The Viewing of Nature

On experiencing wildlife documentaries…

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The last time I broke up with a guy, I kept his Netflix log-in and continued using our shared account. However, in a deliberate act of obfuscation, I only watched nature documentaries, so as to advertise my activity while remaining emotionally impenetrable. “Go ahead,” I thought, “check your ‘Continue Watching.’ You will learn nothing of my heart, save for my love of monsoon-based ecosystems.”

Growing up, my television-skeptical mother limited my screen-time, but allowed me unlimited viewing of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on the grounds that it was “educational.” The PBS series certainly gave the impression of an immersive lecture in zoology, with Stouffer’s dopey, flat narrations dropping innocuous facts about American wildlife over footage that captivated audiences at the time, despite looking positively amateurish by today’s standards.

The alleged neutrality of the nature documentary has always been a part of its appeal, and its advocates are quick to praise the objectivity and pedagogical value of the genre. This is the myth that fuels our self-satisfied adoration; we do not believe we are watching a “movie,” we believe we are watching “nature,” a Rousseauian Garden of Eden, free from the meddling interpretive lens of man. Every nature documentary, however, always betrays the ideology of the filmmakers, even in the midst of cruelest deception. 

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Wild America was my first experience with the betrayal of “naturalist” cinema. After moving to New York and thus cutting ties to my previously outdoorsy life, I attempted to revisit the nature documentaries of my childhood and Googled Marty Stouffer, who I learned had become a figure of disgrace among many conservationists. In 1996 he had been forced to pay $300,000 to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for clearing protected land. Even more damningly, rumors swirled that he staged some of the more “dramatic” scenes in the show. Stouffer (who is said to have made $18 million from the series) allegedly set a pair of domesticated mountain lions after a tame deer until the predators ran their would-be prey off a cliff.

Of course, running animals off cliffs is a proven technique in the nature doc genre, the most famous incident being the 1958 Disney Academy Award-Winning White Wilderness. Not only did the “documentarians” import lemmings that weren’t native to the Alberta habitat they were filming, the crew actually herded the animals into the Bow River (which they said was the sea), where the poor creatures drowned. Haunting narration of the cruelty lead the audience to believe they were witnessing the mysterious phenomenon of spontaneous mass lemming suicide—a complete myth, in actuality.

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession — a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space … and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide.

Thanks to animal rights advocacy—and a damning 1982 CBC television special titled Cruel Camera, in particularthe well-being of the animals of nature documentaries quickly became a high priority, with the public consensus being that a policy of non-interference and realism should be prioritized over drama. After all, there’s still plenty of red tooth and claw to be seen if you sit around and wait… and wait… and wait. Of course the prolonged silence of nature punctuated by a predator devouring something harmless and cute—usually a baby—doesn’t create the most child-friendly programming, so Hollywood tends to add a bit of magic to hook ’em young.

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The 2005 runaway hit March of the Penguins was more Disney than Disney, with an anthropomorphized “cast” of Antarctic Emperor Penguins so adorable and charming they might as well have been cartoons. The entire U.S. version of the film—narrated by Morgan Freeman, America’s soothing black grandpa—portrayed the birds as emotionally complex creatureslike dumber, cuter humans. Their bleak mating migration is portrayed as a sort of fairy tale quest—“In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way,” reassures Freeman in the trailer. It’s a family movie in the most literal sense—mated penguins and their offspring are referred to throughout the film as “families.” We’re promised romance, adventure, and a happy ending, a deranged interpretation of the never-ending fight for survival in the bleak and barren wild.

It would be easy to attribute the schlocky framing to American sentimentalism, but not only is March of the Penguins actually a French film, its original narration was even more mawkish. The original French edit of the film used actors actually delivering voice-over dialogue as the penguins themselves, with a child actor for the chicks, of course. There is anthropomorphizing nature, and then there is pure fan-fiction; March of the Penguins—particularly the original French version of it—is guilty of the most dishonest sort of fantasy. It’s a far cry from France’s original naturalist filmmaker—the lulling stoner cadence of Jacques Cousteau, who was an oceanographer first and a filmmaker second. As a scientist who took great care in showing the audience the work that went into every expedition and film, Cousteau’s emphasis on exploration, technology and humankind’s role in the natural world set him apart from the majority of nature documentarians.

In fact, the only auteur heir to Cousteau’s humanist view of nature may be Werner Herzog, who takes it one step further, saying in his unapologetically speciesist Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World,  “To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree-huggers and whale-huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Whether intentional or not, Herzog’s work is a direct attack on the anti-social Henry David Thoreau school of naturalism, which conceives of nature as something perfect and holy, and man’s encroachment upon it as something sinful. Never mind that his mother did his laundry and brought baked goods to his cabin at Walden pond, Thoreau believed he was living the purest life possible, one of austere isolation, haunting the “wilderness” (which wasn’t actually that far from town), and championing above all else the glorification of his sylvan fetish, which was conspicuously lacking a lot of red tooth and claw.

“It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.”

Herzog, however, actually goes into the wilderness proper—conditions where it is not uncommon for “nature” to kill a person, and while he is not considered a nature documentarian per se, he’s one of the greatest, bouncing from an interview with a decidedly un-photogenic penguin scientist to the lives of the actual penguins with no interest in partitioning the two as “man” and “wildlife”—they’re both Antarctica to him. Herzog knows full well that the division between nature and society is a flimsy construct, instead espousing a comprehensive, inclusionist conception of life on this planet, closing Encounters at the End of the World with one of his interview subjects quoting Alan Watts: “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

Herzog was never afforded the romantic fantasy of a separate and somehow benevolent natural world, as he grew up in rural Bavaria without electricity, a telephone or indoor plumbing. His fascination with (and affection for) the late Timothy Treadwell is his strongest statement on nature. Treadwell was the subject of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. An eccentric conservation zealot borne of middle class suburbia, he routinely camped for months in isolated Alaska, appointing himself the protector of a group of grizzly bears, one of whom eventually devoured him (confoundingly, the bears already resided safely on protected land).

It would be easy to disdain Treadwell for his delusion and foolishness, especially as he ranted against the humans he sought to evade, but it is Herzog’s humanity that paints Treadwell himself as the doomed, romantic figure. What could have easily been the story of a dumb hippie who got himself eaten by bears is told as a quixotic tragedy; the mise-en-scène incorporates Treadwell’s own footage beautifully, and Herzog collaborates with him to create a beautiful and dignified memorial. The irony is clear: you need a humanist to tell the story of a naturalist.

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The inclusion of humans in nature documentaries is a touchy subject, and often very politically suspect. One might see a cameo by the indigenous people of a region if they live fairly traditionally, but the focus of the filming is often on their limbs and musculature, and almost never their faces; meanwhile, the animals always get close-ups. Also, when shots of a highly populated urban area are incorporated (generally to indicate the threat that urban centers pose to the wildlife just outside of the city limits), the people are shot overhead and/or at an accelerated speed, as if they are a colony of ants. This is common when filming Asian cities, which always seem to be teeming with humans, as if they are a particularly invasive species. It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.

British national treasure David Attenborough is best known for his groundbreaking Planet Earth series, which often seems to conceive of a Planet Earth with no people in it. But at one point during the first season he found it relevant to film faceless men rappelling into a cave in Borneo to harvest the nests of the cave swiftlets. Why include that scene? There is nothing unsustainable about the practice—it does not affect the swiftlet population. And many of the other animals Attenborough films face humans as direct predators, yet he felt little need to include those humans. Well the nest of the cave swiftlet is the main ingredient of bird’s nest soup—and it is constructed by the swiftlet using its own saliva. Those wacky Asians, eating bird spit like a delicacy—how could a proper English filmmaker resist?

Attenborough has also caught flack for “staging” scenes as well. Footage of a polar bear giving birth from the first season was actually filmed in a zoo, and more recently, it was revealed that footage from the flight of a Golden Eagle was “fake,” meaning the bird was obtained from a wildlife sanctuary and handled by professional eagle trainer. But this presents another ethical conundrum; would it not have been violating the idealistic non-intervention ethos of the documentarian to catch an eagle in the wild and strap a camera to its head for the footage? Would it be ethical (or even possible) to bug a polar bear’s den to film it giving birth? Is a polar bear giving birth somehow less “wild” in a zoo? Is a bird from a sanctuary somehow less “wild” while in flight? There is something artistically dishonest about the omissions, no doubt, but how “staged” are these scenes really? The bird was flying, the polar bear gave birth. And a trickery on behalf of the welfare of the animals is hardly the crime of violent interference. Attenborough may not be the best journalist of nature, but he is an excellent and loyal publicist, balancing exposure and privacy entirely for the benefit of his clients, who now face a threat far more dire than spelunkers, documentarians or animal predators.

In early December, a massive flock of snow geese—25,000 grand white birds known for their black tipped wings and deafening, cacophonous honking—attempted to land in Berkeley Pit, a 700-acre Superfund site in Montana, full of acidic water and heavy metals. Employees from the companies that oversee the pit—Atlantic Richfield Co. (oil) and Montana Resources (mining)—rushed over and worked for hours, throughout the night, to scare the birds out of the poison lake. The companies estimate that nearly 90% of the birds were chased away, but thousands died. The Montana Resources manager of environmental affairs said the rust-red water was “white with birds.”

Attenborough filmed snow geese, and after I read about the mass death in Butte, I rewatched the footage of them from season one of Planet Earth. It begins with an overhead shot of an unfathomably large flock—Attenborough says 400,000 but it’s difficult to even think of numbers that big. The din of their shrill honking is edited into a tittering kind of hum, and it’s buried underneath a dramatic, swelling orchestral score. From a great distance, the flock shifts and swirls mid-air like sand in the wind, and when you get closer they look elegant, and somehow organized. Then it cuts to a shot of the birds taking flight directly from the water; they ascend to the heavens, graceful and beatific. And for a moment they are not even birds.

They’re movie stars.

Illustrations by Clifford Vickrey.