You may recall that we do not have TV. We put the two (unused) sets outside a couple of years ago and the obliging Garden Fairies took them away. Since then, Tigger has had a protracted tussle with the TV Licensing authority, who kept sending her a bill, but has now finally convinced them that we have nothing that needs to be licensed.
That doesn’t mean we never watch TV programmes. We have watched quite a few. We watch them on DVD. Our latest acquisition is a series by the inimitable David Attenborough. If you thrilled to Life on Earth, you might also like this series too though I accept that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea since the creatures involved are not warm and cuddly but are of a sort that causes some people to shudder with instinctive disgust.
As human beings, we know the world as seen from a very narrow viewpoint. You can usually tell the height of the person who pinned a notice on the board because we intuitively place notices at the height of our own eyes. The world as we know it is the world seen by a pair of eyes roughly 3 inches apart, roughly 6 feet above the ground. The very large and the very small frequently escape our attention.
This fact was brought home to me graphically one summer afternoon, as I was sitting in a pub garden. I had had one of those non-alcoholic fruit drinks made by a famous drinks company. I must say it was delicious. Inside the glass were patches of foam clinging to the sides. A few wasps were buzzing around in their endless quest for food and drink. A wasp went inside the glass and began inspecting a patch of foam. I laughed out loud as I saw what was happening: the wasp was sucking up the foam! As I watched, the patch of foam steadily disappeared as the wasp worked her way through it.
I had never seen such a thing before and was entranced. Within a few days I had bought myself a magnifying glass and now carry it everywhere with me. Its purpose it to provide a better view of any small creatures that I come across and whose anatomy and behaviour all too easily escape our clumsy human sight. I have enjoyed some moments of fascinated observation as a result and have learned that the world of small, overlooked creatures is as complex and wonderful as our more familiar world.
With that preamble, you have probably guessed that the Attenborough series we are watching is Life in the Undergrowth, which, as Sir David tells us at the beginning, could not be made until developments in the field of miniature electronics enabled the construction of tiny cameras. We watched the first episode last night and were treated to a range of species from giant millipedes as big as your arm down to spring beetles tinier than the head of a pin.
A lesser film maker might fall into the trap of composing a hotch-potch of gee-whiz fragments, interesting in their own right but unconnected with one another. We know better of Sir David and were not disappointed. He sets his subjects firmly in a narrative, the narrative of how creatures from the sea gradually colonized the land. This works wonderfully well as it provides a natural progression from those species still needing wet conditions in order to survive to those that have broken away and adapted to life in far more inhospitable environments such as the desert.
The sheer variety of forms and lifestyles – all developed from various sea creatures that emerged onto the land millions of years ago and often still show clear signs of their origins – is amazing. Whether we are watching a spring beetle jump to a height which in human terms is equivalent to a leap over the Eiffel Tower or the intricate courting dance of a pair of scorpions – the male fearful of becoming breakfast rather than mate – there are wonders to behold.
Seeing close up and in all their incredible detail creatures that normally appear to us as scurrying dots to be brushed aside or – too often – simply trodden upon, is a marvellous experience. I think this is a series we shall watch again and again.
The besetting sin of human observers of the world is our tendency to anthropomorphize, to turn the world of animals into a kind of Beatrix Potter ballet. Sir David shows us a more realistic world. Not everything in that world is pleasant from our point of view: there are the hunters and the prey, the rivals that fight one another; there are species that can wound or kill us in the blink of an eye. Venom is a great equalizer. If this gives you the shudders, look away now… and forever. Don’t buy the series. Personally, I find this world fascinating and have done ever since the day when as a child I put my finger into a flower in the hope that a bumble would walk onto it and when it did, gently stroked the bee’s furry back.