The Mask of the Octopus
Stephen Newton

Photo by Corey Fischer

In the African rain forest is a praying mantis which is indistinguishable from the leaves upon which it rests and walks and feeds. It is only when turning it upside down, the side that predators never see, that one can identify this green leaf as an insect. It is one of many such creatures in the rain forest.

The octopus changes color with the shifting sea light. When the sand on the bottom turns to shale or coral the body of the octopus ripples with images of the passing world. The suction cups on its legs and the bulb of its head become sand and seaweed, a plume of steam rising from a crack in the ocean floor. Darwin's theory of natural selection suggests that small biological changes which give some kind of adaptive advantage are then inherited by ensuing offspring and accrue until eventually they become large changes, given enough time, enough generations. A mantis becomes a leaf; an octopus acquires the ability to shape-shift its pigment cells and camouflage itself, becoming a pile of bones, an iridescent shell, a crown of barnacles. Over thousands of generations a tiger grows stripes.

Chaos theory suggests that the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly in China creates a tiny amount of turbulence which resonates through the atmosphere, gradually becoming more and more magnified over time until it results in the formation of a storm system on the other side of the globe. Micro-fluctuations become macro-movements when they have room enough and time to play themselves out. We live seemingly surrounded by the evidence in nature that small actions or changes have long-standing repercussions, yet we also are determined to avoid believing this to be true. We don't want to look down as we walk across the tightrope. We might find out that we are walking without a net, our lives totally dependent on the qualities of our own balance and fearlessness.

We want to proceed as if only big actions, grand statements, clear paths, have the kinds of results that can merit the focus of our attention. The idea that the smallest of our actions, the glance downward from a tightrope, may have some monumental effect somewhere down the road, either in our own life or in the lives of those that we come into contact with, is for a variety of reasons a difficult, even impossible, idea to embrace in all of its grave severity. The idea is too stark. There is a kind of harsh New England simplicity here that lets the wind blow through. There is no sugarcoating, no diluting of the spirits. It seems that the world is either this way or not, a black and white distinction that forbids blurred partitions. We give lip-service to understanding and perhaps even appreciating the theory, but when it comes to actually believing it, as much as many of us can believe anything to be true, we blanch. This is a board with the paint worn off by the wind and rain, fingernails ground down to the quick. Who would want to enter such a place?

What is the point, other than that there are some truths so ubiquitous, so ever-present, that to ignore them is to invite, if not quite disaster, then certainly some degree of trouble, probably of the kind that incubates or mutates and then springs forth fully formed with sharp newborn teeth, hungry from the moment of birth. Some things are awful from their first appearance. It is perhaps, then, especially important to remember the ways that our seemingly insignificant, everyday actions can reverberate with others. We make impressions of one kind or another whether we want to or not.

It may well be that the best we can do is speculate, and then only dimly at best, about the effects that these impressions may have, the kinds of changes in people's lives which can arise out of the smallest of stimuli, arriving years later, but the fact that the best we can do is guess does not negate the importance of that guesswork. It may be all that we have.

The fact that we can only speculate about outcomes, in other words, does not deny the fact that we affect people and rarely know how or why. You try explain what it is about playing music that you find so satisfying, and find that you are at a loss for words, the same way that you are when asked to describe other intimate matters. Perhaps it is the feeling that you are doing something well, that this is the place where you belong, where for the moment you are doing something exquisitely right, following along while the music carries with it its own sense of fate and inevitability.

Playing improvisational music is a conversation, and all of the small changes that are tossed back and forth between the musicians in a band—jazz or rock and roll or blues or country, anything but classical or show tunes, really, anything improvised, anytime one is creating in the moment—change the character of the musical landscape as they are incorporated into the fabric of the song. These changes alter the future at the same time that they alter the past. This is conversation using an intuitive language, a vocabulary of nonverbal syntax that fuses happiness and sadness, anger and joy, into something bittersweet, an emotional ground which is easy to identify and hard to define.

Sometimes this musical exchange might be more clearly euphoric or depressing than others, and there is a place for these extremes, but more often it is somewhere in between, the sounds of shadows and rain and fog over the sea. It is always, always deeply emotional, and it is always as well a conversation which evolves and switches and turns in unpredictable ways, the way that the sea bottom ripples on the skin of an octopus, droplets from jungle rain gather on the stripes of a tiger, or the wind blows clouds across the tops of trees on a hillside, above rocks, moss, mud and roots, flashing shadows on the shell of a snail.

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