This article is part of a new series called “Who Owns America’s Wilderness?”
It’s late afternoon, late pandemic, and I’m watching a new nature documentary in bed, after taking the daintiest of hits from a weed pen. The show is called A Perfect Planet, and it is narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
I am looking at the red eye of a flamingo, a molten lake surrounding a tiny black pupil. Now I am looking at drone footage of a massive colony of flamingos, the classic sweeping overhead shot, what my brother calls “POV God.” Behind the images, a string orchestra sets the mood, giving the coral-pink birds an otherworldly theme in E minor.
Nature documentaries have never been more popular, in part because they offer easy escapism during a rough time, and in part because marijuana has been legalized in much of the United States. The combination is hard to resist, as my experience with A Perfect Planet proves. The stoned attention span perfectly matches the length of each vignette, in which Attenborough’s soothing, avuncular voice guides you through a simple story about animal life. In between, you are treated to epic, empty landscapes and intense close-ups of the rich colors and textures of the nonhuman world, which pop off like fireworks in your wide-open mind. The effect is awe-inspiring but also surprisingly chill. And there are no troublesome humans on-screen to kill the vibe.
Stoned or sober, we are streaming sharks and penguins and lions into our homes in record numbers. According to the BBC, “Over a billion people have watched Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II in the last 3 years.” Those series were produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, the undisputed leader in high-polish nature documentaries since at least 2006’s Planet Earth. The NHU is opening an office in Los Angeles this year; inking new deals with half a dozen streaming services, networks, and cable channels; and currently producing more than 20 projects, including Planet Earth III, set to debut in 2022. The battle royale among all the new streaming services has created “the perfect market environment for natural history,” says Julian Hector, the head of the NHU.
A viral sequence of a baby iguana running from menacing snakes, footage of manta rays soaring through the sea set to the strains of a Hans Zimmer score—no one does it quite like the NHU. Perhaps the greatest testament to its influence is the way it has been imitated. A Perfect Planet looks and sounds like an NHU series, but it was produced by Silverback Films, which is led by ex-NHU staffers. Silverback also produced a series for Netflix, Our Planet, which not only has planet in the title but is also narrated by Attenborough.
Whether through the NHU’s own films or knockoffs, the company has come to define nature for millions of people on a fast-urbanizing planet. So the stories it tells, the techniques it uses, and the world it has created are all worth examining. It is, in many respects, an altogether new world. By selecting just the most stunning shots and editing people out of the picture, the NHU creates an untouched parallel universe that’s undeniably glamorous—both beautiful and inaccessible.
Back in my bedroom, I watch grizzlies swim in a transparent lake ringed by green-black conifers. If the flamingos and the bears have a thematic connection, I’ve already forgotten it, but I feel good. It’s heartening to know that these bears are out there somewhere, living their best life. And it feels deeply satisfying to see them presented so crisply, so closely, the drops of water they shake off their fur sparkling like diamonds in the far-northern sunlight.
Something about these programs is hyper-real. Partly, this stems from the fact that the films are enhanced. It is an open secret that the long zoom lenses used to capture animals up close can make recording real-time sound nearly impossible. And so the wet crunch of lions opening up a gazelle’s rib cage, the hollow clack of birds’ bills closing, the groan and woosh of a calving glacier—these noises are often recorded separately or even created by sound-effect artists and added to the shots later.
These sound effects, along with the orchestral music added to nearly all of the high-end wildlife documentaries, set the emotional tone for the vignettes on-screen. Are these seabirds supposed to be majestic or comical as they enact their mating dance? The music tells us. Whom are we to root for in this interaction of predator and prey? Listen for the menacing strings.
Alenda Chang, a film and media-studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, finds the ubiquity of orchestral music in the genre “irritating.” Using ambient sound, even if it has to be recorded separately or manipulated to be audible, can give viewers a truer and more complete understanding of the nonhuman world. “Using ambient sound leaves space for, not boredom exactly, but quiet contemplation,” Chang says. It better replicates the experience of seeing wildlife outside, in person.
It isn’t just the sounds that make these films feel more than real. They use the absolute highest-resolution cameras available, what Chang calls “military-grade lenses.” The images on any modern television are thus crisp as fuck. Special techniques such as slow motion, time lapse, and underwater filming capture details that you simply can’t see any other way. Most series include at least one long-exposure shot of the night sky, a technique that makes the stars and Milky Way pop in a way they never will to your naked eye, no matter how far away you get from artificial lights. I am particularly obsessed with the depth of focus in many of these films’ shots. It is literally inhuman. On-screen, I can see individual feathers on the birds in the foreground and the distant mountain peaks—both sharply in focus. The effect is impossible to achieve in person with our soft, imperfect, biological eyes. What I am watching from beneath my blankets is in some measurable way more beautiful than real life.
Viewers reared on this high-gloss version of nature might struggle to connect to or appreciate the actual world: a place of wonder and beauty—but also mud, cold, heat, mosquito bites, and long intervals during which distant, hard-to-see animals don’t really do anything. Why would I go outside and deal with all of that when I can stay tucked in bed, sipping an apricot La Croix, and get close enough to African lions to see the taste buds on their tongue?
There’s a tempting analogy to porn. Frequent consumption of video of conventionally attractive people engaging in exaggerated and intense sex can turn some people off the pleasures of a roll in the hay with an imperfect, flesh-and-blood human. If the high-end documentaries are a bit like porn, then I contend that the solution to the way they might warp our expectations is the same as it is for porn—not to ban them, but to diversify them. In the case of natural-history films, we need to make more kinds of wildlife and more kinds of nature—including the nature in our cities and backyards—sexy. In the United Kingdom, the NHU’s landmark series share the airwaves with NHU productions about British wildlife and working ecologists, which expands the British public’s natural-history-video diet. But in the United States, we tend to stream just the landmarks. So there’s an argument to include more nearby nature in them as well.
As an environmental journalist, I’ve had the extremely good fortune to go to some of the kinds of places where they film nature documentaries. I’ve been in the Amazon, days from the nearest road. I’ve seen humpback whales feed in groups by weaving together nets of bubbles. I’ve watched Tasmanian devils sunbathe, and snorkeled with sea turtles. But when I watch BBC documentaries about those places and those animals, I don’t feel like I’ve returned to those moments. Instead, I feel like I’ve entered a fantasy.
It is usually a fantasyland without any humans. Chris Sandbrook and Bill Adams, then conservationists at Cambridge, critiqued the 2013 NHU documentary Africa because, although it was stunning, it was missing something vitally important to understanding Africa: Africans. “The BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent,” they wrote. They compared the lengths the filmmakers had gone to in order to exclude people from the frame to the contortions undertaken by Peter Jackson to keep New Zealand from intruding into his viewfinder while filming his Lord of the Rings adaptation. “Viewers are led to believe that Africa is not part of the modern world, and that Africans have no place there.” The consequence is that tourists who go to Africa expect to see a pretty wilderness instead of a busy continent of 1.4 billion people. The tourism industry does what it can to oblige visitors, whisking them between cheerful eco-lodges out of sight of the farms and villages that surround most protected areas.
Nearly all of the vignettes in series such as A Perfect Planet take place in a vaguely specified geographical area, and all roads, fences, buildings, and traces of the camera crew have been scrupulously left out of the frame. But many of the “making of” mini-features the BBC typically releases with each episode reveal an access road, a bunch of muddy vehicles, or a park-guard office just off-screen.
Planet Earth II did have a “cities” episode, filled with roads, bicycles, and the like. It was good, though I sensed ambivalence on the part of the filmmakers. The episode sticks to animal behavior, by and large. In the few shots with humans, their faces are usually out of focus or out of the frame, and none ever speaks to the camera.
The NHU films have been taken to task before for shying away from the environmental problems that threaten the animals they feature. In recent years, Attenborough’s narration has spent a bit more time on climate change and deforestation. But I’m sympathetic to the idea that not every documentary about the nonhuman world has to be about the environmental crisis. I think most people know about climate change at this point. Rather than a dour sermon about humanity’s environmental sins, I just want a realistic presentation of “wild” animals as creatures embedded in a highly humanized world. Instead of showing the annual wildebeest migration through the Serengeti only via footage of the ambling ungulates, why not also show the fleets of jeeps ferrying thousands of tourists up and down the Serengeti’s road network to watch the migration, or the villages and farms pressed up against the borders of the park?
By consistently presenting nature as an untouched wilderness, many nature documentaries mislead viewers into thinking that there are lots of untouched wildernesses left. I certainly thought there were, before I became an environmental journalist. This misapprehension then prompts people to build their environmental ideas around preserving untouched places and to embrace profoundly antihuman “solutions” to environmental problems, such as kicking indigenous people out of their homeland. In truth, wilderness doesn’t really exist.
In his famous 1995 essay, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” the historian William Cronon demolished the concept of wilderness. Cronon argued that European settlers in North America had transformed their inherited idea of “wilderness” as worthless, scary, and unimproved land by reimagining it as a sublime, prehuman Eden. “The myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin’ uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home,” Cronon wrote. In reality, the Americas had already been thoroughly shaped by the nearly 60 million people who lived there when colonists first arrived. Agriculture and other intensive human use was widespread, covering 10 percent of the Americas’ landmass; human-caused fires maintained grasslands and prairies; hunting, foraging, gathering, and replanting—sometimes in new places—regulated the populations and ranges of dozens of species.
The wilderness myth is simply factually inaccurate, in the Americas and elsewhere. It has also been a real stumbling block for conservation. With wilderness set as the gold standard for nature, any human influence has come to be seen as negative by default. The myth has thus ruled out any approaches to saving nature except walling it off and keeping humans out. Trying to “save the planet” with a wilderness mindset has been all about self-exile. It offers “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like,” as Cronon wrote.
I’ve been trying to continue Cronon’s work. I’ve questioned whether introduced species should be condemned simply because they weren’t in an ecosystem when the first white man studied it. Sometimes, people tell me I’m attacking a straw man, that no one believes in the idea of pristine wilderness anymore. Usually, the people who say this work in fields such as conservation, restoration, and ecology, where exciting new findings in paleoecology, plus a belated but welcome interest in indigenous environmental history, have gradually changed the way they think about nature and humans’ place in it. But outside that specialist world, I find that the wilderness myth lives on, 26 years after Cronon’s essay. And I worry that the BBC Natural History Unit is one reason why.
Hector, the head of the NHU, says that many of the landmark series currently in production will let humans into the frame. “Virtually every title we have now will have aspects of the built environment and people in it,” he told me. This is good news. The stories will still be from the animals’ point of view, Hector added. This is also good news. If the NHU does one thing really well, it is showing animals as individuals in the world, making choices, taking risks, doing their best to survive and reproduce. Hector promises that more of these stories will be about animals “trying to navigate the human environment.” He said his film teams are capturing “the types of decisions animals and plants have to make around the human world—and of course, the world largely is the human world.”
Attenborough himself, a man who seems inseparable from the NHU, turns 95 next month. I strongly associate him with the “pristine wilderness” idea, and he seems to still see the world through that lens. Last year’s David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, produced for Netflix by Silverback and the World Wide Fund for Nature, is part biography, featuring footage of the icon as a dishy young presenter, and part environmental manifesto. In it, Attenborough reminisces about the 1950s, when, he recalls, “wherever I went, there was wilderness. Sparkling coastal seas. Vast forests. Immense grasslands. You could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness.” He even waxes nostalgic for the previous geologic epoch, before the rise of humans as an ecological force. “The Holocene,” he says, “was our Garden of Eden.”
The person or people who replace Attenborough when he retires will likely not see the world in such starkly dualistic terms. I hope they will present the wonders of our planet as they are, not as they might have been in some alternative universe without humans. And I think they can do so without losing any of the fantastic close-ups, epic slow motion, or stunning underwater filming we all love. I don’t think we should deny ourselves these pleasures. Most of us can’t visit all the places these shows go, and even if we can, we can’t see everything their cameras can show us. I once spent 10 days in the Peruvian Amazon looking at fig trees for a story. But it wasn’t until A Perfect Planet that I got to see what the teeny-tiny wasps that pollinate them do inside the figs.
Models of a still-gorgeous-but-not-mythical approach exist, if you look beyond the landmark series. Take Springwatch, a live program produced by the NHU that has aired every spring since 2005 on BBC Two during a primetime slot. The show chronicles the gentle reawakening of life in the British countryside after the winter, and is filled with footage of butterflies, beavers, hedgehogs, and common urban birds. Signs of humanity are plentiful and not treated as eyesores. Baby foxes bounce on backyard trampolines. Honey bees drone in an apple orchard. The presenters, holding their cue cards in country lanes and narrating the action captured by nest-box cameras, sound a bit like sportscasters bantering their way through a slow-paced athletic event.
Last year, Springwatch came out during the scary and solitary early days of the pandemic, and the presenters explicitly promised that the program would be therapeutic for viewers. They wandered the fields and woods near their own homes with tenderness, talking about bluebells blooming and oak leaves unfurling and listening to cuckoos call, as if these events were handholds to grasp in order to keep oneself from sliding into a pit of despair. “I am seizing this spring with both hands,” the presenter Chris Packham says in the first episode, leaning against a tree in Hampshire. The connection between humans and nonhumans isn’t just included in the show. It is the whole point.
My response to Springwatch was totally different from the slack-jawed awe I felt watching A Perfect Planet. I found it extremely touching. I’ll admit, I cried at the viewer-submitted videos of backyard birds and moths and ducks. Most of all, unlike the polished, screen-saver-esque shots of the Arctic or the Sahara in ultra-high-def, it made me want to go outside.
Springwatch is available in the United States through the Britbox streaming service, but its viewership here is undoubtedly minuscule compared with that of the flagship series. And the content is necessarily very specific to the United Kingdom. If the NHU’s new Los Angeles office wants to replicate the show—and I think it should consider doing so—it would likely have to produce a dozen regional versions.
So as the NHU continues its work on Planet Earth III, I say let’s keep the dancing albatross and breaching whales and snow leopards. But let’s consider skipping the music in some scenes to foreground the silence or perhaps even the enthusiastic murmurs of the camera crew. Let’s linger over the charm of the house sparrow and the bumblebee. Let’s remind viewers that they can likely see these creatures where they live, and maybe even give them tips for doing so. And when showing the elephants or the agouti, let’s pan back and show the road or the houses or the farms that surround them. Let’s see the faces and listen to the voices of the people who live near these animals. I want to hear what they say.