Watching the world slip away

How our children respond to a world threatened by climate change.

 

"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.

Waves swirl around a sea star in Gibson Cove, Kodiak, Alaska.
Jason Edward Thill

“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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.