“Would you care for some wine recommendations?” asked the Sommelier at the Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Manhattan.
It was late evening after a very hot day in the city in the month of June. All I wanted was a chilled beer. While my colleagues checked
their messages I had already pounced on the warm and tasty bread on the table.
It had been quite a long and eventful road trip that day. Not to mention that I had skipped lunch due to the lack of time between meetings. A beer is what I wanted but from experience I “knew” we should be ordering wine in an upscale restaurant like this.
For the next ten minutes we were discussing the great diversity of Italian wines, the balance between structure and fruit, modern vs. the traditional, the nuances of grape varieties such as Sagrantino and Sangiovese, and how red wine is actually good for the heart. Despite my limited knowledge of Italian red wines, I tried to blend into the expert wine conversation. We all ordered red wine. I had no chance to order a beer after this great wine conversation. I had blended into my environment.
“Would you like to share an appetizer?” asked the efficiently polite waiter. I had just ordered the main course but no appetizer. I looked at the half-worried expression of the waiter and thought to myself; perhaps he thinks it is insane, immoral and even illegal to not order antipasti.
On being asked to make a recommendation, he suggested the grilled octopus. Ah the grilled octopus! I promptly ordered it, partly because of the exotic nature of the dish and mainly because I was so hungry that I did not wish to delay any further.
When the octopus appetizer did arrive, I quite liked the texture, flavor and appearance of it but was a bit disappointed with its overly burnt taste. For a moment I thought of complaining, and then decided against it because I was not sure of my own taste. Perhaps I was missing some Thai green chili, some cut onion with a piece of lemon on the side. Now this would be hard to get in an Italian restaurant. Besides, who knows how burnt the octopus should really have been. What seemed burnt to me might actually be the perfect grill for Italians.
Burnt or not, I have always been intrigued by the octopus.
Later I discovered many interesting things about the octopus. The octopus is probably the most intelligent invertebrate. It shows great skill at problem-solving. It can defend itself by shooting a jet of ink that makes the surroundings cloudy and confuses its predator. Not only that, the octopus is a master of disguise! It can change its shape, its color and its skin texture to match its surroundings in an instant. It can change its color even though it has been proven that it is color blind!
Does it need to consciously “see” the color of its surroundings in order to disguise itself or has it developed an evolutionary response by being able to automatically emulate its surroundings? Whatever it be, this is a
great natural talent to be able to blend into one’s environment. Using its superior intelligence the octopus can also take the shape and color of a specific object like a coral reef that is part of its environment. This is
indeed a fascinating example of the art of camouflage.
Why does nature need camouflage?
Camouflage is used by predators to hide before the hunt. And it is used by the prey to hide to increase their chance of survival. It is more prevalent in nature than we think. Lions and tigers hide behind tall grasses while stalking their prey. On the other hand insects, frogs, fish and many other species blend in with their surroundings to avoid being detected. Camouflage is a strategy used to hide something from view or to make it appear as something else.
Borrowing the idea from nature, camouflage has been in use in the military at least since World War I for visual deception, to decrease the danger of being targeted like a prey or to enable surprise like a predator.
Modern techniques go beyond mere visual deception, as the smell, sound and heat of the targets can also be concealed from detection.
In the movie “The East” Brit Marling plays an operative for a private intelligence firm where she is assigned to disguise herself and infiltrate an underground anarchist organization. She disguises herself to look and behave like one of them. Changing her appearance, her accent and vocabulary, she joins some local drifters and hitches rides until she gets taken in by a member of the group. In one scene she is eating left overs from a garbage bin, in another scene she is sitting in a corporate board room presenting information she has collected to an admiring audience.
However disguising oneself can turn out to be dangerous even if one does not get caught. The disguise can end up changing the person. In the movie, the rich underground experience moves the character so much that in the end she has to come to terms with what her core values are and who she really is. She has to ultimately decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.
I believe no matter how much we change our external behavior, our accent, our appearance and our vocabulary; we may never be able to change our real selves. At several critical junctures in the exciting journey of disguise, one has to answer the key questions: What type of person am I? What do
I really believe in?
Much like the octopus, I believe human beings are adept at blending into and adapting to their surroundings. We have continued to evolve by being able to adjust to our ever changing surroundings. But then we have also impacted our environment in significant ways. The octopus with its eight arms is
often perceived to be an all controlling monster. The other day I read an article that compared a large corrupt corporation to an evil minded octopus that can play with its surroundings and cause damage. Instead of adjusting to our environment, we have started disrupting its balance. We may still be able to
enjoy the colors of nature around us, as long as the environment does not get destroyed by the color blind octopus inside us.