Back in my writing days when I collected rejection slips and like Philip K. Dick would post them all above my desk so I could stay humble ... as I say, when I wrote countless articles for magazines and books, when an acceptance turned up on occasion, the editors would write and ask for a few biographical notes.
I would reply, "I was born at a very early age and it was such a shock that I didn't speak for a long time. On top of that, when I was five-years-old, my parents ran away from home." What I neglected to tell them and everyone else was that, starting from age four or five, I was in love with a penguin.
It was your regular hand-me-down penguin from my sister ... standard Adélie, about fifteen inches tall, black leather flippers, white furry belly, stuffed with straw, glass eyes. My friend was anonymous, slept with me for quite a few years ... indeed, don't tell anyone, sometimes spends time with me even now.
Like Christopher Robin's Winnie-the-Pooh, penguin went everywhere with me until I took him to summer camp where my bird caused so much merriment among my fellow campers that now I keep him well-hidden.
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Wayne Lynch is a penguinophile, too. He doesn't, I assume, still carry one about in his backpack; rather, he goes to visit them in Antarctica, the Falklands, Macquarie Island, New Zealand, Cape Horn. He seems to know everything there is to know about penguins: that they have been clocked moving through the water at nine miles-per-hour; that the smallest --- the Fairy Penguin -- weighs less than three pounds and lives along the coast of New Zealand and southern Australia; that there are almost ten million Macaroni penguins but the one that I slept with as a child was most likely modeled on the Adélie.
The biggest threat to penguins is a bird called the skua, although up to a few decades ago, humans murdered them to light their oil lamps and to enjoy in a stew. In 1902, while studying them, the geologist Otto Nordenskjöld reported eating "cold penguin and sardines; salted penguin; macaroni and salted penguin; breast of penguin and dried vegetables; salted penguin and beans; and pastry with leftover penguin."
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There are a few things that Lynch neglects to tell us, though. One is the stink of a penguin rookery, with all its guano phew, you can't imagine. Another is where the Macaroni penguin got its name? (Did Nordenskjöld's menu offer Macaroni and macaroni?) No to the first: these penguins have colorful feathers; "macaroni" was the flamboyant head-dress of the 18th Century; the plumes on hats (and heads) were show-off stuff --- see "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
And then there is the matter of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, cited by Lynch for his journey with Robert F. Scott to the South Pole in 1912. The Worst Journey in the World has got to be one of the eeriest travel books ever produced. And "Cherry's "worst journey" was not about marching across Antarctica with the immensely incompetent Scott, but about a side trip to Mount Terror [sic] to collect eggs of the Emperor Penguin.
Cherry-Garrard was to write later, "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised. It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than any monastery, and the post comes but once a year."
As men will compare the hardships of France, Palestine, or Mesopotamia, so it would be interesting to contrast the rival claims of the Antarctic as a medium of discomfort. A member of Campbell's party tells me that the trenches at Ypres were a comparative picnic. But until somebody can evolve a standard of endurance I am unable to see how it can be done. Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.
And if you think that he --- or Scott --- has been forgotten, the following memento mori by Bill Manhire appeared this year, in the LRB, under the title "Captain Scott:"
We brought his body ashore in Oamaru
I was on one oar, Cherry the other.
The ship stood off.
A telegram was sent, and now we all felt left behind.
I was made to sit beside him while he melted.--- C. A. Amantea