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The owner of a nearby auto repair business serves on the board of the local Boys and Girls Club. While waiting for an oil change in his shop, I noticed a printed page, framed and hanging on the wall of the area reserved for customer seating. It was the story f the Star Thrower. You’ve heard it before. The most common version is about a man who walks along the beach and sees a boy throwing star fish into the sea. There are dozens, or hundreds of starfish on the beach and the man challenges the boy, “There are too many. You can’t make a difference.” And the boy throws another starfish into the waves and says, “It makes a difference for that one.” The story is used by organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and hundreds of pastors in need of an illustration in a sermon to say one person can make a difference.
Unlike many preacher stories it is true. Unfortunately it is shortened and condensed to a point that the common versions miss the most poignant parts of the story.
The author is Loren Eiseley and the events happened to him in the Galapagos Islands. The thrower was not a boy, but a man Eiseley encountered after a storm when many shell collectors combed the beach, looking for something to sell. “Do you collect shells?” Eiseley asked the man who was throwing starfish. The thrower replied, “Only ones like this…and only for the living.”
The thrower stooped again, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.” He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes. “No, I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I nodded and walked away, leaving him there with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
The encounter challenged Eiseley, a naturalist and Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In his work, Eiseley developed the conviction that the universe is chaotic and all creatures are selfish, looking after their own survival. Yet, here was the Star Thrower, whose purpose was to fight wanton forces of nature and to save life. After a long night wrestling in his soul, Eiseley comes to the self awareness
“But I do love the world,” I whispered to the empty room. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf the singing bird which falls and is not seen again, the lost ones, the failures of the world.” Thus was the renunciation of my scientific heritage.
At dawn, Eiseley left his room with the focused mission to find the Star Thrower again. .
I found him on a projecting point of land in the sweet rain-swept morning. Silently, I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the wave. I spoke once briefly. “I understand,” I said, “call me another thrower.” Only then I allowed myself to think. He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others. We were part of the rainbow – like the drawing of a circle in men’s minds, the circle of perfection. I picked and flung another star. I could feel the movement in my body. It was like a sowing – the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale. I looked back over my shoulder, and small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung one more. I never looked back again. The task we assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death, the burning sun, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save, a thrower who loved not man, but life.
“Call me another thrower.” The story is not complete until Eiseley picks up the mission to love the “small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf the singing bird which falls and is not seen again, the lost ones, the failures of the world” It is about joining the battle against “the insatiable waters of death” that threaten our world.
In the book, there are other essays which provide vivid insights into additional areas of life. In “The Bird and the Machine” Eiseley tells of a time in the Rockies when he stumbled upon an unused cabin in the Rockies. He was collecting fauna and realized there were birds inside. Not realizing the kind of birds he hunted, Eiseley reached into a dark eave and came out with a male sparrow hawk, which put up quite a struggle. The ensuing confusion allowed the mate of captured hawk to escape. The male was placed in an appropriate cage and awaited transport back to civilization.
The next morning was one we dream about if we were to visit the Rockies: a deep blue sky with rocky outcroppings everywhere pointing upward. A good day to be alive. Eiseley looked for the mate, but saw no trace.
An impulse led him to release the male hawk, captured the day before. He removed it from the cage and placed it on the ground. In his words:
He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must’ve been that he was already so far away and heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.
In the next second after that long minute he was gone. Like a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes, full on him, but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then, from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing farther up. Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must’ve been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such an unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years…
I saw them both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They met in a great soaring gyre that turned into a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere in the upper regions beyond the eyes of men. (p. 90f)
The Star Thrower makes my list of Bucket Books for a variety of reasons. One is Eiseley’s writing ability. He is a master and most people could learn a bit about eloquence from reading any of his works. But the primary reason is the power of his vision – to see life – and call his readers to a higher and nobler place. After reading the story of the hawks, who does not desire to be more faithful to those we love? If birds exhibit fidelity, then why can’t we? Who does not want to participate in a selfless mission against the insatiable waters of death after reading the “Star Thrower?” Reading Eiseley makes me a better person.
I’ve read all of Eiseley’s books and invite you to do the same.
I have only read The Immense Journey, but that is about to change. Thank you for reminding me of Eiseley’s work.
Nina – The Immense Journey was the first of his books I that I read. After that I just got them all. He was an amazing observer of life. Thanks for commenting