Dipping into childhood memories at a rock pool
Author Heather Buttivant celebrates the wonders of the starfish she finds on the Cornish coast where she grew up in this extract from her book, Rock Pool
Avisit to the rock pools never feels complete without a starfish. These animals are echinoderms, meaning ‘spiny skins’. They are top of the list of creatures that people hope to find when they first go rock pooling, and they appear on every illustration of a rock pool I’ve ever seen. The iconic bright orange common starfish with five elegant arms can be found on the midshore but, despite its name, it is not the most common species, preferring slightly deeper waters. However, its smaller cousin, the cushion star, Asterina gibbosa, is a rock pool specialist.
A love for nature is often formed in childhood experience, when curiosity knows no bounds and life is lived through small adventures. Whatever we know best becomes our passion. For my mother, growing up in London, her passion was the trees and flowers of the parks, and the butterflies and hedgerow birds that lived in them. For me, growing up on the coast, in a world of wild open spaces and curved horizons, it was impossible not to be drawn to the seemingly more adventurous and mysterious lives that played out around me. The headlong dives of gannets, the everpresent risk of stepping on a sun-bathing adder and the fascination of finding an alienlooking starfish all captured my imagination. My mother also enjoyed all those things, but still tried to convince me that city wildlife could be worthwhile too. I was sceptical that anything exciting could exist in the confines of a London park. Being sure of myself as only children have the confidence to be, I never hesitated to pour scorn on that safe, urbane world of bird feeders and tame foxes that my mother remembered with such fondness.
I was wrong, of course. It was only as a grown-up when I moved to London to begin work in the Civil Service, after finishing my modern language studies, that I began to see things differently. I circled all the green patches on my London A-Z maps, picked out all the small ads for flats that were within walking distance of these parks and struck lucky by teaming up with a friend to make the move affordable. I came to appreciate the resilience and diversity of the wildlife that sprang up wherever it was given a chance. If I made an effort, I could find reed beds sparkling with damselflies and grass snakes rippling across pools. If I didn’t try hard, I could always see foxes. In the countryside you never get to watch a vixen suckle her cubs outside your bedroom window. London even had some familiar sights, like cormorants slinking away underwater and black-headed gulls tumbling in shrieking masses over fish heading upstream to spawn.
Despite the gulf between my childhood experiences in Cornwall and those of my mother in post-war London, there are many things that we share. We have the same features, the same mannerisms and, far more importantly, the same passion for nature. Every time we see an unusual caterpillar or bird, we still rush into the house to look it up in our nature books and we sometimes stare into rock pools together. These moments of connection have always brought us together, but perhaps we have both come to recognise them as more precious since she fell ill with cancer. For a while, we couldn’t be sure if we’d ever share such moments again. Life takes on new meaning when you come close to losing it.
Over the years, my mother coped admirably with my burgeoning shell collection and even today she tolerates my propensity to cover the breakfast table with trays, Petri dishes, microscopes and buckets of sea water. I’m not sure she finds all of the creatures as exciting as I do, but we both love cushion stars.
To live up to their picture book image, cushion stars are best seen on a sunny day, on a beach surrounded by turquoise seas and where the water is so clear you can step in a pool without realising it’s there. If you can find an angle without too much reflection, you can watch the starfish going about their lives and feel that you are in there with them. On just such a day, around the time Mum was finally given the all clear after her cancer treatment, we found ourselves on Castle Beach in Falmouth, trying out my new camera in some midshore pools.
With the high season still a month away, the beach had an early morning sleepy feel, even though it was past midday. A man with a hammer was in the final stages of rebuilding the café after the winter storms, an unflinching elderly woman in a black swimming costume was shuffling through the breaking waves, trailing her hands in the bubbling water. A young mother followed her spade-waving toddler across the sand and my own son was demonstrating his fortbuilding skills to his grandad, pausing now and then to stare out from under his hat at the arc of the bay and the ominous container ships that were shoaling offshore.
The tide was dropping and we followed its foaming edge as it revealed new pools, talking about family or tomatoes or whatever other common experiences we could latch on to. By peering under overhangs and boulders it didn’t take long to find our first cushion star. For Mum this evoked not her own childhood, but that of the children in her primary school classes, the thrill they felt at splashing through the cool pools while the rest of the school were back at their desks, the shouts of excitement when they found their first starfish, which was almost always a cushion star.
Although the animal itself is a pale green colour, it looks orange to our eyes. This is because its back is obscured by the orange splodges created by minuscule rings of spines that act like pincers, so tightly packed that we can barely see through them. These curved spines, known as pedicellariae, are the reason you never see starfish with algae growing on them.
Starfish always appear immaculately clean, whereas other intertidal animals like crabs that haven’t moulted for a while are frequently encrusted with spiral worms. Limpets are often so plastered in wildlife that they are indistinguishable from the fauna covering the rocks around them. To avoid this, the starfish uses its pedicellariae to pluck off anything that tries to settle. The cushion star’s puffy back and the contours of its five stubby arms are thoroughly coated in pedicellariae, giving it complete coverage to remove any life that attempts to colonise it.
Despite its warm amber colour, the starfish blends in well among the seaweeds and sponges of the pool. It looks unmoving and decorative, as though it belongs more on a Christmas tree than on the rock, so it is surprising, like glimpsing a trick of the light, when this stiff-bodied star begins to move. Its arms are still rigid, nothing seems to be happening, and yet it is disappearing over the edge of the rock. Wave-like, it glides in one smooth motion, surfing across the pink-paint seaweed, propelled by hundreds of translucent tentacle-feet that we can see reaching out from under its armpits, testing the way ahead.
When I pick it up and place it upside down in Mum’s palm, those feet unfurl and sway, as fluid as a barley field on a windy day, creating swirling patterns that form and dissolve. Each tentacle has a swelling on the end, like a pale head of corn, which can sucker
It looks unmoving and decorative, so it is surprising, like glimpsing a trick of the light, when this stiff-bodied star begins to move
on to any surface. We turn the cushion star the right way up and the tentacle feet stick to Mum’s hand. We place the animal back in the pool, our fingers connecting and parting as I coax the cushion star to let go, and we release this life back into its alien world.
Like many sea creatures, so different from any we meet in the terrestrial world, starfish stretch our powers of empathy. When it is motionless on the rock, I struggle to understand it as a fellow animal, but when it moves there is no doubt that it is a sentient being. The connection we feel is brief and one-sided. The starfish has its own path.
I remember how easily I left home to pursue my own interests and wonder if I have ever understood my parents or if my son will ever understand me. In the distance he is still there, shovelling sand, lost in his playful work. As soon as the cushion star feels the familiar rock beneath it, it wastes no time in seeking out food and shelter. We watch it slide off, slipping away from us, over a boulder and out of view.
● This is an extract from Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides by Heather Buttivant, published in paperback by September publishing, at £9.99 on 9 April.
Heather Buttivant, main; a cushion star, top; a crab in a rock pool, above