You've probably heard that popular parable about the man standing on a seashore throwing beached starfish back into the ocean, who said "It mattered to that one" to a nay-saying passerby fatalist who questioned the value of the man's effort. What you probably don't know is that the parable was pinched from a story by American writer and anthropologist Loren Eiseley titled, "The Star Thrower." Eiseley, who died in 1977 at age 69, was a scientific writer of the highest lyricism, the "Proust of evolutionary anthropology." He was often heralded as a modern day Thoreau. (More about Eiseley's original story at the coda...)
Now, mentally replace the starfish in the story with a couple hundred thousand teeny-tiny baby toadlets, and you'll then accurately grasp the central idea behind Isabelle Groc's and Mike McKinlay's first feature-length documentary film, "Toad People," which played for one night only in a make-shift screening at the Lion's Club earlier this Spring.
The screening came at the tail end of a tour that started last December, which was designed to raise awareness about extinction laws — or rather, the lack thereof — in British Columbia, as a lead up to the provincial elections. Ms. Groc was on hand for the sold-out, packed house screening and for a short Q&A afterwards.
The Sixth Great Extinction Blues
One of the darker hallmarks of our Anthropocentric age is species extinction. It would be fair to say that the topic is the singular most ignored elephant in the climate change room — although Elephantidae metonymys will soon be an outdated part of that particular metaphor, the same way dodo references are meaningless to us today.
Globally speaking, extinction numbers are simultaneously staggering and disgusting: 50% of all land, sea, and river species have been wiped off the Earth over the last 40 years as humans destroy habitats and kill for food in unsustainable numbers. And it's not slowing down just because you're not thinking about it or because you bring your recycled hemp bags to the grocery store. The World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London predict that 66% of the planet's wildlife may be wiped out by 2020 — that's two-thirds of all wildlife in the next three years — as human activities continue to overwhelm the Earth.
You'll also be embarrassed to learn that British Columbia — the most ecologically diverse province in Canada — has exactly no extinction laws on the books. Every other province, except for Alberta, has at least something. B.C. has nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. In fact, more than 43 per cent of species here in B.C. are at risk if no legislation is enacted; as it stands, over 1,900 species are imminently at risk.
Of Toads and Men
In the human mating system, the male must stylishly meander his way through a crowded dance floor to reach a fertile female. After consuming a series of strong libations, inebriation is achieved, and the impregnation process soon commences (usually back at her place). For toads, it's not quite this easy.
Out by Ryder Lake in rural Chilliwack, where the main story thread of "Toad People" takes place, the toads must migrate from their breeding wetlands to the forest and then back again, three times a year. And to do that, they must cross a busy highway. A lot of them get squished, in numbers which are leading to their extinction.
"Toad People" chronicles the efforts of a handful of rural characters, both young and old, who share a similar scope and mission: to get people to stop running over migrating toads.
Stumpy the Toad
Okay, so odds are pretty good that you're probably sitting there thinking: Toads? Really? Save the toads? Admittedly, when it comes to choosing an animal for the subject of a documentary film, the toad would probably not be a first round choice in the Nat Geo pitch room. Viewers want to see a cute and fluffy animal with big Margaret Keane painting eyes doing something cute and fluffy when you have a call to action or you're trying to get someone to write a check. But if you think your heart can't be moved by toads, then you need to see Stumpy the Toad in action.
Stumpy lost an ankle to the road, having barely escaped a full-blown squish. When Stumpy jumps, hits the water, and starts swimming with all the spunk and enthusiasm that good ol' just plain being alive is famous for, well, it wasn't just the little old ladies in the back row who had to wipe away a tear. And when thousands of cute as hell toadlets no bigger than your pinky fingernail start popping across the screen trying to climb a muddy slippery slope like Sebastião Salgadothe Brazilian gold miners, your heart is hooked.
There's a lot of warm humor in the film, many heart touching moments which are expertly teased out by the filmmakers. The candor and gallows humor was also standout. This is a story about extinction in real time, and the way the highway squish scenes were handled so matter-of-factly provided no quarter for squeamish flinching — like when a roadside scientist picks up a freshly squished female ripe with eggs and plays with the cadaver, black egg gooey mess and all. But that scene, and the point, is powerfully countersunk, a real memory burner: that could have been Stumpy! Save the toads!
Real Time Autopsy
The film is bookended with a series of shots of thousands of tiny tadpoles wiggle-swimming in spermatozoic fashion. The images underline an overwhelmingly basic fact of life, namely: this whole trip of living is so very fragile, so absolutely delicate. All forms of life are inherently in a state decay, and the living organism that is our Earth is no exception. It needs ongoing attention and nurturing; neglect is just as bad as overt destruction. And to make matters worse, the Butterfly Effect plays hardball in the interconnectedness of the extinction chain; the wetlands ecosystem depends just as much on toad migration as the toads depend on the wetlands for their survival.
Species extinction, like most social topics these days, is mind-blowingly depressing and overwhelming when you go in for a deep information dive. A young Native girl in the film relates a chilling prophecy: once the reptiles start to go, that's a bad sign, a sign that the end is near. That's quite an existential buzzkill, especially if you're planning a mega destination wedding or want to remodel your kitchen or den. It's easy to fall into paralysis. I mean, what the hell can you do? Hell-in-a-handbasket documentary films feel like impeccable HD journalistic records of our own demise, slow-motion pre-autopsies on the human race for future generations to look back on to see what life was like before all the shit hit all the fans real hard.
In many ways, the human race is not unlike a helpless toad getting run over and squished on the speed limitless road of modernity. Earth houses 7.5 billion of us and counting, and we're exhausting the world's resources faster than they can be replenished, consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year. Over-consumption and rampant development is a cancer on the land, a disease which even our own island oasis is not immune; development's Godzilla-sized carbon footprint on Salt Spring grows larger with every laundered money-backed real estate sellout who moves here and builds yet another culturally out-of-sync McMansion that they'll live in for a few months in the summer.
No doubt extinction is an intricate topic, and its nuances aren't particularly sexy enough to catch the 140 character attention span of the modern visual media consumer. But the core ideas behind species extinction are not entirely inaccessible. "Toad People" juggled several distinct storylines and characters, and one of the pleasures of the film was the way it engaged your mind on so many distinct levels. In the end, the filmmakers succeed in getting what they want to get from you — the need for you, yes you, in particular, to be inspired enough to take action.
I Am Toad People
McKinlay and Groc and their team have worked together for several years now, with the Wilderness Committee helping finance their micro-budget/no-budget labors of love. Theirs is a well-oiled film production machine, and "Toad People" is their first feature-length film after producing many shorts together. (Previous shorts featuring orchids, owls, and sage-grouse are click-worthy nuggets.)
The cinematography is outstanding and often brilliant, with everything expertly edited by George Faulkner. The aerial and underwater shots are lovely, and the toad sex scenes were tasteful and non-gratuitous. Composer Mark Lazeski's plucky cello, piano tinklings, and other tonal accents were perfectly placed. As this team continues to make tighter, longer films, it's inevitable that they will find a narrative that busts them out of Lion's Club Q&A to Academy Award acceptance speech. The potential could not be fuller.
The real stars of the show are the people who live in the rural areas where the toads are being squished en masse, who have taken it upon themselves to do something about it, no matter how small, no matter how seemingly futile. There's a simple Buddhist feel in the way everyone talks about their care and concern for all living creatures, all sentient beings, warts and all.
One woman in particular stands out. Her life was simple by design, one of the benefits of living in nature away from the literal and figurative noise of the city. She was trucking along, enjoying life, the years slowly flying by, until one day she noticed the toads and how they were getting squished. So she decided to take action. One thing led to another, and before she knew it, she was a bona fide environmental activist. Before that, she never thought her life had a purpose. "I guess it was toads," she said, joining us in the hearty laugh that follows.
To see this woman spring into action is inspiring. It makes you think: hey, she's someone just like me. I want to do something like that, too. I want to care. I want to be an inspiration to others too, to make them care too. This seems to be the hidden thesis of the film, from which it derives its title. This is what it means to be a Toad Person: someone who's inspired by someone else and then cares enough to take action, which inspires the next person, and the next one, and so on and so on.
So when you get those sixth mass extinction crisis existential blues, just remember: this is the part of the world that incubated Greenpeace and Occupy. Might this be our next global export, taking firm strong action to end the extinction crisis? If we care enough to help a toad cross the road, or save a tree, or whatever the particular thing that personally inspires you to take action, we will all gradually become Toad People, saving the world one toad at a time.
The original starfish thrower story is far more brilliant and poetic than the many (quite frankly) dumbed-down New Age versions we've heard. Sometimes the starfish thrower is even Jesus for crissakes, in a rare modern-day cameo.
In Eiseley's story, there's a philosophical discussion between the starfish thrower and the passerby, about how our sun was flung out into the universe at creation's genesis. We're the starfish, far from home, beached on a foreign land. What's not in the watered down version of the story, though, is how the narrator-naysayer returns to the beach some time later and joins the man, becomes a starfish thrower himself, having caught mental glimpses of "what man may be, along an endless wave-beaten coast at dawn." He concludes:
"We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back to life again."
Some of us. Some of us Toad People.
The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.