Happy Cephalopod Awareness Day. That day that we are supposed to spare a moment to our eight to twelve-legged underwater brethren.
Now I’m a history nerd. Going into this project, I didn’t really know anything about octopuses. They have eight legs and they taste pretty good sautéed in butter, garlic and white wine – that was about the extent of my knowledge. So when I started this whole project, I didn’t give the octopuses much thought. They were basically tentacley punch lines.
But something happens to you when you draw an animal over a hundred times -- as I did with the octopus. You get curious. So I was tickled pink that Katherine Harmon Courage -- a contributing editor to Scientific American and author of the book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creatures of the Sea was willing to fill in some gaps in my ignorance and answer a few of my increasingly silly questions about the world’s smartest invertebrates. Since my interview, by the way, I read her book. It's informative and a lot of fun to read. Go buy multiple copies. And while you're at it, be sure to check out the Veeptopus store on Etsy.
Q: What is the allure of octopuses? People, I'm discovering, are really into them, much more than VPs. In traditional art and literature, did the octopus have specific meanings?
KHC: Yes, people are obsessed with the octopus. And I think for good reason. They're just so bizarre. They have evolved to have these eight flexible arms with hundreds of suckers. Most of their nerves are in their arms, but they can solve mazes and even seem to want to communicate with us humans. As one scholar put it, if you're looking to study alien intelligence, you really don't have to look much further than the octopus. Also, they can kill sharks.
But you wanted to know about traditional meanings, too. A lot of cultures had different associations for the octopus that we still know about today. In Hawaiian mythology, the octopus is the only survivor of an earlier iteration of the earth. There is also a legend from the Gilbert Islands that the octopus god is responsible for pushing up the islands from the sea. Of course there are plenty more modern stories about evil giant octopuses or kraken smashing boats or eating sailors. But I also got to visit the town of Tellaro in my research and learn about the local myth there, in which a giant octopus actually saved the town by warning villagers about an impending invasion. Our ancient Greek friend Aristotle, however, called the octopus "a stupid creature." So it looks like opinions were quite varied.
And I don't know if you're giving vice presidents enough credit. I often find them to be, if not creepy, at least a little bit mysterious.
Q: Have you in your research ever come across any connection with cephalopods and leaders of any stripe coming into contact with each other?
KHC: I'm eagerly awaiting photos of Putin battling a giant octopus. But I haven't learned of any. There's always a chance Van Buren had a brush with a nautilus, I suppose. If you want to broaden that to leading actors, I did come across a story about Mark Wahlberg's son having a too-close encounter with an octopus (in which Wahlberg threatens to kill the "calamari" that has latched onto his son's arm.
Q: One thing I tried to do with Veeptopus is come up with facts and stories about vice presidents to make them seem more human and interesting. Along the way, I learned some really surprising facts (Charles Dawes, VP to Coolidge, won a Nobel Peace Prize and he wrote a number one pop hit. Who knew?). Did you come across facts about your subject that shocked and surprised you? Any favorites?
KHC: All of them. I knew very little about the octopus going into writing this book (except that they could use tools). I haven't heard of any getting awarded Nobel Peace Prizes (or doing more for the music industry than inspiring a pop song--which perhaps the Nobel committee will someday consider). But I was amazed to find out that they can change color, texture and brightness, that they can taste with their suckers, that they can regrow whole arms, that the males sometimes donate an arm to females in the name of love, and that they are incredibly smart but entirely antisocial (to the point of being cannibalistic). Maybe it's the same for vice presidents, but I found the more I learned about the octopus, the more fascinating it became.
Q: You have a favorite cephalopod?
KHC: The octopus, of course! Although I think the cuttlefish often gets overlooked.
Q: Would an octopus hat be just icky and uncomfortable or would it be potentially lethal?
KHC: That would have to depend on the octopus. A chill deep-sea octopus might not be so bad on the head. But a big ol' giant Pacific octopus could be a pretty unwieldy headpiece. I also don't think I would want a feisty mimic octopus (unless it was pretending to be a hat). But I would stay far away from a tiny blue ringed octopus--even if just worn as a fascinator. They might look flashy, but they have a deadly venomous bite. You could also ask Fiona Apple.
Q: Who is your favorite vice president?
KHC: Favorite VP? It is difficult to choose based not on impressiveness of facial hair styling or height of shirt collars--or accomplishments after leaving the office of VP (hello there, Teddy Roosevelt). After a very small amount of research, I do appreciate Thomas Marshall's sense of humor (even if Woodrow Wilson did not). But I suppose I will cast my vote for Garrett Hobart. Not only is he one of those names lost to popular history--and the owner of a terrific mustache--but he also, it seems, helped to shape the role of the vice president as we know it today, asserting himself as a true presidential advisor, or as he was known, the "assistant president." If it weren't for him, perhaps vice presidents would never have seemed important enough to even receive octopus hats. And that would be a tragedy.
Q: Who would you rather face off against in a dark alley -- Dick Cheney or a Dick Cheney-sized octopus?
KHC: Is the Dick Cheney-sized octopus armed with a hunting rifle?