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Conservationist Carl Safina’s Ecosystem Wake Up Call

An ecologist travels to the four corners of the planet, and brings back his report.

Ecologist Carl Safina in Midway, in the north Pacific Ocean (carlsafina.org)

When Carl Safina grabs his kayak and scuba gear and travels the world, we get more than polar bear reports and tropical fish stories.

Safina is a renowned marine ecologist with a writer’s eye and a philosopher’s mind. He’s been out around the world, from his home on Lazy Point, Long Island.

What he’s seen is what remains of heart-breaking natural splendor – and of the groaning weight of one species – ours – on the world. Our dignity, he reminds us, is fully bound with nature’s.

We look at stories of kayak, fishing pole, scuba gear, polar bears – and hear a new philosophy for humans in nature.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Carl Safina, prominent ecologist and marine conservationist, and winner of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. He’s founder and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, which researches the ocean and humans’ impact on it, and an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University. His books includeVoyage of the Turtle, Eye of the Albatross, and Song for the Blue Ocean. His latest is The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World.

Read an excerpt from The View from Lazy Point:

Prelude
I slide a fishing rod into my kayak as birds begin gathering over our bay. They know what’s coming. So do I. On many summer afternoons, packs of surfacing Bluefish chase up small fish, drawing excited flocks of diving terns. The terns carry those little fish a few miles to hungry youngsters waiting eagerly on small, unpeopled islands. As it has been for millennia, so it is this very moment.

Having long studied—and sautéed—this aspect of our neighborhood both formally and at leisure, applying both statistical models and garlic as appropriate, I can report that this relationship—prey fish, terns, Bluefish, and me—shows scant sign of failing anytime soon.

The future is by no means doomed. I’m continually struck by how much beauty and vitality the world still holds.

But beauty and vitality isn’t the whole story either. In the panic among the fishes and in the frenzying terns, it’s also evident that nature has neither sentiment nor mercy. What it does have is life, truth, and logic. And it strives for what it cannot have: an end to danger, an assurance of longevity, a moment’s peace, and a comfortable death. It’s like us all, because we are natural. What anyone needs to know about mercy, one can learn by watching nature strive, seeing people struggle, and realizing what a compassionate mind could add to the picture. So I’m also struck that we who have named ourselves “wise humans”—Homo sapiens—haven’t quite realized that nature, civilization, peace, and human dignity are all facets of the same gemstone, and that abrasion of one tarnishes the whole.

My neighbor’s cottage is right on the bay, and where I launch my kayak I find him wading waist-deep with a spade, digging sea-worms for bait. Bob hopes to slide a few porgies into his frying pan by sundown. I ask how the worm digging’s going. Squinting against shards of summer light jabbing upward from the water, he says, “S-l-o-w. Even the worms are getting scarcer.” He’d earlier commented on the dearth of clams. Just a few years ago we could wade out right here and, using merely our feet to detect buried clams, emerge in an hour lugging four dozen. The hour now yields perhaps half a dozen. Nothing too mysterious; a few too many people from elsewhere, having raked over their spots, found our spot. The whole world has a pretty similar story to tell.

But I don’t pretend to speak for the sea-worms or the clams. The voiceless among us got on for hundreds of millions of years without hearing from me.

It’s true that a lot was gone by the time I got here, and that worms are waning and clams are counting down. But, there’s quite a lot left. Maybe not a lot of clams (though I’ve found a couple of decent pockets in the harbor, and my neighbor Dennis generously clued me to a heavy set over in—well, I probably shouldn’t say), but I mean in general, a lot remains. And some of what had gone has returned. You’ll see. As watching those terns and fish and the activities of my human neighbors continually reminds me, the world still brims with the living.

Yet here’s the paradox: In the cycle of seasons and the waves of migrating fishes and birds that come and go along my home coast, I still find sanity, solace, and delight, more than a few fresh meals, and the power and resilience of living things; the wider lens of distant horizons, however, reveals people and nature up against trends serious enough to rattle civilization in this century.

This is a chronicle of a year spent partly along local shores, partly exploring the world from polar regions of the Arctic, across the tropics, down into the Antarctic, and home again. In some ways, this could be any year; in some ways, it couldn’t be any other.

The world still sings. Yet the warnings are wise. We have lost much, and we’re risking much more. Some risks, we see coming. But there are also certainties hurtling our way that we fail to notice. The dinosaurs failed to anticipate the meteoroid that extinguished them. But dinosaurs didn’t create their own calamity. Many others don’t deserve the calamities we’re creating.

We’re borrowing heavily from people not yet born. Meanwhile, the framework with which we run our lives and our world—our philosophy, ethics, religion, and economics—can’t seem to detect the risks we’re running. How could they? They’re ancient and medieval institutions, out of sync with what we’ve learned in the last century about how the world really works.

So, how to proceed? I’ve come to see that the geometry of human progress is an expanding circle of compassion. And that nature and human dignity require each other. And I believe that—if the word “sacred” means anything at all—the world exists as the one truly sacred place. Simple things, right?
As we walk the shores and launch our travels, several axes of possibility—evidence, ignorance, indifference, and compassion—will form the north, south, east, and west upon which we’ll plot our course.

Amagansett, Long Island
June 2010

The View from Lazy Point

My dog, Kenzie, a fifty-pound black wolf—more or less—goes loping along the shore as is her custom, energetically invested in the obvious truth that all adventure lies at the tip of one’s nose. The familiar is always also the exotic, and if you can detect the scent and follow it, it’ll take you far. And soon, as always, she’s way ahead.

Today we woke to glass-calm water. The Sound is stretched taut to the far points of land. Out across the open water, the sea melds with hazy air and blends skyward without horizon. On a morning this placid and beautiful, dying and going to heaven wouldn’t be worth it.

A few years ago, I became the “owner” of a beach cottage that had fallen into such disrepair that I could afford it. One can own an apartment or a condo or a suburban home, but when a place is already old, and if it sits amid dune grass and wild Beach Plums, and a box turtle comes confidently seeking the blackberries it has known about for decades, you feel—at least I feel—like the property has many owners and I’m just the newest tenant.

As much as I admire Henry Beston’s classic The Outermost House, this is not a story about getting a little place out past the edge of the world and finding one’s self in the solitude and the peace. This story is, though, partly about going home, about immersing in rhythms that come naturally. As a kid I’d stalk shallow waters with a net in my hand, captivated by shadows of tiny sand-colored fishes fanning away from me. Despite added detail and time, I’m still the minnow-chasing boy.

But this story’s also partly about a kind of heartbreak for a world that remains so vitally unaware of how imperiled it is. The more I sense the miracle, the more intense appears the tragedy. The only way to feel better, then, is to appreciate less, which would of course feel worse. Let’s put a positive spin on it and say that for now the miracle is winning.

So this story is also about the tension created when those things mistakenly called “the real world”—though they are entirely artificial—continually intrude on the real real world. In a real place, the mysteries of ages pile thick with enduring truths and complex beauties.

And that’s why I was looking for a house. I’d hoped to find a home in a certain fishing village. Well, the fishing village was turning into a resort, with prices to match. The next town was long since unaffordable, too. So one day I ended up down a road through a marsh popular with mosquitoes, looking at a dilapidated summer cottage with no windows and a square hole in the roof with no skylight. It was bright—and certainly airy—but humidity posed a problem. Some of the inner walls had been torn from the studs, freeing a bloom of insulation and leaving exposed wires in a puddle under the skylight hole. Better houses have been demolished. I wisely dismissed that house as a wreck, out of the question.

I walked across the street, over the dune, and got a glimpse of the water. A five-minute beach walk took me to where a broad, shallow bay communicates with the Sound through a deep, fast-flowing channel about as wide as I might be able to cast a heavy lure. Even in the late winter, when I first laid eyes on it, I could see that this channel would be fishy in springtime. The house said I’d be crazy. The place said I was home.
It’s called Lazy Point. I’ve been told the name derives from ne’er-do-well baymen who’d come to squat on worthless land. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t much care; I like the name.

In summer the place is idyllic; it can make anyone lazy. But in winter it takes effort to get comfortable with the gales. I once read that the incessant howl of wind on the prairie could drive settlers mad. I couldn’t really understand how—until my first winter alone at Lazy Point.

The cottages sit on a flat peninsula of scrubby pines between the Sound and the bay. That fishy channel I mentioned; I call it “the Cut.” Along the bay’s south shore runs the railroad, then the main road—two lanes—then high dunes, then the sandy ocean beach that continues on for miles. In winter it’s deserted and I have it to myself. We call the ocean beach “the south side.” And beyond the ocean: more ocean to the blue horizon, beyond that to the edge of the continental shelf—under six hundred feet of water—and then the deep sea, the Gulf Stream, and the rest of the world. You can feel it.

The harbor village is about five miles east; another six miles and you get to Montauk Point, a defiantly reared-up, jutting jaw of land—exposed to the open ocean on the south, and exposed on the north to the full-face force of all nor’easters. Forming the break between New England and the Mid-Atlantic, it’s the southernmost rocky beach on the entire East Coast. We call this extremity simply “the Point.”
None other than Walt Whitman enjoyed the exact same spot: “The eastern end of Long Island, and the Peconic bay region, I knew quite well—sail’d more than once around Shelter Island, and down to Montauk—spent many an hour on Turtle hill by the old light-house, on the extreme point, looking out over the ceaseless roll of the Atlantic. I used to like to go down there and fraternize with the blue-fishers, or the annual squads of sea-bass takers.” Well, a century-plus later, “the blue-fishers and bass-takers” includes me.
With its headland, lighthouse, bluffs, buffeting breezes, surging tides, and crashing waves, this is a place of real power. All the energy draws and holds great numbers of seabirds and other ocean life. It is a great cauldron of vitality.

In the circle of a year you may see around here everything ranging from Arctic seals whose summer home is Canadian pack ice to tropical reef fishes that have ridden up from the Caribbean in flickering tongues of warm water. Some, like the terns that often lead me to dinner, breed here. Others, like harlequin-costumed Ruddy Turnstones, migrate right on through. Sometimes, thousands of miles from home, I run into migrants I’d last seen here at home.

They all remind me that the world is both much bigger than Lazy Point and yet surprisingly small. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” reported Henry David Thoreau. And how much greater might he have thought his travels if he’d lived at Lazy Point instead. The coast and its migrants bring to Lazy Point a much bigger picture than any map of the place suggests. I sometimes tell friends it’s possible to see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point.

Excerpted from The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina – Copyright 2010 by Carl Safina. Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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