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The Star ThrowerReview - The Star Thrower
by Loren Eiseley
Random House, 1978
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Nov 4th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 45)

One of the virtues of being retired is that I can read or re-read authors who have influenced me in some way or another. Dr. Eiseley is one of those authors. Several years ago I first read his book The Firmament of Time and was deeply moved by the way in which this scientist was able to make me feel the mysteries and beauties of the natural world. I remember reading short bits of the book aloud to our kids who were also impressed and amazed.

Eiseley died in 1977 after many years of walking on the earth learning about, and reporting on, the world of natural science. The Star Thrower is a book that, like all great literature, never grows old – yes, obviously, we have made advances in anthropology and in evolutionary science since then, but, nevertheless, the basic science of evolution is much the same and Eiseley has a way of telling his stories that will illuminate the science and warm the heart.

The book is a selection of his many writings: essays, stories, and poems. Yes, poems! A scientist who writes poems and does so with some skill. The star thrower story has been told countless times in many contexts and can be found easily on the internet. Here, for example. A brief telling goes like this:

"Once, on ancient Earth, there was a human boy walking along a beach. There had just been a storm, and starfish had been scattered along the sands. The boy knew the fish would die, so he began to fling the fish to the sea. But every time he threw a starfish, another would wash ashore. "An old Earth man happened along and saw what the child was doing. He called out, 'Boy, what are you doing?' " 'Saving the starfish!' replied the boy. " 'But your attempts are useless, child! Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one! You can't save them all, so why bother trying? Why does it matter, anyway?' called the old man.

 "The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, "Well, it matters to this one." And then he flung the starfish into the welcoming sea."

Eiseley's writing centers around the idea of human evolution and consciousness--how we perceive the world and adapt--or relate--to it. He writes in an holistic manner and is never a reductionist. The only criticism I have of his writing is that at times he over-writes. But in essay after essay he makes sense of the world and a way of seeing that is important and life-affirming. His stories of the natural world will move you and urge you to "see feelingly" (as Shakespeare says). One of my favourites is his story of how he as a young man was commissioned to bring back from the wild a hawk for scientific study. In an old cabin in the mountains he waits until dark and then climbs up a ladder to the attic where he finds a pair of hawks who have come in through a large hole in the old roof. He switches on a flashlight, surprising the pair. The male hawk attacks the hand holding the light while the female escapes through the hole in the roof. Coming down the ladder with the bird in his hand, he places it in a cage and nurses his bleeding hand. In the morning he will send it off in a cage to captivity. He thinks that the bird's mate is "Probably in the next county by now" looks around the camp to be sure that no one is watching and then he reached in to the box, removed the hawk, and placed it on the grass where it lay for just a moment before flying away.

"Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down." . . . "Straight out of the sun's eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly for untold hours, hurled his mate. And from far up . . . came a cry of such 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 to a whirling circle and a dance of wings."

If you have ever seen the sky dancing of hawks you cannot help but respond to this reunion.

 In the essay "Science and the Sense of the Holy," he writes, "In the end, science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in a snail's eye or within the light that impinges on that delicate organ. The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one's head about. The world of the secondary qualities--color, sound, thought--is reduced to illusion. The only true reality becomes the chill void of ever-streaming particles....Blaise Pascal, as far back as the seventeenth century, foresaw our two opposed methods. Of them he said: "There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in." It is the reductionist who, too frequently, would claim that the end justifies the means, who would assert reason as his defense and let that mysterium which guards man's moral nature fall away in indifference, a phantom without reality."

Eiseley is able to bridge the gap between the sciences and the arts in a way that few can. He is the Thoreau of the twentieth century – deeply philosophical while paying close attention to the real world. In his autobiography Eiseley states,  "I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage."

Like Einstein, he is a deeply religious non-believer. We must learn to see again, he tells us; we must rediscover the true center of the self in the otherness of nature.

 

© 2014 Bob Lane

 

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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