IT BEGINS WITH LIGHT. Or perhaps I should say, it begins with David Attenborough. Life, and our endeavour to understand the way it works on this planet, is certainly the greatest of all subjects. And, for decades, it’s been taught to us by the greatest of all teachers.
Attenborough started to show and explain the nature of life on Earth in 1954 with the first Zoo Quest programme, and continues to do so to this day. His latest is a five-part series on the organisms that make every other kind of life possible. It’s called The Green Planet and it’s about plants. The most savage carnivore and the most committed of vegetarians equally owe their lives to plants.
And, once again, we have Attenborough to expound on these wonders. In this relatively brief and inevitably brilliant series, he not only supplies the commentary, in that voice, we know as well as our own, but he’s back doing what he does best: popping up all over the world to show and explain.
I have written the text for the book that accompanies the series and, as a result, I have lived with plants. I have lived with facts and ideas about plants, I have lived with images and words about plants. And by the end of it, I knew that I would never look at a plant in quite the same way again. Nor, I think, will anyone who watches these programmes, which see Attenborough, dressed in one of his loose-fitting, pale-blue shirts (how many of them does he own?) tell us more about the wonders he’s showing us.
LET’S START WITH A SEQUENCE IN the fourth episode, in which Attenborough demonstrates the brutally effective spines of the cholla cactus, with one hand encased in a leather gauntlet that looks thick enough to protect your fingers in a furnace. He plunges his gauntleted hand into the spines and, at once, it is crystal clear that even this level of protection is not enough to deal with the cholla. The sudden pain is plain from his always-expressive face, but he doesn’t stop for longer than it takes to wince.
It’s clear that Attenborough’s driven by three things: 1) the human in him realizes that if he stops, he’s going to have to do it all over again; 2) the professional in him knows all too well that this is damn good television; and, 3) the teacher in him is aware that there could no better lesson about the defenses of a cactus.
Perhaps the most important thing this series shows us is the primacy of plants. Many of us with a taste for wild things turn to birds or mammals or insects; groups of species that are obvious, that move, that are a bit like us – things we can empathize with. It’s not so easy to empathise with an oak tree. When television turns to wildlife it has traditionally made animals the stars, partly because we’re animals ourselves, so have an instant feeling of fellowship, and partly because animals do exciting things like fight, fly, leap about, kill each other and have sex.
But none of these things would happen without plants. Thanks to the great advances in technology, we’re now treated to vivid sequences showing us plants that do indeed move, attack each other, kill animals and, yes, have sex – even if it’s not in quite the same way that we do.
The greatest trees of the rainforest rise above the canopy, monarchs of all they survey and favoured targets of the sunlight. When a giant tree falls, it’s disaster for the fallen tree (albeit one that comes at the end of a long life) but it is the opportunity of a lifetime for many other species that seek to fill the space. With the wet warmth of the rainforest, a giant’s fall sparks a detonation of new life.
Life on land was made possible for animals because the plants got there first. But as life developed some animals returned to the water, giving rise to otters and whales, and some plants made the same journey, giving us lotuses, lake-covering duckweed and rolling spheres of algae.
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