Eight ways of looking at an octopus

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

1. They are voracious predators, though they have no backbone – no hard parts at all, in fact. They often change color to match their prey, and when threatened, they attempt to hide in a cloud of ink. And sometimes, for no known reason, they go on a frenzy of self-consumption, ending in their own death. Republicans?

2. Octopuses (see here for a discussion of other plural forms) have long been known to commit autophagy – that is, to eat themselves, starting with the tips of their arms and working their way up. The precise reason isn’t known; stress and infection by some unknown virus are the reasons most often postulated. One of the few other creatures known to commit autophagy is the laboratory rat, so possibly a certain threshold of intelligence must be reached before a creature can attain this level of perversity.

3. Sometime in the late Renaissance, imaginative Christians began to associate the octopus with Christ. Whatever this may mean in evolutionary terms, it’s definitely a step up the food chain from the Jesus fish.

An on-line abstract of an article from a French journal discusses the persistence of this image of “The Autophagous Christ”:

Father Chesneau’s sixty-third Eucharistic emblem has the octopus as a symbol of Christ. This being justified by the fact both octopus and Christ are autophagous. So by the middle of the XVIIth century a theological treatise on the Holy Sacrament can put forward an extremely realistic proposition, thus resuming an astonishing point in the debate on the Eucharist: the autophagy of Christ. This article endeavours to seize [sic] how, after the Council of Trent, Catholics went on using the controversial figure of an autophagous Christ in their debates, and to question the way it came to be used in a book of emblems of Augustinian bent.

4. The Christ-as-octopus image is an interesting example of convergent mythological evolution. Samoans and Kiribatians believe in an octopus god named Na Kika, who assisted the trickster god Nareau the Younger in the creation of the world. In this case, the octopus’ ability to survive on land as well as in the water seems to have given rise to the conception of octopus as mediator between island and ocean.

5. Symbols, of course, have their separate evolutionary history; the ancestral symbol to the autophagous Christ is the ouroborus.

6. Philosophically, autophagy is the antithesis of autopoiesis, which any biological definition of life cannot fail to take into account. The capacity of systems to self-organize also constitutes the strongest argument for the viability of social anarchism. Note, however, that anarchists themselves, like Republicans, often resort to autophagy. Their inability to agree upon how to describe anarchism for the Wikipedia is typical, and also ironic, given that the Wikipedia is itself an outstanding example of a successful anarchistic system.

7. In my dreams about trees, whenever a tree walks, its roots move over the earth like octopus tentacles. Even waking, I’ve noticed that old yellow birch trees often seem on the verge of opening bloodshot eyes. Just look at the way their roots engulf the ground.

8. Of all their attributes, what I envy most about octopuses is their power to change color, and sometimes shape, to match the environment. If I could do that, I could sleep almost anywhere – the world would be my oyster bed.

Sleep in a state or national park and it’s called camping. Sleep in a town or city park and it’s called vagrancy. Sleep in a refugee camp and it’s called dispossession. In so many ways, it seems, one person’s vacation is another person’s prison sentence. And yet, when we sleep, don’t we all inhabit the same country?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that this post was sparked by an e-mail exchange with my brother Mark, whose birthday is October 8. Happy birthday, buddy.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The spectacle of grown men and women competing for and/or gushing over prizes never fails to fill me with profound disgust for the human race.

The only prizes worth paying any attention to, I think, are the kind that draw attention to otherwise scorned or neglected efforts.

LITERATURE: The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters – General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others – each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

PEACE: Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie “Star Wars.”

Name me any other major awards ceremony the news of which must prompt tens of thousands of people all around the world to jump up and do a little jig of pure happiness. Truly ennobling.

Wendell Berry and the way of ignorance

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The Christian Century last month featured a wonderful essay by Wendell Berry, an excerpt from his upcoming book The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays. It’s finally on the web. Entitled “The Burden of the Gospels: An Unconfident Reader,” it’s essentially the text of a speech Berry delivered at a Baptist seminary this past August, as his opening paragraphs acknowledge:

Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God’s will as it applies specifically to themselves. They are confident, moreover, that God hates people whose faith differs from their own, and they are happy to concur in that hatred.

Having been invited to speak to a convocation of Christian seminarians, I at first felt that I should say nothing until I confessed that I do not have any such confidence. And then I understood that this would have to be my subject. I would have to speak of the meaning, as I understand it, of my lack of confidence, which I think is not at all the same as a lack of faith.

The Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader reporter who covered the speech focused in on the one point that most struck me: Berry’s attempt to recover literalism from the fundamentalists. I still have some notes I jotted down back in June to the effect that we dishonor the Bible if we treat its poetry either as “only” metaphor on the one hand, or as completely interpretable, reductionist description on the other. If anything, I find allegorical readings of the Bible even more offensive than the brand of literalism espoused by proponents of “Biblical inerrancy.” But I was very pleased to see these thoughts given shape by a true Christian (as opposed to a part-time, make-believe Christian like me) – someone who actually lives his faith. In fact, I think Berry is one of a small handful of prominent public intellectuals whom one could fairly describe as prophetic in the Biblical mold.

Berry described himself as a literalist – [insisted] that the Gospels “say what they mean and mean what they say” – but he emphasized that his sense of literalism is not the same as fundamentalism, a belief that everything in the Bible is literally true and without error.

Then there was the issue of contradictions in the Gospels, the very idea of which would disturb fundamentalists.

Berry said: “What, for example, are we to make of Luke 14:26: ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sister, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.'”

That passage, he said, contradicts “not only the fifth commandment but Jesus’ instruction to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.'”

Such a contradiction, he said, should not be viewed as a problem or flaw, “but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne.”

The Gospels “stand at the opening of a mystery in which our lives are deeply, dangerously and inescapably involved,” he said. “It is a mystery that we are condemned but also highly privileged to live our way into, trusting properly that to our little knowledge, greater knowledge may be revealed.”

He concluded: “May heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”

This summary, of course, does not do justice to the suppleness and clarity of Berry’s thinking. Read the full essay here – and please pass it on.

Too much

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 23 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fifth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

Prayer Against Too Much
by Paul Zweig

Late-summer trees;
White flowers thickening around each house,
Where people eat, touch, talk . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 10-21-05]

* * * *

Triptych: Against Moderation

Where the buck took a hunter’s bullet & lay down
in the laurel, a dozen chipmunks are calling
in unison – mallets on a xylophone
all striking the same, middle bar.
Too much moderation seems a dangerous thing.


We are only ever saved by what exceeds us.
When old fields fall to subdivisions,
the kinds of thoughts that need an unbroken span of sky
vanish along with the hiccup of the Henslow’s sparrow,
the wind in the grass.
A few house lots hazarded in the forest
& the wolves begin to forget how to lope,
halt in the middle of a howl –

a freight train wailing through the gap two hundred years later.
All it lacks is the shiver – such a small thing.
It hardly seems reasonable to demand the return
of thousands of acres of wildness
just for that.

We sit at the crossing, engine idling.
On the next to last boxcar, neat black letters
spell out an immoderate & wholly inarguable projection:
Then the flashing orange light receding into the distance.


If you pray, pray for the physicians
who cannot heal themselves.
Pray for the shaman to remove poison everywhere he presses his mouth.
On the loading dock behind the hospital,
the same cherry has been burning at the end
of one cigarette or another for hours now.
Each new arrival joins the huddle
hurriedly, as if to confer over some desperate case,
bending pursed lips as close as necessary
to suck a spark from the middle
of a column of ash.

Facing the music

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I haven’t posted any fiction here in quite a while. There might be a good reason for that, I’m thinking…

Out for a walk one night, my foot bumps against something in the middle of the road. I feel it move just a little. I tap it cautiously with the toe of my boot; it seems pretty solid. It’s light enough to push without a whole lot of effort and makes only the slightest scraping sound, like cloth or fur rubbing against the asphalt.

I can’t see anything in the pitch darkness; it’s the last night before the new moon, I believe. I bend down and listen, cupping my hands to my ears. It’s hard to tell for sure, but I think I can just make out a quiet breathing. Whatever it is, it must be in trouble – a normal, healthy animal would have run away.

I should explain that I often go out for walks after dark, largely to enjoy the darkness. My wife finds this deeply weird – but then, she finds almost everything about me a little hard to fathom, I’m afraid. “Are you sure you don’t want to at least carry a flashlight in your pocket?” she asks. “What if you run into a skunk, or a rabid raccoon? What about snakes?” I shake my head, unable to explain the attraction of venturing out into an unlit world.

One of my main criteria in selecting the house we live in now was that it be as far as possible from any streetlights. Sure, the house needed a lot of work, but we can afford to pay other people to do it, I said, and she agreed. She was sold on the huge vegetable garden, where she spends every spare moment pulling weeds or mixing up biodynamic preparations to dribble onto the beds. All the while I sit inside, bent over my drafting board. So many kinds of paper, and almost all of them are some shade of white. It makes my eyes ache after a while.

Is this really breathing I’m hearing, or the quiet throbbing of my own pulse? A jet goes over, and for a couple minutes I can’t hear anything else. I am about to give the whatever-it-is another nudge with my toe, but stop short. If it is a living creature – especially one in great pain – the last thing it needs is to have some terrifying giant pushing and prodding it when all it wants, perhaps, is to die out under the stars. I step to the side and resume my slow progress.

But the damage has been done: now I have Johnny Cash running through my head, his tremorous but still strong, old man’s voice singing “Oh bury me not on the lone prairie…”

It’s funny – I go for months without listening to recorded music, putting in earplugs whenever I’m in the vicinity of a radio, and I still can’t banish other people’s songs from my head. I wonder if my ears will ever be sensitive enough to discern what so many pre-modern writers attested to: the so-called music of the spheres, harmonies that seemed to emanate from the center of a clear night sky. The 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton wrote matter-of-factly to a friend about hearing “‘the song of angels,’ or divine harmony.”

Just as a soul can sometimes be helped to understand spiritual matters by the spirit working through human imagination, so the spirit can help a soul caught up in the love of God to escape from all material and bodily sensations to a heavenly joy, in which it can hear a divine harmony, the angels’ song of love, provided it has attained a high enough degree of love.

But simply being “perfect in love,” Hilton added, might not be sufficient.

The soul has to be so consumed in the crucible of love that all physical elements have been burned out of it, and anything that can come between this soul and the purity of the angels has been removed and taken away from it. Then indeed can this soul ‘sing a new song to the Lord;’ then it can really hear the blessed harmony of heaven, the angels’ chorus of praise, without pretending or being deceived.

It’s strange, isn’t it, the alchemical imagery, the focus on the heart and mind of the experimenter rather than on the results of the experiment. This Augustinian language of the soul was as technical and precise as the jargon of any modern scientific discipline, though. I fully admit the shallowness of my attraction to it: it’s as exotic, as unreachably distant from my experience as the stars themselves.

We are not used to denying ourselves the pleasures of light, color and music, and the notion that some forms of knowledge might be accessible only to a carefully prepared mind seems heretical in an Information Age. I have a decidedly different take on carnal love from the 14th-century mystics. But the memories of my youthful “experiments” with mind-altering chemicals have stuck with me. When Hilton talks about the soul being “lifted, seized up, out of its senses, and beyond consciousness of physical things” until it can “hear and feel the divine harmony,” I know better than to dismiss him out-of-hand. I remember my friend who died of an overdose describing the effect of heroin the first time he tried it: not only was it far better than sex, he said, it made him realize that the mundane experiences of the body were only a kind of shadow-play. If he ended up choosing what most of us would consider darkness, perhaps it was because our own version of the light seemed so dim, so deficient.

I think about people like him whenever I’m out walking – people who, in essence, stimulate themselves to death. I have yet to find the right words to convince anyone that self-denial – “charity,” in Hilton’s archaic terminology – can also be a source of great pleasure.

As I stand there thinking in the middle of the deserted road, a sudden light rakes the branches above me and disappears. A few seconds later it reappears, illuminating the bushes to the other side before vanishing once more: headlights. I can’t hear any engine yet, but it will be here in less than a minute, I think. Whatever is lying in the road will be illuminated – and possibly crushed. Skunk? Squirrel? Raccoon? I turn and start jogging back, berating myself for not being more inquisitive, more solicitous.

I can hear the car’s engine, now, and the low heartbeat thumping of its stereo. I reach what I guess to be the right spot and start feeling wildly around with my feet and hands, all caution thrown to the wind. Nothing.

The headlights reach the last bend before the straightaway and I step to the shoulder, right hand shielding my eyes against the glare. They’re traveling too fast, whoever they are, for me to want to risk flagging them down.

A hundred feet away in their direction, a small, dark shape appears in the road, silhouetted for a few seconds in the high beams. It looks like nothing so much as an old leather boot. Then the car is hurtling past me, a convertible with its top down and music blaring, trailing an indecipherable string of shouted words.

My wife is right, I decide as I trudge back down the road. It wouldn’t kill me to at least carry a flashlight.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Tim's eight-point

A clear, cold morning in early autumn. The sun lovingly singles out the whitewashed walls of the old spring house from among the dark cattails and rushes of a little marsh. It almost seems to levitate, this strange little building – the only one on the farm that doesn’t line up with the ridges.

Two song sparrows are busy gleaning seeds from the tear-thumb, a two-foot-deep confusion of orange-red, vine-like stems and leaves choking the marsh and the adjacent ditch. I say “vine-like” because tear-thumb has no tendrils; the abrasive surfaces of its stems and leaves, coated with tiny, backwards-pointing barbs, help it climb over adjacent vegetation, but often it simply keeps piling up in place, falling all over itself. Its nondescript flowers have turned into clusters of little pink seeds, and I imagine that the bright autumnal color of its foliage, as with so many other plants, is meant to advertise their availability to the birds.

I watch from my chair across the road in front of my house, feeling that something is going to happen – has already happened – might be happening right now, without my knowledge. Autumn always provokes that kind of restlessness in me, a longing to escape the endless round of days and go wandering.

Gray squirrels start scolding at the edge of the woods: harsh, nasal alarms spreading from tree to tree. Probably a feral housecat, from the sound of it. I look for her without success, the black cat with white feet who has miraculously managed to elude the owls, coyotes and fishers for so many years.

I have been jotting down some thoughts in my laptop, the old-fashioned kind with a spiral of thin wire and dry skin-like leaves made from dead tree flesh. I’ve just been writing about power, and how adeptly it can disguise itself as love. I am not sure I can always tell the difference, even in myself. I know that both are necessary and at times beautiful, but I also know that I much prefer the cat’s silent slink to any klaxon.

The squirrels wind down after about ten minutes. Then I hear something large coming down the trail, and I go out into the driveway to take a look. An archery hunter – my friend Tim – is carrying his equipment out of the woods at mid-morning on the opening day of deer season. He sets his compound bow and portable tree stand down at the corner of the driveway and heads back up into the woods, emerging a few minutes later dragging a large, eight-point buck. He stops into the house for a glass of water, and I take the chance to grab my camera and snap a few pictures. This is far from the largest set of antlers I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the most perfect – well-proportioned and unchipped by combat.

Many hunters, including Tim, loosely refer to deer antlers as horns, and I’ve seen translations of Native American deer hunting songs that call them that as well. But true horns, as on goats or antelope, grow slowly and last a lifetime. It’s impressive to consider that these antlers sprouted just few months ago, and would have been shed by January, yet they’re anchored firmly enough to the skull to allow Tim to drag the entire carcass with a rope tied to their base.

So much of the animal’s energy supply goes into growing the antlers, and into the rut itself, that bucks are severely depleted of fat stores right at the start of winter when they need them most. The winter before last, following a less-than-average kill rate due to poor weather during the regular rifle season, unusually severe weather during February and March left deer carcasses scattered all through the woods. Enough of the fatter, fitter does survived to replenish the herd – indeed, the kill rate for antlerless deer on our square mile of land remained virtually unchanged in 2004. But the annual harvest of bucks declined precipitously here and throughout much of central and western Pennsylvania.

A small hole mars the pelt low in the chest. Tim tells me that despite getting a good shot near the heart, his quarry still had the strength to rocket up over the ridge and stumble halfway down the other side before collapsing. It took him a couple of hours to track it, field-dress it and drag it back up over the mountain. But as I help Tim heave it into the back of his pickup, I notice that the body’s still warm to the touch. The eyes have yet to glaze over, and due perhaps to the chill in the air, so far only one fly has found the rift in its belly, the opening to that dark, red cave.

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This time the day before, I had been en route to a cranberry bog with my hiking buddy L. Detouring around the heart of small town where a recent fire had gutted two square blocks, we spotted a legless man standing – or perhaps sitting – in the middle of a brick sidewalk. He had no artificial limbs that we could see; no wheelchair was in evidence. Vestigial jeans held up by red suspenders covered his stump of a hip. He seemed to be waiting for something.

The ground-hugging cranberry plants were loaded with fruit, pinker and more diverse in size and shape than the cranberries you can buy in the supermarket. Three months of dry weather meant we could stand in sphagnum moss and barely get our feet wet. The air temperature was around forty degrees Fahrenheit, but when we reached our fingers into the mounds of sphagnum, it felt five or ten degrees warmer. We wondered if this was heat retained from the day before, or if it came from the decomposing peat below.

I thought about the bog people of northern Europe – I had recently re-read P. V. Glob’s famous book – and how perfectly the tannins can preserve hair, flesh, clothing, inner organs, sometimes even the eyes. Perhaps the peat, on its slow way to becoming coal, kept the bodies warm as well, consolation for the unnatural deaths that more than a few of them may have actually welcomed, with a shutter of joy intermingled with horror at the thought of going down to meet the goddess – or the horned god.

On our way home that afternoon, we stopped for coffee in the rural county seat. Traffic narrowed to one lane in front of the courthouse, and orange-shirted workmen stood up to their waists in a hole in the middle of the street.

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At almost every moment, I think, it’s possible to witness something completely new, even if one never ventures far from home. The best hunters, like my friend Tim, are those who know where to sit: in his case, where the acorns lie thickest among the laurel. As for me, I’m sitting here watching the song sparrows use cattails for a kind of cursive scaffolding, something I’ve never focused on before. They grip the leaves near the top with their wiry claws and flutter their wings for balance as they ride them down, down, bending them over double and then some. The sunlight spreads into the marsh. The male song sparrow cuts short his eponymous song and dips his beak once more into the harvest.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 22 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fourth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. (I skipped both the first and third poems, not because they aren’t rewarding to read, but because their heavy autobiographical content makes them too difficult for me to respond to.) See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

Stanzas in an Emergency
by Paul Zweig

Here is the river,
The salt-tide edging upstream,
Grey cliffs extending in the sunmist.

I will not count my blessings,
I will be blessed.
I will solve the baffled distance in my mind.
I will not panic at my freedom.
I will know the smooth night
When my wife perches beside me,
Plumed and shining, as on a branch.
I will bring the estuary of the grey day
Into everything cramped and scarred.
I will bring you, my puzzled patient friend,
Whom I keep eluding
When you want only to tell me about love.

My neighbor emerges
In a clang of tumblers and doors.
With her sad nipples, her daughter vanished into permanent winter,
She is stubborn as a nun, and almost beautiful.
I see the news seller on the corner,
His blind face, his daylong
Conversation with dimes and quarters.
I accept my wife’s rage, her pride,
The spined flower standing for her in my mind,
The frantic light which is love’s exit, or entrance.

To exist at the highest level;
To be entirely conscious, so that even my smallest sigh
Glides happily, and the deathwatch is never bored,
For the little one, God’s human face,
Death, with his gay elfin whisper,
All the goings-on in closets,
Smothered giggle, lank defeated clothes;
All, all come crowding in, like guests at a wedding,
With promises that only death can keep.

A stubble-faced Greek runs the all-night
Market around the corner.
His bins are full of mangoes, plums,
Crushed sprigs of mint,
Bananas large as clubs, roots for alien stews.
They are colors that play against the night,
Bins of the loveliness that never sleeps.

This Greek in his shop
Stands guard for me, I sleep for him.
Together we endure the night.

* * * *

The Greek

My customers are real characters, some of them.
That’s no surprise.
But this one disheveled Jew? He writes
the screenplay, I think. You should see him.
He sleepwalks in here at 2:00 a.m.
and stands in front of the import bins – star fruits
& mangosteens – with his head cocked to the side.
Can I help you, sir, I’ll call out
when I can’t stand it anymore
& he looks over & grins – great big smile.
Paul, my friend, you already have, he says.
He likes the fact that we have the same first name.

The next morning he’s in here again, 8:00 o’clock,
for a loaf of fresh bread.
He might have big dark bags under his eyes
but he’s looking happy now, as if
he can hardly contain himself.
Like a man with a secret: sometimes it feels heavy,
sometimes it’s light.

His wife is French, he tells me once, the bread’s for her.
Another time, just as he’s handing me the money,
he stops & runs his finger through
the parallel slashes in the crust.
If it’s going in the oven anyway, he says,
why do they cut it like this?
It’ll split one way or the other, Paul, I say.
All we can do is tell it where.