Tidewater Review - January 2012

The View From Lazy Point

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina. Henry Holt & Co. Publishers. 356 pp. $32.
Carl Safina writes from his cottage near the tip of Long Island, a beach shack “that had fallen into such disrepair that I could afford it,” he records. The peripatetic Ph.D. shows a restless vein of curiosity – in the course of a year that he chronicles in the book, he looks in on oceans and their creatures in the coral gardens of Belize and Bonaire, back to his own beach and a dead whale, migrating birds through April, May and June and he’s off to examine polar bears in southeast Alaska.
Naturally, before he leaves the charms of Lazy Point, he needs to monitor the arrival of horseshoe crabs in his bailiwick and their role in replenishing the spent vigor of migrating shorebirds in their arduous trip from almost the southern pole to the northern pole. There’s also time for a fishing jaunt for striped bass that will send a fisherman into a coma of pleasure.
We’re not finished with Safina’s current obsession with polar bears. By July, his next stop is far above the Arctic Circle in the island group of Svalbard, way, way north of the top or Norway, to check out the changes in sea ice (think climate change) and what it means to polar bears and their cohorts.
August finds him back at his home shack, reading the signs that mark the passage of time in his own habitat. “The first cool, dry winds – at the height of August – are autumn’s way of whispering in our ear,” he writes. Osprey chicks are now flying, monarch butterflies “are already floating down the beaches, along bay shores, across the water, and over the ocean.” The power of thunderstorms is shocking and “the heat sends the sea into the sky and the sky doth weep.”
Still brooding about global warming and its effect on the loss of sea ice in Svalbard, Safina returns to Alaska, this time to the northwest, not the southeast, to observe the impact of climate change on people, not animals. He heads for a small island town of Inupiat Eskimos off the coast of the Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle and nearly touching Russia. The town is doomed. The sea ice is gone.
In just the last decade, the townspeople have seen their whole way of life threatened. Yes, they are connected to the modern world through the Internet, but yet, their long winter is still a succession of 24-hour “days” of darkness. As Eskimos, their identity is as hunters of spotted seals, polar bears, walrus, caribou, whales and salmon. The ice shelf was a buffer against winter storms and provided access to hunting, Safina writes, and brought walruses and seals across the ice into hunting range. The whole advantage of the island settlement, dating 4,000 years, the natives say, was its proximity to food. The community, now without the ice shelf, is considering a wholesale move, kit and kaboodle, 13 miles inland. Nobody’s enthusiastic about it.
October brings Safina back to Lazy Point and the bird migrations south in high gear. So are the departures of migratory fish. The writer and thinker is now digesting, mulling over what augurs of change he’s recently witnessed. But more about that to come. The reader is now personally concerned with Safina’s obsessions. It’s time for another move.
And the destination this time is nowhere near the realm of ice and permafrost that turns out to be impermanent, and animal nurseries that require a reasonable travel to dry land instead of an endless circle of open sea around an invisible polar signpost.
This time he’s on a dock in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles east of the Philippines. He’s on a return trip to the island nation of Palau. After his last visit a decade earlier, Palau’s coral reefs were decimated by a rise in Pacific Ocean temperatures. Now the reefs are recovering. The contrast, after nothing but glum news in the north, is welcome, colorful and warm as the ocean water – 82 degrees.
The change of pace illuminates one other jaunt Safina is addicted to – the soapbox. The success story at Palau proves his passion for a change in government policies, in short-sighted economic decisions, in the folly of “growth” instead of “development.”
What magic event accounts for the incredible comeback of Palau’s dead reefs and missing fish, now restored to health? The author’s conclusion is affirmation of a philosophy he’s been preaching throughout the book. Rather than current conservative thinking, Safina embraces the unthinkable.
He’s pro-regulation. On that subject, Safina steps on a number of political icons with vigor, and he makes a persuasive case for his point of view. Where people care enough and decipher the signs, greed, wealth and profit motives are counterproductive. That’s what the little island nation decided. They banned exporting their fish. When the pressure of the over-fishing was off, the species bounded back and returned to their diet of seaweed that was smothering the coral reefs. Ergo, healthy corals attract healthy fish.
The year is coming to an end and it’s time to dig in for the winter at Lazy Point to read and reread his notes, to write into the night while wind howls at the windows, to catch a bucketful of herring to pickle for cold days ahead.
But wait! How are conditions in Anarctica? One last trip is called for before the annual cycle meets tail to head of the next season. The destination this time is the bottom of the earth, not the top of it. Obviously, the hotel accommodations are more sparse. No one lives here. Only teams of scientists spend parts of the year working on projects for their respective nations. Safina joins a handful of Americans who are arriving to attach numbered tags that will identify some 500 Adelie penguin chicks.
Conditions are harsh. The weather is even more violent than Alaska or Svalbord. Refrigeration is no problem – it’s just outside the hut. There are no animals to steal brought-along food, only eggs must be wrapped or Skua birds will grab them. The chicks get banded, the return ship arrives and Antarctica is left to its awesome wind, snow and ice. As expected, less shelf ice.
By February, Safina is safe at home, watching for the first redwinged blackbird to whistle in the marsh, the certain announcement that spring is not far off.
This book deserves to be read and reread by a wide audience, so dense is it with wisdom as well as a fascinating travelogue. One of the best books I have ever read. Don’t miss it.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.