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Lyle Zapato

Tree Octopus Videos: Hatch & Attack!

Lyle Zapato | 2010-01-15.6195 LMT | Nature

The new decade brings two new tree octopus videos. First up is an incredible one from the Save the Tree Octopus! YouTube channel (not associated with ZPi) which purports to show a hatching tree octopus:

The idea that tree octopuses hatch from solid-shelled eggs in trees is just fanciful, the stuff of urban legend. It has never been documented in any species before, although there have been unconfirmed reports from Palau of octopuses giving live birth in trees. However, the breeding habits of O. paxarbolis -- which must return to the Puget Sound to lay soft-shelled eggs that produce dime-sized hatchlings -- are well known among cephalopodologists, both human and sasquatch.

What I believe we are seeing here is a juvenile tree octopus that has found a bird's nest, pecked a hole through one of the eggs with its beak, and then squeezed through the hole to dine on the innards, causing the imbalanced egg to roll over, hiding the small entrance. This sort of behavior is often seen in octopuses, who enjoy tight spaces and free food. Once finished with its meal and heavy with yolk and albumen, it finds it easier to break the shell than squeeze back through the hole, producing the illusion of hatching.

While not showing the next step in tree octopus evolution that it initially appears, the video is still an interesting look into the food-web of the Cascadian forest canopy, and illustrates the tree octopuses' dependence on native bird species.

The other video is a short, self-explanatory action flick in the "octoploitation" genre from Raging Walrus Filmz titled Tree Octopus Attack! Enjoy:

Lyle Zapato

Talking Tree Octopus Of IMPOLEX

Lyle Zapato | 2009-12-08.0878 LMT | Entertainment

IMPOLEX (2009) is an independent film about a US soldier on a special mission for Operation Paperclip to single-handedly recover the last two remaining V-2 rockets in post-war Germany.

(This is not a review since I haven't seen the film. It's on the film festival circuit, so I probably won't see it for a while. I'm describing it via the trailer, interviews, and PR on the film's site. My apologies if I get something wrong.)

The film follows Tyrone S. (Riley O'Bryan) as he looks for and finds a miniature V-2 rocket, then has to carry it around a forest in search of the second one. Along the way he encounters various unusual characters and eats bananas.

IMPOLEX's writer/director, Max Ross Perry, freely admits in interviews that he was heavily influenced by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow -- besides thematic similarities, the main character's name is the same in both and the title was obviously inspired by Pynchon's Imipolex G, although Perry's IMPOLEX (short for "Initiative for the Monitoring and Protection of Liquid Energy Explosives") is a US military organization, not a secret Nazi erectile plastic.

What's drawn my interest in this film is that one of the characters Tyrone encounters is a talking tree octopus, of unknown European species, voiced by Eugene Mirman and played by two octopuses -- which I assume is some sort of union thing. One still shows them sitting together in the forest, engaged in a deep discussion:

IMPOLEX

I don't know what they discuss, but apparently they have a falling out. In the trailer at about 1:40, Tyrone shoots at the octopus:

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Lyle Zapato

Pitch-Chewing Tree Octopuses of British Columbia

Lyle Zapato | 2009-10-29.6120 LMT | Cascadia | Food

Among the First Nations of Cascadia, tree pitch (more accurately, oleoresin) is harvested, hardened in cold water, then chewed for pleasure like gum. One of the trees traditionally used is the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), also known as the tidewater spruce since it tolerates being near salt water (according to Wikipedia, its range never extends more than 80 km from the Pacific Ocean and its inlets).

Not surprisingly, octopuses, common in the tidal inlets along the Cascadian coast, have also discovered the joys of chewing pitch, and will come out of the water and enter the nearby Sitka to obtain the tasty treat. This behavior has long been reported by the people of coastal British Columbia, but appears to have gone little noticed by outsiders, judging by the paucity of written records.

Those who have reported pitch harvesting by octopuses include the Nuxalk (also known as the Bella Coola). The Bella Coola Indians (1948) by Thomas Forsyth McIlwraith, tells the story of one man's encounter with a pitch-chewing octopus in the trees:

[The Bella Coola] believe that [the octopus] is fond of gum and frequently comes to land to obtain it. It is said that the gum is never voided, but remains in a suck within the creature's stomach. One informant stated that within his mother's life-time, a man walking near Täl·io heard a smacking sound, like someone chewing noisily. He knew what must be the cause, but idly decided to investigate. It was an octopus. The beast was clambering down from the tree, using two of its arms to help it. Not realizing his danger, the man allowed himself to be seized and carried to the shore. He had thought that it would be easy to free himself, but he found it impossible and was carried under the sea. He bit frantically at the enfolding arms, until he succeeded in freeing his own, with which he pushed up the beak of the octopus, thus killing it. He rose to the surface and returned home none the worse.

This octopus bears little resemblance to the peaceful -- and non-man-carryingly large -- Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (O. paxarbolis). Given the details, it is unlikely that it was a true arboreal species, but merely one willing to make a plunge into the Big Dry to get a snack, much like the olive-loving octopuses of Greece or the ara-eaters of Polynesia. (And as to its misanthropy, stories of octopuses both antagonistic to humans and huge -- some even capable of destroying whole villages -- are not uncommon throughout British Columbia and Alaska. But that's beyond the scope of this post.)

A more mythic story from the Comox of Vancouver Island suggests that it was the octopus that gave humans the idea to chew pitch. The details of the story aren't relevant here, and apparently there are regional variations that vary greatly, but in this version a son of Aie'len (the Sun) goes into the sky and encounters a pitch-chewing octopus in a scene oddly reminiscent of Alice and the Caterpillar (machine-translated from German with corrections by me):

When he had reached into the sky, he found a road that led through a beautiful, flat land. In the distance he saw smoke rising. He walked toward it and found an octopus lying comfortably, chewing resin. The young man asked him: "Oh, give me some pitch." The octopus replied: "What do you mean? But you can not use the resin for your teeth!" But the man asked again: "Oh, give me some pitch and your coat." And the octopus gave him both.

The coat is magical; it transforms the man into an octopus, under which guise he tricks the daughters of someone named Tla'ik into bringing him home as part of an elaborate scheme to woo the youngest one. He later punishes her father for disapproving of their marriage by spitting the pitch into the sea to create the thing that most scares Tla'ik: whales!

The story was first recorded in 1895 by the German-speaking anthropologist Franz Boas in his Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas (in German, obviously -- "harzkauenden Tintenfische" = "resin-chewing octopus"). An English translation of Boas' work -- Indian Myths & Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America: A Translation, translated by Deitrich Bertz and edited by Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy -- states in a footnote that "it is a common Coast Salish belief that octopuses chew pitch".

The nearby Sliammon (or Tla A'min) also tell a variation of the story that includes the pitch-chewing octopus. Sliammon Life, Sliammon Lands (1983), by Dorothy Kennedy and Randy Bouchard, has a version as told by Rose Mitchell, this time with the main protagonist described merely as a "small person" named Thens (Wren):

Soon [Thens] heard the sound of chewing as he walked through a meadow, and when he went to investigate, he came across Octopus, who was chewing pitch. This pitch was Octopus' power.

Thens asked Octopus for a piece of this magic pitch, but Octopus only replied, "Oh, your mouth must be like mine." Three times Thens asked for the magic pitch and three times Octopus gave him this same answer, but the fourth time Thens asked, he was given some. "You can use this pitch for anything," Octopus told him. Octopus also gave Thens a robe with special power.

That's pretty much all I've been able to uncover so far on pitch-chewing and pitch-foraging among BC octopuses. Although I did find this interesting picture and description posted by "Dru!" on Flickr in 2007:

I was lucky enough today to catch a glimpse of an elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (Octopus paxarbolis). I have been trying to see one of these rare creatures for several years and with great patience managed to sight one migrating from tree to tree that was unaware of my presence and had not camouflaged itself.

There is some info about these creatures at zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ but it is somewhat inaccurate. The PTO (Pacific Tree Octopus) is not only found near Puget Sound (as alleged on Zapatopi) but is also found along the western coast of BC as far north as Bella Coola. The Canadian population has not been critically endangered in the same way the American one has, although the PTO is red-listed in BC because of its dependence on undisturbed pathways from its aquatic spawning grounds and its forested habitat.

The range (north to Bella Coola, BC) matches the area where pitch-chewing octopuses have been reported, and that tree does look like a spruce. I'm going to have to disagree with Dru!; this isn't O. paxarbolis, but some other semi-arboreal or normally non-arboreal species -- possibly a juvenile Enteroctopus dofleini -- caught in the act of foraging for spruce pitch. (Also, the eyes don't look like those of O. paxarbolis. Perhaps Sitka has the same effect on octopuses as Spice has on the Fremen of Arrakis.)

Lyle Zapato

Trick-Or-Treat For Tree Octopus!

Lyle Zapato | 2009-10-11.7150 LMT | Art | Crafts | Food

Box

Now you can help tree octopuses get their favorite Halloween treats: candy corn and shrimp!

Just download and assemble the special box. Then on Halloween say "Trick-or-treat for Tree Octopus!" and ask your neighbors for candy corn or shrimp. When you have filled the box with treats, hang it on a branch in a forest where tree octopuses dwell. Tree octopuses enjoy the challenge of removing treats from the box!

Lyle Zapato

How To Defend Against A Charging Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2009-10-03.5440 LMT | Defensive Techniques | Retro

An octopus running

The vulnerable portion of the octopus is the neck, and fishermen and others, who know their habits when attacked, always strive if possible to seize them by the throttle-valve, when they are easily killed. This is comparatively easy on land, but nearly impossible in the water. The locomotion of the devil-fish is as easy on land as in the water. They have been known frequently to run up perpendicular cliffs, two hundred feet high, as easily as the fly runs up a wall, the machinery of attachment being very similar. They are said to move on land as fast as a man can run, and frequently pursue their prey out of the sea, though on the land they are far more timid than in their marine haunts. [From World of Wonders (1881).]

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Lyle Zapato

Tree Octopuses Among The Stars

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-28.8040 LMT | Paraterrestrials

Tree-climbing octopus
Fig. 4 An artist's impression of a tree-climbing octopus.

The above illustration is from Life Among the Stars (1974) by V. A. Firsoff. It shows a tree octopus as representative of a hypothetical cephalopodesque lifeform that has the potential to evolve into a spacefaring species.

Firsoff imagines which types of lifeforms are most likely to follow an evolutionary pathway to sapience and eventually into space. Considering various Earth species as hypothetical candidates for proto-spacefarers, he notes that sealife is less constrained than landlife, which must deal with the vagaries of humidity and temperature on dry land, but:

these difficulties have honed the keen edge of perception and the thinking capacity of the land-livers to a general level above that of their marine counterparts, although some of the most intelligent animals are aquatic mammals, who have returned to the mother of all life after a prolonged evolutionary exile on the terra firma. The octopus, too, is a clever fellow.

He proposes that a lineage that begins with a clever octopus, already at an advantage over its marine brethren, venturing out of the sea and being honed by a challenging life in the trees is a very promising one:

[S]omething like an octopus, perhaps tree-climbing, is conceivable on land, especially in humid conditions; and, since this is a highly intelligent animal and equipped with limbs admirably suited for handling things, it could evolve to an industrial civilisation, which would be difficult for the dolphin, despite its large brain and developed language, because flippers are not much use for anything except swimming. Thus a race of pseudo-octopi may yet be piloting space ships!

This theme of certain species having more potential for sapience and spaceship-piloting was famously expanded upon by science fiction writer David Brin in his novels set in the Uplift Universe, where sapient patron species use genetic modification to nudge along other species deemed particularly ripe for sapience. Not surprisingly, Brin's Contacting Aliens describes one of these patrons, the Puber (the grand-patrons of the series' main antagonists, the Soro), as having been uplifted from a species that was "arboreal, a sort of tree-dwelling octopus". How could Brin not include something with such obvious potential?

So what of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, our dear, endangered friend? Does it have the potential to follow the path that Firsoff charts to the stars? And if it does, how can we deny it its potential by refusing to do everything we can to save it from extinction? With the shame of our past crimes against it and the present indifference among many of us to its plight, perhaps we owe the tree octopus to not just save it, but to uplift it, so that one day Paxarbolis ab-Human can take its place in the Community of the Universe where it belongs.

Lyle Zapato

Harlan Ellison Stalks The Tree Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-25.5670 LMT | Entertainment

Stalking the Nightmare (1982) is a collection of miscellaneous short works by Harlan Ellison. One of the pieces, "The Hour That Stretches", is sort of a fictionalized transcript of a guest appearance by Ellison on the radio show Hour 25, hosted by Mike Hodel.

At Ellison's suggestion, callers to the show (including some of his writer peers) pitch ideas to him, which he then tries to develop into plot synopses for stories, improv style -- at least when he isn't insulting the callers or saving Humanity from mysterious, outer forces bent on our destruction.

After an idea about racing domesticated Arabian camels with NFL players as jockeys and someone suggesting he write "I'm Looking for Kadak" again, only with the Pope thrown in -- both of which he dispatched without synopsizing -- Ellison gets this call:

Hodel put on another caller. Mayer Alan Brenner.

"I know you," Ellison said.

"You sure do. And I've got a beauty for you."

"Be still my heart," Ellison said, sinking down on his spine.

"It's an excerpt from NORTHEAST TREE AND STREAM," Mayer said. "A short history of the famous Chesapeake Tree-Climbing Octopus..."

"Why me?" Ellison groaned. "Which God did I offend?"

"All of them," said Hodel.

Mayer went on, undaunted by sounds of pain coming over his radio.

"This retiring and rarely glimpsed creature lives in the many quiet estuaries of the Chesapeake system. Early each morning the octopus leaves the water and crawls up the trunk of a shoreside tree. It makes its way precariously onto a branch overhanging the water, where it waits for its prey to pass underneath." Silence ensued. Dead air hung heavily in the night.

Finally, Ellison said, "And that's it, right? That's the idea, right, Mayer?"

"Uh-huh."

More silence. Then, in a very soft, very tired voice, Ellison said, "These blue-skinned Jewish aliens with wheels come down to Earth and kidnap the Pope so they can have a race on Arabian camels to establish whether Jews or Gentiles are worthiest to live in the universe, and the Pope gets all these NFL players to ride as his team, because they're all Polish or black and not a Jew in the lot, and they have this watercourse raceway and they race for the universe, and as they come under this tree in the Chesapeake system the octopus drops out of a tree and eats every last, fucking one of them, football players, Jewish aliens, the Pope, the camels, Brian Sipe and Terry Bradshaw and Walter Payton and you too Mayer!"

Ok, so it's not "Devilfish with a Glass Tentacle" or "A Boy and his Octopus", but it's still a Harlan Ellison story about a tree octopus. Now if I could just track down that issue of Northeast Tree and Stream that Brenner found...

Lyle Zapato

Pratchett's Nation

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-20.1325 LMT | Entertainment | Piratical Yarrings

This is strange.

First of all, Terry Pratchett published a novel last year, Nation, that features tree-climbing octopuses and no one thinks to notify me, of all people? I'm hurt! If I wasn't already paranoid, this would put me over the edge.

Well, anyway, I'm in the loop now. I only discovered it last night while looking for more things to put on the media subpage on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site. (An aside: What was the deal with 2008? Five books -- that I've discovered so far -- were published with tree octopuses in them, not even counting school text books. And only one of the authors thought to let me know. Thank you, again, Eric E. Olson.)

But here's the weird thing: The cover of the UK edition has a tree-climbing octopus on it, hidden in the shadows. Excellent! But then I looked a little closer at it. It seemed strangely familiar. Here's a lightened and contrasted detail (taken from an extra-large image of the cover found here):

Detail of tree-climbing octopus from UK cover of 'Nation' UK cover of 'Nation'
The added white square on the cover is where the tree octopus can be found.

Now where have I seen that tree octopus before? Oh, yeah, here it is:

Original tree octopus image
Tree octopus image that's been on my site for a decade.

I applaud the cover designer's desire for technical accuracy by using an image of an actual tree octopus (albeit not O. arbori, as specified by Pratchett), but is it really the smartest thing, from a legal ass-covering perspective, to take an image off of some website and put it on a very notable commercial product? I mean, you're designing the cover for a freaking Terry Pratchett novel, not doing graphics on some penny-ante website in your spare time; someone's going to eventually notice, no matter how much you darken the image.

I can understand if the cover artist left the octopus out, and your boss told you just before the deadline that there had to be a tree-climbing octopus on there, and Google image search is just a few tempting clicks away... but, really? No one around the office can draw an octopus, not even one that would be mostly in silhouette? What are they teaching you people in design school? Drawing octopuses should be part of the fundamentals!

Just so we're clear, I have absolutely no intention of making any sort of drama about this (not that I rightly could... ahem), and everything's cool as far as I'm concerned. Mostly I'm disappointed that more effort wasn't put into having a proper tree-climbing octopus illustration on the cover (and none at all on the North American version, at least that I can see). But whoever's in charge of the cover-design department at Pratchett Heavy Industries needs to give some stern lectures to their underlings lest they get themselves into trouble in the future.

Lyle Zapato

Book Review: Drome

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-19.0440 LMT | Cascadia | Hollow Earth | Lost Worlds | Entertainment | Retro
Cover: 'Drome' by John Martin Leahy
But why had they set out on a journey so strange and so hazardous -- through the land of the tree-octopi and the snake-cats, through that horrible, unearthly fungoid forest, and up and up, up into the caves of utter blackness, across that frightful chasm, up to the Tamahnowis Rocks, into the blaze of the sunshine, out onto the snow and ice on Mount Rainier?

Drome, written and illustrated by John Martin Leahy, is a pulp story about a strange underground world, home to a lost civilization that may be the progenitors of ancient Greek culture. It was originally serialized in the Jan.-May, 1927 issues of Weird Tales, and republished as a book in 1952. I'm reviewing the book, which I believe has some differences from the pulp original (a preface, footnotes, and some casual references in the main text to atom-bombs and television that don't seem particularly 1920s-ish.)

The story has two elements of interest to me: 1) it starts in Cascadia (the entrance to the underworld is on Mt. Rainier) with references to regional history and culture and 2) it mentions Cascadian tree octopuses, albeit of an unusual and deadly subterranean variety. So naturally I had to acquire an original copy for the ZPi library and review it.

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Lyle Zapato

La Pieuvre Des Arbres

Lyle Zapato | 2009-07-22.9780 LMT | Nature | Art | Entertainment

Below is some rare footage of a tree octopus from 1928:

The scenes were shot by the French experimental filmmaker Jean Painlevé and originally appeared in his surrealist nature film about octopuses, La Pieuvre (The Octopus). The silent short with the scenes in their original context can be found in the recently released Criterion Collection of Painlevé's work, "Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé".

(Thanks to Joshua for bringing this to my attention.)