Sea Stars: A Galaxy at Our Feet

Photo: Jeff Rotman

THE SKY IS PINK this morning and on the shore a whole host of sea stars has been stranded.

I know from the charts the moon was full last night, the midnight tide higher than usual. Were the skies clear? Were the stars out? I’d like to have seen these creatures then: stars in the dark overhead and here a spiny constellation draped over the rocks.

One of the largest, a northern sea star, now lies upside down in the palm of my hand. Almost a foot across, its orangy body glistens wet in the dawn light. Hundreds of slender tubes wriggle like antennae, only these aren’t sense organs; they’re feet, and what they’re searching for isn’t food or enemy or mate, but something to cling to, any firm surface that can anchor them and end this futile flailing at the air.

Of its five arms, three remain, five or six inches long. I’ve read that most sea stars lose their limbs to other sea stars’ hunger. Traveling in slow-motion swarms, the lead contingent feasts on oysters and clams, depleting the supply for those in the rear, who resort to the nearest neighbor’s arm. The sea star, of course, can regenerate when the food supply increases, grow back the missing limb, and continue unburdened by notions of heroism or sacrifice, even consciousness.

We, in contrast, have to live with those burdens, made heavier by loss and the sensation that often emanates from what’s missing. Amputees call it phantom pain, those sensations — tingling or sharp stabs — by which something absent makes its presence known. Even those born without a limb sometimes feel what was never there and experience, physically, what others of us know psychologically — a need to confirm what we feel but can’t see.

When its third arm begins to wriggle, I turn the sea star over and carry it back to the water. Oblivious to patience or my unreliable intentions, it knows only the dangers of drying out set against the dangers of being washed out to sea. I try to imagine that twice-daily rhythm, sun on its baking back, tube feet squishing as it inches along among drying seaweed and barnacles. And then the fierce holding on as the tide comes in and wave after wave crashes on top of delicate tissues.

Were the stars out last night? Silly question, really. They’re always out. In the daytime too. Where do we think they’d go? I try to remember this: the obscuring effect of clouds and of sunlight, how things that seem to disappear often have not. Up in the daytime sky, the whirling constellations — Cassiopeia, Orion, Big Dipper — may be invisible to us, but stage a noontime solar eclipse and there they are, as always, reminders of other worlds we’ll probably never see. And here, underfoot, half a dozen sea stars, about to disappear underwater where they’ll go on too, misshapen maybe and less visible, doing what they’ve always done: making their slow way through a galaxy spread out at our feet.

Foaming and inching its lunar way up the beach, the sea polishes small stones, sloshes into and out of the tiny whorled and bivalved shells somersaulting in the undercurl of its waves. I take it as a given we can’t escape the way the world grinds the living into debris. But before it does, there’s a chance for the lucky encounter with someone or something — a painting or poem, a place — that can beckon to what lies broken and hungry inside us all. I believe it’s what most of us long for.

Oh Ahab, I often think, if you could have hunted with less vengeance and fewer absolutes, might the whale have someday returned to you what it took so long ago, so violently? Not literally, no leg, of course. Not even in a story would anyone believe a human could do what a sea star can. But something else, something elusive that retreats in the onslaught of high drama and fierce truths, that survives between the layers of the said and the felt, and makes itself known to us only by the ghostly presence of its wanting.

Barbara Hurd is the author of eight books including two books coming out in 2016: Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea (with photographer Stephen Strom) and Listening to the Savage/River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies. Her essays have appeared in numerous journals including The Yale ReviewThe Georgia ReviewOrionAudubon, and others. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, winner of the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, three Pushcart Prizes, five Maryland State Arts Council Awards, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. Barbara Hurd teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.