A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
Henry Holt: 416 pp., $30
"The View from Lazy Point" is a naturalist's notebook, a record of a year at Carl Safina's home on the Sound side of eastern Long Island, north of Amagansett and south of Montauk. Safina, a marine ecologist and environmental activist, has often been compared with Rachel Carson — an "ecologist with the soul of a poet," wrote Richard Ellis in these pages. He has written five books and won many awards for his work and his writing, including Pew, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.
Despite its meditative title, "The View from Lazy Point" is not, Safina writes, about "solitude and peace." This story includes heartbreak. As a member of the generation of naturalists that came after luminaries like Carson, Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold, Safina knows that the best way to get people to care about wilderness, short of dragging them to it, is with writing that conjures breezes and smells and a sense of scale, writing that delivers pure beauty with little preaching.
It is only in the last few decades, Safina writes, that we have had the information, the knowledge to truly understand that "all life is family, and the world is finite." If only we could wise up faster, get with the program, change our old ways of thinking about the world we inhabit, we might realign our priorities, reinvigorate antiquated institutions, throw off the fusty philosophies of Aristotle, Adam Smith and Freud, which separated us from nature, erecting a "firewall between us and the rest of creation."
Therein lies the heartbreak; species loss, habitat degradation all around, climate change, a diminution and lack of respect for the marvelous. But Safina has a natural and contagious ebullience (which, I suspect, comes from spending a great deal of time outdoors when he was growing up on Long Island, particularly in boats). "On a morning this placid and beautiful, he begins, "dying and going to heaven wouldn't be worth it." "Maybe to have hope," he writes, "is to be hope."
A few years ago, Safina bought his dilapidated beach cottage — a five-minute walk over a dune from the ocean. The name "Lazy Point" "derives from ne'er-do-well baymen who'd come to squat on worthless land." In summer, the writer boasts, it's Margaritaville; in winter, the wind could drive a person crazy. Lazy through to crazy and back, Safina takes us through a year.
The book has its own natural, almost tidal rhythm: Safina alternates between observations of the wildlife on Lazy Point and some of the issues we face around the globe.
In some chapters, the split between the mind understanding the humans' effects on the environment and the body feeling the change in seasons, hearing new sounds in the woods around his house, smelling the summer tide, is pronounced. Safina's writing projects the beauty around him onto the pages, also the sounds and smells: "An airplane drags slow thunder. A dog barks. The twilight woods tinkle with the calls of unseen birds already self-secured into briar-tangled roosts," he writes in March. In a gusty wind in April, his neighbor's picnic table finds "its inner driftwood." Most readers will gravitate to these observations more than, say, "Land, water, population growth — violence." I am certain that Safina hoped to draw these realities a little closer by opening our hearts first, and he does. The personal is political.
There is no such thing, even for the wealthy, as "not in my backyard" anymore. Nature is our community, he writes, summoning Leopold, "beyond people, beyond even wildlife and plants, into the very soil and water and life-supporting systems."
February — woodcocks; March — tree frogs and osprey; May — terns and bluefish; the book teems. Safina is in there fishing for bluefish, fishing for herring, offering a recipe for revolution: "Don't buy the products by which they drain you and feed themselves…. Plant seeds…. Walk a brisk mile to nowhere and back… Go to formal dinners in great-looking thrift store clothing." Heartbreak: the end of Main Street and the rise of Big Box malls. Beauty: peregrine falcons.
In June, he and some neighbors rescue a stranded bottlenose dolphin; the writer travels to southeastern Alaska, to the Svalbard Islands off the coast of Norway where coal mining is destroying the climate, to the Shishmaref Inlet in Alaska, where ice loss and sea level rise is forcing the Inupiat Eskimos to move their villages inland, to the Caribbean to watch scientists studying disappearing coral reefs, to the Palau Islands where regulations have successfully allowed reefs to recover and thrive, and to the Antarctic to visit scientists studying declining penguin populations. All the while what we really want is for him to go home and tell us what's happening on the beach.
Safina talks himself out of depression and in the process pulls us up as well. "On many days I understand the world as a tragedy, a bad time for things of great importance. Even with so fine a start to today, imperfections are evident. I know this, though: this morning, full of such rich, deep, savage beauty, where predators and their prey perform their rituals as they always have, indicates that there remain on Earth some remnants of a long-lasting world." He relies on beauty for his faith and finds that there is plenty of it. And yet: Imagine for a moment that you are a reader who has never smelled high tide or heard a loon or felt the silence of a pine forest in snow. Could his words, suffused with beauty, persuade you that these things matter, that without them life is barely worth living?
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.