GOD IS AN OCTOPUS: Love, Loss and a Calling to Nature

Ben Goldsmith

Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2023, 256 pages

Hardback: £18 | ISBN-101399408356

Review by Hannah L. Timmins

Figure 1 Wolf (Canis lupus), fox (Vulpes vulpes), otter (Lutra lutra), red deer (Cervus elaphus) and mountain hare (Lepus timidus), just a few of the charismatic native mammals of the UK © Hannah L. Timmins

Mutual aid: in our efforts to help others, we heal ourselves

Before reading Goldsmith’s God is an Octopus,[1] you will likely already know its subject matter: the heart-breaking death of the author’s daughter in the summer of 2019 and the year of grieving and healing that follows. British naturalists and rewilding buffs may be aware of much of the ecological ground Goldsmith covers. You are not here for a manual on how to rewild your estate or window box, you are here for a deeply personal account of loss and a search for spiritualism and solace ultimately found in nature.

In the year following his daughter’s death, Goldsmith and his Somerset farm, Cannwood, undertake a process of reciprocal healing. As Goldsmith restores the rivers and wetlands, scrub and woodland, the wildlife begins to return. Through engaging with the rewilding of Cannwood, Goldsmith realises he can still experience joy and love. Whilst “nature” may not be aware of the role it is playing in his healing, the process itself is something akin to what Rebecca Solnit or Pëtr Kropotkin might call “mutual aid”; in that each participant is both the giver and receiver of acts of care that bind them together.[2]

There is a touching moment in the immediate aftermath of the funeral, when Goldsmith is despondent, sitting on the bank of his pond. His friend and advising naturalist, Chris Couldrey joins him on the bank and offers a gentle conversation about the restoration of the farm’s newt ponds. In his exhaustion, Goldsmith surprises himself by jumping up and asking if Couldrey wants to go and see those newt ponds. In the ensuing conversation, Goldsmith finds he has an untapped reserve of energy – he becomes instantly immersed in Couldrey’s idea to re-wiggle the ditch running through the field.

Figure 2 The re-wiggled stream at Cannwood, artist’s interpretation from BBC article photo © Hannah L. Timmins

The English language doesn’t even have words for these emotions: sorrow and joy bound up together, motivation and urgency wrapped in exhaustion and terror, the glimmer of wonder that is found in the heart of devastation. Goldsmith’s unshaking honesty brings the reader along this journey of love, trauma, pain, grief and suffering, restoration and love again. His purpose in restoring nature is the fuel that drives him through the chaos.

I would highly recommend Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell as a companion book to God is an Octopus. I first picked up Solnit’s book in an effort to argue against a friend’s Hobbesian ideas towards altruism: that it doesn’t really exist in nature and that it isn’t intuitive for people, particularly those who are suffering. Solnit skilfully argues not only that people will instinctually help others when they themselves are in distress, but that it is often only in this act of compassion and solidarity that one can heal themselves.[3]

Nature heals all wounds

To paraphrase Orwell, good books tell you something new, the best books tell you something you already know to be true.[4] This is the case with God is an Octopus. Contained in this book is a powerful meditation on how nature heals even the most catastrophic of losses.

Anyone that has suffered the death of a young friend or family member will recognise the motions Goldsmith goes through: the ‘if onlys’, obsessing over details, curiously noting preternatural elements – every one inexplicably filled with significance and pathos, the outer body experience that somehow your human story line doesn’t fit within the world around you. But of course, death does fit within the world around us. Nature encompasses every significant human experience, even mourning.[5] Death transcends our day-to-day myopia and reminds us with crushing immediacy that we are a part of something much bigger: nature, so all-encompassing that we often forget it’s there, or we treat its destruction as a trivial issue.

The events of Goldsmith’s book take place over the first year of Covid-19 lockdowns; an uncanny but fitting backdrop. Goldsmith and his family seemed to live in a crucible, rapidly learning what was revealed to the rest of the world more slowly: that in the midst of crisis, nature can renew if we let it and that such renewal is a soothing balm for our own trauma. As the public picked up books and hobbies in tree and bird identification,[6] lockdowns created the fertile ground for a bumper crop of research on the connection between nature and mental wellbeing. We learnt that access to natural places and green space reduces stress levels, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, while increasing self-esteem, sense of self, life satisfaction, and feelings of connection, care and happiness.[7],[8],[9]

Covid-19 is likely to be remembered as one of the most significant global crises since the second World War.[10] With so much retrospective analyses of what has happened over the last three years, many parallels can be drawn between a disaster like Covid, the slow violence of the natural world’s destruction and a faster tragedy like the death of a family member.

There is a growing suite of evidence for nature healing trauma,[11] and intuitively, as is the case with many people facing disaster, Goldsmith knew to find solace in the wild. In the natural world, we find solidarity: we learn that humanity is not isolated and separate. This is the truth that God is an Octopus reminds us of.

A brave journey into the esoteric

Of course, many Indigenous people and spiritual leaders the world over have known that nature is the great healer for millennia, effortlessly weaving concepts of reincarnation, death-following-life and Samsara into the fabric of storytelling.

Just yesterday, as I write this, I was on a Zoom panel with Cliff Cobbo, in his own words “a proud Wakka Wakka aboriginal man” and member of WWF Australia. We were talking about the practicalities of supporting rangers professionally around the world – what could be a rather dry subject matter. Without fanfare or pretence, Cliff began his segment with a reminder that we do not come to this earth, we come from it and inevitably we will return to it. As a follow up act to Cliff, I’m afraid to say, I struggled to hold the same gravity.

Citizens of the global north often feel out of our depth and out of touch with our esoteric roots, but in Goldsmith’s quest to find meaning in his daughters passing and something eternal to the human soul, he explores various faiths, mysticism and concepts of the afterlife. These are not topics often covered in books on rewilding and I commend his bravery both in pursuing these ideas and in describing his experiences.

Goldsmith moves nimbly and passionately between the topics of ecology, politics, sociology and spirituality. He plucks ideas on morphic resonance,[12] wood wide webs,[13] the block universe and world lines in the fourth dimension.[14] As someone interested in questions of consciousness, metaphysics, and how to heal our ecosystems through science, policy and culture, I found Goldsmith’s ability to cover such a breadth of topics wonderfully refreshing. He has absolutely no respect for the boundaries between disciplines and unwaveringly follows the rabbit deep into the burrow of all topics.

Rewilding will spin its wheels in the mud mire of zoophobia: embracing democracy and public spirit will get us out

I found Goldsmith’s book to be a beautiful, compelling exploration of our love of nature. But I did get off the train at one point. At page 118, Goldsmith begins a multi-page diatribe on the hateful attitude of Brits towards wild space. This is a strong argument currently being made by Goldsmith and other rewilding writers: Brits are zoophobes as Goldsmith puts it, Macdonald pathologizes us as a nation riddled with Ecological Tidiness Disorder,[15] and Derek Gow would most likely, and perhaps more succinctly, describe those blocking the path to a wilder Britain as f**kwits.

I do not disagree with the overall sentiment; the UK is in an ecological crisis almost unparalleled by any other country. We have systematically eradicated almost every charismatic species from our shores, starting with the largest, the wolves and lynx, and continuing to relentlessly persecute even the most innocuous and sweet species like the mole, hedgehog, badger and bullfinch. I feel the same rage against such mindless persecution, this is what drove me to leave the UK and find work in the wildlife conservation of other wilder nations. I also feel the urgency to reverse the UK’s ecocide: a constant pull to return to my home country and be a part of the rewilding movement. But I do not believe we are innately a wildlife-hating people. I argue that this is a matter of programming.

I am in the UK as I draft this, and last week I met an American woman in my local pub. She had moved to the UK many years ago, in part because she romanticised the idea of fox hunting. She still “trail hunts” to this day. If you asked this woman why she engages in such a “sport”, she would tell you that she loves the rush of racing through the beautiful countryside on her horse, she would argue that this is her way of “engaging with nature”. I think many grouse and pheasant shooters would argue the same, whatever some of us might make of their apparent contradictions.

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at

Until we can imagine a future with a variety of new, sustainable avenues for people to engage with meaningfully nature, we are going to struggle to shift the dial. Other countries have cultures of skiing, surfing, rock and mountain climbing, fishing and trekking – this is not to say they don’t have issues with hunting or unsustainable farming practices, but they do have more sustainable ways to enjoy nature embedded into their cultures.

We also need to acknowledge that most of the British public support rewilding and want to restore lost species like the lynx.[16],[17] We dismiss pro-rewilding poll results over and over again, making the excuse that the majority of rewilding supporters live in cities. Even if that is true, should these people not have a vote? Does alienating them from their country’s nature move us closer to our goals? The rewilding movement must aim to better integrate sympathetic groups, including people living in cities, and support a shift in access and ownership over the future of wild Britain.

Figure 3 A fox in the heart of a housing estate in London during Covid lockdowns © Hannah L. Timmins

Whilst many people during Covid absorbed the powerful psychological effects of being in nature, our travel restrictions were giving wildlife more space and a flurry of viral videos and photos and academic studies, showed species venturing further into urban centres and altering their activity patterns to take advantage of quieter and less crowded cities. [18],[19] At the end of A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit tells us that the real question is not why mutual aid and altruism appear in the first place, but why they end.[20] In the wake of Covid lock downs, many of us have returned to our busy lives, the zoom meetings are still rampant but our bird books sit dusty on our shelves and we haven’t made the trip out to our local forests in some time. We seem to be forgetting all the lessons we learnt.

Not Goldsmith. The momentum he picked up in rewilding his farm and advocating for environmental reform in the UK during his personal crisis appears to have passed the tipping point. The catalyst for his transformation may have been abhorrent, but in the aftermath of Covid, and at the doorstep of the third global recession of my lifetime, I hope we will follow Goldsmith’s example and step up with a newfound sense of urgency and purpose to reforge the soul of our society and reverse the decline of our natural world.

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at” – Oscar Wilde


[1] Goldsmith, B. 2023. God is an Octopus: Loss, Love and a Calling to Nature. Bloomsbury Wildlife, London. ISBN: 978-1-3994-0835-6

[2] Solnit, R. 2010. A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Penguin Books. ISBN: 9781101459010

[3] Solnit, R. 2010. A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Penguin Books. ISBN: 9781101459010

[4] Orwell, G. 1949. 1984. Penguin, UK. ISBN: 0141393041

[5] Safina, C. 2020. Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals. Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 1786077256

[6] Lemmey, T. 2020. Connection with nature in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown. University of Cumbria, Carlisle, UK. Retrieved from:

[7] Soga, M. et al. 2020. A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ecological Applications. 32(2):e2248

[8] Ribeiro, A.I. et al. 2021. Exposure to nature and mental health outcomes during COVID-19 lockdowns. A comparison between Portugal and Spain. Environment International. 154:106664.

[9] Birch, J., Rishbeth, C. and Payne, S.R. 2020. Nature doesn’t judge you – how urban nature supports young people’s mental health and wellbeing in a diverse UK city. Health & Place. 62:102296

[10] British Academy. 2021. The COVID decade: Understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19. The British Academy, London DOI 

[11] Marshall, H. 2020. An elemental relationship – nature-based trauma therapy: Trauma in the creative and embodied therapies. Routledge. ISBN: 9781351066266

[12] Sheldrake, R. 1989. The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. Vintage Books. ISBN 0394759907

[13] Sheldrake, M. 2020. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. Random House. ISBN 978-0-525-51031-4

[14] Tegmark, M. 2014. Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Knopf. ISBN: 978-0307599803

[15] Macdonald, B. 2019. Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds. Pelagic Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 9781784272197

[16] Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Should lynx be reintroduced in England and Scotland? Survey Monkey. Retrieved from:

[17] Pheby, C. 2020. Third of Brits would reintroduce wolves and lynxes to the UK, and a quarter want to bring back bears. YouGov. Retrieved from:

[18] Vardi, R. Berger-Tal, O. and Roll, U. 2021. iNaturalist insights illuminate COVID-19 effects on large mammals in urban centers. Biological Conservation. 254:108953.

[19] Gordo, O. et al. 2021. Rapid behavioural response of urban birds to COVID-19 lockdown. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 288(1946):

[20] Solnit, R. 2010. A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Penguin Books. ISBN: 9781101459010


Timmins, Hannah “Book Review: GOD IS AN OCTOPUS” ECOS vol. 2023 , British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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