Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Attenborough’s Life Stories

(UK, 2013)

This is a three-part series shown on the PBS Nature program. It takes the form of dear old David‘s life in the wild, as much as anything else, a retrospective of his almost sixty years of going to the wild and distant places of the world and filming what he finds there … and usually putting himself into the picture.

Life on Camera. The first episode concentrates on the technical advances in wildlife and nature filming over the last seven or eight decades. It includes a snippet from the very first nature documentary he ever saw, in 1934, a silly little thing with a fellow in a pith helmet frolicking amongst the penguins on a small island. He says it enthralled him, and likely set his course for the rest of his life. There are also bits from his earliest show for the BBC, Zoo Quest. After that he chronicles the saga of better and better equipment and techniques, from the days where you had to tote huge cameras and many, many reels of film, back when the largest film magazine ran only ten minutes. It’s an incremental progress, achieved one step at a time, but when you put it all together and contrast the grainy B&W films from the ‘50s with today’s hi-definition digital images, it is astonishing. There was the move to video, which worked better and lasted longer underwater. There was the steadicam, and helicopter mounts, super-high-speed cameras, infrared, starlight, and other exotic cameras, stop motion and then stop motion with panning, something that’s been around only a few years now. There is electronic editing and even CGI to recreate extinct species. It’s all staggeringly beautiful, and it just gets better every year. We are living in the golden days of nature documentaries.

Understanding the Natural World. The first episode contrasted the photographic technology from David’s earliest days to the present day. This one tackles the science, and some of the techniques which are coupled with the new equipment to get those astounding pictures we’ve been seeing for the last two decades or so.

When he got started, the double helix structure of DNA had just been described by Watson and Crick. Now we have mapped the human genome, and he shows us what it looks like printed out in very, very tiny type, just four letters in endless patterns. It takes up at least a hundred huge books, bigger than telephone books, margin to margin. The printing was obviously done as a stunt, to impress us at how mind-bogglingly dense the information is; anyone wanting to refer to it would use the digital form. It worked. I was impressed. He points out that there are about 200 genes common to every life form on the planet, from the blue whale to the tiniest bacteria that were the beginnings of life. This is proof of evolution from a common ancestor, if any more was needed. Then there is the discovery of various missing links.

Another breakthrough in our knowledge is plate tectonics, continental drift. Hard to remember it’s a fairly recent discovery. (I wish he’d said a word about the sad story of Alfred Wegener, who pointed out in 1915 that Africa and South America fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and was ridiculed for the stupid idea that the Atlantic Ocean was spreading in the middle.)

The new techniques that have gotten us closer and closer to the animal kingdom include the pioneering work of Jane Goodall, carried on by others now, that totally destroyed all our old ideas of chimps and other primates. Really, what a remarkable person, and her revolutionary idea of living with the apes isn’t that far in the past. There is also the secret of how they get those amazing films of migratory birds flying, from only inches away. When I first saw them in Winged Migration I was stunned, and had no idea how it was done. Turns out it is simple, though it takes patience. A goose and other birds like it will imprint on the first thing it sees after it hatches. Mother goose, dog, cow, human … anything. And it imprints for life. So you hatch them, you raise them, and when they’re big enough, you fly in an ultralight and they will follow you, right up close.

Our Fragile Planet. Here Richard contrasts the way things were done when he first started out in the nature filming business and the way things are done today. Also, the difference in the way things looked back in the ‘50s, and how they look today. Mostly a lot worse, but there are some hopeful signs.

Way back when, everyone collected animals. He shows how he himself took a baby orangutan (which he pronounces something like OO-ran-GOO-tan) from the wild and brought it to the London zoo. He loved that ape, but acknowledges that it was the wrong thing to do. But who knew? Back then we didn’t understand just how fragile the environment of wild animals could be. Now, the forests are vanishing, logged for their wood and then planted with oil palms. The orang is being squeezed out.

Then there is the sad saga of Dian Fossey and his relationship to her and her mountain gorillas. He never mentions that she was murdered for her conservation efforts, but we all know that, don’t we?

We see the gathering of swifts’ nests for soup, some of which he dutifully eats. He reports that it has no taste at all … unless it hasn’t been adequately cleaned, and I’m sure you can guess what it tastes like then. Today, just one of those nests sells for several hundred pounds. You can imagine how little a man trying to feed his family cares about conservation when gathering the nests. But there is hope, as the Malayan government has initiated what seems a reasonable plan, which involves setting a few caves aside permanently and harvesting others on a rotating basis. Which seems to be the key to so many conservation plans (though not all: elephants, whales, rhinos), and that is regulated harvesting. Finding the sustainable level, and coming down hard on those who violate it.

The same principle has caused the green sea turtles to rebound on the islands where they were almost extinct. Now they dig up all the eggs, rebury them in a guarded environment, and release the hatchlings directly into the sea. Another thing that works is eco-tourism. If you give the local people a way to make a living showing wealthy foreigners around their fascinating environments, they will respond. With the turtles it is quite bizarre, in a way. The laying mothers seem not at all disturbed to have several dozen tourists pressing in literally close enough to touch, flashbulbs snapping. They just go on digging and laying.

On to the really terrifying story of the frogs and other amphibians. All around the world they are going extinct, sometimes several species every day. David shows the actual extinction of one, the last known of its species, and quite unlikely to find another, because these incredibly beautiful animals have very small territories. The culprit, for once, isn’t mankind, but a new fungus that travels frighteningly well and seems to infect almost all amphibian species. For now, all we can do is gather uninfected specimens and raise them in isolation until a solution is found … if it ever is. Of course, if you take the long view, this is evolution in action. Stronger species and individuals will survive this fungus, and quickly move into the vacant niches, and there will begin the thousand-year process of differentiation, slowly becoming as radically different and specialized as they are today. So Nature moves on, dispassionately, but for humanity it is a terrible loss of beauty.

I’ve probably said this before, but David Attenborough is one of the biggest ham actors on this blue planet. (This is one of the things I like about him, okay?) It is never enough simply to capture an animal on film, Richard has to get in the picture with them. He will go to the most extraordinary lengths to do this. He might have filmed a blue whale from a camera helicopter—and he does, it’s right up there following him—but he must slam over the waves in a tiny zodiac and get right in close enough to touch it. Which, thirty years ago, I sure would have. He approaches the deadly Komodo dragons, and gets one step too close to a gigantic sea elephant bull’s territory and has to run for it. Before it became a no-no to do it, he sits with the gorilla females and juveniles as they pick fleas off him, with the dangerous silverback male only steps away. He’s lucky he never got his fool head pulled off, but I love him for his game attitude.

It’s a little wistful here, as it’s clear this is his summing up of 60 years going into the wild for us and for himself, and for the world. He won’t last a whole lot longer, and I only hope someone else will appear with his boundless enthusiasm. Please, lord, let it not be another Steve Irwin.