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Root & Vine at the Movies: My Octopus Teacher

People have developed strange relationships with wild animals forever, but none quite top Craig Foster’s bond with an octopus off the coast of South Africa. Connections in the natural world have the power to teach us and transform us. When Foster first stumbled upon the octopus, he knew there was something special about her. “And then I had this crazy idea: What happens if I just went every day? What happens if I never missed a day?” Foster spent over a year visiting a kelp forest and learning from his octopus teacher. 

Learning more about this alien-like creature is what drew my nine-year-old son and I to watch My Octopus Teacher, a nature documentary released in 2020, available on Netflix. We were both captivated by Foster’s discoveries of the behavior and personality of the octopus — one of the most mysterious creatures in God’s creation. However, this documentary was more than a distanced analysis and narration of the octopus’ life. 

When we study the universe of created things, it ignites our sense of awe and wonder. It has a way of transforming us. It’s this truth Foster offers as another layer to your typical nature documentary.

Foster started his exploration of the oceanic kelp forest as a retreat. Foster grew up on the shore of the Atlantic, diving in the kelp forest. He left the coast and its wonders as an adult, only to return decades later, exhausted from work, sleep deprived, and mentally taxed. The move back to the coast of South Africa was fueled by two things: Foster’s desire to be a better father to his son and a desire to connect to the natural world the way he had seen men in the central Kalahari connect.

As Foster began documenting what he witnessed under the water, this deep immersion into one natural habitat gradually impacted the filmmaker.

Every day, over the course of a year, Foster visited the foreign underwater jungle where he found the octopus. “People ask me, ‘Why are you going to the same place every day?’ That’s when you get to know the wild.”

The Wild in Your Own Backyard

Craig Foster found awe and wonder in his own backyard. While I was captivated by the incredible cinematography that captured Foster’s deep exploration and relationship with the octopus, your backyard doesn’t have to be a stunning rocky coast in South Africa to discover the same wonder of Creation.

Even though we live within city limits, our home sits atop a slight canyon dotted with deciduous trees, all leaning against the gradual slip down into the valley, where a creek trickles and roars after a heavy summer rain. In winter, the entire landscape is a palette of browns and grays, until it snows, when everything muddy becomes white. 

When the weather is pleasant, I opt to sit out on our deck and take in the sights and sounds of our small wilderness: the squirrels that relentlessly chase each other and tease our dog from branches just beyond her reach; the variety of songbirds and crows that create a harmonious background concert to whatever it is I’m doing; the hawk, silent kite in the sky; the woodpecker, announcing his presence with a quick hammer. 

When I experience this audio visual orchestra,  I am graced to witness other creatures: a raccoon nestled in the elbow of a maple, a doe and her fawns weaving between tree trunks and fallen limbs, a hummingbird seeking out something sweet, or a darting carpenter bee that dances around my deck to intimidate me.

This landscape sanctuary is also my children’s playground (when I force them off electronics). They have names for its hidden wonders: Fort Diamond, Fort Emerald, The Black Sea, The Mariana Trench (where my middle son got his boot stuck). They have found toads, newts, frogs, and snakeskins. They have picked up some of these creatures and thought about what it means to be tender, smaller, vulnerable, in the hands of someone far more powerful and still be respected, cared for, and nurtured.

They are learning truths about the universe, nature, humanity, andt God, the same lessons Craig Foster absorbed from his octopus in the kelp forest: “What she taught me was to feel… that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference…

“A gentleness. That’s what a thousand hours in nature can provide… She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other.”

Come to Craig Foster’s documentary for the beauty and wonder of Creation, the fascinating detail he uncovers about the octopus, and the incredible videography capturing an otherwise foreign world. Then get swept away by all that an octopus can show you about love, family, friendship, sacrifice, and our own relationship with nature. You will never be the same.

Learn more about My Octopus Teacher and the conservation effort, the Sea Change Project, connected to the documentary.

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