Review: The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year In An Unnatural World, Carl Safina, Henry Holt and Company, NY, 2011
Attention is love, what we must give
Children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.
“The Art of Blessing The Day”
Nobody likes a prophet. They rain on our parade. They are too much like the scolds who stand in Times Square wearing sandwich boards proclaiming the end-of-days and everlasting punishment. The difference is that prophesy makes us squirm while scolds make us giggle. Prophets are scolds minus the schadenfreude. Although prophets may have an authentic and urgent message, we ignore them because our perspective is from the center of the universe. From this perspective we appear to be far too important to suffer the consequences of our self indulgence. Just as the prophets of the bible failed to convince people to live more thoughtful compassionate lives, present day environmental prophets are failing in their efforts to convince nations, institutions, and individuals to alter their behavior before the consequences of climate change land squarely on the our heads.
Inconvenient though truth may be, Carl Safina is a contemporary prophet who merits your attention. Yes, he tells truth to power, but his writing is also full of beauty, optimism and the quiet reverie that comes from living close to nature. Like his predecessors Safina didn’t choose the role of prophet. It was imposed on him. Scientific literacy, thoughtful observation, conscience, and decades of bearing witness to shrinking natural diversity and increasing stress on natural systems have imposed on him a sense of personal responsibility to save what he can.
As Isaiah is best appreciated in Handel’s “Messiah,” I can easily imagine Safina’s message as the libretto of an opera by John Adams. Since no librettist has yet taken up the task we will have to make due with his admirable prose.
Like his previous books, The View From Lazy Point presents Safina’s grand view – a kind of naturalist’s treatise on Indra’s Net (the Hindu premise which sees everything in the world as being connected to everything else. The idea is that if you stress, or sever, one of the connecting strings you send ripples over the entire net. Stress one part of the net and injure the entire world). The View From Lazy Point is an account of a year in the life of the author. A year which begins and ends at Safina’s cottage on Lazy Point, one of the very few relatively undisturbed places left on Long Island. It’s a place where he and his dog, Kenzie, are “energetically invested in the obvious truth that all adventure lies at the tip of one’s nose. The familiar is always the exotic, and if you can detect the scent and follow it, it’ll take you far.” Life here has its own rhythm, a rhythm which Safina and Kenzie have made their own. He describes it as “bebop habitat.” Lazy Point is the the home from which Safina directs his catholic vision.
For me, the best reason to read Safina is that he is a polymath. He is a scientist, a conservationist, a fisherman, a chef d’fish, a bird watcher, a jazz afficionado, a traveller, a curmudgeon, and an optimist. Although his writing is full of delights Safina is not content to merely entertain. His mission is to deliver an urgent message about climate, democracy, and natural systems. He isn’t embarrassed to make us weep with joy or afraid to make us squirm with discomfort.
The View From Lazy Point recounts the author’s experiences on Long Island and his travels Arctic, tropical, and Antarctic. His prose wanders (like a curious puppy) seamlessly between fishing, bird watching, climate change, and the effects of venality, excess, and concentration of wealth on our souls and our environment. In one passage Safina fights his way through a raging wind to cross a sand spit at the height of a storm to experience firsthand what the wind and surf are doing to resident and migrating birds. He then compares this storm in nature to “the other storm: the one in which corporations inundate democracy. Corporate globalization has been called ‘the most fundamental redesign of social, economic, and political arrangements since the Industrial Revolution’.”
He drifts between radical amazement, wide-eyed wonder, and macro economics – all to remind us of our place in nature, to awaken us from the hangover of our materialistic binge, and to inspire us to reclaim our natural, spiritual, and democratic patrimony. Safina’s economics lesson is about externalities – those costs of making and bringing products to market which are not reflected in the price. Understanding the concept of externalized costs is critical to understanding the relationship between business, families, and our environment because externalized costs include pollution, mountain top removal, mining the world’s fisheries, low wages, and bad working conditions. Externalities are those costs which are borne by the unknowing, the unwilling, and the powerless – people unwittingly pressed into the service of giant corporations. They are the first to suffer the effects but the rest of us aren’t far behind in line for a giant helping of consequences. Safina’s point is that democracy, economics, individual behavior, and nature are inextricably bound together. As the wealth and power of corporations erodes democracy, they are able to externalize more and more costs and impose them on us all in the form of climate change and the fraying fabric that binds family, spirit, national security, financial security, and natural systems into a livable world. He also hastens to point out that politicians and businessmen could not work their black arts without our cooperation. That’s the inconvenient part.
Through all of this Safina never fails to express his joy and wonder at the richness of natural places and his hope that we will wake up in time to save it. The View From Lazy Point will inspire hope and joy. Safina hopes that it will also inspire a shift in consciousness that leads to a democratic revolution to restore control of our environment, our families, and our democracy to their rightful place. Read The View From Lazy Point for a good read but also allow the message to sink in and motivate you to follow the dictates of your conscience.
July 9, 2011