The World of Nature Documentaries

When everyone was comparing the new Jungle Book and the old one, I kept thinking of one thing.  I love nature documentaries more than I like any movie and I love books on evolution more than I like fiction. Jungle Book made me feel nostalgic about all the Nature shows I used to watch. I lost a lot of MP3 and videos when an external hard drive got corrupted.  I can recreate my music collection any time since my brother has a very similar collection and my movie collection is virtually the same as that of a good friend.  But I have no choice but to download the high resolution Nature Documentaries all over again.  I already have Life and Life in the Undergrowth in my DVD collection, but that is just two series.

We all have our share of unique obsessions. When everyone else is talking about Ajith and Vijay movies, someone may be mighty pleased that they prefer Korean movies to these masala movies. When everyone else is discussing ARR’s latest award, there is bound to be someone proud of their own preference for Carnatic music. It appears that what is common to all of us is our need to find a passion that other people around us would find too boring, nerdy or wacky and start specializing in it in our own way, even if it only means collecting MP4 files that aren’t trending. I know people who collect country music and Arabic music in this way. There is a pride in knowing a good song none of your peers have even heard of. It makes you feel like a super special snowflake.  My love for nature documentaries started like that.  I simply did it because watching Discovery Channel* made me feel super nerdy.  Right from when I was a child, I had disliked superstitious beliefs and delighted in clear scientific explanations.

I eventually found that answers were available to those who looked for them and that there were real answers beyond “That is God’s Perfect Plan.” Take a simple question. Why does sex exist? Why weren’t asexual species more successful than sexual species? There must be a clear reason why, right? With most people, I get answers like, “A man and a woman uniting in Holy Matrimony is God’s Perfect Plan.” There must be a reason for the evolution of sex that doesn’t revolve around humans and their paltry concerns. It is impossible to convince them that the Earth revolves around the Sun because of the gravitational pull exerted by the Sun. No! They are sure that it is God’s perfect plan that we humans should be given warmth and light during the day and coolness and rest during the night. Most of these answers seem so self-centered to me. The universe doesn’t exist just because humans can live in it. It is the other way around.

Many people see nature enthusiasts like me as creepy whackos who love seeing snakes eat other snakes. But, in my opinion, there are more delicate emotions depicted in a nature show than in a regular TV reality show or soap or movie. Humans and their behavior get into perspective when we watch spiders and peacocks exhibit behavior that we usually consider very human.

The video that first attracted me to Nature documentaries was the story of a female giraffe.** The pregnant female walked out of the herd to a lonely spot to give birth. She nudged the baby giraffe to stand on his feet and start walking. But the young one could not get up. He had weak legs that could not support him.  The mother kept nudging him and persuading him to get up.  A hyena was waiting for the young one to die.  By daybreak, the calf had died.  The mother now had to leave and allow the hyena to take up his meal.  She did walk away and the hyena closed in on the carcass.  But somehow she was not able to allow it.  She ran back to her dead son’s body and fended off the hyena.  She knew that her son was dead. There was nothing more now.  She kept trying to walk away and yet her love for her dead son would not permit it.  For a few more hours, she mourned his death, unable to let the hyena scavenge the carcass.  Eventually, she had to give in completely.  There are no dignified funerals in the lives of wild animals. I remember I cried that day.

Later on, I got to the grittier versions of life and death in these stories. The story is not plot-driven; it is driven by real fate. Sure, sometimes the stories are edited to give them the soap-opera touch. This is especially true of the Serengeti stories of wildebeests, lions and hyenas. They are mammals with behavior that humans may quite identify with.

But the stories of ants, spiders, praying mantises and a plethora of other insects can be even more exciting. Ants and bees farm for food and think ahead. Ants invade other colonies to steal the eggs and make the newborn ants their slaves. They use chemicals to brainwash each other. They milk aphids like humans milk cattle.  Stories that happen in the deep ocean can be so confusing that they sound like horror stories. And any worthwhile nature documentary can interest, amuse or elevate greatly.

A friend asked if Avatar is a huge favorite of mine as I do have a thing for nature and it is a movie about respecting nature. Well, far from it. Avatar is a movie that happens ostensibly in another planet. Well, I do understand the concept of convergent evolution, but why is that planet so much like earth? The biped sentient creatures are given so much respect by the protagonist, but another creature that resembles a dog is killed without much ado and a creature that resembles a rhinoceros  is not treated much better either. Avatar is not REALLY a movie about respecting other creatures but about respecting other human cultures. They just paint the humans blue and give them fancy noses.

Real nature is raw. But then again, what else can we expect nature to be? It is certainly not benevolent. Real nature reminds us that we, in our air-conditioned bedrooms and sanitized bathrooms, are the royalty of the living world. Some creatures fly from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle and back again each year. Most species have infant mortality rates so high that it hurts our tame sensibilities.

If you have always viewed these videos with suspicion and believed that they are either too boring or too yucky, I request you to give it a shot. Nature is spectacular and BBC and National Geographic nature series are made with remarkable taste and technical expertise. Please check some of them out. I have a feeling you will not regret it. Well, ok. I admit you will regret it if you are too faint-hearted, so I have put the tamer videos first.

* Before the advent of Animal Planet

** I watched this more than 20 years ago and don’t have footage of this wonderful video.