I’ve been immersing myself in nature documentaries the past few weeks. These movies are a different beast for me because:
- I’ve never liked animals.
- Blame my design. I’m allergic to everything and your mom’s purse, so animal fur and its loyal following of dust and dander hasn’t exactly helped that sad case.
- I like things like showers, clean clothes, and safe blanket forts.
- Nature encourages sweat, crusty skin, itchy skin, high anxiety and fear for your life.
This dislike of the outdoors and its critters has pretty much, throughout my formative and young adult years, been contingent on my location. For most of my life I’ve lived in Maryland, where sneezing and itchy eyes were reluctant parts of my summer routine. I sought refuge indoors, where I was less likely to meet allergenic enemies, and even less likely to get bitten by bugs or reddened by sun rays.
By contrast, for the past seven years I’ve been living in California. And as all pop culture says, it’s making me soft. Snow doesn’t grow here, and there’s also very little of that Maryland ragweed. If I’m sneezing it’s because I forgot to dust my book-strewn habitat for a week. I have access to mountain trails year-round and along the way I see (what I thought were) benign animal friends. California transformed a penchant for activity into a penchant for outdoor activity, which progressed into a natural curiosity about my surroundings. So basically, I resisted as best as I could, but I was groomed and tricked by this evil awesome climate.
And so here I am. Nature is relevant, and even more so, approachable. So that is why my current curiosity, and change in, ahem, heart. And my deep dive into the dirty nests of ducks is not only paying off in education, but it’s been kind of an interesting gateway toward reflecting on life. The littler things have become trivial-er, and you begin to see how much of an adventure just existing can be. But I’m also getting why nature appeals to anyone who is competitive.
The more cultured in my network probably already know what I’ve learned over these past few weeks: nature is death metal. Why anyone is even vegan or nice to each other after getting indoctrinated into the cult of nature, I don’t know. If anything, those are psychological ways humans play the survival game. Because in nature, everything gets eaten.
Rivals are severely injured or totally slaughtered. Animals building nests steal from their own kind to lessen their own workload. If a weaker kind has killed food, then that gets stolen by a bigger guy too.
But as much as life in nature seems awful, it’s clear-cut. Animals are content with their daily routines. They eat. They breed. They nourish another. Are animals bored? Are they ever ashamed? Malcontent? We don’t know. But they’re systematic and they keep on keepin’ on.
People are like animals in some ways. We posture to get the best prospects. Our bright colors and our identities are outstanding to attract the best mates. We want to rule the land. But we overthink and are easily dissatisfied. Those dissatisfactions can lead to innovations. But nature reminds us that as much as you innovate, existence thrives on basic needs and desires.
But, anyway! Let’s get back to the more funner part of this entry: the entertainment.
My favorite nature documentaries so far have been these two.
Wild North is set along the ruptured coastlines of Norway and follows the creatures that hunt, feed, and breed on its often chilly land. Alone in the Wilderness, which I’ve mentioned before, is the story of nature-savvy craftsman Dick Proenneke who built his own cabin in the 1960s on a shore in Alaska.
Both films are amazing because they match that natural tone of our subjects. Neither bullshit you with confusing edits or presumptuous storytelling. There is no overly dramatic helper music – which can be worse than a laugh track – to sell you on the scenes. They’re more straightforward informative tales that invite you into a cruel, but kind of quiet world. For instance, in Wild North, there’s a scene where two birds are in conflict and then something dramatic happens. But it was shot on grainy, lo-fi footage, and our narrator lets us know that it was because an amateur filmed it. The story was still gripping, though. It was a reminder that you don’t need flashy imagery to get a great story. Sometimes it’s even better when it’s not rendered in 4K because the low quality can give you a faux intimacy, like you’re looking into a world you’re not allowed to be in.
By contrast, consider BBC Earth series’ like Frozen Planet and Life, which employ blockbuster-like cinematography. The visuals are stunning. But if you are discerning, you have to wonder how the hell some of these things were filmed in their actual natural settings. Sometimes, they weren’t. Sometimes, producers relied heavily on post-production. And, hey, that’s ok. That’s entertainment and it’s still a cool story.
But when a film that captures nature turns the drama up to twenty, I don’t always come out of the experience feeling totally informed. So that’s why these slower, lower-production quality movies are what I’ve been craving. I will say, I am currently in the middle of Life and enjoying it. But still, it’s flashy and cut-heavy, so as much as I enjoy the technological gift of these polished visuals, I keep the narrative at an arm’s length. I pull back a little to make sure the show of it all is not pulling me into the made-up world of reality like The Bachelor might do. I double-check my intake to ensure I’m not believing things that make nature into a Disney movie (granted, that Disney movie has a lot more carnage…) How do I know that this ape they’re following made friends in the way Sir David Attenborough and his writers proposed? How do I know that this footage of whales is from their actual setting in Hawaii, and not some set they created? I don’t.
Alone in the Wilderness and Wild North are productions, too. We’re not quite sure how Proenneke got those shots of himself paddling out on his homefront lake (selfies, or a trusted visitor?) Wild North employs cuts and music as well. But there’s something about the pacing that gives each film a more authentic feel.
I’m open to recommendations based on these two. And if you’re interested, you’ll have to get Alone in the Wilderness on DVD. (Although you might be able to find it on the YouTubes occasionally…) It’s totally worth it to have in your collection. I might even go for part two, which I haven’t yet seen. Wild North is currently on Netflix. (P.S. I keep calling Wild North a film, but it’s a series. But it’s only three episodes, so… it’s a film series, right? Right.)
Here’s a slightly cheesy and informative PBS-style short on Dick Proenneke.