It should be no surprise to those who know me that I have a number of side obsessions.
A few years back I was dating a recreational scuba diver and I happened to tell him about my fondness for the fact that Puget Sound, and especially the Tacoma Narrows, is home to some of the largest of the large octopus, the Giant Pacific Octopus. Don’t ask me why, but I love thinking of them down there—in one of the deepest and coldest parts of the sound, happy and unmolested, doing whatever giant octopuses do—poking their eyeballs up to the edge of their caves, lying in wait for small human submarines to devour.
However, my gentleman then told me I was wrong: he had dived in the narrows and he’d never seen a single octopus. In fact, he said, the currents are too fast and too strong for them there—and he wouldn’t hear anything else about it.
I want to tell you, this broke my heart—and it also irritated me pretty seriously, because I had heard this information for years and I was confident it was true. But nothing was going to sway him: he was a diver, I was not, therefore he knew more than I did about this. The Narrows was too violent for octopuses, even if they held on with all eight legs, the pressures would pry them loose and flush them into the greater Sound.
I perhaps do not need to mention that this was not a long-lasting liason.
The natural world, unfortunately, cannot defend itself against human arrogance, delusion, and stupidities.
I will not reconstruct here the list of ‘facts’ we have rewritten to suit our needs, even on issues as petty my former beau’s ego needing to be expert. The truths about the natural world that we have ignored, altered, maybe even just innocently gotten wrong, it’s all pretty stunning and more than a disturbing, considering where these elaborate self-deceptions are leading. But we continue: when anything in the natural world interferes with what we humans think we know, what we might want to do, it is so incredibly easy for us to turn the perspective just enough to reframe reality to suit ourselves.
But the natural world may win out in the end: the question may be whether or not human beings will be around to realize it.
I go to an annual New Year’s party in Seattle, and with the timing and traffic, rather than catching a ferry it’s often easier to come back to where I live by driving around, though it’s important to keep alert—the I’5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma can be like a bad video game of drifting taillights, a dreamy world of bright red tracers. Especially late at night it’s easy forget they are attached to large torpedoes hurtling along at more than sixty miles an hour.
Then after crossing the Narrows the traffic drops off pretty fast and the highway becomes empty, the night velvety, easy to feel transported to a David Lynch movie, losing sight again of the immediate act of piloting a swiftly moving vehicle.
Still, I like the drive, especially after social gatherings. Once in the car and on the highway I can settle back into my own shell, digesting the feast as well as the unusual stimulation of groups of interesting people. My thoughts coalesce, as they were on Thanksgiving, coming onto the approach of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and for a moment I thought back to that annoying ex. Now, a couple of years later, I can be more charitable. Seriously, who among us doesn’t suffer from personal delusions?
Because by now, I have taken initiative and done my research. The truth about the Giant Pacific Octopus is that yes, absolutely they live in the Tacoma Narrows. They have been studied there, tagged for research there; there are even romantic stories of huge specimens living in the ruins of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the infamous Galloping Gertie. At the time of construction it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, but reportedly could be detected swaying in strong wind before it was even completed. In November of 1940 (why, this very time of year!) the bridge ripped out after writhing in forty mile an hour winds. It has been rebuilt, obviously, but the original wrecked span lays deep below the waters of the Narrows, listed as both an ‘artificial reef’ and reference #92001068 on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hurtling across this bridge, I consider more facts:
The water at the Narrows is over 200 feet deep. The center span of the bridge is 187 feet above the water, and after midnight, I will be driving on that span, held up by towers rising three hundred feet above me into the night.
Aldous Huxley famously said, “Just because one ignores facts doesn’t mean they go away.“
In this season of resolutions we can hope for a world that learns to look more at what is, before trying to fit it into the expedient narrative human beings want. On a more personal level we could consider becoming more open minded, even to one another, regardless of what it does to our own defenses.
As on Thanksgiving, something in me will jump as I cross the Narrows—thinking of the 187 foot drop to the water and the 200 feet of water below that–ice cold, ink-black–the ruins of the bridge wedged down there–
And the octopus–attuned to the pitches and strains beneath the water, living in a rhythm of tides that roll at 8.5 miles per hour, 12.5 feet per second.
They are there.
Rock on, octopuses
Happy New Year, Planet.