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Good Reads  Ornithology  Non-Passerines  Birds of Prey

Alfie & Me What Owls Know, What Humans Believe

Biography / Memoir Coming Soon
By: Carl Safina(Author)
352 pages, 8 plates with colour photos
Come for the owls, stay for Safina's philosophical reflections and piercing analysis of our environmental predicament.
Alfie & Me
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  • Alfie & Me ISBN: 9781324065463 Hardback Nov 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Alfie & Me ISBN: 9781324086482 Paperback Nov 2024 Available for pre-order
Selected version: £19.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

A moving account of raising, then freeing, an orphaned owl, whose lasting friendship with the author illuminates humanity's relationship with the world.

When ecologist Carl Safina and his wife, Patricia, took in a near-death baby owl, they expected that, like other wild orphans they'd rescued, she'd be a temporary presence. But Alfie's feathers were not growing correctly, requiring prolonged care. And soon Carl and Patricia began to realize that the healing was mutual.

Alfie & Me is the story of the remarkable impact this little owl would have on their lives. The continuing bond of trust following her freedom – and her raising of her own wild brood – drew Carl and Patricia across the boundary into Alfie's world, allowing them a view of existence from Alfie's perspective. Interwoven with Safina's reflections on humankind's relationship with the living world across cultures and throughout history, Alfie & Me is a work of profound beauties and magical timing harbored within one upended year.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • More than a natural history memoir
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 16 May 2024 Written for Hardback

    Safina is far from the first person to nurse a wounded owl back to health and write a book about it. It is a human-bird relationship that might very well stretch back to the dawn of human evolution. This saga starts in June 2018 when Safina and his wife find a young, orphaned screech owl starving and near death in their yard in Long Island, New York. They nurse her back to health and name her Alfie. What follows are several years of intense caring as some of her feathers initially fail to develop properly. Tamed, Alfie sticks around as Safina dithers between caring for her and releasing her. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns offer the opportunity for near-constant monitoring while Alfie flies free, matures, finds a partner, and raises a brood. It is also accompanied by not a small amount of continuously shifting worries about her health, behaviour, and ultimate fate. With hindsight, Safina considers the shelter-at-home orders a blessing in disguise, allowing him to build up a particularly intimate picture with some unique behavioural observations that should appeal to birdwatchers.

    Advance warning though: if you think this is a natural history memoir, you might get both more and less than you bargained for, neither of which is a bad thing. Alfie's story is a proverbial MacGuffin that functions as a doorway to two topics. First, Safina wants to understand how people have viewed humanity's relationship with nature throughout history. Second—closely intertwined with, and flowing from it—it allows him to reflect on his personal philosophy and spirituality. Both are worth further consideration here.

    For the longest time, Safina contends, our ancestors thought of the world around them in relational terms and, though he is hesitant to generalize, he thinks that many of today's Indigenous cultures continue to do so. In other words, many people understood themselves "as living in a network of relationships" (p. 14) which "binds human existence into a moral drama of duty and conduct" (p. 23) and requires us to "move in the world with respect and care" (p. 29). Simply put, despite nature's diversity, there is a unity; everything is connected. Yet, in Europe we came to believe differently, seeing ourselves apart from nature rather than a part of nature. Thanks to colonialism, that view went global and turned into a world-altering force in the last few centuries.

    Tracing the history of our collective disenchantment, Safina lands on the Ancient Greeks as the culprits and singles out Plato in particular, not mincing his words. Plato's dualist doctrine, his distinction between our world and that of eternal and idealised Forms existing on an abstract plane, "could very well be history's biggest intellectual mistake" (p. 77). With the three main Abrahamic religions turning dualism into an article of faith, exhorting man's dominion over nature while denigrating the needs of the flesh, "Plato casts perhaps the longest shadow across our lives" (p. 91). René Descartes completes this short summary by releasing dualism from religion and offering a secularized version around which people of all persuasions could rally. By the time he was done, "the foundation of Western values was hard-set for the coming centuries. Remodeled for oncoming modernity, the physical world was ready for its role as strip mine and drainpipe" (p. 116). As a consequence, we now face numerous environmental problems. "Throughout it all, Platonist dualism has consistently whispered urgings of encouragement" (p. 213). And yet, Safina concludes, "Plato based his cosmic valuation on figments of his imagination. That's all they are" (p. 77).

    And you thought this was a book about owls.

    So, can we pin the blame so squarely on one man and his ideas? Admittedly, Safina recognizes precursors in e.g. the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten as possibly the first to invent monotheism, and Zoroaster as possibly the first to portray a dualistic universe. I admit that my knowledge of the Classics is insufficient to weigh in on this further, but Safina presents a plausible scenario.

    The second topic that is intertwined with this, and informed by it, is Safina's personal outlook. Like some other biologists (myself included), he is charmed by certain Buddhist ideas. Though I am normally biased against overt talk of wisdom, spirituality, and anything that smacks of New Age, Safina's writing on this topic moves me despite my scepticism. What helps is the balance and nuance in his outlook, steering clear of simplistic dichotomies. Though he regularly expresses his admiration for Indigenous thinking about the world, he remains beholden to science and logic. He criticizes the excesses of reductionism and dualism while recognizing it has made great strides in understanding our world. Where spiritually inclined environmentalists often heap scorn on reductionism, Safina pushes back: "Using a reductionist approach is not what devalues the world. The devaluation comes first" (p. 122). The only aspect that might be problematic is his call to turn to Indigenous knowledge for solutions and alternative worldviews. There is a recent interest in various life science disciplines in Indigenous knowledge. The risk is that this devolves into yet another round of cultural appropriation and seeing what else we can take from others. I must add that I do not feel Safina is doing so here; this is a risk more generally.

    For me, this book contributes to a growing personal awareness that addressing the environmental polycrisis we face boils down to addressing our values. No amount of technofixes and scientific advances are going to salvage the situation if "the global Westernized economy [continues to gallop] along behind its three headless horsemen: bigger, faster, more" (p. 235). This is an insight that I find as fascinating as I find it intimidating, as it requires interdisciplinary input from, for instance, ethics, philosophy, sociology, and politics. Science can inform this, yes, but much of it falls outside of its purview.

    This leaves me with one last question: does the combination of these disparate strands work as a book? My short and rather unhelpful answer to this is "Sure, I think so", so let me clarify. The individual strands are each impressive, insightful, and beautifully written—for the sake of brevity I have left out of this review several other points Safina makes eloquently. However, focusing for a moment on their combination, I was not left gobsmacked. Simultaneously, the book does not come across as a concatenation of ham-fisted non-sequiturs and forced pivots, which it might have become in the hands of a lesser writer. So, come for the owls, stay for the philosophical reflections and piercing history lessons.
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Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild and Beyond Words, is the recipient of MacArthur, Guggenheim, and National Science Foundation fellowships, and has written for the New York Times, Time, Guardian, and National Geographic. He lives on Long Island, New York.

Biography / Memoir Coming Soon
By: Carl Safina(Author)
352 pages, 8 plates with colour photos
Come for the owls, stay for Safina's philosophical reflections and piercing analysis of our environmental predicament.
Media reviews

– A Scientific American Best Staff Read of 2023

"This is a book about a foundling owl, and infinitely more. As it turns out, the universe and all its mysteries, our relationship with our wild kin and a better future for ourselves and the planet – all are reflected through the prism of an eight-inch ball of feathers named Alfie. Carl Safina has never been more eloquent, or more urgent. Alfie & Me is masterful."
– Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

"Alfie's story is wonderfully told, drawing back night's curtain on these feisty and intelligent birds."
– Julie Zickefoose, Wall Street Journal

"Safina's expansive gratitude for the natural world illuminates every page [...] Just like humans' lives, the lives of owls follow a narrative arc, and it is a pure joy to discover, chapter by chapter, Alfie's own arc as she matures, mates, and raises a family."
– Barbara J. King, Science

"Like Blake, Safina sees the world in a grain of sand, holds infinity in the palm of his hand. In addition to Blake's poetic insight, Safina brings a great deal of scientific knowledge to his work [...] Safina's interrogation of each interaction results in provocative, insightful asides, a pulling-together of the many tributaries of attention to a particular animal, employing his career in the life sciences and the vast reading of world literatures and philosophies."
– Michael Sims, Washington Post"

Alfie's story is wonderfully told, drawing back night's curtain on these feisty and intelligent birds."
– Julie Zickefoose, Wall Street Journal


"In his new book, Alfie & Me, Carl Safina, one of the United States' best science and nature authors, adopts an injured owl and writes: 'Our deeply shared history as living things is why we had the mutual capacity to recognize each other, and be brought into relationship by that strange binding called trust.' The healing, Safina discovered, goes both ways."
– Kim Heacox, The Guardian

"A must-read. This wonderful story offers a life-changing and moving account [...] [A] landmark and deeply personal book."
– Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today

"The book is brilliant. It made me laugh, weep, marvel [...] at Alfie, at humanity, at you, Carl, and your remarkable insights and sensibility. Bravo! May Alfie and her book soar!"
– Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times best-selling author of What an Owl Knows

"Carl Safina has written a book of great wisdom and beauty, full of drama and insight. How right to choose an owl, symbol of learning, to help us see anew the twinned truths of compassion and connection – gifts our kind desperately needs to keep our world al"
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus

"The rescue of a little screech owl brings Carl Safina the unexpected joy of companionship and propagation of the species, leading him to philosophize about humanity and how much we're part of nature. A delightful read!"
– Frans de Waal, author of Different

"Little Alfie unleashed a meditation about life itself and how our culture has shaped our way of seeing the world and our place in it. A unique book that is scientific and spiritual at the same time."
– Isabella Rossellini

"An award-winning ecologist examines his transformative connection to a bird [...] As Safina lyrically recounts his observations of and interactions with Alfie, he reflects on spirituality, reverence, and the contrast between Indigenous, traditional Asian, and Western ways of being and knowing [...] A fervent homage to a dynamic, interdependent universe."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Moving [...] Philosophical musings on humanity's beliefs about nature add intellectual rigor to the heartwarming story [...] Stirring and ruminative."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A wonderfully intimate account [...] Interwoven with Safina's broad experience with other cultures' views on animals and the world and of how they related to Alfie's life, and richly illustrated with photographs, this a beautifully illuminating work of up-close natural history."
Booklist, starred review

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