I sit in my nightie as breakfast is cooking. The cat has recently farted. A loud, blatting, human-sounding fart. Inky, my fat male cat, is the most entertaining cat on Earth.
I would like to tell you about the DVDs I have been watching. My new favorite nature documentary is the BBC’s amazing 11-part Planet Earth.
What makes it so amazing? Two things, in my opinion. One is the photography, which combines new hi-def technology with daring and persistence. And two, how the series provides a uniquely overarching document of the amazing complexity of life and environment on our planet.
Certainly, it couldn’t show every last animal on the planet. So the creators focused instead on exploring multiple environments on Earth and the typical denizens of each one. So the “Great Plains” episode visits not only the North American Great Plains but the Tibetan Plateau and the plains of Outer Mongolia. It’s a wonderful way to organize the series, one that truly brings home the amazing diversity of Earth, in animal life, in seasonal change, in weather, in rainfall, in vegetation… I can’t think of anything I’ve ever watched that more successfully imparts a numinous sense of wonder in and respect for this beautiful planet.
In the “polar regions” episode, we watch penguins and polar bears. Nothing new, right? Well, the animals are nothing new to see, but the quality of photography is. The BBC camera crew camped out at the North Pole for weeks on end, capturing footage of a mother bear and her two cubs as they first leave the den they spent the winter in for spring hunting. And honest to God, the footage is so close and so clear that I don’t think I’d know more about what baby polar bears look like if I played with a pair of them on my lawn.
In fact, I feel like I have sat on the Alaskan slopes and watched a family of polar bears at play, close enough to pat the babies’ heads.
To film the baobabs of Madagascar, the English cameraman climbs aboard a homebrew contraption made by a daredevil French balloonist. It pretty much looks like a lawn chair attached to a helium balloon. The two go flying up over the canopy and crashing into the tops of baobabs as the French balloonist freely admits he has very little control over the craft. Really, I’m a bit amazed that they survived. But the footage they took of the baobabs is stunning. And this is exactly the kind of intrepid, committed, creative work that clearly went into every episode of this documentary. None of those long-distance helicopter shots for Planet Earth. Let’s into the flying lawn chair with the mad Frenchman, my friends!
One of the loveliest segments in the whole series shows the baobabs blooming. They start with long greenish buds that look almost exactly like a banana. Then, in one minute flat, the “bananas” come apart at the end and begin peeling and curling open. The elegant inner organs of the flower spill out bearing sweetness and pollen, and moths and lemurs come to sip the nectar. It was like I watched an animal’s tea party held at midnight in Madagascar. No, I did not watch. I was a silent guest.
And as you are so close to what is going on, it is particularly hard to watch the hunt. The camera does not shy from the reality of predator and prey. Nor does it dwell on it. But animals die, and they don’t always die swiftly. I could not bear to watch much of it and looked away. Nature is cruel. But I will say that I also found perspective in what I watched.
In one section, we watch a group of adorable goslings playing on the Arctic tundra. They are fluffy and yellow, maybe only a few days old, and they do not waddle fast enough to avoid the Arctic fox that makes short work of most of them. The fox darts into the picture, seizes a gosling and bites it, and it is limp in her jaws. It takes her seconds to fill her greedy mouth full of goslings and slink away.
Where does she go, the villainous predator, to eat her food? Back to her cave, to feed her own brood. She has seven kits. Cute as puppies all, and they will need to be fat and healthy to survive the coming winter. The goslings did not die for nothing. Arctic foxes cannot eat grass. I am a predator too, and my kind does worse than swiftly killing a mouthful of goslings.
Sir David Attenborough (younger brother of Richard, and a pioneer of the nature doc) narrates and wrote the screenplays as well. He’s a wonderful narrator — try to avoid the American version of the docs, which has Sigourney Weaver narrating. She is nowhere near as good, and I hear that the narration of the American version has been watered down (thanks, Britain). Netflix seems to have the UK version.
I recommend watching the “Planet Earth Diaries” at the end of each of the 11 main episodes. The Diaries are only about 12 minutes long, and detail how the crew got these amazing shots. Actually, it might even be fun to watch those first, so you can really appreciate the human effort behind that slow pan of the gorgeous gypsum cave a mile underground, and understand that that first-ever closeup of a Himalayan snow leopard took over a year to obtain.
Thanks to good old YouTube, here’s a clip. This is the funniest part of the doc, a collection of mating dances performed by the Birds of Paradise of New Guinea.
They must be seen to be believed.