I watched the BBC series Wild Isles, presented by David Attenborough. It was beautiful to look at, but it left me wondering about ‘nature’, as presented by these programmes.
In the first episode we were shown a pod of Orcas off the coast of Shetland (or was it Orkney?). I’ve watched enough of these shows to know the kind of spectacle we can expect from Orcas – they typically harry their prey to a slow and terrifying death and I still vividly remember, from Attenborough’s Arctic show, the closeup shot of an exhausted seal looking straight at the camera, as orcas dragged it off an iceberg to be torn to pieces. It felt wrong to be staring into its eyes.
This time round a baby seal, which had swum out some way off the shore, was caught by a member of the pod. The orca then took it, still alive, to a group of its companions, where, after a certain amount of playing with its victim, the successful hunter demonstrated to younger orcas -Sir David sounded quite aroused at this point- how to hold it under water and drown it.
Later on, though, we were shown an orca that had itself drowned in a fishing net. Sombre music played. This drowned cetacean was apparently a tragedy, while the slow torment of the baby seal had been presented as something rather thrilling. Why, I wondered? Why should I care about one and not the other?
The same pattern persisted throughout the series. Predators hunting and killing -and quite often targeting the young of their prey- dominated most episodes, and were presented as an exciting spectacle, accompanied by rousing, if sinister, music,as you might hear in an action scene in a movie. We were being offered animal-killing as a voyeuristic entertainment, not unlike the animal slaughters that the Romans put on in their arenas, except that this was ‘nature’ so we could savour it guilt-free. But then there would be a sudden switch of tone and talk about the fragility of ‘nature’ and the need to protect it from the depredations of humanity. I found this no longer worked for me. I grew bored of the slaughter, and even sickened by it, and it certainly didn’t put me the mood for ‘only man is vile’ pieties. My thoughts were more on the lines of Kurtz in the Congo jungle: ‘The horror, the horror.’
After hunting scenes, the next most frequent dramas depicted in these shows are the endless combats between male animals fighting to obtain, or defend, access to females. In one episode a huge, repulsive male seal spotted an equally huge and repulsive rival that had emerged from the sea, and flopped and wriggled his blubbery bulk across the sand to do battle. They ripped each others flesh, they roared, they reared up to look as big as possible. The much less repulsive female seals meanwhile hurried to get their babies out of the way, because the males in such battles are apparently so indifferent to anything except their need for dominance, that they will crush their own children to death without a thought if these are foolish enough to get in their way.
It all felt rather familiar actually, like the story-line for much of human history. Not so much a case of ‘only man is vile’, as ‘nature is vile, and we’re a part of it.’