Join me in my nerdy obsession with Sir David Attenborough.
To open the new Planet Earth II series for BBC One, Sir David Attenborough flew over the Alps in a hot air balloon. The footage is breathtaking. It is every bit the quality and beauty viewers have come to expect from the Planet Earth name. The mountains are mesmerizingly blue-white; the sky is somehow the same color and also completely different. And it features an elderly man, in a puffy blue coat, his hair almost entirely white. That man, of course, is Sir David Attenborough, who celebrates his birthday May 8. He is among the best-known names in nature and wildlife documentaries. The work of Sir David Attenborough looms large in the public imagination and has managed to affect many of us, myself included, very personally. Throughout my life, I continually find myself returning to his documentaries. Why does my relationship with Sir David Attenborough, who is an actual knight, feel so deeply intimate and meaningful? I mean, he just makes nature documentaries, right?
Sir David Attenborough, Woodberry Wetlands, London, England, 2016 / Photo by John Phillips / Getty Images
David Attenborough, born on May 8, 1926, was passionate about nature at a very young age, and by age seven he had already amassed a collection of bird eggs and fossils. He went on to study at the University of Cambridge and then served in the Royal Navy. In 1952 he began working for the BBC as a television producer. In 1954, frustrated with the format of earlier television programs on animals and nature, he launched the program Zoo Quest, showing animals not only in captivity but also in their natural, wild habitats. The standards and practices most of us are familiar with when it comes to wildlife documentaries? Yeah, those were all established on Zoo Quest.
I was born in 1985, which happens to be the year Attenborough was knighted and became Sir David Attenborough. Like a lot of kids, I liked animals, and I quickly became captivated with wildlife documentaries on television. I didn’t know the tradition of those documentaries was created by Attenborough. I gobbled up whatever I could get regardless of who made it. I don’t remember when I first learned the name Attenborough, but eventually it became synonymous with the very best of the best in the world of animal and nature documentaries.
David Attenborough would go on to work at both BBC and BBC Two (where he was responsible for signing up Monty Python’s Flying Circus) as well as doing a good deal of freelance work. His work on programs such as Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984) and The Private Life of Plants (1995) served to make him a household name.
When the original Planet Earth series aired here in the United States, I had just gotten out of an awful relationship and started dating someone who had cable. When I recall that relationship, what I really remember is watching the phenomenal footage of penguins in the arctic, all narrated by Attenborough. His voice, as much as the images themselves, was a window into this other world, which turned out to be very much a part of our world. The excellent cinematography and the popularity of the program made it suddenly OK to talk about how much I adored listening to an elderly British man explain the wonders of the natural world. What had been the height of nerdiness was suddenly sort of cool. That romance was as much with Planet Earth as it was with that particular lover. Even sex happened between episodes, and then we’d laugh at ourselves, turn the TV back on and order a pizza.
Years later, during a terrible bout of insomnia, I found solace in the Blue Planet series, also narrated by Attenborough. In the middle of the night, when everything seemed too much, it felt counterintuitive to be soothed by thinking about how massive the ocean is. But there I was, dozing to a gentle voice explaining the complexities and intricacies of the many relationships between animals under the sea, and finally I was able to relax. When I found myself sick during pregnancy, I watched Life of Mammals again and again. When my exhausted wife returned from work each evening, I’d describe the many things I’d learned to her. For example, I’m now equally fascinated and horrified by kangaroos, thanks to David Attenborough.
So what makes David Attenborough so special? I’m not the only person who loves him. In fact, according to a 2014 poll, he was considered the most trusted public figure in Britain. When I asked friends what it is about this one man that gets to us, the answers focused on one thing: his enthusiasm. It’s so obvious that he loves nature completely, that he’s fascinated by the very things he wants you, the viewer, to be fascinated with. It’s infectious. When Attenborough narrates a wildlife program, it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s merely regurgitating a few facts.
Sir David Attenborough addresses audience, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, 2012. Photo by Oli Scarff / Getty Images
To put it somewhat mildly, Attenborough’s life is an inspiration. In addition to essentially inventing the wildlife documentary as we know it, and producing such an amazing body of work, he’s also adventurous: at 84 years old, he was one of the oldest people to ever brave the North Pole. He is the most traveled person in recorded history.
I think there is something else, though. Something beyond personal accomplishment and mastery of craft. The fantastic camera work and enthusiastic analysis of nature are all lovely, but those things aren’t what make Sir David Attenborough’s work so powerful. For me, what makes his awed narration hit so close to home has more to do with the nature of scientific inquiry itself.
I grew up without a lot of money, and I do not hold a formal college degree. To everyday people, the sciences can often feel elitist, a branch of knowledge that is roped off, accessible to only those of a certain privilege level. Yet, by walking into nature with a camera crew and explaining its complexities to us in a very human way, Sir David Attenborough is able to discredit that notion. When I watch an Attenborough documentary, I know not only that the natural world is beautiful and heartbreaking and complex; I know it is available to me, and I have the power to learn about it. He’s not the only person bringing the sciences to the masses in this way. Programs like WNYC’s Radiolab serve a similar function, often asking scientists to explain and re-explain their work, until it is digestible. But the skill and ease with which Sir David Attenborough brings us into his world — a world in which all the beauty and wonder of nature are available to us — and the fascinating subject material make his work especially poignant and accessible.
“Some people might say it is a bit crazy taking someone who is 90 up to 10,000 feet,” said executive producer Mike Gunton, just before Attenborough took his balloon ride over the Alps. And yet, there he is, above the mountains and in your living room, daring you to look at nature as passionately as he does.