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UH Professor, Consultant On 'My Octopus Teacher' Talks Reconnecting With Wilderness

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Ross Frylinck/The Sea Change Project
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“My Octopus Teacher,” the Oscar-winning documentary film from South Africa, tells the tale of an unusual friendship with an intelligent octopus living in a South African kelp forest. The Conversation learned of the film's Hawai‘i connection in University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu professor Louis Herman, who also hails from South Africa.

Herman said he has known the producer and star of the documentary Craig Foster for over 20 years.

Foster consulted with Herman and even interviewed him for the movie about the power of immersive wilderness and more. But the interviews from Herman and others were not included to keep the narrative on Foster’s relationship with the octopus. 

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Credit University of Hawaii West Oahu
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“I think the main star is the octopus and the ocean,” Herman said. “What I do as a philosopher and a teacher, a political activist is explain things and make connections between the small story and the big story and the larger situation. But that doesn’t necessarily belong in the film.”

Below are highlights from his interview with The Conversation’s Catherine Cruz, edited for length and clarity.

On the value of wilderness immersion

Most of our problems in global industrial civilization can be traced to this absolute disconnection from wilderness and the wild natural world, which we now know through science and the evolutionary epic actually made us--we are wilderness made. I think there's a deep hunger and a sense that the direction for healing comes from this reconnection with the natural world, especially wild nature.

Ninety-nine percent of our life is lived indoors surrounded by stuff that we make. We forget that the most important relationship to reality is what made us, which we know is the natural world and what keeps us alive. And so I think even though people don't articulate it, and certainly it's not part of the ideology of industrial society, I think there's a real, unconscious sense that this is what we are missing.

On the complementary relationship between South Africa and Hawai‘i

They’re really complementary opposites. South Africa is the side of human origins and some of the oldest land in the world and also home to, probably in a sense, the oldest indigenous culture on the planet: the San Bushmen, which have a sort of cultural continuity going back about 40,000 years.

And then Hawaii is at exactly the opposite end of the planet and is host to some of the newest land in the world, and one of the newest indigenous cultures. In a sense, all our cultures go back to human origins, but Native Hawaiian culture as a distinct expression of Polynesian culture, uniquely adapted to these islands and these lifeways, is relatively young. This idea of reviving Polynesian navigation (the H?k?le?a)--which is really a highly sophisticated attunement to the ocean and to nature, stars, heavens and weather--to guide them back to the point of origins of the whole human journey out of Africa, I think it’s a very powerful moment in the history of the islands, in the history of the indigenous renaissance. In the history of our species, it’s really an opportunity for a massive species wakeup.

On the legacy of the documentary

It's a very simple story and it's very unthreatening. Kids love it and it's a family-friendly movie. There’s sort of a happy ending and you see the small story of this wilderness immersion. Craig was diving every single day, winter and summer, the ocean was freezing. And in the process, he was going through a really rough time before. He'd finished a number of epic movies and was burnt out and it was affecting his relationships and he talks about it in the movie. Through just going back to immersion in a very simple relationship, to the oceans from whence all life comes, as we now know, and then the creatures in this remarkably intact wilderness ecosystem. One of the extraordinary things about the coastline of South Africa is how much of the original wilderness or sense of that original wilderness remains, primarily in the ocean. I think that had a profound effect on Craig personally, and he wrote a book about it with Ross Frylinck called Sea Change, which is also an account of the work of the institute that he set up in the process of making this film in collaboration with Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue.

False Bay was declared one of the hope spots of the planet in an attempt to preserve these oases of ocean wilderness, in the hope that as we pull back from this pollution and destruction of the ocean and the fisheries, industrial strip mining of the oceans, the oceans will be able to recover. And we seem to be at that critical point.

On his favorite part of the documentary film (Spoilers)

I love the ending where they find the little baby octopus that could have been one of the children. I like the drama of the octopus surviving the attack by the pajama sharks which makes it an action movie. I love the image where the octopus is dancing with that shoal of fish. And you realize that even an animal supposedly as simple as an octopus is capable of play and celebration and just the joy of moving its limbs. Just getting into the water is a pretty intense experience, just getting into that freezing water knowing that it's full of predators. It's one of the most predator-dense ocean ecosystems anywhere. It's full of great whites and even some orcas and seals, stingrays and a whole host of other really impressive megafauna.

This story aired on The Conversation on May 6, 2021

Herman is also the founder and director of The Institute for a New Political Cosmology, an effort to “integrate indigenous wisdom, evolutionary science and political philosophy into a new story of what it means to be human living in synergy with an evolving earth.”

His 2013 publication "Future Primal: How our Wilderness Origins Show us a Way Forward" presents the politics of indigenous and early hunting-gathering societies as offering profound insights into truth seeking and righteous living which industrial society has lost touch with.

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