by Nick Werle
David Attenborough reserves a certain mournful tone for narrating death in the natural world. In the Jungles episode of BBC’s epic documentary series Planet Earth, we hear that voice, interspersed with the rich, crackling sound of splintering wood, as we see a massive rain forest tree collapse under its own weight after centuries of growth. Just as the tree’s last branches fall out of view through the canopy, Attenborough, in his reassuringly authentic British accent, opines: “the death of a forest giant is always saddening, but it has to happen if the forest is to remain healthy.” After the surrounding trees spring back into place, we descend to the rain forest floor, and enter a realm whose usual gloom has been suddenly washed away by the new hole in its leafy ceiling. Here we can see, with the help of Planet Earth’s signature time-lapse cinematography, how the flood of light that now reaches the forest floor triggers a race to the top by the unbelievable variety of plant life struggling to collect that valuable light. The narration explains how each species has its own strategy for besting its competitors. Vines climb up neighboring trees, sacrificing structural strength for rapid vertical growth. Broad-leaved pioneers such as macarangas are the clear winners at this early stage; their huge leaves provide them with enough energy to grow up to eight meters in a single year. But “the ultimate winners are the tortoises, the slow and steady hardwoods,” which will continue striving for their places in the light-drenched canopy for centuries to come.
The series’ unmatched capacity to bring the natural world to life, as it were, has made it both the premier wildlife documentary of its day and the most enjoyable toy for twenty-first century stoned college students. Time-lapse photography and stunning footage of impossibly rare animals transport us, as viewers, into virgin territory, a territory that operates according to its own natural laws, thus far spared from human interference. While the show’s inventive cinematography animates the natural world, Attenborough is able to give meaning to natural processes by articulating the concealed, organic logic that organizes life. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, or seen from above, Planet Earth explains nature’s apparent randomness by casting the world’s plants and animals as players in an epic struggle for survival. The planet’s breathtaking beauty – along with its inhabitants’ sometimes-bizarre bodies and behaviors – is the integrated result of countless relations between harsh climates, scarce resources, and living things competing to exist. But if this is the narrative of the natural world, does it accurately reflect an already existent reality? What artifacts can we find of this production of meaning about the world? Is there a difference between Nature and the natural world? And most importantly, where do we – as viewers, as humans, as people – fit into this story?