Holt & Co, 2011, hbk, 416 pp, ISBN: 978-0805090406

Picador, 2012, pbk, 416 pp, ISBN: 978-1250002716


Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


After reading this book I can see why the New York Post called Carl Safina the “Thoreau for the twenty-first century.” Any writer who can mix observation, description, passion and critical comment in such a consistently beautiful, lyrical and yet totally succinct way as this certainly deserves that sort of title.

As well as being a brilliant writer, Safina, who has a PhD in ecology, is a hard-working activist, and both the writing and the work are fed by his deep love of the sea and all that lives in and around it. Author of six books, and over a hundred scientific and popular publications, he has won many prestigious awards and works tirelessly on campaigns to protect the world’s oceans.

This book’s main setting is the sandy, windswept area around the author’s home at Lazy Point on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. Organized around the calendar year, it includes beautiful, detailed observations of Nature and the changes that happen as the seasons slowly revolve. Plus it is interspersed with commentaries and descriptions of various field trips made to other places far north and far south. Witnessing and documenting this ‘natural year in an unnatural world,’ Safina shows how the problems of the environment are linked to questions of social justice and the politics of greed. His skill with words produces pithy epigrams that one immediately wants to borrow, like: How we think of problems determines where we look for the solutionsThe world taxes itself to pay for its own destruction … Waste is one symptom of a world with a death wish.

Here is someone who can narrow his focus closely enough observe the natural world at a microscopic level, taking his readers deep underwater to see the tiny coral larva searching for a suitable surface not already colonized by seaweed. A few sentences later we are right up to the macroscopic level from which we can see how our own human habits and actions affect that very larva and how overpopulation, industrial fishing, pollution and ocean acidification all combine to alter the delicate balance of life on that coral reef. We learn, for example, how overfishing leads to the decline in parrotfish who graze on seaweed and how the consequent overgrowth of seaweed condemns that coral larva to homelessness followed by death.

We are awed by beauty, charmed by observation, chastened by warnings and yet somehow, mysteriously, infused with hope. The world is changing, says Safina, because we’re changing it. And that makes me understand, at least, what kind of person I’d like to be. A person can seek ways, whether big or small, to heal the world. That, to me, is spirituality.