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My Friends Here and Back

Interview with Dr. Carl Safina

You'll usually find Carl Safina somewhere near New York.

A native son of the Empire State, Safina is the Inaugural Holder of the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University. The nonprofit Safina Center, where he is the Founding President, is a half-hour walk up north by northeast at nearby Setauket, N.Y. In his illustrious career as ecologist and writer, educator, and advocate, New York is where the MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellow has left most of his mark. This is a story of how it all happened.


The Sea and Sky that Never Sleeps

The source of rolling rivers and raging seas is a small stream; it was fitting that everything started right in Brooklyn, N.Y., supposedly named after "marshland" or "little stream".

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Safina spent the first ten years of his life in a tenement in an Italian neighborhood there. It was the most logical place to live in for Italian-Americans like him, whose grandparents both emigrated from Sicily; more so for millions more of other immigrants, old and new. Safina's father raised canaries as a hobby; as a little boy, Carl would watch from inches away as they got on and off their tiny eggs and fed their tiny young.

"I loved how they looked and how they moved. I thought they were little lives, not much different from my own little life."

Soon, little Carl began raising homing pigeons of his own at age seven, eventually spending his teen years training hawks and owls. Trips to New York's zoos, the then-newly-relocated New York Aquarium in Coney Island, and the historic American Museum of Natural History would fuel his fascination with the natural world.

During the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Long Island, N.Y. was experiencing its own rapid upheaval. Levittown, formerly Island Trees, had been built a few years back as the first modern suburb. The success of the planned community paved way for rapid development of suburbs, yet led to white flight, and subsequently various levels of urban decay. Annual housing starts leaped upward from 142,000 in 1944 to an average of 1.5 million per year in the 1950s. Safina followed his family into the suburbs along the Long Island coast like many other families at the time; he enjoyed the presence of wild creatures, small boats, fishing, and camping in the remaining woods. But not for long.

"The woodlands that were about a mile from my house were my go-to- place as an adolescent on Long Island. One day I went and bulldozers were pushing down all the trees. It became houses and an industrial 'park.' And the beach where my father used to take me fishing also got houses and then the 'No Trespassing' signs went up."

There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men . — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Watching the places he had loved disappear one by one all added up. "I learned that love alone is not enough by itself to save things that are loved." Safina decided to enroll at Purchase College in Harrison, N.Y. Soon, he crossed the Hudson River and started studying behavior and ecology of seabirds, fishes, and hawks at Rutgers University, and earned a Ph.D. in Ecology.