Some days I am the only person working in the lab, where I do daily maintenance and data recording of a complicated analytical instrument that I am in charge of.

But I am not alone. There is the large octopus in the tank and she watches me. Sometimes she swims back and forth like a kid making waves in the bathtub, causing the water in her tank to splish and splosh.

At other times she hangs some of her tentacles over the divider wall into the dry overflow compartment of her tank while the rest of her enormous mass still basks in the tank, slowly pumping water through her siphon. While she is bright red in color when she plays with the water, she turns a pale white when she is asleep.

In any case, it can be distracting, but is always very fascinating to me to be working next to such an amazing creature. The octopus has been there for the past four years and grew from a tiny thing little bigger than a hand into this huge and gorgeous animal, which is now close to the end of its lifespan. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, during our regular staff meeting, the technician who feeds the octopus, cleans her tank and talks to her made a surprising declaration.

“I have news,” she said. “She is a he.”

Really? Here we are, with a creature that grew up next to us and shared our space for several years, and each of us biologists is perfectly capable of telling a male from a female octopus, and we all had been sure this one was a female, and yet we were wrong? How could this happen? 

It is relatively easy to tell the gender of an octopus: The male has one tentacle that is shaped differently, modified into a special sperm package delivery appendage called a hectocotylus.

Unlike in mammals, the octopus sperm gets delivered as a package, which he deposits deep inside her mantle. The female octopus can store that sperm package for quite a long time before opening it to fertilize her eggs internally. 

The point of the story is that for years we have been watching the octopus in its tank. At one time someone had started to call it a “she” and nobody ever really checked to confirm the gender designation. 

If my lack of attention to detail could fool me in this case, what else is staring me in the face while I missed it?

I believe that our lives are full of superficial and unverified facts, especially when it comes to the people around us. As my social bubble has shrunk like a water droplet that is slowly evaporating during these COVID-inflicted social restrictions, I have taken to an approach of paying closer attention to those around me and thinking about how much or little I really know about their life journey.

Consider that even your partner or best friend probably had many years before they met you — years during which they moved around and had defining experiences that shaped who they are today. What fascinating stories are there that were never told, and what memories lie buried?

If you start digging, however, you must be gentle like an archeologist excavating rare and fragile treasures because memories are delicate things and it is a privilege if someone lets you in to visit them.

Perhaps it is a time to revisit your own memories as well.

I sometimes ask myself about the key events in my life that retrospectively unmasked as turning points. How did I get here and at what points in my life did a single decision push events into one or the other direction?

I have, at times, sat down and written about some of these key experiences. Reading my own words again after years can resurrect moments and experiences to be revisited with a new mindset and sometimes even learn new lessons from past events. It can help make sense of how past events led to the present, and can help in making plans and setting goals for the future.

There is a parallel here to the scientific approach of learning about past events. Many methods devised to tease out information about the past rely on interpreting the remains deposited in some hidden way. 

For example, carbon dating of geological sediment strata can reveal key events, good and bad years, and when they occurred. A sediment sample might similarly hold clues about production and sedimentation in years past, and ice core samples are used to back-calculate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during past times. 

These data could be viewed as the memories of nature, the stories she holds. Until some scientist studies and translates those stories to the rest of us who care to listen, they lay disguised in the largest story book of all.

Amazing stories are hidden everywhere, if only we take the time to find them, excavate and study, listen and process. Like a seafood gumbo, life is better with a diversity of ingredients and well stewed.

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