Carl Safina is used to writing about the ocean but in his latest, he turns his attentions to elephants, wolves, and whales to ask big questions about the nature of the lives of animals and man’s place in the natural world. In a starred review, Kirkus calls his new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, “a profound, scientifically based appeal for recognition of the kinship of all living things.”
In the first segment of the book, Safina travelled to Kenya to commune with wild elephants and had something of a reversal in his thinking.
“I really did go there thinking I would understand elephants by understanding how they are like us,” he says. There, he met American conservationist Cynthia Moss, Director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, who gave him an entirely new perspective on his subject. “She said, ‘I’m not really interested in how they are like us. I’m interested in how they are like them.’ That took me aback because it made me realize that there was an even deeper and much harder task in looking in them just for who they are and dropping the pretense that we as human beings are the measure for everything else that exists. In a slow, revolutionary way, I found a different way of looking at other creatures that forgets about the idea—and I do think it’s a false idea—that humans are the measures for all things and that humans are the pinnacle of evolution. It helped open my eyes to better seeing animals for who and what they are.”
In the next segment, Safina travels to Yellowstone National Park, where wolves have been reintroduced in recent years to the delight of ecologists and the consternation of local farmers. There, he hung out with Rick McIntyre of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
“Having the good fortune of being with some of the best people in the world to help me understand these animals was fantastic,” Safina says. “I had never seen free-living wolves before. It was extraordinary to me to meet with Rick McIntyre and get his observations. The things he related to me were almost literally breathtaking. The stories about these wolves and their individual personalities were so surprising. I wasn’t expecting such richness from their stories.”
Safina has written remarkable books about ocean ecology, not least his Kirkus starred 2011 title The View From Lazy Point and A Sea In Flames, about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Disaster. He was actually on the ocean as he was figuring out the angle of his new book.
“I was reading a book called Elephants on the Edge by Gay Bradshaw while I was on a boat in the Gulf of California,” says Safina. “So I was reading about elephants and watching dolphins. The elephant stuff was upsetting me but I was really enjoying looking at dolphins. I was interested in the idea of why some animals get our sympathy more than others. It seemed to me that a lot of our inflections on what animals are the ones we really focus on and make us feel the most sympathetic are the ones that have a social structure where the individuals mean something to one another.”
Dr. Safina reminds me of nothing so much as a couple of my heroes. In 1940, the novelist John Steinbeck traveled with his great friend Dr. Ed Ricketts to the Gulf of California to collect scientific samples, ultimately producing the scientific manual Sea of Cortez and Steinbeck’s poetic The Log From the Sea of Cortez. Safina is an unusual combination, carrying the scientific acumen that Ricketts had while also possessing the philosophical curiosity of Steinbeck, who wrote of the chasm between science and faith, “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”
“Writing is about communicating,” says Safina. “Because we have problems, I think it’s important to communicate. If you’re trying to talk about challenges and problems and how we need to strike a better deal with the world, you would ideally like people to listen to your ideas and respond in a positive way. That requires telling a tale in a different way. I think books have a tremendous amount of power if they’re really great. Potentially, a book can do something really important. That’s why I try to write books that people would like to read.”
Asked if his book is meant to drive readers to activism, Safina has a characteristically thoughtful answer.
“I think the main thing is to support policies that let other creatures have the room they need to live and be who they are,” Safina says. “I would like for people to realize that the lives of animals are vivid to them and they want to stay alive as much as we do. There’s nothing less valid about the life of an elephant or a whale, or a blue jay for that matter, than a human being. We all somehow got here and because the world is a limited place, we need to leave room so that the validity that they embody, as well as the beauty and richness they bring to us, can remain. They were better off before we got here. They are more of a net positive in enriching our lives and I think it would be good if we all got that perspective and other people shared this idea of leaving them room. It’s really all they need and it’s really all I’m asking.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.