Hailed MacArthur Fellow Carl Safina takes us on a tour of the natural world in the course of a year spent divided between his home on the shore of eastern Long Island and on his travels to the four points of the compass. As he witnesses a natural year in an unnatural world he shows how the problems of the environment are linked to questions of social justice and the politics of greed, and in asking difficult questions about our finite world, his answers provide hope.
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About the Author
Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean, and founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, was named by the Audubon Society one of the leading conservationists of the twentieth century. He's been profiled by The New York Times, and PBS's Bill Moyers. His books and articles have won him a Pew Fellowship, Guggenheim Award, Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, and a MacArthur Prize. He lives in Amagansett, New York.
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The View From Lazy Point
A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
By Carl Safina, Trudy Nicholson
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Carl Safina
All rights reserved.
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.
COAST OF CHARACTERS
We've had no ice on the Sound this winter, and this morning portends more warmth, well above freezing. By now, late January, the days are already noticeably longer and the light has changed. It's a little stronger, a little brighter.
Though the beach is lovely, the air remains raw, with a damp south wind. Kenzie's dark shape is loping along far ahead, zigzagging the beach. The tide, already low, is still ebbing. Pebbles are mounded at the upper boundary of the wave wash; above them, near the swipe of highest tides, lies a line of slipper shells. Six decades ago, my neighbor J.P. tells me — and he's got photos — this beach was all sand, no pebbly stretches. A generation ago, the beach was windrowed with jingle shells. Kids, hippies, and young mothers (some people seemed all three at once) liked to string them into little driftwood mobiles to hang in windows and breezeways. Now slipper shells reign. It never occurred to anyone that counting shells on a beach could be science, so there's no data on how jingles have nearly vanished. Only the neighbors speak of it; only the neighbors know.
A large time-blackened oyster shell, newly uncovered by the collusion of wind and water, speaks of when they grew wild in abundance, and big. Every walk is a product of the present and a relic of the past. And on a very recent clamshell I recognize the perfect, tiny borehole of the predatory snail that was its assassin. Three round, translucent pebbles catch my eye; they fit snugly across my palm — not that I need more pebbles. Then again, Isaac Newton himself said, "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." Well, exactly. So I'll grant myself the pretty stones.
The Sound reflects both the light of morning and the calls of sea ducks. I cup my ears and hear the Long-tailed Ducks' ah — oh-da-leep. Their call means it's winter — and it means I'm home. When I'm on a different coast, Long-tailed Ducks often make me feel at home. Among the gifts of the sea is a wonderfully portable sense of place. Portable because one ocean washes all shores. Like these migrants themselves, my sense of home goes where they go.
Scanning with binoculars, I locate those elegantly streamered Long-tails. The morning light is falling across their pied heads, putting a gleam on their whites and setting their pink bill tips aglow. I swivel my gaze across the water, past several Common Loons in their soft-gray winter pajamas. Red-breasted Mergansers, heads war-bonneted with ragged crests, sit scattered across the Sound. On the shore across the Cut, three Harbor Seals are resting with their bodies gracefully bowed, heads and rear flippers up off the sand, air-cooling themselves.
Their beauty alone is inspiring. But what in the journey of their ancient lineage led one kind to develop a black-and- white head, another a cap of ragged plumes? How does one's DNA begin building a Bufflehead and another's start assembling a seal — when cells are so similar? Each kind is an engraved invitation posted on an unlocked door that opens to a mansion bigger than human time. Step inside, and you can easily spend a lifetime.
Mysteries notwithstanding, this daily morning walk is how I take the pulse of the place, and my own. It's a good spot in which to wake up.
The sun here comes out of the sea and returns to the sea — a trick that's hard to pull off if you don't live on an island or some narrow bit of land with its neck stuck out. As Earth revolves around that disk of sun, you can watch dawn and sunset migrate across the horizon a little each day.
On a coast ruled by a wandering sun and twelve moons that pull the tides like the reins on a horse, a year means something. Seasonality here isn't just a four-season, common-time march. The rhythm of the year here beats to the pulse of a perpetual series of migrations, rivers of life along the leading line of coast. Fishes and birds mainly, but also migrating butterflies, dragonflies, whales, sea turtles, even tree frogs and toads and salamanders, whose migrations take them merely from woodland to wetland and back. Each kind moves to its own drum. Getting tuned in to the migrants' urgent energies turns "four seasons" into a much more complex idea of what life does, what life is, of where life begins and goes.
Time has been called an arrow, but here time's directionality assumes the circularity of the sky, the ocean's horizon-in-the-round. Circular time. This is perhaps time as an animal perceives it, each day replayed with all the major elements the same and every detail different. It's a pinwheel in which each petal creates the one behind it, goes once around and then falls, as all petals eventually do. Time and tide. Ebb and flow. Many a metaphor starts in water. As did life itself.
Life — Earth's trademark enterprise — starts with plants and algae capturing energy from sunlight and using solar power to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar. Then they use the sugar they've created as fuel for turning the nutrients in soil and water into cells, and for powering growth, reproduction, repair, and defense. Whether at sea or on land, plants, and countless trillions of single-celled algae drifting in the ocean create the planet's basic living matter. They're the world's "power plants." Their exhaust gas is the oxygen that animals breathe. Basically all of life on Earth is the story of plants making and animals taking.
"Follow the money" explains a lot in politics and in nature, although nature's currency is energy. Almost all of it comes streaming to the treasury in gold bars of sunlight (some deep-sea creatures also use volcanic energy from the seafloor). The natural economy is flowing energy. World history is not the story of politics, wars, ideologies, or religions. It's the story of energy flow, beginning with a fraction of the sun's radiance falling on a lifeless planet coated with water.
When an unusually fragile new ape began using fire to harness the energy in plants it could not eat — such as wood — to initiate digestion (by cooking), ward off predators, and provide warmth, and when it learned that by assisting the reproduction of plants and animals it could garner more food, its radical new ability to channel energy flow changed the story of life on Earth.
Animals eat plants, so, ultimately, we are all grass, pretty much. Now, the astonishing thing is how much of the grass we are. Each time a plant of the land or coastal sea uses the sunlight's energy to make a sugar molecule or add a cell, chances are about four out of ten that the cell will become food — or be eaten by an animal that will become food — for a human. In other words, we now take roughly 40 percent of the life that the land produces; we take a similar proportion of what the coastal seas produce. For one midsized creature that collectively weighs just half a percent of the animal mass on Earth, that is a staggering proportion. It redefines "dominion." We dominate.
Maybe it's time to redefine our goals. If the human population again doubles, as some project, could we commandeer 80 percent of life? More conservatively, the United Nations expects the population to grow to over nine billion people by the middle of this century. That's two more Chinas. We'd have to expand agriculture onto new land, and that means using more water — but water supplies are shrinking. Since all growth must be based on what plants make using sunlight, continuous growth of the human enterprise for more than a few decades may not be possible. By midcentury it would take about two Planet Earths to provide enough to meet projected demand (add another half-Earth if everyone wants to live like Americans). In accounting terms, we're running a deficit, eating into our principal, liquidating our natural capital assets. Something's getting ready to break.
Population growth adds about seventy million people to the world each year, twice as many as live in California. Meanwhile, since 1970 populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds have declined about 30 percent worldwide. Species are going extinct about one thousand times faster than the geologically "recent" average; the last extinction wave this severe snuffed the dinosaurs. We're pumping freshwater faster than rain falls, catching fish faster than they spawn. Roughly 40 percent of tropical coral reefs are rapidly deteriorating; none are considered safe. Forests are shrinking by about an acre per second. Compared to the day thirteen colonies on the sunrise side of a wilderness continent asserted independence as the United States, the planet's atmosphere is quite different. Ozone: thinner. Carbon dioxide: denser by a third and concentrating further. Synthetic fertilizers have doubled the global nitrogen flow to living systems, washing down rivers and, since the 1970s, creating hundreds of oxygen-starved seafloor "dead zones." Americans — only 5 percent of the world population — use roughly 30 percent of the world's nonrenewable energy and minerals. The Convention on Biological Diversity aims — aimed — to protect the diversity of living things, but its own assessment says, "Biodiversity is in decline at all levels and geographical scales," a situation "likely to continue for the foreseeable future."
As a new force of nature, humans are changing the world at rates and scales previously matched mainly by geological and cosmic forces like volcanoes, ice-age cycles, and comet strikes. That's why everything from Aardvarks to zooplankton are feeling their world shifting. As are many people, who don't always know why.
I hope that someday, preferably this week, the enormity of what we're risking will dawn on us. So far it hasn't. True, without the environmental groups, much of the world would probably resemble the most polluted parts of eastern Europe, South Asia, China —. Then again, it does. Still, if not for Sisyphus's efforts, the stone would merely stay at the bottom of the hill. But that doesn't mean he's succeeding.
Excerpted from The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina, Trudy Nicholson. Copyright © 2011 Carl Safina. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The View from Lazy Point,
Coast of Characters,
March: In Like a Lion,
March: Out Like a Lamb,
Travels Solar: Coral Gardens of Good and Evil—Belize and Bonaire,
Farewell, Whole New Time,
Travels Polar: Bear Witness—Southeast Alaska,
Travels Polar: Svalbard,
Travels Polar: Baked Alaska,
Travels Solar: Rainbow's End—Palau,
Travels Polar: Copa Cabana—Antarctica,
About the Author,
Also by Carl Safina,