Story has played a critical role in guiding human endeavours for many thousands of generations. Mothers and aunties narrating cautionary tales to keep us safe from harm, fathers and Uncles sharing yarns about the hunt and mapping Country as they go along, while grandparents and Elders point to the stars beyond the horizon as they tell us about our relatedness to all things in the universe. In modern times, story has taken on many different forms, but its purpose remains true to its original form and function. Whether we use it for entertaining children about moral judgement and character development, or for speculating on possible futures, or for passing on terabytes of information from one community to the next, it essentially is the pinnacle of human inspiration and influence.
One particular story that has moved human communities throughout the late 20th century particularly is the tale of The Star Thrower, a short story published originally in 1969 by Loren Eiseley in his book The Unexpected Universe. The story depicts a man seen walking along a shoreline after a recent storm, picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. The observer watches on with high scepticism, wondering if his actions will make a difference. After some dialogue, the underlying message in the story presents in that one person through small acts can make a big difference to the lives of those they choose to affect.
Since the 1980s, the story has undergone many transformations to suit the agendas of the people telling the story, such as businessmen and women, motivational speakers, religious leaders and authors of children’s books. While all of these stories in their own right contain a very similar, if not identical moral of the story, one can’t help but notice a glaring hole in them. So here we will attempt to retell the story through an Indigenous Knowledge Systems perspective:
After a freak storm on the east coast, a billion starfish are washed up on the beach, so numerous that you can no longer see the sand. They are still alive, but slowly drying out in the midsummer sun. A single man stands at the waterline of the receding tide, picking up the starfish one by one and hurling them out into the sea.
Another man wades through the windrows of dying echinoderms, laughing and shaking his head. He stops beside the other man and mocks him, saying, “There are billions of these things. What difference do you think you can possibly make?”
The first man bends down, picks up another starfish and hurls it into the sea. He turns to the other man and smiles.
“Made a difference to that one.”
The second man nods, then picks up a starfish and throws it out into the water.
This is not the end of the story, however. Now an old Indigenous woman walks down to both of them and beats them around the ears with her stick.
“What are you doing? These crown-of-thorns starfish are an invasive species destroying my reef! The ocean tried to remove them with a storm and now you’re throwing them back. Oh my god, that last one was a breeding female. You idiots!”
This is not the end of the story either. The liberated Echinoderms may not have brains, but they are sentient and also have a place in this tale. They have nerve nets throughout their bodies and cognition that extends into their relations with the environment around them. This embodied cognition allows them to display some startling feats of learning, memory and problem-solving. They employ this now and together form a strategy for where to take refuge and how to repopulate. As they move together towards the reef, a research vessel captures them in a net and puts them in a tank to study.
The researchers are crypto-fascists and artificial intelligence enthusiasts, studying the starfish to help them develop neural nets for their bots, along with distributed networks for automated governance and decentralised finance. Suddenly the old aunty from the beach appears on the deck, and nobody knows how she got there.
“Where you going with those starfish?” she asks.
They tell her what they are doing and she gives them permission to continue, as long as they promise not to release the starfish back into the sea. She also says that they won’t find what they’re looking for through biomimicry research alone – they will also need to know starfish story.
“Aunty!” they cry, “Can you tell us starfish story? Can you share your wisdom?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. “What does your grandmother say about your research?” she asks, pointing her stick at the expedition leader.
“I’ve never mentioned it to her,” he replies.
“Well, go tell your granny all about it, then ask her to come see me. If she approves of what you’re doing, then I’ll tell her starfish story.”
The benefit of analysing this through an Indigenous storytelling modality, means that as a reader we cannot just see ourselves as the “good” person in the story, but rather, as all the people and things in the story all at once. In sharing this narrative across differing cultural contexts, this may affect the positionality of people particularly in accordance with their relationships with place and time.
A settler, for example, might feel like the starfish – or perhaps what it represents archetypally in the story as a “displaced relative” – on some level of the psyche. Then on another level, he, or she, or they, might become the man in the story, who sees himself at the centre of his own worldview, and wants to do what he impulsively believes is the good and right thing, when in fact his actions are illegitimate. In a similar light, subsequential literal displacement that many settlers feel today, and the gravitation to what they believe is “good and right”, can and has at times led to inadvertent or indirect harm, a pattern which we have seen in settler communities which frequent the appropriation of Indigenous cultures in the wrong way or without consultation, for example.
It is arguable, that this story, in its more common re-telling, rarely goes much further than this, because many modern human communities don’t often know how to find the archetypal “Aunty” in their story. However, that critical ancient wisdom component is vitally important. Whether we find it within ourselves or externally, it should be seen as necessary to regulate the impulsive behaviours which present as a result of being displaced along with the pre-regulatory functions which balance out the impulses that come with an underlying need or desperation to once again belong to a community, notwithstanding proper protocols and processes.
Elements of dynamical systems such as in Chaos tell us that due to sensitivities in initial conditions, small changes locally can affect big changes at the non-local level, but rather than always seemingly interpreting this – and all stories – through a lens of individual altruism or benevolence, this has to be coupled with the critical wisdom component
We should ask ourselves, what the deep-time version of this yarn might be, or perhaps discuss what the future implication of this story is – or perhaps could be. Because what happens when just one of those starfish go back in the water, let alone 10, let alone 100? What issues present non-locally in each case of localised re-distribution, at the immediate level i.e., from the destruction of coral systems to the destruction of coastlines, to forced relocation of up to 200 million coastline residents, species, and communities due to rising sea levels and erosion, to housing and food availability, and work and industry shortages, etc.?
If there is any truth to the initial story, it certainly is that one person through small acts can make a big difference to the lives of those they choose to affect because not only was the man making a difference to each starfish, but he was also negatively impacting every scale of existence up to global social and political relationships as a result of his perceived altruism and benevolence, which arguably was likely more a self-indulgent activity than anything else.
“As for the crypto-fascists, if there is any hope for them, this may depend less on their abilities to analyse the starfish’s distributed cognition, and more on their ability to recognise that their most prized and valuable lesson comes from the Aunty’s distribution and balance of accountability and responsibility in areas where it is almost entirely absent.”
Let’s hope we can all find the Indigenous Aunties in our stories. Our lives may one day depend on it.