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Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006

Irwin never met a critter he didn't like


LOS ANGELES -- I have long been in awe of the late Steve Irwin, perhaps in part because I never personally met him.

Many of my Australian friends actually didn't like him much, thought him a national embarrassment and wished he'd go away before all Americans believed that Aussie dress consisted solely of khakis, a Saturday-night social life devoted to crocodile-wrestling, and a national vocabulary dominated by quaint exclamations like "barbie" and "crikey!"

But a more generous view of this international media celebrity from Australia's outback, who became widely know as "The Crocodile Hunter," was there for the taking. Indeed, for many Americans, he seemed a delightfully unself-reflective human bridge to that part of our souls that gets steam-cleaned out of our lives by the daily press of urbanization.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, with his ear always close to the ground of non-elitist Aussie public opinion, was quick to eulogize the crock-hunter as a "passionate environmentalist -- who cared passionately about Australia."

That was the image we in the United States had of the man as well through his regular shows on Animal Planet (easily one of cable's best stations), full-length films and various public appearances.

Irwin's khaki image may have been carefully controlled -- stage-managed for the media -- but his actuality seemed wonderfully unpolished and slightly vulgar, in the sense of being honest and true-to-self.

It was his lack of willingness to submit to the uniformly oppressive jacket-and-tie world that may have most upset my polished Australian mates, who work the waxed corridors of power in diplomacy, industry, academia and the media.

Visit Sydney or Melbourne and you feel very much at home, as if it were San Francisco or London/New York lite. But splash around with the rays or crocks in the real countryside and you are pretty much out of your element -- unless you're a Steve Irwin.

Another aspect of Irwin's public persona, it seems to me, was that he seemed perhaps deliberately immature. Taking the plunge seemed at least as important to him as assessing risk and holding back. Many of us, especially urban dwellers, spend lives of quiet desperation mindlessly stroking our cats that sleep 18 hours a day and offer little in the way of menace save for the scary moment when the cupboard is bare of canned cat food and the nearest market is boarded up for the night.

For Irwin, who died last Monday, life was not remotely like this at all: It was a carnival of animals -- the more the merrier, the more dangerous the better.

And it seemed as if nature offered him no dangerous animal to which he did not want to get close. For the rest of us, such relationships are delimited by cages, nets, aquarium walls and admission tickets. It was thus fitting, in a ghoulish sort of way, perhaps, that his death was to come from the poisonous lash of a stingray lurking in waters off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

More of that nation's sprawling land mass -- it's an entire continent as well as a country -- comes in the form of vast deserts and deep dangerous seas than as architectural artifices as in sunny Sydney or metropolitan Melbourne.

Many happy Australians, whether locally indigenous or immigrants from far-off jungles like England, understand their land to be a true wilderness as well as a civilization. The size of their country is much larger than even California, but their population is but 20 million or so to 34 million in this state. This leaves a lot of room in Irwin-country for what we often call nature, and perhaps the key point about nature is that in the state of nature, man is not in control.

That lack of control propels men to try to tame nature with highways, condo developments and so on. The great Irish playwright and acidic wit Oscar Wilde once scoffed at the idea that nature was "perfect" by arguing, disingenuously, that if nature were so perfect, why did we spend so much time trying to improve it?

But nature has an answer to everything. Whether it's waking up in Florida to find an alligator doing strokes in the backyard pool, or living in Southern California and having your pet dog taken away by a coyote or mountain lion, or wading into seawaters off Port Douglas and succumbing to the vengeance of a fish, nature will surprise you from time to time and strike back.

We should take all such incidents as serious and unmistakable warnings.

Tom Plate, a full-time adjunct professor at UCLA, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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