The Lost Art of Looking at Nature

The Lost Art of Looking at Nature

While David Attenborough’s work rarely gives center stage to climate change, his project has always been to shift how humans relate to nature.

Print from Samarkande by E. A. Séguy, 1914

This spring, a polling company surveyed Brits to find the nation’s most beloved exports. Beating out William Shakespeare and afternoon tea for the top three spots were the Sunday roast dinner, fish and chips, and the naturalist and television presenter Sir David Attenborough. A few years earlier, Attenborough, now ninety-six years old, was voted the most popular person in Britain. His popularity extends beyond national borders, too. The Australian comedian Ben Ellwood hosts a podcast called Thank God for David Attenborough, on which biologists join him to digest and appreciate episodes of Attenborough’s nature documentaries. But the metric of popularity that might matter most to Attenborough himself—one he has called “the biggest of compliments”—comes from the world of wildlife biology: dozens of species of plants and animals, living and extinct, including a bright blue and yellow lizard, a deep-water fish parasite, and a small golden wildflower, have been named after him.

Part of the reason that Attenborough is so beloved is simply the strength of his public-broadcasting version of star quality, a magic of affect and appearance. His accent is posh and plummy, his voice at once soft and authoritative as he describes the arrival of heavy clouds over a parched savannah or the rare midnight opening of some dusky bloom. Attenborough’s popularity has seemed to spike in recent years, in parallel with public understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis. Whether or not you consider yourself a “nature lover,” your media diet in recent years has most likely become saturated with stories of social and environmental peril driven by climate collapse. As wilderness disappears and our ways of experiencing it grow ever more mediated, Attenborough is there on the ground, pushing aside a branch to reveal some creature—or, as in his new series, Green Planet, which focuses on the lives of plants, zooming in on something special about the branch itself—and meeting the natural world with attention and reverence.

Attenborough has a special niche in the ecosystem of climate narratives—acknowledging the crisis while, for the most part, not giving it center stage. His last series, the 2019 Our Planet, addressed the climate crisis head-on. It has the same stunning photography and inviting vocal palette as his other programs, but in it he delivers policy recommendations about land use and conservation with an uncharacteristic level of pragmatism. I interviewed him over the phone when Our Planet came out, asking about what seemed to be a political evolution in his work, and he described the goal of the series in urgent terms: “What we have to do now is to make sure that this has caught the support of the people, of the electorate, of all democratic countries. People should be demanding that financial systems and governments should recognize the climate problems and do something about them.” Green Planet, which aired on the BBC early this year and comes to PBS in July, is a return to form; warnings are present, but shifted to the background. At first glance, this shift could seem like a backing-off from politics—but Attenborough’s project has always been to reshuffle the way humans relate to nature, and Green Planet continues this work in a way that’s both subtle in its execution and radical in its substance.

Green Planet offers classic nature-doc escapism: an unlucky insect tumbles into the deep well of a carnivorous pitcher plant; a monstrous, meter-wide flower displays whiskers and teeth; feathery pink fronds undulating beneath the surface of white-water rapids secrete a miracle adhesive to anchor themselves to the rocks. The episodes are organized by biome categories—fresh water, desert, tropics, and so on—and each one travels the globe. A few minutes in the Colombian rain forest are followed by a visit to a frozen lake in the mountains of Japan, and Attenborough narrates with a steady stream of unifying, dulcet observations. Many of the plant kingdom’s traits are “spectacular” or “remarkable,” and there are plenty of “soft velvety threads.” The bulk of the screen time is spent shoring up this anodyne, if novel, notion: plants are sensory marvels. The beauty and strangeness acts as a spoonful of sugar, so diverting that you hardly notice the fleeting discussions of the ecological importance of plants and how they are endangered by monocultures and climate change. These less frequent passages are the series’ medicine. Attenborough’s films often end with a call to action. But it is savvy of him, both as an artist and as an activist, to make plenty of room for pleasure. Too often, I find myself having to choke down environmental news, struggling to engage with wildfires and floods and the stream of IPCC reports offering the same grim forecasts but with shorter and shorter event horizons. This type of information is important, and it is rife with human frailty and failure. To pause for a moment, guided by an old naturalist’s eye for curiosity and beauty, is restorative. It gives a viewer the energy to face the hard truths of the rolling crisis and serves as a reminder of the wonders outside the human world that are also at stake.

In his 1981 book The Expanding Circle, the philosopher Peter Singer wrote about the ongoing project of expanding the reach of humanity’s moral sphere—widening it to encompass more and more beings. Making this leap is relatively easy with animals; in his new series, Attenborough’s task is a harder one. Can we, should we, really care about the lives of plants? He makes the case that we should impressively, showing how tightly woven plant lives are with our own: photosynthesis is the basis of all life on Earth, plants exist in intricate systems that we are now endangering, and human society’s deepest structures are based on our relationships with them.

Attenborough declares at the outset that his aim for the series is to show the world “from the plants’ perspective.” The very idea that plants have a perspective is new, and may strike the ear as anthropomorphizing, or even as nonsense. Nature documentaries and conservation stories have more often focused on charismatic megafauna: lions, tigers, pandas, and other majestic creatures that—as fellow large, social mammals—are easily identifiable as similar to humans. Attenborough has filmed plants before, as in the 1995 series The Secret Lives of Plants and the 2012 3D feature Kingdom of Plants. But Green Planet coincides with a moment when our understanding of the lives of plants and fungi is being dramatically revised. No longer simply the backdrop for the workings of sentient life, plants and fungi are beginning to be understood to have behaviors and intelligences of their own. In 2019, scientists began mapping the “wood wide web,” the underground fungal networks by which trees send chemical signals about stresses and even share nutrients with one another. When scientists reported in the early 1980s that some trees release chemical signals into the air to warn others nearby of insect attacks, their research was seen as outlandish; today, there is still plenty of debate about the use of terms like “plant decision-making” and “plant neurobiology,” but the notion that plants can perceive the world around them and respond to it, including with signals to their kin, is no longer controversial. And in Green Planet Attenborough does not shy away from presenting them as main characters with their own aims and actions.

One of the earliest uses of time-lapse photography was the 1910 short film The Birth of a Flower, and Green Planet uses motion control, a souped-up version of that same technique. Frames are taken at a slow rate, capturing the plants’ movement over an extended period, and when the film is played at normal speed the plants seem to be acting in hyper-speed. Plants that would seem to the naked human eye to be standing still are revealed to be doing much more. “Plants behave a lot like animals do,” one cameraman says, “and being able to see it in time-lapse is one thing, but motion-control brings you into that time scale.” As Attenborough puts it, “This is a game-changer.” And it is true that the photography is beautiful—if not exactly revolutionary to an eye spoiled by more than a decade of nature docs with extremely high production values. But the particular appeal of Green Planet doesn’t come from its use of new technology. Instead, it is Attenborough’s old-fashioned approach to looking at nature that sets the show apart. The series gets its energy from quiet sources—from cool facts about the structure and function of species and from the aura of reverence that Attenborough brings to each episode, transforming them from high-tech biology seminar to secular worship service.

Attenborough’s distinctive style might stem from his unusual career path. He spent the first part of his career as a controller at the BBC, a managerial role that dealt with finances and behind-the-scenes production. He made a mid-career shift in 1972 to focus on writing his own programs and working in front of the camera and microphone. His approach changed over time. In his earliest programs, filmed in the 1960s, he did a lot of, as Ellwood put it on his podcast, “running around jumping on things and collecting critters.” At the heart of his work has been an ongoing project that remains central to his appeal: recasting the relationship between humans and other living beings. He is always bringing us closer to them, gently modeling a way of seeing them fully, in their own complicated worlds, and eroding the superiority so deeply encoded in the way we are trained to view nonhuman life.

Attenborough is the world’s most popular nature-show presenter, but his style is old school. The longest-running natural-history TV series is Nature, which has aired weekly on PBS since 1982. The photography and scoring of the early episodes were basic by today’s standards, and watching them now feels like looking at safari footage while being read the best passages from relevant Wikipedia pages: a recitation of the habits, diet, and physiology of the week’s chosen creature. This is not a criticism. The animals’ lives, relatively unembellished, are interesting. As a child, I was only vaguely aware of the way that the show could pull my sympathies to different types of animals depending on who was the protagonist. In the episode about zebras, you might follow a herd on its long search for water in an arid savannah, and then mourn when the prowling lions successfully separated from the herd a young, weak, or injured individual and brought the poor thing down. In the episode about lions, though, you celebrated when the band of lionesses finally made a kill, having just learned that the pride had gone a week without a meal. The dramas, such as they were, were simple and driven by instinct: food, water, territory, sex.

The genre has changed since then. Leaps forward in filming technology—smaller and more portable cameras, high-definition photography, drones—have made it easier than ever to capture more sophisticated footage of rare animals and to film in remote locations. Contemporary nature docs can move from delicate close-ups to sweeping shots of whole regions, both ends of the spectrum so perfectly clear and crisp that it’s easy to forget that what you’re seeing in your living room would be impossible to observe outside without high-tech intervention.

The way the wilderness is dramatized has also changed. (Even Nature breaks out of its species-specific episodes for specials in which cameras are strapped to the animals themselves or a filmmaker narrates a long relationship with a particular animal he has followed.) In twenty-first-century nature programs, the music does heavy emotional lifting. I recently watched one set in Yellowstone that was narrated by a voice so gravelly and menacing it sounded uncannily like an ad for an F-150. It moved quickly from species to species, catching each one at a grim crossroads. When an influx of springtime meltwater approached a beaver dam, the music accompanying the night-vision footage became so ominous that the creatures might have been fighting off an impending flood in Gotham City. I found myself wishing for the old-fashioned approach, in which the narrator might spend several quiet minutes with the beavers when they are not in mortal danger, with footage of their dam construction and descriptions of the types of trees they prefer. Instead, this was the reality-TV version of beaver existence: technically composed of facts, but amped up to spin daily life into suspense.

Attenborough’s films are also driven by shifts in cinematic technology. The Planet Earth series, which he narrated for the BBC (the American version was voiced by Sigourney Weaver), was a watershed moment. Filmed over four years and with an unprecedented budget of $25 million, it was proof of concept that nature docs could be high-tech and wildly popular. But even as his budgets have increased, Attenborough has resisted the reality-TV-ification of natural history. “I’m a bit of a dinosaur,” he said in a 2012 interview, describing his distance from the newer trends within the genre. When he started out, he said, the goal of nature documentaries was simple: “What one was wanting to do was to show as closely as you can the behavior of some animal or other. But these days you can get perhaps an even larger audience if you combine that sort of storytelling with an adventure story.” Whether it’s the presenter or the subject having that adventure, the focus has shifted, and the project is something other than the naturalist’s hushed attention.

In the late 1970s, when Attenborough was working as a manager of BBC2, he produced two major series about the history of humanity: Civilisation and The Ascent of Man. Both were successful, but he wanted to make a series that would give the spotlight to natural history. In Life on Earth, he became the host and traveled the world presenting a narrative about the evolution of species. In one of the show’s most famous moments, he appears in a leafy thicket next to a giant gorilla. He goes off script and, in an ad-lib commentary, whispers, “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know.” He gives the naturalist’s explanation for why this is so: we have the same sensory apparatuses and live in comparable social groups, so these apes offer our best chance at achieving cross-species understanding. It is this aim that sets his work apart. Close observation of a gorilla offers the “possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world,” he says, crouched in the greenery. It’s an almost radical idea, to show humanity all the corners of the world, emphasizing that it belongs to other creatures. Perhaps we love Attenborough because he is an advocate and practitioner of a special way of seeing and relating. His interest in the natural world begins not with the gaze of an empath, for whom another’s feelings become real because he feels them himself, but with the humility of an observer content to be an outsider.

Rachel Riederer is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.

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