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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The legacy of Marlin and Jacques

My household is a bit sleep-deprived this week. Why? Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. That’s right, we’ve watched virtual sharks, learned about the ones best suited for adapting to global warming, watched a group of lunatic filmmakers attempt to prove whether or not sharks respond in the way the Great White of Jaws' films did and we learned about Dirty Jobs – Jobs That Bite.

I make light of their fascination, but I have to say it brought me back to my childhood when our entire family would gather on Sunday nights around our one tiny television to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

There on our black-and-white television was this white-haired old man with a high-pitched voice who would wrestle anacondas in South America and struggle to save a cheetah in Africa. (View some of the classic videos to jog your memory of Marlin Perkins.)

Before there was Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin or Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin there was this lovely man who roamed the planet bringing wildlife to our television screens. An even larger world opened to us once we got our first color television. Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought the oceans and the animal kingdom into our five-channel world.

Looking back through some of the classic video footage, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the activities were a little nutty and barbaric. What were they going to do with a “bagged” anaconda? Questions, I was always asking questions.

It was through this show that I first saw a flock of pink flamingos stretch across a sun-glinted river in Africa or realized the thickness of a lion’s mane as it ran across the Serengetti. How could you appreciate a gazelle’s quickness unless you could observe it in Technicolor across your screen or smell the elephants slapping dirt on their backs to keep cool and sense the danger of killer snakes in the water?

The oceans had always represented fear to me probably more from their size and my own ineptness as a swimmer, but also from what is hidden in their waters. Jacques Cousteau showed me the beauty and grace of the ocean as well as its tempests. I still yearn for yearly refreshment of the ocean. Early on these shows engendered in me the naturalist and fed my wanderlust. But more than anything I wanted firsthand experiences—not to wrestle anacondas, mind you, but to see things for myself, to observe and record.

Wild Kingdom—still on at 7 p.m. Sunday nights on Animal Planet—may have pioneered the format, but today there are great deal more channels and shows bringing the wild kingdom home.

However, television alone didn't feed my appetite. Stacks of National Geographic magazines also nourished my curiosity with terrific writing and reporting that leapt off the page and an appreciation of fine photography. I remain hopelessly inept and perpetually in wonder of the photographer’s eye.

I’m not sure what vocations will call my three boys. Right now they are boys interested in the blood-and-guts awe factor of sharks. With any luck, some of the larger messages about caring for our oceans and life on this planet will stay with them. I hope so because even now, in their boyish way, they seem to appreciate the beauty of the wild.

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