Sir David Attenborough, the documentary film-maker, was my first hero. Yes, I am a geek. I wanted to be like him when I grew up. I wanted to be a scientist, by which I meant someone who goes to interesting places and knows lots of interesting things, and tells other people about them. The fact that Attenborough's actual job was to create television, something I have never had any interest in doing, flew right over my head; television just was, it was what the people on TV did that I could relate to. What Attenborough did was to stand or sit or climb or ski into some outlandish, living context, face the camera and (short, greying hair mussed-up by the wind, usually a hint of a smile) know everything. I was smitten. I remember watching a documentary series of his on PBS and liking it, although I don’t remember its name or content. Then, “The Living Planet” came out, and that was even better. I even remember to promo for it; he was walking along a wild beach, looking wind-swept, as always, and said “The Living Planet—watch out for it.” It sounded oddly like a warning. I was six or seven years old.
My parents later got me the companion book to the series as a present. Of course, it was way beyond my reading level, and I found my hero’s presence in book form oddly overwhelming, so I hid the volume on the bottom of my book shelf. In time, preoccupied with new ideas and new people, as children are wont to be, I almost forgot about Attenborough. I even forgot about wanting to be a scientist, though eventually I rediscovered that interest through unrelated channels. I hardly looked at the glossy coffee-table book again until one day in college when I had to write a book review and did not otherwise have an appropriate book. I became enraptured all over again.
The pictures are gorgeous. The structure (which mirrors that of the TV series, allotting one chapter per broad habitat type) is clever and accessible. And the writing is…see, for all my admiration of him, I’d never realized Sir David Attenborough can write. It sounds strange, but I'd never thought of him as good at anything, because I became aware of him before I could think in those terms. I knew I liked his work, but I had never analyzed its quality. Anyway, certain skills function rather like windows; when they're done right, no one notices them except other window-makers. I don't make TV. I do write, and so I can look at the window of Attenborough’s writing, and it is clear, clean, and looks out upon the whole world.
He has a knack for giving the reader the impression of actually being there. My favorite non-fiction writers all do this, but Attenborough’s method is slightly unusual; instead of using an engaging first-person voice that simulates the reader’s own inner narrative, Attenborough uses the second person, as though he is giving directions. In discussing volcanic vents in Iceland; “If you approach upwind, much of the heat as well as the ash is blown away from you…[until the wind shifts]. You must then either keep a sharp eye out for flying boulders or run for it” (p. 20). He makes it sound as though this is an experience we all share, or will share soon, as a matter of course. Like, you know, when you go to the store you’ve got to remember your shopping list, and when you go to a volcanic vent you’ve got to keep a sharp eye out. Maybe this treatment of the fantastic as familiar is a suggestion?
Sir David Attenborough is, and remains, a hero of mine because he is knowledgeable, skilled, passionate, and dedicated to the world. Almost thirty years after I first became aware of him, he still sometimes pops up in the news in relation to one or another environmental cause. He must be in his eighties. He also knows how to laugh at himself. You don’t see this much on camera, and it does not appear in the book, but I did see an out-takes show from “The Living Planet” years ago. Alongside the expected misbehaving birds and so forth was a sequence where Attenborough was supposed to be standing, on skis, on a snowy slope speaking earnestly to the camera. In the series itself, that’s what you see. But at least once, during filming, it didn’t work. Watch the out-take, and right in the middle of a sentence he slips and vanishes from the frame. The camera swings down-slope and there he is in his insulated suit and skis, a crumpled heap of Attenborough lying in the snow—laughing his head off. He didn’t have to release that cut, you know. I’ve always loved a man who can laugh, and in some sense I guess I’ve always loved him. It was the quality of his writing, a difficult craft I, as an adult now, can relate to, that made him real again for me.
At one point Attenborough describes walking up a river valley in India, into the Tibetan plateau. Gradually the flora and fauna change with elevation, and mountains tower up on either side of the deepest river gorge in the world. It’s all very matter-of-fact, no flowery poetry, dramatic simile, or personal reflection. A week or so later, I saw the same river valley mentioned, by name, in another book in a different context. My first thought was “hey, I’ve been there!” I’ve never been to Asia, let alone that one valley. That is what this man can do.
Do you actually need to read this book? Probably not. It’s a good introduction to some basic ecology, and it’s an enjoyable read, but that’s about it. But come on, I’m allowed to boast a little on behalf of my hero, now aren’t I?
Attenborough, D. (1984). The living planet. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.