It's been a while since I've written a eulogical essay, and I think I'm not the only person who didn't expect Steve Irwin to be the subject in question.
I first encountered reports of Steve Irwin's death yesterday morning as I was checking my mail. Around that time, it was difficult to conceive of the reports as being true. Despite the fact that he engaged in very dangerous antics during his exploratory documentaries, he was a constant presence on television (to the point of being irritating sometimes), and he was still relatively young. Besides that, I had seen a number of false reports on his "death" some years back, and I was unlikely to believe any of the initial rumors unless they got picked up and confirmed by a larger news agency.
Little by little, however, the story got fleshed out. It was a stingray, we were told, in a rare attack that had previously claimed only two other lives in Australian history. Irwin was filming a nature documentary when it happened, and the wound penetrated his heart to the point where they couldn't determine whether he died from the cardiac rupture or the creature's poison. He was gone within the hour.
Funny thing, really. Most of us probably assumed that one of his namesake crocodiles would get him one day. It was practically a long-running joke, the last time I checked.
I guess you never see this sort of thing coming.
And you don't hear many people laughing about it, right now.
From what we saw of him, Steve Irwin was a man who liked to laugh. It was clearly a curiosity, especially in his line of work. What sort of man laughs about the prospect of exploring the wild places on earth and dealing with loads of unpredictable animals, much less wrangling crocodiles in front of a camera practically every month? What sort of person could possibly stomach doing this for over ten years, bringing a sense of zoological (albeit not cultural) awareness to our homes, and lending his image to various wildlife conservation initiatives?
Steve Irwin, that's who.
There are few other people who would fit the same bill, and it's unlikely that there would be anyone else who could possibly step into his muddy shoes.
I remember an image that was plastered across some of the major networks not too long ago. It consisted of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, playfully navigating a pen full of his namesake animals. Then there was an image of his carrying around his infant son while still walking inside that same pen, and getting just a little too close to the creatures besides. The act sparked perhaps the only controversy in Irwin's career, although I'm not aware as to whether or not he apologized afterwards. (Or, for that matter, held any more babies inside any more crocodile pens.)
Was it a metaphor, you think? Was he somehow trying to tell us, if not a little unconsciously, that we had to swallow our fears and take a closer look at these animals? Or was it just another laugh, another spectacle to show us exactly how fearful people we all were, and how we sometimes do absolutely nothing beyond watching and waiting to see if anything happens.
Steve Irwin didn't just watch. He was the sort of person who got right into the thick of things, brought us down into the mouths of danger, and laughed in relief and exhilaration afterwards. He loved his job, he loved his animals, he loved his family, and it showed in everything he did.
You seldom see people so willing to rush into the unknown like that, and share their experiences with the rest of us.
And now Steve Irwin lies in that greatest of unknowns, that which we do not know and from where he cannot speak to us with his usual expressions and funny catch-phrases.
He will be sorely missed.