The Current

Close encounter with an octopus shows why our wild calling matters, says author Richard Louv

Richard Louv is best known for his book Last Child in the Woods, which argued that children were losing connection with the natural world. His new book, Our Wild Calling, brings adults into the conversation.

New book explores how connecting with animals in the wild affects us

An octopus in an aquarium in France. In the 1960s, Paul Dayton had an unforgettable encounter with one in the wild. (Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images)
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In the 1960s, Paul Dayton was a grad student studying starfish off the Washington coast, when an octopus wrapped its tentacles around him from behind.

As he started to struggle, he realized trying to fight could cut off his oxygen supply. 

"So I just totally relaxed and let it pull me down," said Dayton, who is now a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.

Once they reached the bottom, the octopus's grip began to relax. Dayton was able to turn in the water, where he "saw its eyes just over a foot or two from my eyes." 

"It was looking me in the eyes — you could sense curiosity more than anything else."

Paul Dayton is now a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, but in the 1960s, right, he was regularly exploring the world underwater. (Submitted by Paul Dayton)

Dayton's story is featured in Richard Louv's new book Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives and Save Theirs. Louv thinks it's a good example of how people can have "these moments of almost transcendent connection with other animals."

After the octopus loosened its grip, it maintained eye contact with Dayton as they floated back to the surface. There, the octopus released him and swam around him slowly, still watching.

"I sensed that the octopus was more or less saying something to the effect of 'Whoops, my bad. Sorry about that,'" Dayton told The Current.

"And I was just more or less saying back to the octopus 'Well, no harm, no foul.'" 

When the octopus dived again, Dayton went after it. 

They swam together for a while, before he had to come back up for air.

"I thought this was one of the coolest things in my life," Dayton said. "I have to say I'm not religious, but it made me feel somehow [a] spiritual connection with the animal."

Louv says when he tells the story at public lectures, he can see people squirming in their seats. He thinks he knows what the audience is wondering.

"Why would he chase it down? … Why would he keep following it?" he told The Current's Matt Galloway. "It's like he couldn't let go of that experience."

An encounter with a fox

Louv is best known for his book Last Child in the Woods, which argued that children were losing connection with the natural world, and coined the term nature-deficit disorder. His new book brings adults into the conversation, exploring connections between people and other animals.

Richard Louv looks at wild encounters in his new book, Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives and Save Theirs. (Submitted by Richard Louv)

He had his own wildlife encounter during a hike in Alaska a few years ago, when he looked up from the path to be met with the "piercing eyes" of "a very large Kodiak fox" blocking his way.

The fox didn't move, but also didn't show any signs of aggression as they regarded each other for a few moments.

"When I looked in that fox's eyes — whether I was seeing something there or projecting it from myself — it was like looking into another universe, and I was stunned by what I saw in its eyes."

When Louv stepped around it to keep going, the fox walked with him for a time, before disappearing into the undergrowth.

"I don't pretend to know what the fox was thinking, I don't pretend to know for sure that they are communicating with us in some way," he said.

But he does think that seeking out these moments of connection could change how we approach climate change, and "whether we slow [the] biodiversity collapse, whether we slow the extinctions that are now happening."

"Maybe the fox was just telling me to pay attention."

Find a 'sit spot' in nature

Louv argues that you don't need to cuddle an octopus to have these moments in nature — you can just create what he calls a "sit spot."

"It's just a place you pick, and you just sit there for a while and you wait for the animals to come back — and you listen to the wind, and you listen and watch," he told Galloway.

Louv suggests people find a 'sit spot,' a place in nature where they can wait quietly and watch as the surrounding wildlife gets used to their presence, and returns to normal activity. (Chakarin Wattanamongkol/Shutterstock)

As a child, his visits to a nearby creek would send the local frogs hopping for cover. 

But if he waited for a while, they "would start to pop back up, and I would watch them and feel their presence."

"Most kids do something like that. But as adults, we need to stop and notice, we need to pay attention." 

A sit spot can let people tap into what he calls "the oldest language."

"It's all around us, it's not a verbal language ... often it's behaviour patterns," he said. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Susan McKenzie and Peter Mitton. 

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