Now in Paperback: The View From Lazy Point
by Carl Safina
The subtitle of Carl Safina’s warm, affecting book The View From Lazy Point is “A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” referring to the ecological chaos that will so obviously be the defining characteristic of the 21st century. A significant chunk of the book’s action takes place in far reaches of that unnatural world, as Safina’s advocacy of sane and salutary environmental practices takes him from Belize to Svalbard to the antarctic, where rising tides and vanishing wildlife paint a bleak picture of the toll humanity has taken on the planet. Safina can see something of that toll even at Long Island’s ‘Lazy Point’ so vividly evoked in these pages: fewer fish, less robust life in the waves – the general denuding effect wildlife observers tend to note virtually everywhere.
Safina is one of our best wildlife observers. His Song for the Blue Ocean was one of the most wisely and beautifully written books of 1998, and if anything, The View From Lazy Point is an even stronger work (inestimably aided by the elegant drawings of Trudy Nicholson), again showcasing Safina’s ability to find wonder in any square foot of nature in the world – and his ability to convey that wonder in clean, evocative prose:
Fifty feet from the high-tide line lies the shore of a small, shallow freshwater pond, into which the storm has washed seashells and a skate’s carcass. I’m wondering if the pond’s amphibians have perished from the brine. But in the water swim tadpoles – dozens of them. Has evolution forged a more salt-tolerant frog here? Or maybe the eight inches of rain the storm doused us with amply diluted the saltwater that washed in. Just a few paces away, surf growls. Fishing boats ply the ocean beyond. Yet I’m watching tadpoles. One can penetrate the deep forest and deep ocean, but there’s no such thing as deep coast. The coast is all about borders. It’s all edges and angles, like Thelonius Monk music. It’s bebop habitat.
(He’s not only adept at creating great quotes himself, he’s also adept at eliciting them from others, as when a colleague at Svalbard tells him, “If a polar bear stands up in front of you, think about your next life”)
The fragile contention that emerges from The View From Lazy Point isn’t original and doesn’t pretend to be; Safina contends that mankind’s economic and technological capabilities have developed far faster than the philosophical and even spiritual outlooks necessary to temper them. He doesn’t view that gap as unbridgeable – all through this book, he gamely cheers every halting half-step of progress:
The first global oil wells were called whales, and the drills were called harpoons. People then thought only of themselves and the short term, and within a century they essentially ran out of oil and whale meat. Even in places where whales are again common, they’re at a fraction of their former abundance. Whaling for oil has ended; good riddance. Every time we sever a dirty – or immoral – source of energy, humanity improves.
Unlike some armchair naturalists, Safina is a tireless journeyer an activist who has made the preservation of Earth’s living ecosystems his life’s work. He’s animated in this work by an optimism that’s almost incomprehensible in light of what’s he’s seen in the world (gigantic islands of garbage floating on the ocean, polar bears drowning in melted permafrost, etc.) – and yet there it is, shining from virtually every page of this book, insisting on faith:
I hope humanity survives and civilization develops. Just as we look back on the Dark Ages and shudder, people will look back at our time as dirty, crowded, superstitious, dangerous, and primitive. To get onward, we’d need to replace the no-accounting, throwaway, boomeranging, soot-powered economy with a clean, renewable, no-waste recycling economy. We thank the thinkers and martyrs who gave their lives for Reason, that we might step into a few rays of sunshine. If our children, and most of our nonhuman co-voyagers, can get through the troubles of our time, there will be a brighter day.
And ultimately, the most amazing thing about The View From Lazy Point is that it’s an optimistic book. Its eyes are wide open to the damages humans have done to the world, and it’s pragmatically aware of the staggering amount of work necessary to counteract those damages, much less change underlying attitudes. And yet Safina stares mankind’s own complicity squarely in the face and still dreams of a good outcome:
There are those for whom the dying of the world comes as unwelcome news. Many others seem less concerned. Yet maybe to have hope is to be hope. I hope life – I don’t mean day-to-day living; I mean Life, capital L: bacteria, bugs, birds, baleen whales, and ballerinas – I hope Life will find a way to hold on, keep its shape, persist, ride it out. And I hope we will find our way toward quelling the storm we have become.
“To have hope is to be hope” might stand as the epigraph for Safina’s entire professional career – and certainly for this wise and utterly wonderful book. No nature lover should miss it, and those who aren’t nature lovers would do well to read it and become infected, while there’s still some nature out there to be loved.