| I wrote this three years ago, and just rediscovered it. I thought it was worth reposting.
The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Loren Eiseley died in 1977. He was a scientist and humanist greatly alarmed at the accelerating destruction of our planet in the last century, and would, I am sure, have been horrified at the setbacks at the start of the 21st century. Eiseley wrote several books on anthropology and natural philosophy, and, in a very different style, some dense, complex and (to me) inaccessible poetry.
What I find astonishing is that his prose seems more lyrical, more moving and profound and passionate than his verse. So, below, I’m taking the liberty of presenting some excerpts from his scientific and philosophical writing as poetry, parsing them as I think they would flow if Eiseley himself were to read them aloud. The ‘titles’ are my own ostentation.
our reputation precedes us
I have never entered a wood
dying to remember
Man would kill for shadowy ideas
“the notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing”
Let men beat men, if they will,
This is why I am a wanderer forever in the streets of men,
It is not because I am filled with obscure guilt
I am not ashamed to profess this emotion, nor will I call it a pathology.
Only then will his gun arm be forever lowered.
Modern man, the world eater,
The march of the machines has entered his blood.
And if inventions of power outrun understanding,
on playing with a young fox
for just a moment
by the simple expedient
it is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish,
there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society
how we learn
The teacher must teach men
It has ever been my lot,
Nevertheless, I venture to say
but along an endless wave-beaten coast at dawn.
Every time we walk along a beach
one does not meet oneself
until one catches the reflection
from an eye other
many of us
there are things
The power to change is both creative and destructive —
Mostly the animals understand their roles,
or has gotten wrong.
a difficult re-entry
The nature of the human predicament
For what, increasingly, is required of man
Yet man does not wish to retrace his steps
Instead, men prefer to hide
I have lifted up a fistful of that ground.
There went phosphorus, there went iron,
“and time future contained in time past”
we lack the penetration
to see the present and the onrushing future
contending for the soft feathers of a flying bird,
or a beetle’s armor,
or shaking painfully
the frail confines of the human heart
man is himself a flame —
it has been said repeatedly that one can never,
and if it should turn out
it seems a pity that we should involve the violet
In the world
It is as if matter dreamed
A couple of readers have asked me to explain the expression après nous les dragons that I have used in several of my essays and one of my poems. It’s adapted from this excerpt from Eiseley’s book The Night Country:
Shake the seeds out of their pods, I say, launch the milkweed down, and set the lizards scuttling. We are in a creative universe. Let us then create. After all, humans are the unlikely consequence or such forces. In the spring when a breath of wind sets the propellers of the maple tree whirring, I always say to myself hopefully, “After us the dragons.” It is not out of sadistic malice that I have carried cockleburs out of their orbit or blown puffball smoke into new worlds. One out of these seeds may grope forward into the future and writhe out of its current shape. It is similarly so on the windswept uplands of the human mind.
When Eiseley says “After us the dragons” I take this to mean that, as an anthropologist (as fellow anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould explained so well in Full House) he understands that the emergence of humans (and even animals with backbones) on the planet was an improbable accident, a one in many million unlikelihood, and that the emergent forms of previous evolutions of life on our planet and all the other planets that support it in the universe were/are undoubtedly strange, unimaginable, perhaps even unrecognizable to us as life. He would be aware, too, of the evolution of birds from the dinosaurs, and their ability to survive when the dinosaurs perished. Are his “dragons” birds, strange flying reptiles? Or perhaps dragonflies, a member of the other genus, insects, that thrives on catastrophe and is so adaptable it is likely to outlive us and do well in the next phase of life on Earth? Or is he being metaphorical and referring to dragons as any strange, unimaginable, wonderful species that will rise after our fall? Or all three?
I have translated Eiseley’s phrase into French a bit mischievously, since the word ‘dragon’ in French has the additional connotations of monster, demigogue, or soldier. Another inspiration for the translation to French: It was Louis XV, the end of a line, the king who presided over a horrifically inegalitarian empire, bankrupted, its treasury looted by the rich (sound familiar?), who, realizing its instability and unsustainability, said “Après moi le deluge” — after me come the floods (as an additional historical irony, part of his empire at that time was New Orleans).
If I haven’t been sufficiently pretentious so far, I’d like to conclude with a concatenation of another quote from Eiseley, in italics below (which I only just discovered yesterday, from his 1978 book The Star Thrower), followed by one of my own poems, written 35 years ago after a night sleeping under the stars. I think they just go together, almost eerily:
At night the forest is not what it seems,
Thanks to the many Loren Eiseley fan sites for the quotes above, especially Tom Thomson’s wonderful Earth Talk and, for the starfish story, MuttCats.
The Star Thrower reminds me of the following observation about not killing insects that I once heard in a discussion of Buddhist precepts: To you it is a small matter but it means a lot to the bug.