Of course this week gifts have been on my mind, and it’s been about more than just nicely wrapped packages. My reaction to the endless stream of “asks” from a wide variety of organizations that need money has been to feel discouraged. So much is needed and I have only just so much to give. I wondered if there was anything I could do instead. Then, in the random way things come into your mind, I thought of a friend and neighbor – Ron Naveen. Doing something has been his gift.
Although he was fascinated with birds when he was young, Ron’s parents wanted him to find a career that would bring financial security. There seemed to be no money or future in studying birds. So, he shoehorned himself into becoming a lawyer and was miserable: “…I wasn’t cut out for a lifestyle of constant time pressures and clients whose values I didn’t respect.” Choice by choice he then found his way to becoming a “citizen scientist,” counting penguins in the Antarctic, and enjoying conditions that most of us would consider harsher than working in a law firm.
In his book, WAITING TO FLY, Ron wrote,
“I can’t elude them. These playful, human-like creatures we call penguins. Or my recurrent visions of penguins. I sometimes rouse from sleep dreaming I’m a penguin. The physical reality may be that penguins live thousands of miles distant. But in a weird metaphysical sense, they’re never quite gone from my sight, never quite removed from consciousness.”
He went on to say,
“But the more I investigate my field of dreams—and absorb all of the rhythms from October through February—the more I see a profusion of both life and death. … John Ruskin, perhaps the most influential essayist of the 19th century, espoused a particular raison d’etre: that the ‘greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what he saw in a plain way.’ ”
Up close penguin colonies are messy, noisy, and smelly, but Ron embraces the wonder of all of it. Here Ron’s seeing and saying captures his scientific mind and his loving curiosity:
“On another occasion, I almost stepped on an adult Adelie crouched prone in my path. I’d never encountered a penguin that simply wouldn’t move, absolutely wouldn’t budge without some kind of display or noise. But there was a reason: It had just expired. I held it in my arms, touched its fading warmth, felt its body slowly chilling and stiffening. There were no leopard (seal) bite marks, no signs of injury, and it was sufficiently plump. It appeared perfectly healthy and clearly hadn’t starved. Holding a ten-pound tuxedo, its white eye ring still clean, its sharp black plumage still glistening, I examined the feathering around its beak, the long claws, and simply wondered: Why? I returned the bird to the position in which I’d found it, and moved ahead.”
At another time when Ron was observing some gentoo penguin chicks he was both seeing and being seen:
“Above the scattered whale bones, I drop my bag of gear, untie the parka from around my waist, and sit. … One (of the chicks) spies me and slowly saunters over. My legs are outstretched and I’m sitting up with my arms propped behind me. The bird waddles to my boots and begins to peck gently. Every few seconds, it raises its head, shows me its orange beak and emerging white fillets and nervously extends the beak toward my face. I can’t quite figure it out. It nibbles up my leg, goes for my crotch—gently, fortunately—then claws its way up into my lap. I’m generally a fair space away from them, but this chick can’t be bothered. By keeping absolutely still, I’ve encouraged a close encounter of the most special kind. The chick raises its head to mine and browses through my scraggly beard with its beak. It finds my wire-rims rather interesting but doesn’t peck or stab.
It is very difficult not to move–and not to laugh during this tickling micro examination. My acquaintance begins rocking and swaying against my chest, then rears back, allowing a spectacular eyeball-to-eyeball moment, mere inches apart. I see its dark, star-shaped pupil. Perhaps it notices its own reflection in my glasses. …
The chick immediately settles into serenity mode. What a feeling. Nibbling concluded, it dabbles and pats its feet against my privates, turns clockwise, faces the sea, and leans backward, resting its back against my chest for support. Our heads are at the same level. Its breaths chime noticeably. Every so often it turns and its beak bumps my nose. We stare outward, for long moments inhaling the view. For a few seconds, I stroke its back up and down, with no adverse reaction.
Here is a new creature to the planet, about to embark on its own great adventure, encountering a somewhat older creature still sorting through a flood of unanswered questions.”
Ron Naveen has studied penguins and also their terrain. Many changes have taken place in the decades that he has been traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula. The climate is warming faster there than in the lands where most of us live and, along with the Arctic, giving us a preview of what is to come. Ron believes that, “… penguins are key to understanding more about the interconnections of life in Antarctica, and more broadly, regarding our changing global climate.” His work, and the work of his colleagues, has provided a view of what is happening on our planet. He founded OCEANITES (pronounced ‘ocean-eye-tees’) to support studies of penguins and their changing environment and to do public outreach about what these “canaries in the climate coal mine” are warning us.
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Ron Naveen’s book, WAITING TO FLY: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica, was published in 1999 by William Morrow and Company.
Ron and his work are the subject of a documentary called THE PENGUIN COUNTERS which can be streamed on iTunes and is available as a DVD.Also, he and his colleague, Heather Lynch, were featured in a recent NBG segment about penguins and climate change (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGwGyx056Hg).
You can contact Ron by email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
The website is https://oceanites.org