My son likes nature programs. We don’t have a television, but he takes advantage of other people’s and there are DVDs. Lately I’ve been exposed to some of this, and the kind of story telling that goes on around presenting natural history. I’m increasingly uneasy about it.
Nature programs, aimed at human audiences, concentrate on drama and focus on things we can easily identify with – the 3 Fs. Feeding, Fighting and Reproduction. You get a great deal of who eats whom, and the fighting tends to go with that, or around territories and reproduction. Nature red in tooth and claw – dramatic, violent, non-stop action.
There will be a lot of people for whom television is the only insight into nature. These programs create impressions of the wildness, aggression and breeding-orientated state of wild things. All very ‘animalistic’ – no subtlety, no culture… this is story telling that reinforces our sense of distance and difference from the natural world.
I’ve also spent time recently bird watching. Sit for an hour or two watching geese, swans, ducks etc on a large lake and the odds are nothing will die. There will be no big fight. There may be scuffles, displays and interactions of all sorts. There may be partner seeking and behaviour that reinforces group connections. There is the sheer beauty of the birds themselves, they way they move, their calls, the details of their lives.
I can’t imagine anyone would spend an hour watching a program that was just birds paddling around on a lake. But it’s beautiful to watch, and it gives a wholly different sense of nature. I’ve watched foxes and badgers out and about. I’ve watched wild birds in my garden, rabbits and hares in the fields. I’ve been whale watching, seen seals, deer – all manner of wild things. There have been only a few occasions when I’ve come close to seeing the 3Fs in action.
The stories TV programs tell about nature are fast paced, bloody action movies. They are emotive as well, encouraging us to feel sorry for certain creatures, empathise with the hunter this time, the prey another. But in the same way that 18 rated films are not representative of most people’s lives, so these nature programs don’t tell us anything about what most other living things actually experience. With 18 films it’s less of a problem because we have other points of reference. But for people who only see nature on the telly, it must be creating some perception issues.
If we saw the rest of nature as being far more like us, would we, as a species, relate to it differently?