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".
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.
Songs of Praise and Voyages
Armed with knowledge and passion, Safina set out to do what he knew he had to do: saving the world we live in. First, it was to overhaul local and international fishing policies, including a landmark United Nations global fisheries treaty. As he crisscrossed continents and oceans, reaching the Falkland Islands, Arctic Canada, Hong Kong, Palau, Honduras, and beyond, he started translating his action into words. Carl Safina's first book on the seas, "Song for The Blue Ocean", was published in 1998.
Safina gradually branched out his research to understand how animals, in particular, whales and elephants, think and feel. This brought him to Kenya and Nepal, among other places. As much as Safina respects nature, human-nature conflicts are often ugly and dehumanizing.
"I think I have been most moved and most heartbroken by my time with African elephants. So loving and supportive of each other, so loyal and family-committed, so peaceful. And so subject to human violence and cruelty, " said Safina. "I saw an elephant who had been shot a few hours earlier. Blood was still flowing from the bullet hole in the back of his head. His face was hacked off. I saw many orphans. I also saw orphans who had died."
Relationships have been an integral part of his work. As written in one of his books:
The Red-wings call, listen, call again. One note is not music. It is what lies between notes that makes the music. And what is between them is: their relationship. Relationships are the music life makes. Context creates meaning. Asking, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is the wrong question; it makes you look in the wrong places. The question is, ‘Where is the meaning in life?’ The place to look is: between.
Safina's non-fiction work on the idea that "nature and human dignity require one another" won him book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies, also getting him on The New York Times bestselling list. He credits Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Abbey, John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Edward O. Wilson, and others for inspiring him up to this day. All those who came before him tried to save their contemporary worlds in diverging and often radical ways: Thoreau famously introduced the concept of civil disobedience, Abbey was on an FBI watch list for most of his life due to his opposition of the military draft, and Carson's "Silent Spring" garnered such intense criticism that an opposing biochemist working for an insecticide company claimed that "if man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."
But Safina will not be deterred. This is perhaps exemplified by his favorite quote among all the books he has written:
"Saving the world requires saving democracy. That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy—these comprise one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from—compassion."
Home is Where Life Is
The coasts of Long Island stretches endlessly into the horizon. Waves roll and crash with periodicity. The scene is serene and undisturbed, save for a dark speck of a man walking along where the water meets the sand.
"Hi, I'm Carl Safina."
The camera pans towards the greybeard with a blue cap, a grey polo shirt, and a rolled-up purple sweater.
"No matter where I travel I always return here. To walk, feel the seasons change, I've been coming here since I was a kid. Now I'm a marine biologist and I write books about the ocean; that magic, majestic, two-thirds of the planet that starts right there at the surf."
For all the places he has been to, New York was, is and will be home for Carl Safina. It provided the backdrop to his opening sequence of every single episode of his PBS documentary series, "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina". He was invited back to Stony Brook to teach by then-Dean David Conover, the place he took a few courses as a Rutgers graduate. His new favorite place to get close to nature is Montauk, N.Y., home to a vibrant fishing industry, marshes and seas aplenty.
"[Home] means feeling a sense of belonging, both in place and in time. Place and personal history [have] a lot to do with it. I wrote in 'The View From Lazy Point', 'In a real place, the mysteries of ages pile thick with enduring truths and complex beauties.' "
Safina now lives in, well, you guessed it, Long Island, N.Y. with his wife Patricia, "the two best beach-running dogs in the world", some chickens, a couple of parrots, and Frankie the kingsnake. Having domesticated animals gives Carl the ecologist yet another perspective:
"I was always more interested in and open to wild animals than to dogs, but our two current dogs have melted my heart and I am now more of a 'dog person' than before; the difference is having observed wild wolves and seeing how much wolf remains in dogs in the best sense—their loyalty, their lust for life, their desire to reconcile and forgive. Another difference is that raising a dog from a young pup gives you the opportunity to experience a dog with none of the neuroses they can get from people. Not all people who get dogs are well suited to providing a dog with the opportunity to be a dog."
"[...] our dogs are true members of our family."
Having spent decades forming connections with nature's creations, Safina concludes that the best way of establishing a connection, contrary to popular thinking, is not trying.
"I try to let them be themselves and to be open to possibilities with them. Some, such as dogs, form tight and lasting bonds; some, such as orphaned wild animals, form bonds that are temporary; some such as our chickens are just friendly but don’t seem to care too much about me as an individual. They are themselves."
"The deepest interactions were with captive animals. My pigeons, hawks I trained, owls I kept, orphaned raccoon and squirrel babies we have raised, our dogs. They have all in their ways become working partners or companionable friends passing through my life. All of the free-living animals I have experienced and written about, from tunas to turtles to salmon, many birds, various mammals including whales; all have made their own very deep impressions on my mind and emotions."
Although his childhood places to visit were destroyed, Safina emphasizes that if you would pay attention, life and good news is just around the corner.
"Central Park and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge are good examples of [places where humans and nature peacefully coexist]; they are both in New York City and they are both important places for wildlife. We have even had whales within New York City waters in recent years. Coexistence is certainly possible."
Perhaps Carl Safina never truly left home: He belonged to nature; that nature, with all its vibrancy, is right here all along, all around us, all the time.