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Lyle Zapato

Pitch-Chewing Tree Octopuses of British Columbia

Lyle Zapato | 2009-10-29.6120 LMT | Cephalopods | 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.)

End of post.