Big Nature on the Little Screen

For the last two weeks at our house we’ve been watching the Discovery Channel’s powerful and mesmerizing eleven episode series “Planet Earth,” or as Betsy calls it, the “Somebody’s Mama Steals Somebody Else’s Babies so Her Babies Can Eat” series.

Betsy isn’t far from wrong. The series is focused on the planet’s vast and complex food chain. It has more footage of hunts, kills, feasts, and famines than anything since Mutual of Omaha’s WILD KINGDOM. If you ever had any doubt that it’s not really all about calories on our magical green planet, check this series out.

Not being much for network TV scheduling or commercials, we waited until the series came out on DVD. Now we own the boxed suitcase of disks to watch at our leisure here in our own little corner of planet Earth.

It’s worth the investment. Every night instead of the deep intellectual desert conditions of “Larry King Live” we can watch a pride of 30 hungry lions run down a full-grown elephant (first time on film!). Instead of the inane interests of Headline News we can repeat the ageless drama of Great White Sharks gobbling feeding seals off the coast of South Africa. Tennyson’s “Nature red, in tooth and claw” has never been so true until this series.

“Planet Earth” is narrated eerily by Sigourney Weaver, an appropriate choice since the series unfolds like a report from an alien’s reconnaissance of our planet’s wild corners. With Weaver as guide we see our planet, Google Earth-style, from space at least three or four times each episode, a blue globe floating in a black universe. As the focus drifts down to some intimate scene of mating or hunting or being hunted, Weaver gives us the deep ecological background voice-over.

But it’s the camera that’s really the star. The camera climbs the highest peaks and descends into the deepest oceans. “Prepare to see it as never before,” the trailer promises.

And for once, the hype is right. Somehow by the magic of television the vast territory of the planet is divided visually into manageable episodes such as “Deep Ocean,” “Shallow Seas,” “Mountains,” “Jungles,” “Fresh Water,” “Deserts,” “Forests,” and “Caves.” The stunning camera work punctuates how complex and beautiful the natural world can be if you have the patience, technology, and money to track it down.

The human camera crews are relentless but invisible. There is no on-screen personality to pull us along like the Crocodile Hunter. The camera is the star. It follows grizzly bears feasting on a late-season hatch of moths on a Rocky Mountain mountainside from a helicopter two miles away. It swims with piranha in the Amazon. It captures the dramatic dance of the bird of paradise in New Guinea. It finds a snow leopard caring for her cub high in the Himalayas. It waits in the Gobi Desert months for a herd of rare wild camels to pass. With the extra tracks available on DVD it’s possible to watch exactly how they do it as well.

Okay, why watch ten hours of a series about plants and animals? Here’s my short list:

1. It puts the presidential election into ecological perspective. After all, are all these candidates jabbing at each other really that much different than two male red deer butting heads in a snowy forest during rutting season?
2. It makes me see our dog hunting lizards on the deck in a totally new light.
3. It reorients the universe away from the stock reports and the 24/7 news cycle to where it should be, on the vast and endless cycles of hunting, mating, and migration.
4. It makes me marvel at how technology has changed our perspectives, for better or for worse.
5.  It affirms my belief that when all is said and done we humans might not end up “Best in Show,” and that elephants, whales and otters might deserve the title.

So carve out a week or two this summer and take this voyage all over planet Earth. If the local library doesn’t have it, they should soon.

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