There is a man in my neighborhood who picks up garbage -- I've seen him.
I'll be biking or running, enjoying myself, and as I round a curve, there he'll be, walking, bending and stuffing. He always carries a plastic grocery bag for the collection and he's very serious. When I see him, I feel guilty. Here I am, just playing and he's working to make my play space neat. So I stopped to ask him once, "Why do you pick up trash?"
He looked up briefly, sweat streaking his face, staining his T-shirt. "Huh?"
I repeated my question. He glowered back blankly, as if I didn't understand, but he blurted out what sounded like, "I run here. I do two miles."
Riding away, I yelled back, "Thank you" and began to think how lucky I am, how clean my neighborhood is, how caring my neighbors are. And I began to think of Loren Eiseley and his star thrower.
Eiseley was a scientist who also had the gift of written language. His essays and poems on the mysteries of life dragged me into the realm of biology years ago. But it is the title character of the Star Thrower that stays with me through long nights of existential wonderings.
In this essay, Eiseley is walking the beach of Costabel after a storm has discombobulated nature's order. The sand is strewn with shells and wood, remnants of the tropical coast, and people drift along, collecting all that is broken and empty and dead. Many take even the dying, knowing a pot of boiling water will kill the life inside the treasured shell.
Eiseley watches, ruminating on his own collecting of the dead, his studies that are searches for understanding life. As he strolls, he sees a god-like figure in the distance, illuminated by that sky-brightness that follows raging storms, framed in the pale beginnings of an arching rainbow. That figure is stooping, like the others, but rising and stretching, not pulling something in.
As Eiseley comes closer, he sees the figure is a man and the stretching is flinging; he is gathering from the sand and throwing back to the ocean. Close enough to meet his eyes, a bewildered Eiseley sees the man catching up starfish and tumbling them out beyond the breakers.
"The starfish throw well. If we get them out past the breakpoint, they can make it," the man utters, not pausing in his rhythm.
"Yes," is all Eiseley can manage.
And he wanders off in a stupor, amazed, humbled by the unquestioning will of this one man to save an entire coast of dying starfish. This thrower does not question life, probe its parts to unearth deep meanings. He knows only that life is ebbing out and he can save it. In one glorious arch, he staves off death. He does not ask how many deaths, how precious the lives. He simply gives them back to the sea.
In my small neighborhood, we are busy not with starfish and conch sells, but with Coors Light empties and Wendy's wrappings. Most of us drive by these litterings, momentarily cursing ignorance, only to dismiss the scene by the next red light. Not my garbage man. He clears the curbs of Friday night binges without cursing, with- out bringing imaginary teen-agers to account.
And he humbles me into thought, guilt and action. As I rode away from my garbage man, I realized what I could be doing. There are reading programs and literacy projects that need volunteers. Nursing homes need visitors, kids need counselors, coaches and tutors, and of course, litter needs gatherers.
We have too easily become a society of individuals who cast off what is not our immediate responsibility. In the opposite motion of those collecting shell pickers, too many of us have sloughed off what we can, not picked up some of the burden of our community. But lately I have witnessed the straining of a few who have begun to help.
In the end of his essay, Eiseley returns to the beach, and joins the star thrower in his mission, helping creatures live, grow and survive. Together they save what they can reach.
My garbage man has had a similar effect. Just this past week there was a figure before me as I rounded a curve, and it was a different man, another individual set in his task of clearing away ragged bits of Marlboro boxes and crushed Pepsi cans. Today I am joining the library reading program.
We will not ask how much of a difference we will make. We will not ask how important our task. But together we must save what we can reach, casting, in Eiseley's words, "larger stars upon some greater sea."
Colleen M. Webster teaches English at Harford Community College and the College of Notre Dame.