The Book of Strange Life

June 6, 2010 § 1 Comment


The Living Planet (Attenborough, David)

A warty, leathery stinky flower (Rafflesia arnoldii). Source Wikimedia Commons, attribution: ma_suska

Before Animal Planet, before the Discovery Channel, there was David Attenborough. Fond memories of my 1980s include a very breathless Attenborough, standing in the middle of a desert in a floppy hat, in the dense jungle in khaki shorts, in the frozen tundra in a sealskin jacket, on a beach in the dark, a flashlight in hand. He would solemnly draw my attention, between wheezes, to previously unheard-of creatures performing incredible feats of endurance, athleticism or strength, in the background.

It was all very fascinating, everything, even the breathlessness, specially the breathlessness. Up until Attenborough came along, people on television were never breathless. They were calm and collected, spoke in carefully modulated sing-song tones, sat on studio sofas, sporting perfect hair and unsmudged make-up, and they only perspired if they were asked a tough question by their interviewer. The breathlessness was new, and it was very much part of the message. 

It said, for instance, that what was unfolding before our eyes was in a sense unscripted and unpredictable, a couple of decades before the term Reality TV was invented. Anything could happen. The rhino could charge the camera. Attenborough could lose his foothold and go hurtling through the undergrowth. The komodo dragon could continue to stare fixedly at the same spot for the next two minutes, immobile in its hauteur; alternatively, it could choose to flicker its forked tongue playfully and wink knowingly at me. It was absolutely edge-of-the-seat, riveting stuff.

Second, Attenborough’s huffings and puffings told me that what he was doing was hard work. It’s all very well for you, Attenborough’s breathlessness says. You are lying on your sofa, nibbling at the frayed ends of your collar, with a chilled drink and some fried munchies available almost at will, and no conceivable predator to worry about other than, at times, a marginally irate mother. But here is that splendid fellow, Attenborough,  in the thick of things as ever, mixing it up with snakes and scorpions, and one day it’s rain, another shine; there’s hell here and high water there, and by golly, it’s a hard life. The gasping puts in sharp contrast the difference between our situation and his, or between the standard TV host’s and his, and thus earns him our admiration and attention.

But most importantly, and beyond all else, Attenborough’s breathlessness displayed a certain lack of control. When he struggled and squinted and scowled and sputtered, we knew that Attenborough was clearly not in his comfort zone, while the animals in the frame behind him were unmistakably in theirs. He represented civilized, modern man, and his discomfort stemmed from that awesome paradox: that we, who have bent nature to our will, and have banished her from our urban settings, are yet reduced to clumsy unskilled fools when we are in her kingdom, unfit to survive and barely able to speak, while tiny termites, unintelligent apes, and ancient insects revel in the same conditions and thrive, with ease and grace.

This is the mystery that Attenborough chases from mountain tops to the remote trenches of the open seas, with exuberance and child-like wonder, and every tiny creature or plant is a miniature miracle for him, a celebration of the sheer joy that is life.

Attenborough wrote this book at the same time as the filming of his BBC series The Living Planet. The photography is magnificent, the prose style fluid, and the focus firmly on the uncommon – lions, tigers, cheetahs, cobras and elephants, staple fare of environmental education, are given a miss, and instead we learn of a large warty flower that smells of rotting meat and attracts flies; of cats that perform cost-benefit analyses; of flying snakes and squirrels; of a 10,000 year-old bush, and of a cannibalistic tortoise which is otherwise vegetarian. We learn of the agouti, the jerboa, the quagga, the chinchilla, the capercaillie…and countless others. There is apparently no corner of the world that Attenborough has not been to, in his quest for strange life.

Which, of course, led me to the final puzzle, the one that mystifies me as I finish reading this book. If David Attenborough travels to the Himalayas, Kenya, Alaska and Antarctica for his day job, what on living Earth does he do for vacations? Does he, I wonder, insist pathetically on going to an office and sitting in a cubicle from nine to five, playing Tetris on the sly? Now that would be my kind of hard work, and that would teach him a thing or two.

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