As I sit mulling over some things I have learned during my long life, I began to think about how strange it is --- bizarre, even --- that human beings should be divided into so many different groups. I was pulled on to this subject by a long two-page article in last weekend’s Globe and Mail about endangered species and the best way to save them, which made mention of an area in south-western Saskatchewan that has never fallen to the plough, and that still harbours a large number of original inhabitants. It happens that when directing a National Film Board film about the history of our National Parks some years ago --- 1984, in fact, could that really be 34 years ago?---- I spent some time in that area, met some of the local inhabitants, and was mightily impressed by the knowledge of nature that one couple, simple ranchers, exhibited. I remember the woman remarking as a largish bird flew overhead, almost out of sight, that “that’s a ferruginous…” meaning a ferruginous hawk, while her husband was scrabbling around in a snake pit with a hooked stick by which he was able to extract, one by one, a whole bunch of rattlesnakes, of which he showed no fear at all.
As an urban kind of guy with no knowledge of any animals, I was impressed by how this couple belonged to a group with such an intimate knowledge of these birds and animals, and showed such an instinctive desire to ensure they should survive. This group of well-informed passionate enthusiasts for the natural world were a formidable force that had to be taken into account by the National Parks service as they were trying to create a new park to protect the last remaining area of the original, pre-contact grasslands of Canada.
Someone else sprang into my mind this morning, some scientist, probably the first man of this type I had ever heard of, who impressed me as teenager when I had to write as a journalist about his exploits in the rocky islands off the coast of my native New Zealand. Richmond was it? Richdale, maybe? Yes, I think it was L.E. Richdale….I looked him up on Google, and sure enough, a full description is given of this man’s genius. He began as an amateur ornithologist, and later developed through his detailed studies of seabirds into a scientist of international renown. Most seabirds live on remote islands, and on a tiny rocky outpost near Stewart Island, “in fierce weather and primitive conditions (he initially lived in a tent), Richdale studied a variety of small burrowing petrels including the titi (muttonbird). Between 1940 and 1950 he endured some 50 weeks of self-imposed isolation, with normal days of 15–20 hours’ work.” I remember how amazed I was at hearing of these exploits. He was the first person I had ever encountered who belonged to that group, remote enough in all conscience, determined to gather everything he could about these birds. I was not surprised to read that when he returned to New Zealand from a three-year rip to England, ready to take up his work with the petrels, he had to declare himself “exhausted, suffering from a damaged back and the onset of Parkinson’s disease,” all no doubt brought on by his endless hours crouched on the rocky islands watching the birds. He had to announce his withdrawal from the scientific community, and died 20 years later, covered in international honours.
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Well, it may be quite a stretch from these heroic figures gathered in their small groups of determined citizens, to some of the more mundane of urban groups that float into our ken from time to time. This last weekend, for example, I had similar thoughts about groups as I watched the fairly esoteric proceedings in Toronto in which the tennis community conferred membership of the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame on the 43-year-old retiring player Daniel Nestor. The announced list of the members of his hall of fame were not such as to shake the welkins of the global tennis hierarchy --- indeed, most of them have barely made any impact on the larger tennis world.
But they were sufficient for the well-meaning, earnest people who have been slowly building the tennis community in Canada to take satisfaction from their determined efforts. Daniel Nestor himself seemed to have a modest understanding of his achievement, without any vainglorious posturing. I remember him from when he was just a kid with a big game, a game evidently capable of taking him anywhere, if only he would take it seriously, as he seldom seemed to do. He gained a modicum of fame early on by beating the world’s number one player, Stefan Edberg, in a Davis Cup match, a result that exposed the possibilities before him.
If only he had not been so lackadaisical! I remember noting how little seriousness he seemed to put into playing, as if it were more or less insignificant. I thought he was never going to go anywhere in tennis, and was surprised when he took to doubles and became one of the world’s leading experts in that more or less neglected field.
But there you go --- I don’t need to go even so far afield as Toronto to illustrate my thesis about the bizarre nature of these multilayered specialist groups that people gather themselves into. I myself am an enthusiastic member of one such group. I follow the world of Rugby Union, of which I have a detailed knowledge that would surely surprise most of my acquaintances if they knew about it. This arises from my boyhood in New Zealand. This last weekend the team I follow was beaten in a thrilling game by South Africa by 36 to 34. But let me ask you a question. Would it have been better for New Zealand to have persisted with Ben Smith at fullback, instead of replacing him with Jordie Barrett, with Ben replacing Waisake Naholo on the wing? I have only to ask the question --- a deadly serious one in the light of Jordie’s rookie mistake that cost us the game --- to prove my point about how esoteric and downright strange some of our human groups can be. I’ll bet there wouldn’t be one out of 1000 of my readers --- I am exaggerating my readership by several magnitudes to make the point --- not one in a l,000 who would have the slightest idea what I was talking about.
So, see if I care. I may pride myself on being a chronic non-joiner, who has joined and quit the NDP multiple times, but I acknowledge membership of this other group, complete with my storehouse of entirely useless knowledge, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.
It’s my group and I’m still worried that Brodie Rettalick might not be available for the big game in Durban next week.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, youse guys.