s author and poet, Joyce Sidman, she says:

In many ways, Maria was an enigma. She rarely wrote about anything other than caterpillars…What we do know is that she had boundless energy, insatiable curiosity, and superhuman focus – traits that would have been difficult to live with, but ones that marked her as a true scientist at a time when the odds were stacked against her.

How does one find the passion and perseverance to stick to a field of study in spite of societal disapproval, familial duties and demanding businesses?  The book gives us a glimpse into seventeenth century life: The impossible clamps on Women, the dangerous possibility of any curiosity being mistaken for witchcraft, the difficult life of artists in general and so much more.

I have always admired those who have high energy levels and put it to good use. Maria Merian was one of those people. She was a brilliant artist, had business acumen and her curiosity about insects made her a pioneer in the field of etymology (A field that did not even have a name until several decades after her death). Her contributions to etymology were remarkable because she also managed to travel to Surinam near Barbados in those days with the sole purpose of studying animal life. Her paintings on Surinam and her books on caterpillars had great appeal in Europe, and Maria Merian went on to transform Art and Science forever.

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The book is full of beautiful diagrams, paintings, flowers and plants with little insects on them. It is a joy to thumb through even if it is just to look at the pictures.

 

 

Here is to more butterflies, rainbows and magic.

How Squids Shaped Our Myths

We are familiar with the Pangea theory (large hulk of a landmass floating together, and breaking apart into the continents of today, current day India going and joining up with the Eurasian chunk and creating the Himalayas in the process etc). Supporting evidence for this theory has been largely in the form of marine fossils found in the Himalayas, a region that is landlocked today.

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Pangea animation from Wikipedia

It was while reading Squid Empire by Danna Staaf that I realized how intertwined the evolution of the world, our myths, theories and culture are.

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Culture is a funny word. It is supposed to capture the intellectual and sociological elements of a group of people living at a certain point in time in a certain place. The clothes, the food, the music and drama, the myths, the beliefs, the societal graces etc are what loosely constitute culture. It always amazes me how a word that is essentially an observation of life can be taken by the self righteous and used to noisily monger about the manger (but that is another post for another day.)

It is not surprising that our myths reflect our surroundings. Some cultures where myths have intertwined with religion are also reflective of the evolution of mankind over time in these places.

Indian myths, for instance, say that the Himalayas are home to the Gods. At the time when the myths originated, the Himalayas were probably looked on with awe (they still are, but probably more so 5000 years ago), and the only beings capable of living and scaling the mountains were attributed to having god-like capabilities. (Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, apparently could be reached at Mt Kailas, Himadri Range, Himalayas. )

Lord Vishnu (The preserver), was always depicted with a conch and a shell. I have often wondered why Vishnu had a conch and a shell. Why not a sword and scythe?

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Shiva-Vishnu: Image from Google Search

But like a minute puzzle piece waiting to chink into place, I realize that these were the fossils found in the Himalayas at the time. Nautilus shells, and ammonoid shells. They are shaped like conches and shells. Of course, they became the accessories for the popular gods. <Pictures of ammonoid shell fossils below>

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Quote from The Squid Empire by Danna Staaf:
Just on the other side of the Himalayas in India, certain coiled ammonoids fossils are named saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu, and are believed to offer spiritual rather than physical healing.

Quote from: Adrienne Mayor’s paper on  (Fossil Appropriations Past and Present), (Classics and History of Science, Stanford University)

A current popular exhibit called “Mythic Creatures” at the American Museum of Natural History (May – Dec 2007) demonstrates how some stories of fantastic creatures, such as griffins, unicorns, and water monsters, arose from observations of extinct animal fossils around the world.

There is always a beauty to observing the natural phenomena around us. We are minute in a large throbbing cosmos, occupying a still thriving ecosystem on Earth for minuscule specks in time.

When you think about life that way, it seems beautiful:  a gift meant to be nourished and cherished. Did the squid think they would influence homo-sapiens millennia later, and help shape their culture? Probably not. But they did, just by existing.

 

 

 

Cephalopods

The husband had an amused expression on his face as he walked into the kitchen and saw me reading while making dinner. His eyes were set to roll, and his lips had already started on the journey to upward curvature that results in an indulgent smile. I told him so.

“Your neurons, it seems, are all controlled by one brain – tut tut! Not the case with Cephalopods. Take octopi or octopuses for example. They have neurons tingling all over their many arms, and each arm can function almost independently of another. Severed arms have been known to collect food on their own you know?”

“What are you reading now?”, asked the husband.

“Squid Empire by Danna Staaf. It is a book about squids, octopuses, and some other creatures called nautiluses and ammonoids, coleoids and cuttlefish and god-knows-what-else. Apparently, they are all called Cephalopods.” I said beaming happily, while slowly roasting the dinner. It made me feel like an eight armed goddess myself just reading about these fascinating creatures, and cooking at the same time. Never mind that I was making the most gawd-awful hash at both these tasks.

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“Did you know? The humble garden snail is descended from the ammonoids and squids?” I said.

“Well….I will leave you to it then.” said he squiggling out of the kitchen like an octopus out of a tank.

I went back to the book and though I was at times confused by the various scientific terms, I enjoyed the read. It yanked me through the ages, and took me to a time in Earth’s history well before dinosaurs or life on land had started. It was intriguing to see how they formed shells, and how those very shells helped them move from the ocean floor to the central zones of the ocean where they could swim and live with no apparent threat till the whales and larger fish evolved to eat them. The shells secreted a liquid less salty than the surrounding sea water, and this helped them float and remain buoyant instead of being brought down by the heavy shells.

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The Evolutionary History of Cephalopods from the book, Squid Empire

Why did I pick up a book on Squids?

I don’t really know, except that I loved the children’s book, Octopus and Squid by Tao Nyeu. A book that the son and I read every now and then for its beautiful friendship between two seemingly different creatures.

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Squid and Octopus by Tao Nyeu

Then, a few months ago, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Cosmic Nature of Living:

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Now, I felt it was time to get acquainted with Squids. I don’t distinctly remember a squid – I must have seen them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Their evolution is fascinating. The book is written by a genuine marine lover (Danna Staaf’s site is here: cephalopodiatrist), and her love for these creatures shines through in the book. I only wish the book had more pictures. I had to keep looking up pictures on the internet. Pictures of nautilus, cuttlefish, squid and octopus obtained from Google search below:

 

I had never used the word, Cephalopod, before, and I was glad to learn so much about another way of life, even if I may never fully comprehend what it means to have consciousness so permeable, so distributed, and yet co-ordinated.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Loren Eiseley

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