In her memoir of living among the Bushmen, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, my friend Liz lovingly invokes an image first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: “You are standing beside your mother, holding her hand. She is holding her mother’s hand, who is holding her mother’s hand. . . . ” Eventually the line stretches three hundred miles long and goes back five million years, and the clasping hand of the ancestor looks like that of a chimpanzee. I loved picturing one of Octavia’s arms stretching out to meet one of her mother’s arms, and one of her mother’s mother’s arms, and her mother’s mother’s mother’s. . . . Suckered, elastic arms, reaching back through time: an octopus chorus line stretching not just hundreds, but many thousands of miles long. Back past the Cenozoic, the time when our ancestors descended from the trees; back past the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the land; back past the Permian and the rise of the ancestors of the mammals; back, past the Carboniferous’s coal-forming swamp forests; back past the Devonian, when amphibians emerged from the water; back past the Silurian, when plants first took root on land—all the way to the Ordovician, to a time before the advent of wings or knees or lungs, before the fishes had bony jaws, before blood pumped from a multichambered heart. More than 500 million years ago, the tides would have been stronger, the days shorter, the year longer, and the air too high in carbon dioxide for mammals or birds to breathe. All the earth’s continents huddled in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet still, the arm of Octavia’s ancestor, sensitive, suckered, and supple, would have been recognizable as one of an octopus.
Water temperatures in this range do, in fact, cause physiological changes—one of which is known as the cold-shock response, a “series of reflexes that begin immediately upon sudden cooling of the skin following cold-water immersion.” During this reflexive response, “blood pressure, heart rate, and the workload of the heart all increase, making the heart more susceptible to life-threatening rhythms and heart attack. Simultaneously,” an online text explained, “gasping begins, followed by rapid and deep breathing. These reflexes can quickly lead to accidental inhalation of water and drowning. This rapid and seemingly uncontrollable over-breathing creates a sensation of suffocation and contributes to feelings of panic. It can also create dizziness, confusion, disorientation, and a decreased level of consciousness.
She’s looking right at you,” Scott says. As I hold her glittering gaze, I instinctively reach to touch her head. “As supple as leather, as tough as steel, as cold as night,” Hugo wrote of the octopus’s flesh; but to my surprise, her head is silky and softer than custard. Her skin is flecked with ruby and silver, a night sky reflected on the wine-dark sea. As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus; in cuttlefish, close relatives of octopus, females turn white when they encounter a fellow female, someone whom they need not fight or flee.