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Like Attenborough

The family keep threatening to take away my newspapers if I don’t clean up my language at the breakfast table. ‘OK, Fred,’ I said to the husband as he protested recently. He walked right into it (always marry a straight man, in more ways than one, ladies).

‘Fred?’ he said, obligingly.

‘As in Nile,’ I said, trying for hauteur but settling for triumph. And then for a while I really did try to moderate the flow of filth. But when I read George Monbiot blaming David Attenborough for the parlous state of the world’s wildernesses I swore like an Osbourne. It seems that Monbiot felt that, in constructing scenarios of wild animals in their habitats, Attenborough had deceived us into thinking that things are OK in the rainforests of the world. When I had exhausted the single syllables I started thinking whom else we could blame for the state of things. We could blame the Dalai Lama for the Chinese atrocities in Tibet; we could blame the Hollows Foundation for the eye problems of the Third World; and let’s not forget that the Enron thingy, the war in Iraq and global warming are all because of Michael Moore. Maybe Monbiot has despaired of denting the military industrial complex that really does the environmental damage, and has decided to just take it out on someone who, well, really doesn’t.

Watching Attenborough in his second series of The Life of Mammals (ABC Wednesdays at 8.30pm) I couldn’t help noting that tinge of sadness in him; he knows the fragility of what he shows us. His whole life’s work is to help us love the wild, to show us the wonders of our planet—whales making whoopee still wow me. How can people fight to protect something if they don’t even know about it? David Suzuki’s Cassandra approach would probably satisfy Monbiot but there are dangers in telling the dark side of the story all the time. Not that I don’t respect Suzuki and his programs, but too much bad news, and the punters are going to turn over to watch Funniest Home Videos.

Which must be pretty desperate for dinkum home vids if the one I flicked onto last month was representative: the night’s prize went to two brats brawling on a trampoline, and the presenter was promising $500 to anyone whose video even got an airing. (Trampolines must buy more Porsches per annum for orthopaedic surgeons than a whole season of AFL knees and groins.) They filled up the holes in the show with horrible stuff brought in from America: people falling off things and into things. How anyone could find some of the incidents funny is beyond me, especially the ones where children seemed to get hurt. Nasty show, won’t watch again.

But I will watch Attenborough, as much for the man and his love of the world as it should be, as for the wonders he shows us. I watched his Zoo Quest for a Dragon in black and white on the BBC in England when I was about ten. And I remember, in another series back then in the days before Borneo’s forests were razed to make coffee tables and bedroom sets, the mouse deer he filmed. Wonder is the word again—joy, a catch of breath. I carried the picture of it in my head ever since, a fairy creature, exquisitely miniature. David Attenborough has been helping me to love the natural world for most of my life.

The past teaches us how little we ever learn about looking after the natural world. Human folly comes up again and again in Meet the Ancestors (SBS Sundays, 8.30pm). Sometimes it’s more about archaeologists being whizzo clever-clogs than about the subject matter, but you do catch something of their enthusiasm about the discoveries. The oldest house in Britain gets a going over this month. They scrape away layers of fireplace ash to find what and when our 500-times great-grandparents ate. A scorched hazelnut shell gives an exact date, the year of its growing when the rellies roamed the post-Ice Age forests 10,000 years ago. The top ten ancient treasures are to be proclaimed in the 16 November program, including of course the Sutton Hoo burial ship, and various hoards of coins and artefacts.

People must have coveted these hoards, which is why they were hidden in the first place. Unearthed, treasures become unearthly; they become temptations to unnaturalness, to selfishness. And all because we always want what someone else has got, whether it’s money, or a flash house, or a mahogany forest that gives life to animals that never bothered us and don’t owe us a thing and don’t need us to do anything but leave them in peace. Seeing the smashed grandiosities of Meet the Ancestors recalls from my own past, a mere wink of time ago, reciting Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ at school: ‘look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ But no, don’t despair. Never do that. Be like Attenborough.            



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