[from a long time ago, recorded 5/5/06]
One misty morning, on a lazy Cape Cod summer day, I was walking aimlessly along the beach at the edge of the seafoam, listening to the North Atlantic waves crash with a low rumble. And it happened that there had been a storm out at sea, and thousands of small starfish had been ripped loose from their footings deep down on the sea floor, and had become stranded up on the beach to soon bake to death in the veiled sun at ebb tide. Some of the animals were still moving.
The abundance of underwater predators, which starfish are, meant that there might be slightly fewer oysters, clams and mussels near the coast for sea gulls, fishermen and tourists for a little while; but I still didn’t think I could just keep walking by, watching slews of the voiceless five-armed creatures die. I wasn’t ready for the city yet, and I would have been watching them die all day. I don’t think a lot of animals eat sea stars. They weren’t going to do anybody any good, suffocating in the air that smelled so good to me, the legless things helpless on the damp sand crunching under my feet. So, as I walked along, I flung some of the small echinoderms back beyond the breakers, where a very few might survive until the next high tide. Some tried to feel my hand, but they didn't have the strength to hang onto my fingers.
A fit vacationing jogger came down to the water's edge from his private stretch of beach, and asked me what I was doing, throwing things into the ocean, in his demeaningly skeptical and at the same time authoritative, challenging tone—as though maybe I was trespassing, or littering, or illegally messing with shellfish without a license. Or maybe he thought I was insane.
I told him that I was just putting some starfish back in the water, so they wouldn’t all die; nothing more. He asked me rhetorically how I thought I could possibly make any difference, with the thousands or more washed up there. I told him, as I flung another starfish out with a pointed splash, that it made a difference to that one.
The Beachowner just stood there staring at me with his mouth open for a moment, and then asked me what I did in life—was I a religious figure of some sort? I laughed and said I guessed that I was some kind of mail-order minister, but no, not really; I was just your average semi-unemployed partially working stiff.
The jogger might have been a journalist or a publisher. I don’t know. But I have since seen and heard this story retold occasionally in various iterations, sometimes with unintended morals attached. Contrary to what you may have heard, this was not the act of some mythical holy person, or a conservationist on a mission. It was just me, doing the strange things I do, stepping through the edges of the thinnest cold liquid of the pungent gray sea, playing a game with the receding waves. I watched a starfish arm curl upward, reaching to feel the familiar water that wasn’t there, not understanding; so I threw it back into the saltwater it knew. And then I saw another one. And another one. It was just one. One at a time. I was right there, looking at them. They couldn’t hurt me. They probably couldn't even see me.
What harm could I cause? Why not help? What else could I have done? What would anybody have done?
[From a weekend off, many years ago.]
© 2006 Lisa Breslin/UpFront Productions