Making nature tell our stories

An article in the BBC magazine Radio Times, by David Butler, is an interview with Sir David Attenborough. Butler raises the question about why series like Blue Planet II divert viewers from the wonders of nature by the oft-repeated message about impending ecological disaster and, particularly, climate change.

Attenborough responds along the predictable lines that there will be no wildlife to celebrate unless the people act, and says: “Comforting, cosy natural history probably needs to become extinct now.”

It’s hard to know if that’s a direct quote: it’s in indirect speech in the text, but in quotes for a pull-quote. But he also talks about the devastating deforestation in Borneo and, even more, in the Philippines, though it’s easy to miss the fact that neither of these is anything to do with climate change. For example, in the Phillipines:

Aside from logging (whether legal or illegal), other causes of deforestation in the Philippines are forest fires, “kaingin” farming (slash-and-burn agriculture), and mining operations. Volcanic eruptions have also devastated some of the country’s tropical rainforests. []

Butler later adds a comment: “The tricky thing is, how much of a political axe can nature programmes grind before they lose their audience?”

Well, that’s one important question. But I think there is a deeper one, which is about the reason for the appeal, and value, of wildlife documentary in the first place. There is no doubt that drawing attention to, say, plastic waste building up in the oceans is important and necessary. Blue Planet II did that effectively. And recording the effects of climate change, too, is important – provided one is genuinely doing that, and not manipulating events to tell the particular story the film-makers wish to tell.

In God’s Good Earth, I cite an interview with Matthew Meech, an editor of Planet Earth II, who admitted that a celebrated sequence of iguanas running a gauntlet of venomous snakes was deliberately cut to resemble a Bourne Conspiracy movie. This is, though, to tell a human story, not nature’s story. In fact iguanas were not fearfully anticipating their chances of making it alive, or anything like it. They were getting on with their usual daily life and death, not acting in a spy-movie. And there was no music score in the original.

Attenborough’s films, and many others, are full of such anthropomorphic story-telling, with polar bears worrying about how they will provide for their young like the most conscientious of single mothers living in poverty. But when the focus moves from the lives animals are actually living in their own right, to their ability to recruit human audiences to climate change action through their sufferings, then there is a danger that, once more, they are being subordinated to human concerns. We may confidently say that there are no animals on earth that share our fears over anthropogenic global warming.

Does that matter? Surely political action is the priority if we are to have wildlife to enjoy at all? Well, there’s a strong element of truth in that. Human concern to direct the affairs of the world well is a left-over from the original creation ordinance of Genesis 1, even though most moderns have forgotten its source in Hebrew Scripture (which is why it is lacking in many other cultures not exposed to the Judaeo-Christian tradition). And so there is certainly a place for documentaries that stress the threats, of all kinds, to wildlife, and so seek to awaken concern and action.

But that is not the same as saying that all other approaches should “become extinct now.” God gave us a richly-populated world for higher, spiritual, purposes than mere preservation. The spiritual person learns to exult in nature, as it is in itself, in order to glimpse the invisible qualities of the God who created it. So the old-fashioned style of Walt Disney nature documentary, in which animals did cute humanoid behaviours to funny music, reflects our own triviality, but does not explore creation. Likewise the subsequent “nature porn” in which savagery was exaggerated to convey a Darwinian “red in tooth and claw” impression. But by the same token, filming animals to make them resemble desperate Syrian refugees, or destitute beggars pleading for alms in the gutter, in order to gain votes for green agendas, is just another promotion of our interests, not the awed attempt to understand theirs.

And I think it is that sense of awe, and of connection to nature, which is what motivates people to watch wildlife films, sometimes without fully realizing it. Many of us know just how being in the natural environment grounds us in a sense of truth, beauty and rightness, even when we see the natural processes of predation, death and rebirth occurring. This, I think, is why being in the natural world promotes mental well-being – we are, in a real way, closer to God. Being motivated to political action when that world is threatened is good, but it is not the same thing. We should mitigate the effects of human sin – but focus more attention on divine virtue, if we are to flourish.

Like trade, when politics becomes our main aim, we easily forget what it is actually for – and like most current utopianism, there is little attempt to prepare now for the time when, it is hoped, the perceived problems are solved. If, for example, climate change were halted, do we really think that wildlife documentaries would return to a pure celebration of our beautiful world? Or would filmmakers not then move on to the next urgent reason for discontent – because discontent appears to be the motor that drives society now? Whereas appreciation of nature tends to produce contentment with our created order.

I’ve previously mentioned an old BBC Radio programme called The Living World, in which a sympathetic presenter discusses some specific species or habitat with naturalists who have studied them, in the field, for years. What constantly emerges is a kind of Goethian comprehension of the world as experienced by the creature itself, which a human being may be privileged to enter only through long, and empathetic, observation. It’s a different mindset from that of parachuting a film team into a remote spot for a few weeks to capture hitherto unseen scenes, to weave into a drama subservient to the film-maker’s ideology.

It’s that kind of insight into real nature that I look for in a documentary. Here’s a (very) poor example, included really just to celebrate having got the shot I hoped for with the trailcam I set up here at the Camel’s Eyrie.

Now, a minute’s observation of a fox scarcely constitutes the kind of in-depth insight I’ve been talking about. But as a segment of the fox’s day, it means something, and had I the application I could spend a long period of study trying to get into her mind. It would not be that hard, as she spends much of her time here.

In this sequence she seems to be surveying the ground below, and was quite probably eyeing up the chances of nabbing a rabbit of a pheasant in the meadow. At other times, I’ve seen her sitting contendly for long periods in the sunshine, for all the world as if she’s just enjoying the view with full stomach.

But how many documentaries have you seen where the presenter says, “She has a litter of cubs back in her den, but prey is scarce at this time of year, and she knows that unless she makes a kill, they may perish”? To be truthful, any wildlife photographer far from civilization is most likely to capture only a disconnected sequence of shots like this, rather than a genuine narrative in the life of a single fox.

So some human producer will have to decide on what story the footage can be edited to tell, just as political editors habitually cut interviews to make their subjects appear bright and enlightened, or bigoted and stupid, according to whatever the producer thinks of their views. As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “Television is a medium incapable of telling the truth.”

So, I say, let’s vote for a new kind of nature film that doesn’t tell a story – or at least, a story that arose from a human imagination. That may mean looking at more accessible creatures in greater depth, to get under their skin and begin to understand their own “worldview.”

You can’t do that with a two minute view of an okapi. But deep insights seldom require travel to exotic locations.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Making nature tell our stories

  1. Ben says:

    Re “If, for example, climate change were halted”

    Quite. They would find something else to scare people with. I mean, before oil was ‘bad’ we were already supposed to be worrying about it running out.

    I have several theories for this. Maybe people are just naturally apocalyptic, so they lap up the dystopian theories? Or maybe this is an expression of internalised guilt (now that sin doesn’t exist)?

    A more cynical take is that this is directly analogous to a witch doctor telling people that they better listen to *him* and do what *he* says, because otherwise the gods are going to punish them with natural disasters.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think it’s a particular local problem, because when i was a kid, starry-eyed optimism about the future was still the norm, though running out of steam after 2 world wars and the threat of a third imminently.

      Fear reflects loss of hope generally, but also serves power agendas, as you rightly observe.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Many matters that cause me concern on the ideologies that are imposed on an outlook to nature. The most disconcerting (and contradictory) is that of evolution (in some form or other) and animal welfare. In Australia, for example, we have animal rights agitators who think they are protecting animals, while feral animals (cats, rabbits, frogs, camels etc, etc,) and also vegetation, and weeds, fungus, have a devastating impact on the environment, virtually all introduced under a variety of excuses (mostly evolutionary thinking to improve the environment). Yet I cannot find one animal welfare/evolutionist/greens, who would make one comment on such devastation.

    Truly, truly, we have humans that cross the threshold of reason and sanity.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    …virtually all introduced under a variety of excuses (mostly evolutionary thinking to improve the environment).

    I was unaware of the evolutionary motive – but it certainly makes sense in the 19th century, when I’m sure “evolution” was understood as replacing the “primitive” Australian outback with “advanced European” fauna and flora, just as with the “primitive” people.

    In Britain, our wild horse populations were largely ruined at that time by attempts to “improve the breed” by adding Arab stock, and so on. And on the “activist” side, we have the recent history of animal liberationists releasing mink from farms into the wild, and causing devastation in the environment, threatening the extinction of key species like water voles.

    At root, these things all seem to be due to an unwillingness to take the time to “listen” to nature as God’s good created order, but instead to use it or manipulate it to our own ideas – even ideas we thinkin our fallenness to be for its good.

    Today is Good Friday. Seen in creational terms, we can view it as man’s sinful rebellion against nature brought to a head in his destruction of nature’s maker and sustainer. Yet that destruction the Lord was able to turn to the healing of creation, and to the inauguration of the new creation on Easter Day.

    So as we look round, though we are still surrounded by darkness that seems ever deeper, the dawn has already broken. Those Easter symbols of eggs point to that new creation.

  4. Robert Byers says:

    I loved his series on birds and some other things are decent. Yes he would use his show to preach a conclusion about ecology. in fact most shows have a other agenda but noticed as much. Blatant is honest. Its the sly and shy that is more dangerous to a audience.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Its the sly and shy that is more dangerous to an audience.

      Unfortunately, it’s the sly and shy that seems best suited to the TV medium. Non-fiction books necessarily tell a story, which will select what seems important to the author.

      But TV and film are more than words, shaping ones entire experience of the subject: that’s why a historically nonsensical film like Braveheart still managed to shape the historical sensibilities of many.

Leave a Reply