Over the past two months of cable viewing, I’ve found myself drawn to re-runs of Planet Earth, The Discovery Channel’s premier nature documentary mini-series, adapted from the BBC.
It’s quite an amazing series – the stats alone are mind-boggling: 62 countries, 204 locations, five years of filming. Several species and events had never been captured before on film, giving the series an exclusivity that most documentaries lack. Variety is key. Nearly every extreme, every nook, every cranny is explored.
I had my beefs when the series started. For all of its “firsts,” Planet Earth makes no secret of its accomplishments. I like knowing what it took to get the images, but an inordinate amount of emphasis is placed on letting the audience know just how amazing the footage is, serving more as a documentary on fantastic camera angles and less on fantastic animals. (Thankfully, after the initial episode, the self-congratulating dies down.)
What I’ve learned isn’t new. It’s eye opening and it’s beautiful, but it’s not new. I know that there are hundreds of thousands of species in the world – and thousands more that have never been discovered – but seeing them in such colorful beauty is sobering. And seeing them in such numbers is humbling. We’re talking thousands of hoof-bearing mammals, screaming through the dirt, creating a windstorm-sized cloud of animal energy. It’s all you can do to keep from ducking.
Earth is huge. There’s no doubt of that. Planet Earth seem to capture every moment – from birth to death, what can seem like an equally huge span of time and an immense span of emotions. This dynamic look at life and death is what makes Planet Earth so amazing. The inevitability of death and the fight for survival. The ultimate prize is living another season, surviving another hunt, giving birth and passing life onto another generation.
The most powerful images are utterly heartbreaking. Offspring torn from mothers by predators. Lost to the elements. The aged struggling to survive a trip they had made 30 years in a row. The decision of a parent as to which child she can afford to keep alive.
As humans, I sometimes think we take this for granted – we’ve created our own safety nets and don’t succumb to the natural elements that these animals experience. We’ve integrated automatic survival techniques directly into our lives through technology, medicine and law – things animals cannot conceptualize.
That’s one reason we’ve evolved the need for society and infrastructure – if anything, our best weapon against death and our biggest ally in survival is our mind. For a bear, it’s a powerful forearm strike. For a bird, it’s colorful plumage and fast reflexes. For every animal, it’s different, and the complex piece that each species creates fits perfectly with its prey. Predator, hunted, symbiotic – words that no longer just play roles in a science textbook, but serve as the glue between each animal’s struggle for survival.
The imagery is amazing. Every episode, I find myself filled with awe at yet another niche of Earth’s makeup that I had never realized. And I find myself thinking about the reasons I first wanted to study science, to be a science educator, to read nature books and travel to exotic locations. I’m out of the business, but the pull still remains.
We don’t know real beauty until we’re shown the wonders of nature. It sounds like a hippie dream, but it’s true. Nothing matches the complexity of biology. Nothing matches the power of survival. Nothing matches the beauty of a rare species, surviving only because time forgot.
It’s an amazing planet we live on, that’s for sure.