"This one is soft. That means it’s sick.” My grandson is 3 years old, and already he knows the signs of starfish wasting syndrome. He gives the sea star a last poke with his forefinger and stands to gaze around the intertidal cove.
“His mom is around here someplace,” he says, wrinkling his brow, looking and not finding her. “He’s sick. He needs a mom.” That, I think, is undoubtedly true.
Just last year, this cove was full of sea stars. We saw them in every damp crevice, heaps of them, the purple stars, Pisaster ochraceus, and mottled stars, Evasterias troschelii, not only purple, but green, red, brown, orange. This year, my grandson and I come across only two or three, here and there, splayed on the shingle. The ones that remain are wasting away — a hideous process. Lesions form. Tissues around them decay, so the sea star flattens and falls apart. An arm may crawl away, but soon it too turns to mush. Around our boots, torn arms and the wispy scraps of wasted sea stars float on the incoming tide.
I don’t know if this is a result of the warming sea, as some research suggests, or if it’s a pathogen, or most likely both together — I guess no one knows. And which one is worse, I don’t know either. But these days so many local catastrophes are linked to the planetary catastrophe — a world getting hotter and hotter — and I am afraid for the small child at my side.
Leaning over, he pries up a large rock. The bottom is plastered with baby sea stars, no bigger than his thumb, and they are firm to the touch.
“Not sick,” he says, and looks up at me with a 3-year-old’s grin, which is the most winning, the most beautiful grin in the history of creation, a grin for the triumph of the babies. I don’t know about the prospects of the young ones. I imagine that these sea stars, smaller than a dime, are destined also to waste away to a lace of flesh that folds, refolds as small waves push it to shore — just as sea stars are dissolving all along the Pacific Coast, Mexico to Alaska.
If only there were a mom around here who could shelter the babies and comfort us all. But what would such a mother do? How could she bear the sadness? I can’t think of anything worse for a mother — or a grandmother — than to feel helpless, as pieces of her child’s world break off and quietly go away.
A warning from Stanford scientists has badly shaken me — that unless we take immediate action, by the time today’s children are middle-aged, the life-support systems of the Earth will be irretrievably damaged. I am holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots have long ago filled with water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking of what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting mechanisms have frayed and fallen apart.
He sucks in his breath. “Hey! Guys! Come close and look. Come close and look.” Under a blade of rainbow kelp, he has found the red, orange-spiked, gooey sea animal called the California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus. How beautiful it is, and how beautiful is the human impulse to be astonished.
But there’s this: Yesterday, on a beach only two miles from this one, sea cucumbers by the hundreds washed up, dead. I’d never seen anything like that before. Gloriously colored animals sagging under the sudden weight of the world, they rolled in with the tidal detritus, tangled in seaweed and slime.
What does this mean for our children, yours and mine, this dying? Can children thrive in a world where other species are vanishing as they watch? I just don’t know. And what does it mean for us, the parents and grandparents who desperately love these children?
People ask me: Why do you try so hard to stop the fossil-fuel industries that are over-heating the oceans and the air? You are just one person, and the dying has already begun.
My only answer is this little guy in the yellow slicker, who is just now squatting to touch a pair of rock blennies that are flicking around the damp sand. “Look,” he says, “This baby fish is still happy, and this one feels good, too.”
Kathleen Dean Moore is co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril and an advocate for a fossil-fuel free future. She writes from Columbia Cove in southeast Alaska.