David Attenborough is one of the most consummate storytellers of our time. What makes him endearing are things that make him curious and the lengths he will go to satisfy that curiosity. And his things are in the uncharted hinterlands teeming with invisible and mysterious energies; where everything is fluid and transforming; and where humans are one small blip in a more diversely inhabited world.
And because he gives the air of being the most unlikely person one would find whispering from inside a toxic bat-cave or sitting snug next to a gorilla (even though he may be the first person or the only person to have done a lot of what he’s done); because the technology he uses is always groundbreaking; and because the world he reveals is unfailingly awe-inspiring, you are left both amused and astonished. And so, he goes about fossicking in the boonies and presenting us with many banquets of wonder, and letting us know that there is more wonder than we’d ever dream of wondering.
In this series, which is a mix of memoir and science, he meticulously chronicles sixty years of his adventures in the wild. It serves as an unbeatable testament to one man, and his bid to make the stunning complexity of nature’s superior design known to everyone.
He begins in a time much different from our own; when we were still taken with the boundlessness of nature; and everything was waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing itself. Collectors hungered to own the rarest birds and beasts from the farthest corners of the world. Wild animal dealers, private and traveling menageries and zoo gardens were ubiquitous all over Britain.
Then, he saw wildlife diminish over time, and succumb to its own lavish generosity and our insatiable appetite for everything it has to offer. Extinction became a reality, and he became one of the many voices for conservation. He spent the next half of his professional life, not collecting, but being a diligent observer, translating the wonders of the natural world into exquisite words and visuals.
When he narrates this story, he paints a vivid picture of a revolution in thought, and displays a sapient inwardness, like a Once-ler reuniting with his inner-Lorax; and we take his wistful rumination, his hopes and questions, and make it our own.
There is something marvelous about the wisdom and knowledge he has amassed over time. He always seems unburdened by the scientific prose or activist rhetoric, while somehow striking the elusive balance between the two and oozing erudition. He embraces the science of scientists and the subjectivity of conservationists as being dogged pursuits towards a common ideal. He presents them as the warps and woofs of the natural world, who work to understand, protect and grow their environments, sometimes without heed to personal consequences.
Naturalists, more than any other kind of science maven, display an exceptional ability to observe! There is nothing purely rational about their line of work. Nothing in their world is mechanistic. No two beasts of the same kind are alike; and the interconnectedness of nature, and the complicated symbiotic relationships between flora, fauna and the natural forces, make the process of revelation labyrinthine. And still, researchers show their tremendous skill in taking in all the sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information around them, and filtering them through scientific thought processes and making deductions on behavior and their consequences. It is a delicate dance between astute observation and skilful intervention; like rearranging all the pieces in a salad back to their respective whole fruits.
In that sense, Attenborough, is not a naturalist-scientist or naturalist-activist. His job is to passively extend his senses to the natural world and make us see what we wouldn’t see without his help. But, having done this for sixty years, he has the unique privilege of sharing impressions about our world over a long passage of time and constructing implications. And because these implications are not just scientific, but moral and emotional, he serves as a calm light of reason, a new door-opener, who leaves us with a questing belief in the future. His life is evidence of how our triumphs, uncertainties and errors recycle into new hopes and anxieties over time.
One, perhaps bonus benefit of this series is the stories of some remarkable women who put themselves in physical harm's way, as they work intimately with wild animals, in hostile regions full of poachers and angry locals. They have single-handedly saved whole species from extinction. And in them, as in the 87 year old Attenborough, and many other naturalists featured in this series, I find personal inspiration; it is clear that there is nothing one cannot do, and certainly not because of somatic reasons.
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
David Attenborough believes that TV naturalists could become extinct and be replaced by YouTube amateurs. That made me wonder what 18th and 19th century naturalist explorers might have thought of the very idea of a TV naturalist!
While I enjoy Attenborough 60 Years in the Wild this weekend, I leave you with this Guillermo García Carsí's pilot for a spoof series on creatures doomed to extinction. Even Attenborough might enjoy Doomed.
You can see some clips from Attenborough's 60 years series on their official website , and maybe that will tempt you to buy the full copy.