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Observing the Nature Watchers

Sean Cole

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Nature Documentaries

British filmmaker David Attenborough hosts a series of nature documentaries. It's a cult phenomenon on the BBC. This weekend, the Animal Planet channel will be airing his documentary "Blue Planet." "Weekend America" reporter Sean Cole wondered what it might sound like if he did a nature documentary about humans. This piece is part of a series, Stories from the Heart of the Land, currently airing on public radio stations around the country. Go to www.HeartOfTheLand.org for more information.

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As we broadcast the show this week, a documentary called "Blue Planet" by David Attenborough aired on the Animal Planet network. David Attenborough is really the father of this type of show. His BBC nature programs have become hugely popular among the cult of nature documentary lovers here in the states. They're kind of a species all their own, these folks, and so "Weekend America's" Sean Cole got to wondering what it would sound like if David Attenborough did a program about them. It might start like this:

Fans of nature documentaries tend to nest in an urban setting like Brookline, Massachusetts - Ariel Glassman's habitat. She's 25, lives with her boyfriend. She says her apartment is small but it's not. It's tiny. So you can understand why she has seventy-five nature documentaries in her Netflix queue. She read down the list for me.

"Life in the Undergrowth, National Geographic Africa, The Life of Birds, Blue Planet..."

Three of those are by David Attenborough. And his latest program, Planet Earth, was running Sundays at eight o'clock on TV, the same time as the PBS show Nature.

"So my nature shows competing with each other," Ariel said. Except there's already a Planet Earth DVD, which she and her boyfriend and managed to get a Canadian copy of before the series even premiered in the states. Let me say that again: she has a bootleg copy of a David Attenborough video. This presented a very simple question: why?

"I've lived in cities or fairly dense suburban areas my whole life," she said "and there's only so much access you get to the natural world in those places. And I think it's fantastic for me to be able to take a look at places I've never been, probably never see with my own eyes."

"Why do you say you may never get to go there?" I asked.

"'Cause I can't afford to go there," she said.

Ariel spent a lot of her childhood in Amherst, Mass. There are no tigers there, but it's really leafy and green and she had a lot more time to frolic in the grass back then. She told me about this one time: she was with a friend and they stumbled across a kind of hidden canyon in the woods. And for a little kid that's like happening upon a Mayan ruin.

"It taught me how striking the natural world can be. How it could just take you buy surprise," Ariel told me, "It was sort of the gateway moment."

A gateway to watching nature shows on TV. She actually told me that if she hadn't had those grass-frolics as a child, she's not sure she'd be interested in what she can see on the television now. And yes Ariel knows that sounds backwards. But it's like that moment burned a permanent question mark into her brain, and the nature shows are these little exclamation points. For example, watching Life of Mammals (by David Attenborough) she felt like she wasn't so superior to other beings with hair.

"Because we are still, in reality, mammals," she said, pointing out the window, "Just like that squirrel on my tree out there."

"When a squirrel finds white acorn, he always eats it immediately because otherwise it would soon germinate," said David Attenborough on the TV when Ariel and I sat down to watch Life of Mammals together, "On the other hand red acorns like this one are almost always buried as store for winter."

And then, weeks later, when I told Attenborough uber-fan named Melissa Guion that I had seen the show, she said, "Did you see part about the acorns?"

"Yeah!" I said.

"Where they knew what to do with the two different kinds of acorns?!" she said.

"Yeah!!" I said.

"Yeah I saw that one!" she said.

"Really?!" I said.

"Yeah! Yeah!" she said, "it's fascinating!"

Melissa once drew a picture of four ducks playing volleyball, and one of a rhino having cocktails with a warthog. She's an illustrator and her love of David Attenborough verges on school-girly.

"I almost have a little bit of a crush on him," she said, "You know what I mean?"

Do I.

Her husband, who's also named David, knows too.

"I mean if I have to lose her to somebody," he said, "You know, I respect Attenborough."

For a Manhattan apartment their place is pretty big. Though it got a little smaller last year when their daughter holly was born.

"You know, we've got a 9 month old," Melissa told me, "We're both workin' really hard. I would love to go to New Zealand tomorrow but it's not gonna happen. We're not going anywhere anytime soon."

So David Attenborough does most of their traveling for them. He goes to Lord Howe Island, "a tiny speck of land off the coast of Australia," and makes funny bird noises with his hands cupped around his mouth. Because for some reason, when you stand on Lord Howe Island and make funny bird noises with your hands cupped around your mouth, a certain type of seabird will literally throw itself onto the ground beside you - strictly out of curiosity.

"I feel like human beings have a certain range of things they have to get," Melissa said, "like you have to have interactions with people and you have to sleep and you have to play and you have to interact with plants and animals. I don't know. I just think it has to happen."

And for right now, watching David Attenborough documentaries is how Melissa and Dave get their nature on. It's a virtual vacation. And sometimes, as though they've just come back from an actual vacation, they even find themselves telling their friends about the exotic places they've seen.

"Yeah," Dave Guion said, "I've definitely had the experience of boring someone at a..." He interrupts himself in order to imitate himself at a party, "Well then you shoulda seen! Because then the polar bear came out of hibernation!"

"It's funny," said Melissa, "I never really thought about but recently I think we started to get a reputation among our friends for watching kind of a weird amount of this stuff."

It's true. One of their friends told me that they could discuss this Imax movie about beavers "at great length."

"One night under a full moon," Melissa began, "Mr. Beaver, male beaver, comes over and starts kinda chattering amorously to the female beaver and they actually do this kind of moonlight pas de deux where they rear up on their hind legs and embrace each other with their little claws and go tottering back and forth in the moonlight."

I have substantiated all of this, by the way.

"And the camera sort of considerately pans right," she said "sort of away from the little pile of amorous beavers or whatever. Anyway, cut to baby beavers in beaver lodge."

"So they didn't actually show the full on beaver shtooping?" I asked.

"No no no no no," Melissa said, "It wasn't that kinda movie."

Of course, beavers aren't exactly travel-to-Africa animals. But they're still fascinating, says Donal O'Shea, who has traveled to Africa, and who also told me, unsolicited, about the beaver documentary.

"They had a camera in their home," he said, "watching their family life. It was absolutely extraordinary."

Donal lives in San Jose now, but he grew up in Ireland watching (guess who) David Attenborough on the BBC. He was the only nature documentary fan I spoke to who had actually been to the places where some of these programs are filmed.

"I've been to South Africa many, many times," he said, "And I've had the opportunity to go up to the game parks and I've only gone once. It's much more comfortable to sit in your living room and watch it on TV than to actually run around run the risk of catching malaria and all the rest of it."

Ariel Glassman basically said the same thing.

"I can huff and puff to the top of the mountain," she said, "but David Attenborough's not going to follow me all the way up in a helicopter to give me details about the antelope twenty yards to my left that I cant' even see."

"And this is the very simple but very important idea that kept rearing up as I talked to these folks. On TV the animals are so close. And they're doing such interesting things. And in person they'd be too skittish or blood-thirsty or just plain boring to sit and be awed by. But there's something even more basic that nature shows offer... something more gut-level than the awe factor. And that is the awwwwwww factor.

"There is definitely a cute factor," Ariel said, "On Planet Earth there's this footage of a mother polar bear and her little babies just as their coming out of the hibernating den.

"Her cubs gaze out at their bright new world for the very first time," David Attenborough said.

"They can barely walk they've never eaten anything other than their mother's milk," Ariel said.

"The female calls them but this steep slope is not the easiest place to take your first steps," David Attenborough said.

"And it just all of a sudden one of them just tumbles," Ariel said, "you know. And it's so cute."

"Cuddling up against polar bear would be not something that would be recommended," Donal said, "but to watch them is a warming feeling. It's not quite as good as petting a dog but it's something along those lines."

But, as Melissa pointed out, it's not long before the polar bears get all carnivorous.

"When the narrator says, unfortunately you know reality is cruel and the mother and the bear cubs are going to have to find food in a week now or their gonna starve.' That's when I always start to kind of go eeeeeeeeehhhhhh. And then when they show them tracking down the baby like seal pup and you know their gonna eat it, you have that moment when you're like [FRUSTRATED NOISE THAT I CAN'T EASILY TRANSCRIBE]. And actually Dave and I have this expression. We'll say end of seal pup continuation of polar bear. 'Cause we have to remind ourselves that there's a good side of that story."

I asked Melissa if she's ever gotten emotional watching a nature program.

"Oh of course!" she said, "Yeah. Horribly. Yeah. Especially after the birth of our child, I would say it's actually gotten worse.

"It's funny," said her husband Dave, "I remember shortly after holly was born, there was some kind of nature show on and I remember seeing this bird hatch out of the egg and the parents sort of nuzzling it. And, yeah as a parent of aa�¦ whatever she wasa�¦ four weeks old or something at the time? Yeah. Melissa and I just looked at each other and we both had tears in our eyes. You can't help but relate to helplessness of a baby when you're a parent."

"Whether it's on TV or not," I said.

"Oh yeah," he said, "sure."

And whether it's human or not.

"There's a certain kind of religious component to it almost," said Donal, "You know you're getting a view of the world, of life, of existence that is outside you and normal experience. And I'm getting carried away about whole thing now, but it just kind of forces you to recognize that by no means are you and people around you and the human race the only things to be considered or thought about. Or worried about."

And if this were a David Attenborough documentary, that's probably how it would end.


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