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

The Scotsman - - FEATURES -

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

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