Ekunyi's Embers

On Science and Sentiment – Journal 1.1

Fisherman’s boy with a bucket of water
goes walking each day on the shore
Looking in tide-pools and crannies
for fish that were stranded
Sure-handed he’d gather them all
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

Soon he was throwing the nets like his father
And hauling them back to the shore
Taking the time to be careful and sort the unneeded
from those he would store in the hold
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

He went down in a storm near the rocks of Point Cleary
They searched ’til the night drove them home
But in the morning they found him, alive and unbattered
Where shattered wood littered the stones
He’d been thrown back from the ocean
Back to the living once more

Fisherman’s boy with a son and a daughter
goes walking each day on the shore
Looking in tide-pools and crannies
for fish that were stranded
Sure-handed they gathered them all
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

***

I find that songs serve as their own form of mythology, balancing the necessity of conveying a story with poetic meter and rhyme before bringing it all together with a vocal line and accompaniment that reflects the information and emotion the song’s crafter seeks to share. Heather Dale is one such songstress, conveying beautiful interpretations of various legends with a fluid, soothing voice and a way with words I could only hope to emulate in my own work.

Heather’s song “Fisherman’s Boy” was one of the first few works I listened to after being directed to her music. Its story is an old one: a young boy wanders each day along the shoreline, picking up starfish and other forms of marine life that appeared to have been stranded in the tide pools and then throwing them “back to the ocean / back to the living once more.” After years of kindness, there comes a day when he falls into the ocean, and then the ocean carries him back to the shore, preventing him from drowning.

The story, the myth granted life through music, serves as a lesson. As Heather explains in her opening, “It talks about balance, it talks about kindness and doing little things to help others out without expecting reward, but sometimes they come back to you.” As myth, the song works as one of many “symbolic tales of the distant past (often primordial times) that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values” (Magoulick). It does not reflect reality as science might define it, it doesn’t need to, for its purpose is not to explain an empirical phenomenon, but to remind the listener of a particular set of values and ideas: sometimes the world grants kindness for kindness given, there is benefit in remaining observant and loyal to the world around you, that there are reasons to pass the lessons of goodwill on to your children.

There are many variations on this story, not all of them resulting in the ocean’s reciprocation, but instead focusing on the benefit to each individual sea creature returned to the ocean by the kindly caretaker. Yet our lesson this week encouraged us to consider another form of the story, a historical event described not through mythic terms, but the unfolding of an experiment undertaken by University of Washington biologist Dr. Robert Paine. According to this article celebrating Dr. Paine’s work, “It was at Makah Bay on the Makah Indian reservation on the Washington coast that Paine developed the keystone species concept: the idea that apex predators drive the diversity in an ecosystem. Before Paine’s experiments, scientists believed that each species had equal bearing on the functioning of a habitat.  He showed that when the common starfish Pisaster ochraceus was removed from a natural intertidal shore, its preferred prey – mussels – freely proliferated and pushed out other organisms such as algae and snails.” Throwing these creatures back to the ocean had in fact disrupted their ecosystem in a tremendously problematic way. Through the undertaking of research and scientific observation, Paine learned how the intertidal ecosystem maintained its own form of balance, not one driven by human emotion, but on the demands of the relationship between predator and prey, and in turn shared this knowledge with the world.

Personally, I feel there’s much to be learned from both the mythological and the historical forms of this story and not simply in a binary between science and sentiment. I believe that we exist in and with the world and should learn and respect how it naturally functions, but simultaneously acknowledge that it is very much part of human experience to interpret personal, and cultural, meaning from this functionality through our values and the art that depicts those concepts.

Yet while I believe that the two can’t, and shouldn’t, be permanently divided, neither should they be conflated. It is our responsibility to recognize what we are adopting as lessons for our poetry and music, and what it is to instead just live, experience, and respect how the natural world works. We find our place within that world in both creative interpretation and the acquisition of knowledge, and while I believe that both are equally valid means of discovery that can inspire each other, one needs to keep in mind where each discovered idea originates from, and use that awareness to guide their decisions for how to interact with the world around them.

(This is a response to Alison Leigh Lilly’s Keystones of the Sacred Land e-course!)

Leave a Reply

Share your most recent blog post?

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.