ode to bellwethers: penguins & polar bear (& people)

by ABCCmain on September 09, 2012

When Shackleton published the first Antarctic book in the sunless days at Cape Royds in 1908-09, the printer was the ‘Sign of the Penguins.’ They had their own Penguins stamp that the explorer-scientists pressed into each of the 100 or so hand-made books.

The Sign of The Penguins stamp, Causton & Sons.

The production of the Aurora Australis was one of the cultural activities Shackleton encouraged while the expedition team over-wintered to ensure that, as he put it ‘the spectre known as “polar ennui” never made its appearance’ (Shackleton 1909, 1:216). It also provided a useful souvenir to help publicise the expedition. Produced entirely by members of the expedition Aurora Australis was edited by Shackleton, illustrated with lithographs and etchings by George Marston, printed by Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild, and bound by Bernard Day. From Royal Museum Greenwich

At that time, penguins and their evolution were a mystery. Today are stories of serious risk to penguin populations–Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo–related to the warming environment.

At the top end of the globe the harbinger is the Polar Bear. WWF and Coca Cola, what I would have though are odd Faustian bedfellows, did an awareness campaign about the risk to polar bears due to climate change.  Because sea ice is melting they have difficulty catching their food: seals. In this economy and with many governments absolving themselves from actions they should be supporting, legislating and doing, almost everyone’s partnering with anyone except those who hold out principle, I do admire.  At the International Polar Year conference in April where Wendy and I were guest speakers, a WWF rep said that one of the reasons Coca Cola got involved in the Arctic wasn’t only for PR.  Apparently someone at the tiptop of the brown soda multinational companies (whose name I do not want to mention more than twice) is concerned about the planet for his grandchildren. That’s thinking with his head and heart together and is inherently a good thing.  But only if the effort to address climate change, such as the CC-stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions–no matter your politics but needing political solutions too– is sustained and addressed by many and without hypocrisy (selling bottled tap water?).

The Book of Ice, Paul D. Miller DJ Spooky

I was thrilled to run into an Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning supporter and friend, Mark Robert, at the Cinema Against AIDS event on Friday.  He’s a great businessman and has a mind as wide as Antarctica is also high, dry, windy and cold.  I loved that he reported he’s noting polar stories these days. One story he heard was of Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear ‘capital’, where it is law that residents cannot lock their doors in case someone has to seek refuge from being chased by a deadly massive white bear. That’s evidence of a relationship with neighbours, strangers and the other dwellers and illustrates those lawmakers do not think they dominate the land or animals or personal privacy trumps a human’s security.  A law that protects people and recognizes the habitat and reality of where people live and our interconnectedness for survival when things go badly–that’s balance.

Astonishing photo taken in the late 70′s, showing a man feeding a polar bear and his cubs with milk in the north Russia border. Don't try this at home, run into that house with the open door

So what about these very real bellwethers: the penguin down there and the polar bear up the top of this wondrous globe. About the bellwethers I have to take you to the globe’s middle or so, to Equatorial Africa for a brief moment.  In Rwanda, where a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by their neighbours in a planned genocide in 1994, the world stood by and watched except for the few symbolic boats floated to those stranded on icebergs and about to be murdered. I stood in the middle of a long long road of Rwandan refugees walking back home to Rwanda in 1996 when their camps were attacked in the-then Zaire. On a similar road from Tanzania, refugees were also fleeing back to Rwanda.  I was with Médecins Sans Frontières and we were worried about cholera that killed many fleeing the country in 1994. We also worried about the health of vulnerable people and continued genocidal killings by or reprisal killings of these returnees. One vehicle went against the human ocean.  Driving up through this  road of people (some killers and many innocent people), was a landcruiser going to save the Mountain Gorilla, the victim of eco-disaster, poaching and war in Africa. I thought, that is good;  someone has to look out for the gorillas at risk.  I had the honour to hike into green mountains to see them up close.

But I was a bit unsettled that day on the road with the car pushing past people. I observed vulnerable human beings who live with these animals, sometimes get less attention than animals. The icon of animals appear less threatening politically than real human beings dying visibly to the world. Neither was the genocide stopped in time to save many lives despite international agreement that countries must act when genocide is occurring nor were the majority of genocide planners and killers properly arrested, tried and convicted.  One message from the UN in New York was, ‘but there are only people in Rwanda.’

Rwandan refugees fleeing Tanzania, Martha Rial 1996

The lesson for me is the bellweathers are we but some people need an icon, symbol, a mascot. And if that impacted animal and symbol for all around it starts a discussion or a positive action to stop harm or extinction, then so be it. For every featured at-risk penguin, polar bear or Mountain Gorilla is a person and community who also deserves and ode from government the private sector and us.  Our words, songs, paintings, reports, speeches, images about us and them are melting. While we can’t stop everything we can appeal to the grandfathers in power to move faster to shut the fridge.

p.s. Check out The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning soon to find out how remote Antarctic living also relies on open doors. Wendy was the queen of land-people-animal-neighbour connections, particularly through the language of bread. I’ll ask her about any polar ennui.