I grew up not only in what ecologists call “the urban-wildland interface” (or, as people usually refer to it, rural northern California), but with nature documentaries. I realize that seems counterintuitive to anyone from the concrete jungle that I could open my door in the Sierra Nevada and not be inundated with wildlife (and, to be fair, there were way too many Mule Deer, and it wasn’t at all uncommon to spot golden eagles), but, the awful truth is, even in sparsely-populated places, most animals that go anywhere near humans or human dwellings were deselected generations ago, so, if you want a really wild experience, you have to trek through the backcountry for days — weeks, if you’re looking for something rare.
If the thought of hypothermia, 50-lb ruck-sacks, sleeping on rocks, or being mauled by cougars (the distinctively unsexy kind) is off-putting, you’re stuck waiting for whatever wanders through your yard (squirrels and song-birds, mostly), and Nature documentaries. I mean that as an actual brand; “Nature” is the long-running PBS series that used to air on Sunday nights, and one of the few non-screaming family memories of growing up is watching that show. Every Friday, 1997–1998 (seventh grade), my biology class would get to watch Wild America, which was characterized by both amazing wildlife footage, and the world’s most uninspired host; Marty Stouffer. I realize it’s a bit unkind to critique a man who directly impacted my ill-fated education in the life sciences, but the man was basically Bob Ross with a Qaalude overdose. “Calm, friendly, and relaxing” are excellent descriptors for someone painting landscapes; they aren’t really what you want in a narrator when the camera zooms in on those landscapes to show you wild animals devouring one another. If Marlin Perkins was guilty of creating false drama by going and molesting the animals on film; Marty gets points deducted for making a rattlesnake devouring a frog seem prosaic and serene.
Of course, I was also keenly aware of The Great One, David Attenborough. And, in high school, I started doing research on the greatest wildlife documentarian ever born, Jacques Cousteau. You’re probably aware that Cousteau was an advocate for ocean conservation, but you’re probably not aware that career shift didn’t come until relatively late in his career, when he’d been around long enough to see the havoc wreaked by humans on the Mediterranean. And I totally understand that — when you see a place you loved and grew up in being casually destroyed not through willfulness or greed, but through negligence and stupidity, it kind of gets to you (I mean, no one wants to see wild animals go extinct, but I think most of us understand the idea of deliberately hunting an animal to extinction — again, it’s tragic, but there’s an element of human decision, and human benefit — someone’s going to make money on that rhino horn — involved in that action that’s absent when, say, you use the Mediterranean as a casual sewage dumping ground because a new septic system for Morocco or Gibralter would be expensive, and, hey, no one’s using that ocean).
In 2000, the world was introduced to another, superior form of nature documentary in the form of “Blue Planet.” I can not explain how different nature documentaries were before this series; prior to this, I remember that the narrator/presenter was the main character in nature docs. I don’t know if his because human arrogance made us think nature was actually less interesting and charismatic than people, or just because, prior to this series, the approach to making nature documentaries was to stuff Marlin Perkins and a cameraman into a cargo crate, ship them off to central Africa for six weeks, and hope for the best (and, as a nature person, four months is nothing — you can go four months living in the wilderness and not see anything bigger or more charismatic than trout)(even the trout are unruly and undependable), but Blue Planet and Alistair Fothergill (the series’ producer, and, ultimately, head of the BBC’s natural history unit) did something unprecedented: they made the habitats and animals they were documenting the stars of the show. Even though Attenboroughs soothing, dulcet tones narrated everything, the exposition was only necessary to instill the proper sense of awe (and explain any technically important bits). For the first time, Mother Nature was the presenter; humans were only necessary to hold the camera. And it did not disappoint. Seriously, go back and watch the first five minutes, it opens with a fucking Blue Whale onscreen, something I (and most of humanity) had never seen. And realize, that is the series’ low-point.
Fothergill and Attenborough would continue collaborating — and the general film-making philosophy that, properly shot and edited, the natural world is breath-taking, awe-inpiring, and dramatic enough without any human involvement — for Blue Planet 2, Planet Earth, and Planet Earth 2 (well, isn’t that just Mars after we terraform it?), as well as numerous side-projects and one-off documentaries.
Today, on Netflix, they’re back with Our Planet, which delivers all the natural goodness those of us who grew up in, around, and watching nature love. Seriously; I’m going to drag out my sub-zero-rated sleeping bag, take a cold shower, and watch this thing as nature was meant to be experienced — cold, wet, hungry, and with the nagging sensation that you should go back inside.
No, seriously, it is awesome — in the original sense of the word — and, as another reviewer noted, this is Attenborough’s first outing as an open advocate for preservation. I got to hear him lecture (via Youtube) on his career, and the lessons Attenborough learned in 50 yeas of sneaking up on mating pelicans with a camera, and he mentioned that we are only beginning to understand the rather precarious environmental situation we find ourselves in; that we could completely destroy the planet by accident (in the lecture, he discussed that previous point that we all innately understand poaching and the consequences thereof; we’re resistant to the idea that if we just continue life as-is, without even noticeably accelerating anything or doing anything new, we will destroy life as we know it). Now, that same sense of loss — and fear that we could lose it all not through active greed or avarice, but through complacency — is a the fore. And, in the first ten minutes of the program, I heard a message that I have not heard literally in 20 years — it’s not too late to save it. I don’t know why, I got a little choked up at that point. Even though Fothergill and Attenborough are both still gainfully employed (by either Netflix or the Beeb, I’d have to double-check who’s writing the checks these days), the series feels like the glorious, celebratory cap on a career. It is to their nature documentaries what Logan was to the X-Men; not the end, certainly, but the grand hurrah and goodbye to an era. Let’s just hope that Era is not “Life in the Cenozoic.”