Before the age of atheism, the natural human response to the beauties of nature was to see in them the power and wisdom of God, just as Romans 1:20 reminds us. The perennial danger was to worship the creature, rather than the Creator. But the pagan hunter feeling the wind on his skin as he looked across the veldt, the Saxon poet weaving birds and beasts into his measures, Francis Bacon attesting that the closer one studies nature the more God’s hand is perceived, or the peasant woman toiling to collect water from the stream, and pausing at the bejewelled kingfisher passing by… the common heritage of all these was the steady backdrop of creation’s awesome peace, against the sinful chaos of human affairs.
In our own irreligious times, the awe remains the same, even when the soul nurtured in ignorance cannot quite recognise the divine source of that awe. Every country-dweller knows it day by day, and even the urban wage-slave seeks out the solace of nature on holiday, in the local park, or in their small patch of garden.
The nature documentary tapped into this primaeval instinct early on in the history of television. Not only a young David Attenborough, but Gerald Durrell, Armand and Michaela Dennis, and Hans and Lottie Hass (remember any of these?) took us Brits to the parts of nature a weekend on Dartmoor could not reach. Walt Disney did the same for international audiences at the cinema.
The early perversions of this genre were, firstly, the tendency to anthropomorphise nature with synthetic narratives or mood-music, and secondly to indulge in the so-called “nature porn” in which film-makers disproportionately seek out sex and violence in the natural world to titillate viewers. Both tendencies, unfortunately, are still with us in even the most sophisticated BBC documentaries.
But I’ve noticed a more pernicious trend in recent years, and that is to import into nature programmes the self-same human delusions from which, by divine right, exposure to God’s creation is the time-honoured antidote. One particular example is the imposition on the natural world of the narrative of racism and white supremacism. A year or two ago, somebody began to claim that ethnic minorities are not welcome in the countryside, the reason of course being its institutional racism. This was directly addressed, briefly, in many of the TV programmes on nature and rural life, but has largely been solved by the usual corporate solution of making damned sure that as many black people as possible are included as presenters and interviewees.
For some time, too, it’s been hard to watch any programme about some bright and beautiful species, or wise and wonderful eco-system, without the spell being quickly broken by the promise that it will all soon disappear because of climate change or micro-plastics. This is all our fault unless we ditch our technology (but only after using it to log into the BBC live website and participate in surveys of dead insects on car number plates). Nature thereby becomes not a free gift of God, but a human problem we need to fix, God being absent or impotent.
A more recent trend is the dragging of nature on to the mental health bandwagon. Although everybody has always known that planting out seedlings is great relief from a nagging wife or a boring husband, that pouring out your problems to a favourite tree in the park helps to put them in perspective, and so on, nature programmes have increasingly started to regard nature as yet another therapeutic measure for an insane, because godless, society.
In itself this is not a totally bad thing. There is certainly space in a series about nature for a feature on how a troubled soul found peace through wildlife photography rather than antidepressants, just as there is for encouraging urban racial minorities to get out into the country lanes, or even for noting the destructiveness of dumping garbage in the rural landscape (yes, I’m looking at you hikers chucking plastic bottles in our hedgerow!). But TV producers would sooner milk a ratings cow than think of something new – or even just document God’s good earth rather than insisting on seeming creative. So we can now no longer watch the intricate life of the oil beetle without being informed that the cinematographer is schizophrenic, and that the beetles were spotted at a special project for disturbed urban black children suffering from COVID anxiety.
It’s not even just nature programmes that have been captured by the fad for mental health awareness. You may switch on your gardening programme to picture how your garden will bloom after following expert advice on pruning your shrubs, but what you’ll get is a feature on how pruning dahlias helped someone with Aspergers syndrome cope, thus making you wonder if your own preference for gardens over parties might be a sign that you too are autistic. Once upon a time, sport was something you did to have fun and get fit. Music-making was a pleasure for the soul, a challenge for the intellect, a possible career, or even a way of attracting the opposite sex. Now both are as often as not presented as community tools to overcome crippling mental health issues. Church can be the same, by the way – you want Jesus to make you feel passionate, rather than needing him to forgive your rebellion against God.
Returning to nature programmes (though much the same might apply in these other areas) the ironic thing is that many of the mental health issues, for which nature is said to be a therapeutic agent, nowadays arise from the constant fearmongering of the media, not least about imminent climate armageddon destroying the planet. Foremost among the fearmongers are the makers of the very nature documentaries we watch to enable the wonders of God’s creation to preserve our mental health. There seems to be a certain circularity at work there. And that, as one TV nature personality often says, is what you pay your BBC licence fee for.