State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Why New Yorkers Long for the Natural World

Flaco the owl on a lawn next to a trap.

On April 9th, the city’s first glorious spring day of the year, over 70 New Yorkers, students and faculty eschewed the fresh air to gather inside Columbia University’s Butler Library. Why? To learn about owls, of course. 

The event, “What Flaco Taught Us: Thoughts on Urban Wildlife and the Human Connection,” was hosted by ecologist Carl Safina and science journalist Claudia Dreifus

Safina, who holds a PhD in ecology, is a MacArther fellow, nonprofit founder and author of 10 books that examine human relationships with the living world. 

Dreifus, who teaches the popular class, “Writing about global science for the international media” at Columbia, opened her weekly lecture to the public this past Tuesday. The invitation drew in dozens of listeners, many of whom were either familiar with Safina’s books or with Dreifus’ contributions to the New York Times. 

Their conversation, spanning topics from philosophy to pigeons, captivated audience members for close to two hours—demonstrating just how many urban dwellers have a deep fascination with the natural world. 

The discussion was centered around Safina’s newest book “Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe,” where Safina describes in detail his family’s efforts rehabilitating an injured and orphaned screech owl. But in recounting his relationship with Alfie the owl, Safina explores far more expansive ideas about humanity’s relationship with nature. In particular, he seeks to unpack, and resolve, our profound disconnect with the living world. 

Carl Safina and Claudia Dreifus talk owls at Columbia's Butler Library.
Carl Safina and Claudia Dreifus talk owls at Columbia’s Butler Library. Photo: Cate Twining-Ward

“I’ve spent my entire life with animals,” said Safina, “and yet, I was still amazed at the extent of Alfie’s relatability and her recognition of individuals.” 

This prompted Safina to think: Why are we so disconnected from the living world? In his latest book, Safina arrives at two possible conclusions. Either there is a limitation of human intellect, or humans are taught to be nature-disconnected. 

Safina began to investigate how environmental values differ from culture to culture, teachings which are rooted in comparative religion and philosophy. Out of the four main cultural realms he highlighted—indigenous land-based communities, Dharmic and South Asian societies, East Asian cultures and Western civilizations—Safina found the West’s devaluation of the physical world was a “total outlier” when compared to all other major philosophies and religions. And this devaluing, he argues, “ is not the automatic response of the human mind to the natural world or to the things that live on this planet with us.”

Instead, Safina tells the audience that we long for nature. Which is precisely why owls become relevant. 

This phenomenon, a longing for nature, was demonstrated by Flaco, the famous Eurasian eagle owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo last year. Flaco, who captivated New Yorkers by landing on water towers and skyscrapers, was found dead in late February. His death prompted Safina to publish an essay with the New York Times, where he asked readers to reckon with what his death really meant.

“For so many of us, Flaco was relatable,” Safina says to the audience. “He was an alien in New York, someone with an uncertain future, and who needed help.” The room fell silent. “From the human side,” he continued, “I think the legend of Flaco reflects some kind of hidden longing among New Yorkers for the natural world. Because if Flaco could survive in the city, there was hope that we could find some kind of coexistence with the environment too.” 

The air became heavy as the audience absorbed the loss of Flaco, the crowd perhaps reflecting on their own relationships with nature. Two photographers from the New York Times, Jacqueline Emery and David Lei, were then brought on stage. Claudia Dreifus thanked them both for their work in capturing Flaco’s triumphant story through their cameras. 

“His life of 13 months outside of the zoo was a gift for him and it was a gift for us as well,” Emery said, with tears in her eyes. In that moment, the meaning and metaphor of Flaco became evident: nature, even from a distance, touches all of us.

As the evening drew to an end, audience members full of questions competed for the mic. My question for Safina: What was his advice for cultivating the next generation of nature-connected New Yorkers?

His advice began with a story, recalling when a woman decided to take her kids to Botswana for one summer, to teach them to love nature. To this Safina responded: “Do you have a bird feeder?” 

His point was that nature is everywhere; and often, the most meaningful interactions are those that exist in one’s day-to-day reality, from which one can observe and learn. Admittedly, there’s less wildlife in megacities than in the countryside, but regardless, “it’s enough to keep you going.” 

For Safina, who was raised in Brooklyn, “it was the pigeons, it was those dioramas in the natural history museum…those things meant the world to me.” Being connected with nature is something that is learned from a young age, through your parents, surroundings and culture—not necessarily from extravagant summer trips. 

“It just takes teaching a kid one way or another,” said Safina. “If you raise your kids to delight in nature, to not be afraid of it, to see it as part of your living family, that is what they will have.” 

If we learn anything from the life of Flaco, and that of Alfie too, it’s that nature impacts all of us. The plight of these two owls serves as reminders that at the end of the day, the built environment in which we exist is just one small part of a larger, thriving ecosystem. One that’s as fragile as it is precious. 

Establishing a meaningful relationship with nature isn’t just vital—it’s attainable, even in urban megacities like New York. For native New Yorker Claudia Dreifus, just reading about Flaco’s survival in the city was enough to feel a closeness to nature. “It just made people feel good in some deeply profound way,” she said. “It made us all feel like something else was possible.”

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mike Nelson Pedde
Mike Nelson Pedde
1 month ago

When I was 8 years old, my family (my dad was in the Armed Forces) moved to eastern Quebec. We lived a mile from the entrance to the base, five miles from town, down a dead-end road that served to access the railway line. All around me were a mix of forests and pastures. Bears and moose were infrequent visitors. I came home from school, dropped my books and was gone until dark. If my parents worried about me they never said so.

Three years later we moved again, this time to a city. I had never lived in a city before and had no idea what cities were about. I endeavoured to find out. We lived in a low-rent townhome near a ‘special’ part of town. I ran with a gang for four years, mostly to survive.

Fortunately for me, there was a wooded parkway not to far from our home. It was about 1½ miles long but it had fields, big trees and a small swamp. That place became my solace. When I was 15 I gave up the streets and went back to the woods. If I hadn’t, I can say with some conviction I’d be dead, long ago. When I grew up enough to go to school I studied fish and wildlife biology. Long retired now, the woods are still my true home.

Ant biologist E. O. Wilson first coined the term ‘biophilia’: love of the earth. Some of us dream of space, of colonizing the Moon or Mars, but we all have roots that sink deep into the earth. Everything we have or have ever had (meteorites excepted) comes from the earth – from the water we drink to the latest smart phone.

I often find it intriguing when someone travels to a different land they are often to exclaim that it is as if they’ve landed on a different planet. Let that be a poignant reminder of how vast and beautiful our home really is.

The other side of this was first encountered by the astronauts of Apollo 8. They were the first humans to be out of sight of the earth as they traveled around the back side of the moon. They were the first to see the earth rise over the horizon, a pale blue dot that you could blot out with your thumb.

As Russell Schweikart said in his book, “No Frames, No Boundaries” (paraphrased here) you look at that little blue dot and realize that all of life and love and family and history and war…everything exists on that little dot you can blot out with your thumb. And the relationship is no longer what it was.

Hugs to you all.

1 month ago

There’s a lot of heart in this article. Thanks for sharing these kind thoughts.