The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Carl Safina’s “View From Lazy Point”: Expanding the circle of compassion ever out

There is a life lived within the rhythm of the seasons and the embrace of the land.  A life where the cry of the chickadee announces a new season, a world where the return of salmon, silver in the whitewater, is celebrated as much, or more, than any holiday.  In this life, the sheltered bend of the river where the trout linger, the trees where the red-tailed hawks live and the stubbled fields of water where the duck rest during their yearly pilgrimage are all known.

It is the world most of our ancestors lived in, the world, even, which many of our grandparents and great-grandparents lived in.

And it is the world that Oceanographer Carl Safina returns to in his striking book, The View From Lazy Point.  Buying an old, run-down cottage in Long Island, on a peninsula called, as you’d expect, Lazy point, he settles back into a life where the seasons provide the frame of his life, and within that frame, he witnesses the comings and goings of the animals who are his neighbors, from red-tailed hawks and bluefish to frogs and even lowly earthworms.  They great him in the morning or keep him awake at night, they feed him, and they announce to him, clearly, not just the changes of the seasons but the changes in our world.

And it is Safina’s meditations on those changes which move this book from a modern “Walden Pond”, as great as that would be, to something else.

For, really, this is a book about philosophy.  It is about what it means to be human, to be, as Safina puts it, “self-assembled stardust aware of the universe and the future”, a wonderous miracle we rarely every think on.  It is about what it means to be human in a world where the rhythms of life have been throw askew, indeed, burst asunder.

Long ago I remember reading accounts of the first explorers in the Grand Banks, off the Maritime coast of Canada.  They could dip a bucket into the sea and it would come back with cod in it.

Today there is no cod fishery and hardly any cod in the Grand Banks.  I remember, as a child, the warnings, again and again, that the cod fishery was in danger.  That it could collapse.

Then it did, and it has never come back.

I shant bore you with all the statistics about how many species are going extinct every day.   If you care, you’ve heard them a thousand times, if you don’t care, well, you’ve still heard them over and over again.

Those numbers are in Safina’s book, but they aren’t the heart of the book.  The heart of the book is living with nature, and seeing, as the months roll on, not just how much has been lost, but how much remains and how beautiful it is, how rich it is, and how much a part of that world we are.

For that’s ultimately Safina’s point, a point made with more grace than this bundle of starlight can, though he’s not the first to make it, nor will he be the last.  We are not separate from nature, we are a part of it.  The web of life, the rhythm of the seasons, supports us as much as it does any other animal, any other life.

The great philosophers, the great prophets, one by one, have extended the circle of self-feeling out—have expanded the circle of compassion from kin, to tribe, to creed, and ultimately to all of humanity.  If we fail often in this self-feeling, in this duty to love our neighbor as ourself, to treat all humans as means and not ends, well at least the great amongst us, whether Jesus or Socrates, have told us again and again that we are all one.

Another expansion of the circle, from all of humanity, to all of life, is now necessary.  Not only are we not as different from the rest of the creatures living in the world as we might think, for all that we can imagine the future better than any of them, including the disasters to come, but until we start treating their concerns as our concerns, well, those disasters will happen.  The world is great, the world is fecund, but the world is finite. There is only so much life it can support, and as with any other animal, if we put too much of a burden on the world, we shall pay the price in death and deprivation, in disaster and even catastrophe.  One day the species dying off may be ours.

This extra circle of inclusion, this extra step, however, need not be  feared as so many do, as if caring is some horrible burden.  Compassion is the truest beauty of the human spirit, and in embracing all life, we make of ourselves something greater, something bigger, something more beautiful than we are, even as embracing humanity as a whole has created our greatest souls and our most beautiful dreams and accomplishments.

This, ultimately, I think, is Safina’s message, and it is a message more beautifully told than I can do justice to.  Read his book and remember, or learn, what is to live in the embrace of the seasons and to see in all life oneself.


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  1. George

    On page 1, sentence 1 he is fishing: “I slide a fishing rod into my kayak as birds begin gathering over our bay.” Doesn’t sound like a very compassionate guy to me.

  2. grs

    We are not separate from nature, we are a part of it. The web of life, the rythym of the seasons, supports us as much as it does any other animal, any other life.

    This is true. And I agree 100% with the sentiment in your post. It’s how I looked at the world all through college and at the beginning of my career. But I’ve begun thinking a little different. Not that it’s better perspective, just a little different.

    We are creatures of this environment. And we are changing it. It’s what creatures on this planet do. That has been the history of the Earth (geologically speaking). So not only are humans changing environmental factors, but we’re transporting different species to parts of the globe where they had previously been land locked. Would the Asian Carp made it’s way to the Mississippi River and Great Lakes given enough time? Maybe. I don’t know. Invasives invade. It’s what they do. It’s nature. Given circumstances, there are species that are wildly successful right now. What’s bad for one species is a boon to another.

    So I take this grand spectator approach and just try to take it all in. We’re watching changes in the food web on amazing scales. Humans are really just a bad case of fleas to Earth. Earth can shake us off at any moment. But it’s amazing to watch as the Earth changes. The adaptations and what can or cannot cope. It’s a bit insane to think we can keep the Earth the same as it was 500 years ago. Yes, humans have sped shit up a lot in the short time we’ve been here, especially post Industrial Age.

    I’m not saying humans shouldn’t’ stop doing a lot of the negative things they’re doing. We’ve done some bad, bad stuff. I’m just saying given what we have done, it’s pretty remarkable how nature keeps moving. We’re not going to revert species populations back to those seen in the 1800’s. It would be silly and futile to think we could. We have to work with what we have. Hope isn’t lost.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Predation is part of life and humans are omnivores. I’ve fished and hunted, so did virtually every male I knew when I was growing up, and a few women. Some of the best people I’ve known, too.

  4. Ian Welsh

    We can’t, but if we don’t find a new stable at the right level, the population die-off is going to be us.

  5. jcapan

    As a guy who shits bark, thanks for the recommendation. Will check it out. I would say that Thoreau accomplished all of this as well:

    For, really, this is a book about philosophy. It is about what it means to be human, to be, as Safina puts it, “self-assembled stardust aware of the universe and the future”, a wonderous miracle we rarely every think on. It is about what it means to be human in a world where the rythymns of life have been throw askew, indeed, burst asunder.

    Perhaps only a difference of scale. Also brings to mind Paul Shephard’s fantastic book “Man in the Landscape.” Especially the absurd comment above about fishing. Wiki about his larger body of work:

    Shepard created a developmental model for understanding the role of sustained contact with nature in healthy human psychological development, positing that humans, having spent 99% of their social history in hunting and gathering environments, are therefore evolutionarily dependent on nature for proper emotional and psychological growth and development. Drawing from ideas of neoteny, Shepard postulated that many humans in post-agricultural society are often not fully mature, but are trapped in infantilism or an adolescent state.

  6. jcapan

    Tolstoy, in one of his earliest stories, The Raid:

    “Can it be that there is not room for all men of this beautiful earth under these immeasurable starry heavens? Can it be possible that in the midst of this entrancing nature, feelings of hatred, vengeance, or the passion for exterminating their fellows can endure in the souls of men? All that is unkind in the in the hearts of men ought, one would think, to vanish at the touch of nature, that most direct expression of beauty and goodness.”

    One would think. I did in my youth. Now, sadly, I see the world through this prism:

    “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

    –Cormac McCarthy

  7. >>Another expansion of the circle, from all of humanity, to all of life, is now necessary.

    I believe that would be a RETURN of such an expansion.

    I think most hunting tribes have much greater respect for animal life than we so-called civilized folks, and many even apologize to the spirits of the animals they kill. They seem to understand better than we do that even though we need animal flesh for our survival, we can still acknowledge the spark of life and consciousness that we share with them.

    Carolyn Kay

  8. Ian Welsh

    Oh violence and predation is part of life, no question. One thing that folks don’t get is that it’s entirely possible to love nature and animals and to kill. Some of the greatest outdoorsmen I’ve known, who knew more about the wilderness than you can possibly imagine, were hunters, fishermen, foresters and so on. But they were men who understood the concept of stewardship, and who understood that they were part of the same cycles as the animals and plants they lived off.

    A total aversion to violence makes you nothing but a victim. This lesson I learned young, I had it, as it were, pounded into me.

    To make sure that oppression does not become the norm, we must be willing to use violence, even though the threat of violence is what enables oppression. It is an odd paradox and one that is hard to manage.

  9. nihil obstet

    Living in “the embrace of the seasons” is a philosophy of being fully human, most easily practiced in a relatively unpopulated area in temperate latitudes. In tropical areas, I’m not sure that there’s a lot of seasons. For those of us who have tried several different ways of living and ended up preferring our urban hellhole, a somewhat modified philosophy is probably more accessible. Since I live in the temperate zone, I’d love more attention to the seasons — the notion that snow, cold, heat, length of day, are to be ignored in the daily round of job, life-necessary chores, and entertainment alienates us from our environment with destructive consequences for our being.

    I’m probably too much of a cynic, but I wish there were similarly compelling descriptions of a philosophy not based on a return to the pastoral golden age.

  10. Thank you Mr. Welsh for your comments on my book. To the extent the subsequent discussion is a response to some of the ideas you’ve alluded to from the book, readers of your blog might be interested in seeing a bit more about it. “The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World” ( is getting heart-stopping reviews

  11. >>It is an odd paradox and one that is hard to manage.

    Back to that dreaded word: balance. It takes thought, it takes consideration, it takes wisdom, it takes all aspects of our humanity.

    When we live in a knee-jerk, either-or world.

    Carolyn Kay

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