FILM MAKER Peter Crawford got the inspiration for "Nomads of the Wind," his five-hour PBS "Nature" special about Polynesia, while gazing at a ruddy sunset from a pier in San Diego.
Crawford came away from the three-year project with a new regard for sunrise - the magnet that drew ancient Polynesians eastward as they hopscotched from island to island, creating the Pacific paradise.
"They had in their mythology the constant belief that beyond the horizon there would be a bigger - or better - island," Crawford says.
"And that's what I admire about the Polynesian philosophy that still exists today," he says. "Sunrise symbolizes a new horizon, a new hope, a new dawn. All my Polynesian friends from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island, they have this fantastic optimism: Wake up, use the morning, get on with it."
Crawford, for his part, has an equally admirable tenacity. He was wrapping up another three-year project, a natural history of North America that drew big ratings for PBS, when he decided to embark on the ambitious "Nomads."
He traveled 150,000 miles researching and filming the TV series, which begins airing Sunday as part of the PBS "Nature" series. It continues Monday and Tuesday with two hours each night.
Crawford, a producer with Britain's BBC, also wrote the companion book "Nomads of the Wind: A Natural History of Polynesia" (Parkwest Publications Inc., Jersey City, N.J.).
"I was looking for a way to combine my interest in Captain Cook and the Pacific, and my itchy feet to go farther," Crawford says, recalling that day in San Diego at the Pacific's brink.
James Cook, the 18th-century English explorer, had fascinated Crawford since childhood. But as he began his research, the land and people of Polynesia increasingly grabbed Crawford's imagination, and heart.
Polynesia encompasses New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Pitcairn Island (of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame), Easter Island (with its giant stone carvings) and Hawaii.
Polynesians can trace their roots back to Asia, possibly to Vietnam, Crawford says.
Overpopulation, local hostilities or simply a longing for a new land were the factors thought to have pushed groups of emigrants out across the vast Pacific starting about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, he says.
The islands were settled gradually over thousands of years. "New Zealand was the last corner of the planet to be found by human beings," Crawford says. It was inhabited only within the last 1,000 years. …