Today’s post shares something that is very close to my heart. It’s an excerpt from the writings of the great anthropologist and nature writer, Loren Eiseley. I think I was only 17 or 18 when I first read it, but the story has been a touchstone my whole life.
To me, what Eiseley discovers on the shores of Costabel, amid all the death and suffering that are the lot of all conditioned things, points the very heart of finding genuine meaning in this universe. It points to what the Bodhisattva vow is all about. It points to what giving metta is all about. It points to that which is beyond all dharmas and teachings. May this story speak to your hearts, my brother and sister star throwers!
(Excerpted from The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley)
“The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life. Shells are cast up in windrows; a hermit crab, fumbling for a new home in the depths, is tossed naked ashore, where the waiting gulls cut him to pieces. Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. Even the torn fragments of green sponge yield bits of scrambling life striving to return to the great mother that has nourished and protected them.
“In the end the sea rejects its offspring. They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the mucila-ginous bodies of the unprotected. The seabeach and its endless war are soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls.
“He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.”
“…I arose and dressed in the dark. As I came down the steps to the shore I could hear the deeper rumble of the surf. A gaping hole filled with churning sand had cut sharply into the breakwater. Flying sand as light as powder coated every exposed object like snow. I made my way around the altered edges of the cove and proceeded on my morning walk up the shore….The sun behind me was pressing upward at the horizon’s rim ~ an ominous red glare amidst the tumbling blackness of the clouds. Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.
“Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over half a mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
“It’s still alive,” I ventured.
“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
“It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors…
…”The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”
“He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.… I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
“…For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea…”
“I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had, at any rate, the posture of a god….
…He is a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world….
“…I lay quiet, but my restless hand at the bedside fingered the edge of an invisible abyss, “Certain coasts,” the remark of a perceptive writer came back to me, “are set apart for shipwreck.” With unerring persistence I had made my way thither…I had walked away from the star thrower in the hardened indifference of maturity. But thought mediated by the eye is one of nature’s infinite disguises. Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission. I set forth in an effort to find the star thrower…
..”Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demonical stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations. He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment. Finally the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose—to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of a world.
“Somewhere far up the coast wandered the star thrower beneath his rainbow. Our exchange had been brief because… I had, in the terms of my profession and experience, nothing to say. The star thrower was mad, and his particular acts were a folly with which I had not chosen to associate myself. I was an observer and a scientist. Nevertheless, I had seen the rainbow attempting to attach itself to earth.
“I understand,” I said. “Call me another thrower.”
“On a point of land, as though projecting into a domain beyond us, I found the star thrower. In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many-hued rainbow still lurked and wavered tentatively beyond him. Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves. 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 ~ an unexplained projection into the natural. As I went down the beach I could feel the drawing of a circle in men’s minds, like that lowering, shifting realm of color in which the thrower labored. It was a visible model of something toward which man’s mind had striven, the circle of perception.
“I picked and flung another star. Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung. 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 across my shoulder. Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more. I never looked again. The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.
“…Somewhere far off, across bottomless abysses, I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully.”
“But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars. Somewhere far off, across bottomless abysses, I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully. I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower in the rainbow cast, slowly, deliberately, and well. The task was not to be assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save.
“For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns….We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life—the completion of the rainbow of existence….
“…I cast again with an increasingly remembered sowing motion and went my lone way up the beaches. Somewhere, I felt, in a great atavistic surge of feeling, somewhere the Thrower knew….
“…I picked up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had risen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered.
“….Tomorrow I would walk in the storm…. I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicably, in nature something above the role men give her. I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel. . .”