A New Book by Carl Safina Explores the Human Relationship With the Natural World Through the Experience of Rescuing a Baby Owl - 27 East

A New Book by Carl Safina Explores the Human Relationship With the Natural World Through the Experience of Rescuing a Baby Owl

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Alfie was in bad shape when she was rescued. CARL SAFINA

Alfie was in bad shape when she was rescued. CARL SAFINA

Alfie during her first summer with the Safina family. CARL SAFINA

Alfie during her first summer with the Safina family. CARL SAFINA

Alfie in her fine plumage. CARL SAFINA

Alfie in her fine plumage. CARL SAFINA

Alfie still visits the Safina home on a regular basis. CARL SAFINA

Alfie still visits the Safina home on a regular basis. CARL SAFINA

Plus One feeds Alfie. CARL SAFINA

Plus One feeds Alfie. CARL SAFINA

Alfie and her mate, which Carl Safina and his wife Patricia dubbed

Alfie and her mate, which Carl Safina and his wife Patricia dubbed "Plus One." CARL SAFINA

Alfie's eggs. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's eggs. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's owlets at 17 days old. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's owlets at 17 days old. CARL SAFINA

Alfie feeding her young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie feeding her young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie, left, and one of her young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie, left, and one of her young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's young. CARL SAFINA

Alfie's young. CARL SAFINA

The writer Carl Safina and his wife Patricia rescued and rehabilitated Alfie, an eastern screech owl, during the pandemic. After her near-death experience, Alfie went on to become a successful mother and still visits the Safina home. She is the subject of Safina's latest book,

The writer Carl Safina and his wife Patricia rescued and rehabilitated Alfie, an eastern screech owl, during the pandemic. After her near-death experience, Alfie went on to become a successful mother and still visits the Safina home. She is the subject of Safina's latest book, "Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe." CARL SAFINA

The writer Carl Safina and his wife Patricia rescued and rehabilitated Alfie, an eastern screech owl, during the pandemic. After her near-death experience, Alfie went on to become a successful mother and still visits the Safina home. She is the subject of Safina's latest book,

The writer Carl Safina and his wife Patricia rescued and rehabilitated Alfie, an eastern screech owl, during the pandemic. After her near-death experience, Alfie went on to become a successful mother and still visits the Safina home. She is the subject of Safina's latest book, "Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe." CARL SAFINA

Alfie dozing in the safety of the ivy tower. CARL SAFINA

Alfie dozing in the safety of the ivy tower. CARL SAFINA

Alfie in her box watching Patricia. CARL SAFINA

Alfie in her box watching Patricia. CARL SAFINA

Carl Safina  PATRICIA M. PALADINES

Carl Safina PATRICIA M. PALADINES

authorCailin Riley on Oct 31, 2023

“One can travel the world and go nowhere. One can be stuck keeping the faith at home and discover a new world.”

It’s a paradox that the author and naturalist Carl Safina lays out in the prologue of his new book, “Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe,” which was released earlier this month.

Safina and his wife, Patricia Paladines, learned the truth underpinning that pair of seeming contradictions in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, after rescuing and rehabilitating an eastern screech owl, which they named Alfie, at their home in East Setauket.

Safina is the author of seven previous books for adults and four books for children and young readers based on the natural world. He is also a professor at Stony Brook University and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as the “Genius Grant” — and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, The Guardian, Audubon and National Geographic.

Safina calls his latest work “a story of profound beauties and magical timing harbored within a year upended,” taking the reader not only through the details of the screech owl’s rehabilitation but how that experience led Safina on a deeper philosophical exploration of the natural world and mankind’s place in it.

“I wanted to better understand how various peoples have sought and seen answers about how to be human in the living world,” he writes in the prologue.

Alfie had a near-death experience as an infant in 2018 and came to the Safinas after being discovered by a friend, on the ground, wet, defenseless and covered in fly eggs.

Safina had nursed a baby owl back to health years ago, when he was in his 20s, and because he is also a university ecologist and has permits for wildlife rehab, bird banding and falconry, he was a natural fit to bring the owl back to health and, in time, to help her make a return to her natural home in the wild.

Alfie’s road to that eventuality was longer than expected because of a developmental delay that caused her feathers to come in late, which complicated and prolonged her time under the direct care of Safina and his wife. During that time, Alfie became part of the family, which at that time included two dogs, several chickens, a snake and two parrots.

The developmental delay ultimately did not prevent Alfie from adjusting to life in the wild, but it meant she had to spend longer than originally anticipated in a semi-captive state to ensure her survival, leading to a special kind of bond between Safina, his wife and Alfie.

The fact that the bond was formed during the pandemic made it a different journey entirely for Safina as well, which he outlines in the book.

“Had the year proceeded as planned, my scheduled travels would have caused me to miss all the fine details of her life, her courtship, mating, and their raising of youngsters,” he writes in the book. “Had the year proceeded as it did — but without her — it would have been all the more grueling. She was literally a bright thing in our nights. And she was a metaphor for sanity, at a time when sanity seemed increasingly at risk.”

Indeed, Alfie’s story is the kind of uplifting, feel-good bit of news people long for, an underdog survival story with a happy ending, and a main character who is, quite simply, adorable.

Not only did Alfie escape an almost certain death, she thrived under the care of Safina, made her way into the world, found a mate, and so far has raised 10 owlets in total, never losing a fledgling. She repaid the care and kindness extended to her by Safina and his wife by remaining in close proximity and even allowing physical contact, often coming when they call to her.

“It’s an enchanting story, and anybody who hears about it is enchanted,” Safina said in an interview earlier this week, a few days after two stops at local bookstores. He spoke at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on October 21, a day after an event at Book Hampton in East Hampton. The book tour also includes stops at bookstores in New York City, Chicago, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

People who attend those events are interested in hearing about the process behind writing the book, and diving deeper into the insights and philosophical journey that Safina went on while observing Alfie and taking notes that would ultimately form the basis for the book. But of course, they are eager for an update on Alfie.

“There are two main things that have happened since the book was finished,” Safina shared. “Her first mate, Plus One, who was there in 2020 and 2021 — and they raised a total of six young in those two years — something happened to him in 2022, and he did not return, and she did not have a mate. She laid four eggs that she sat on for more than the normal amount of time, and it was very distressing for me. I felt like she was keeping the faith in a world that had broken its promise. That was my projecting, but nonetheless that was how it seemed. So it was a sad spring.”

This year, however, Alfie found a new mate — and not a moment too soon.

“In February, she was calling and calling, and in March she was calling and calling, and nobody was there. And then in late March, another owl showed up,” Safina said. “He’s very different from Plus One; they have different personalities.”

Plus One, Safina explained, was comfortable with his mate’s unusually close relationship with two humans and their menagerie of animal companions of different species, tolerant of Safina and his wife being in their sights. This was not the case with Alfie’s new mate.

“The new one hated me near the nest,” Safina said. “He was constantly trying to drive me away. He hit me in the head one time after one of the young ones came out of the nest.”

Alfie still found parenting success with her new mate, despite his elusiveness and overprotectiveness. She laid five eggs, with four hatching, and all four owlets fledged.

Because he did not know what was in store for him or for Alfie when she first came to his home, bedraggled and barely alive, Safina did not know for some time that Alfie would become the subject of a book. But he made the kind of preparations an experienced writer and keen observer and lover of the natural world might be expected to make.

“Early on I didn’t know if this little thing was going to survive. I assumed as soon as she could fly, she would start the process of leaving us,” he said. “Because I know that sometimes things turn into larger stories, I just started taking quite detailed notes, as if I was taking notes for a book. As the situation got more complex, with two owls and then five owls when the young ones hatched, I did a lot of following them around the backyard, dictating voice notes that I later listened to and typed out.

“I had a lot of material, and when the young ones dispersed the territory and breeding season was over and everyone had lived, I had all these notes that were so surprising to me about how their relationship developed. As soon as the young ones dispersed, I knew I had a good book there.”

The experience of raising and rehabilitating Alfie, and witnessing her transition to an independent but unique life, securing a mate and raising her own babies while holding on to the bond she developed with Safina and his wife sparked in Safina an intense curiosity, in a new and deeper way than he’d experienced before, about the way human beings relate to the natural world.

“It really heightened this sense of relationship and the importance of relationship, and it sent me on a journey that I never really took before, comparing what other cultures have had to say about the human place in the world,” Safina said. “The experience with Alfie sent me into that question. It wasn’t so much what I saw, it was, why don’t we usually ever see this? Why are we usually blind to all these lives around us, to the capacities that these lives have? Is this blindness the inevitable destination and limitation of the human mind, or is it a learned blindness?”

To try to answer that and other fundamental philosophical and existential questions that Alfie and his relationship with her brought to the forefront of his mind, Safina said he “followed a bit of intuition” and also reading and research into what other cultures, primarily Indigenous cultures, have had to say about humans’ place in the natural world.

“Other cultures see the world in a way that we don’t,” he said. “I went about trying to understand that answer to those questions much more formally and with a lot more discipline and thought than ever before. I was previously not that interested in comparative religion and philosophy, but as Alfie prompted the question and I sought the answer, I found it astonishingly interesting, because it explained so much.”

Of course, most people will never have the opportunity that Safina was given with Alfie, and also would not have the necessary experience to care for a wild animal in the way that Alfie’s situation required. In fact, Safina urges people to have the name and number of a local wildlife rescue center on standby in the event they find an injured wild animal in their home or community.

By writing the book about that experience, Safina said he hopes to provide an insight into the magic he and Patricia have experienced, and the way it has enriched their lives and their understanding of the world.

“I am sharing a view that I would hope resonates with people,” Safina said of what he would like to see people take away from reading the book. “All living things are our relations. We are here in this life briefly, and it’s important not to hurt the world while we’re here, and to teach the children to be inheritors and stewards of a miracle.

“When that cute baby owl comes and lands on you, and enjoys you rubbing her head, and you share a pleasure together with a creature that you’ve not had a common ancestor with for 300 million years, it’s profound,” Safina continued. “It’s a deep familial recognition that has an ancient history; that everything we’re capable of depends on all that has happened before.”

“Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe,” published by Norton, is for sale at local bookstores, and wherever books are sold.

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