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Despite a lifetime of experience and education in ecology, nothing could have prepared Carl Safina for the extraordinary revelations that a unique owl named Alfie would bring into his world. On Nov. 7, the award-winning writer and Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University sat down with Dr. Drew Lanham at the Harvard Science Center to discuss this transformation.
“Alfie was, for me, a messenger from the real, authentic, original world. A mentor, of sorts. What can we learn from birds? The answer might be: Everything we really need to know,” Safina quoted from his latest book, “Alfie and Me.”
“Alfie and Me” follows the story of an abandoned screech owl who was rescued by Safina and his wife. During the rescue project, Safina developed a unique connection with the owl that sparked in him a profound philosophical transformation.
Safina’s love for Alfie was clear from the start of the conversation. His face lit up instantly when he started talking about the owl, highlighting that he treasures their bond in the same way he would treasure any close familial relationship. Lanham, an author and Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, immediately pointed out that Safina refers to Alfie as if she were a person. Chuckling, Safina explained that Alfie’s personality was so distinct that it taught him to view animals as individuals, rather than objects or data points.
“It was no longer an owl, after a while. It was she. Because she had a history with us,” said Safina.
“Alfie and Me” is an ode to a single owl and her individuality. By featuring Alfie as the book’s muse, Safina advocates for a shift away from the objectification of animal species in the field of wildlife research. Safina emphasized his hope that the book will raise serious questions for his colleagues in the realm of ecological ethics.
“In ecology, I was always taught, when I was in graduate school, that we’re only interested in questions about how the natural world works. We’re not interested in applied solutions to problems, which always struck me as a bad answer,” said Safina. “And I never accepted that answer as valid.”
Writing “Alfie and Me” was also an opportunity for Safina to grow on a personal level. Discovering nuances about the screech owl species taught him to embrace a new perspective toward other human cultures as well. He developed a more open-minded attitude toward learning about different peoples and their histories. Recognizing a desire to zoom out from his own life, he spent significant time in South Asia studying the region’s indigenous religious cultures.
Although “Alfie and Me” marks Safina’s eleventh nonfiction book, the book stands apart from the first ten because it is his most personal. According to Safina, writing “Alfie and Me” finally brought him into touch with his emotions. It allowed him to be vulnerable during an “awful, awful year” in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At numerous points of the conversation, Safina struggled to put into words just how special his relationship with Alfie was. This sense of attachment revealed far more about the significance of the book than any interview response he could give. Lenham frequently commended Safina for his willingness to be so emotionally vulnerable, adding genuine warmth to the pair’s otherwise playful banter.
Audience member Michael Molyneaux was also impressed by Safina’s vulnerability.
“Being emotional in a public forum is very different than writing words down and hoping that it’s disappearing into the abyss,” he said.
Though both Safina and Lenham are experts in their fields, their conversation about “Alfie and Me” was not a lecture. It was an open exchange of ideas and feelings, which highlighted both speakers’ immense curiosity to continue learning.
Allston resident Karen Smith was inspired by their enthusiasm.
“I think it’s a gift to have two authors that are clearly so accomplished and knowledgeable, who still have a sense of wonder, and can impart that sense of being happy about being humbled by these other creatures,” she said.
Readers may never be able to experience the bond that Safina shares with Alfie. However, the debut event of “Alfie and Me” offered a touching insight into the power of connection between individuals.
Audience member Albert W. Wallis was especially moved by the conversation.
“I feel like it’s really opened my eyes to a different side of looking at the world,” he said. “Not in a revolutionary way, but in a small way, it changed my life.”
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