Starfish Chronicles

“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among the seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war” (Loren Eiseley)

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though stars walk backward” (E.E. Cummings)

“When it gets dark enough you can see the stars”. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

In following what might be called a long and ongoing emergency of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, news of sick, dying and disappearing marine life throughout the vastness of our Pacific Ocean continues to escalate. More recently we learn that starfish, in Western Canada, Washington State and California are wasting away. This could be happening elsewhere, as well, but marine biologists along the west coast of North America were among the earliest to report what they claim to be, an unexplained phenomenon dubbed, “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome”. Research diver Donna Gibbs, at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Howe Sound Research and Conservation Group, reports that “whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out”. Gathering starfish specimens for study has proved to be especially problematic since they soon disintegrate into goo. Apparently they just deflate, waste away and disintegrate. (Canadian Press, October 7, 2013)

Our ethically frozen politicians and corporate controlled, mainstream media has shown a staggering lack of interest given that starfish are not a commercially marketed species. While Fukushima radiation is certainly not the only source of contamination that might cause these massive die offs; it is nowhere mentioned among expert speculations put forth such as “mystery virus”, red algae, overpopulation, climate change, ocean acidification, pesticides, raw sewage, industrial chemicals, and so on.

Here one might also bear in mind that there is absolutely, no such thing as any “safe” level of radiation. At present time, there are 431 nuclear reactors operating in 31 countries, nearly all situated along oceans and other large bodies of water….and they all leak, some more than others….and some even more, much more than others.

Starfish are not fish, of course, any more than seahorses are equine. More accurately defined as sea stars, these echinoderms belong to a class of Asteroides; marine invertebrates which can also refer to Ophiuroids, known as basket or brittle stars. Overall, there are approximately 1,500 related species found in all of our planet’s oceans. Fossil records have found them as far back as 450 million years ago. While I am not new to this difficult, and often discouraging subject of vanishing species, reports of disappearing sea stars conjured an especially heartfelt sadness along with memories of things lost that can never be recaptured. I grew up along the shores of the North Atlantic seaboard. Nearly every stretch of our summer vacation time included long walks and my often solitary explorations all along familiar, soft sand beaches which have now disappeared together with the unexpected ravages of Superstorm Sandy. Unfortunately, timing of the landfall of this massive hurricane coincided with high tide on the night of a full moon. Safe, or so it seemed, within my child’s reality, unaware of climate change and vulnerable shorelines, I never imagined that these lovely beaches and their ongoing evidence of abundant sea-life wouldn’t always be there.

Surviving members of our Cornish clan were never comfortable living anywhere too distant from the sea. Most had summer homes along the mid-Atlantic coast and the rest of us would visit. While those long stretches of beach, so close to these seasonal homes were in some ways familiar; an always inviting strip of damp sand marking an ebb and flow of tides, was a promising source of ongoing surprises, washed up amidst an intriguing variety of oceanic debris. Still very young, I enjoyed the freedom to poke about along and amongst oddly fractured shells, pale shards of tumbled sea glass, tatters of seaweed, various sorts of stranded crustaceans, tossed together amongst various hues of rapidly melting jellyfish remains. Nearly every day one could find any number of ochre starfish the waves had strewn ashore. In that distant world which no longer exists, our natural world seemed both natural and strange enough to warrant a lifetime of ongoing interest.

Much later in life, while living along the Pacific coast and investigating nature as a resource in healing various forms of trauma, I discovered the writings of Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), naturalist, scientist, university professor and poet. Among his many meditations upon nature and the human condition, his essay entitled ,“The Star Thrower” has become a lasting favorite. This story, which might also qualify as a parable, exists in several forms including anecdotal, autobiographical and as an inspiration for a short film. The coastal setting identified as Costabel is likely a pseudonym for one of the Florida beaches where Eiseley often vacationed. In essence this deeply personal story unfolds as a melancholy scientist, feeling stagnated in his work, sets out for an early dawn walk along an apparently deserted sandy shoreline. He walked alone and “devoid of pity because pity implies hope”.

As an evolutionist he knew that in Darwin’s mind, death and pestilence were the sole agents of change. The scientist also saw this dark, and death absorbed philosophy in Freud’s “terrible archeology of the brain”, opening subconscious minds and exposing hidden terrors and primal nightmares integral to the human experience.

As the sun rose behind him, in the changing light, Eiseley perceived a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection shimmering into existence. Somewhere below he discerned a figure standing, or so it seemed, within this rainbow, apparently unaware of his position, gazing downward at something in the sand. The figure then stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. This unexpected vision of a solitary man who appeared beneath a rainbow, brought to mind anthropologist A. L. Kroeber’s musings as to the essential nature of our species. “About ourselves there always lingers a penumbral rainbow” – the “super-organic”, that “cloud of ideas, visions, institutions which hover about, indeed constitute human society, but which can be dissected from no human brain. This rainbow, which exists in all heads and dies with none, is the essential part of man. Through it he becomes human and not otherwise”. (Alfred L. Kroeber, Anthropology, 1948). By the time Eiseley reached him the evanescent rainbow had receded ahead of them along the strand.

The stranger began to kneel again toward a pool of sand and silt and a starfish stiffly thrusting its arms upward and holding its body away from the stifling sand. “It’s still alive”, he ventured, and with a quick, yet gentle movement, picked up the star and spun it far out to sea. “The sun is up and the tide is going out, if I don’t throw them in, they dry out and die”. He stooped again and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars throw well and we can help them”. As he turned and left toward a bend in the coast, the melancholy professor saw the sower toss another star. For a moment, in the still early light, the sower appeared magnified as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. It was as though at some point the supernatural, hesitantly, for just an instant, touched upon the natural.

And then, the rational mind sharply returned to put such liminal visions to rest. Eiseley was a scientist and an observer, and the star thrower was just a man and his mission a folly. Death is running more fleet than the thrower along every beach in the world and one man alone cannot make a difference. With this darkening mood the evolutionist returned to his room and a difficult night of ominous dreams. It came to him then that perhaps man, like the blight descending on a fruit, is by nature, a parasite, a spore bearer and a “world eater”. And yet, with the new dawn, he returned to the beach where the star thrower had labored. In a sweet, rain swept morning, the scientist knelt to pick up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among his fingers, while like a true star, cried soundlessly for life. “I understand”, he thought, “Call me another thrower. He is not alone any longer and there will be others”. And he flung and flung again into the roaring insatiable waters of life and death and in so doing found himself flung into some unknown dimensions of existence.

Loren Eiseley is long gone and I live in the desert now. Our fossil records show that we have had no oceans here for millions of years. Yet, as oceanographer Sylvia Earle reminds, “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea”. The stars we see here overhead, in the near perfect darkness of the American southwest ,offer at least some sparkling illusion of permanence somewhere out in the unfathomable depths of those blue-black ethers. Never mind that everything we see in the vast cosmic ocean above is shining because of distant nuclear fission. Given the realities of time and distance, astronomers tell us that many of these stars are long dead; we are looking at the past as it appeared 800 light years ago and only moving air is providing their twinkle. Still, I find some comfort in this primordial darkness as a kind of window out into an infinity which offers some genuine peace in the presence of such still mysterious beauty.

We find ourselves now in a world of darkening shadows which may well lengthen into an abysmal night of final reckoning. With the nuclear genies unleashed we are no longer masters of the powers we have summoned and their meltdowns have become secretive and incalculable. Modern industrial humanity now faces a stark reality which appears unsolvable and threatens to end life as we know it in an extinction level event. While there may be serious doubt as to whether our way forward is known …for now at least ,it seems that life is more beautiful than death is daunting. Our future, as formidable as a thundercloud, is as yet undetermined. (Loren Eiseley, “The Star Thrower” in The Unexpected Universe ,1969) .

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