The main attraction for me at the National Air and Space Museum was its movie theater, one of the only places showing films in the vast new expanse of a format called IMAX. I was among the sold-out crowd of awestruck kids, and our slightly dizzy parents, there for the film Living Planet. An announcement while the lights dimmed compared the screen size to a football field. But that seemed limiting to me. It was more like its own dimension. I could have jumped from the steep seating straight into its sky.
Living Planet took us around the globe in one sweep. The nature footage was beyond belief, teeming with life in all its forms. We floated above Serengeti herds like elated deities. We pulled in close to a rainforest, frog-like intimate members of its family and species. Then we spotted ourselves, the anxious primates that built the Parthenon, the freeways of Los Angeles and the Taj Mahal. We weren’t so different and all of us, together, were amazing.
There would be many more iterations of these panoramic journeys around the world. Life, the planet, Earth, blue, beautiful and ours. In the following years, there would be several BBC series, like Life on Earth and a new The Living Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Though he wasn’t part of the first IMAX films, his was the wise and buoyant British accent detailing most of the natural world for growing captivated audiences.
But harmony between humans and the wilderness wouldn’t quite last as plausible. Natural reality would set in. In order to stay accurate and timely, the tone when capturing wildlife on camera needed to shift. Whether on IMAX or streamed at home, the nature documentary began to seem like something a little farther from a life-affirming wonder or an appeal to conservation, and something a little closer to a hospice.
The way we humans live on Earth is causing biodiversity to decline.
The way David Attenborough makes this statement in the film A Life on Our Planet.
The way he stands in a corner of the world that humans fled, and wild animals reclaimed, known as Chernobyl.
The way Attenborough is 95 years old.
The way his left eyelid droops slightly and does a gradual wink when he emphasizes what is currently fading.
The way he says “boo!” to an unfazed three-toed sloth in older footage.
The way he drinks a beer, shirtless, on a sailboat in 1954.
The way he says, It was the best time of my life.
The way world population numbers skyrocket along with the carbon in the atmosphere as the percentage of remaining wilderness plummets.
The way we sense, from the first cutaway to those numbers, that we’ll witness how it’s gotten so much worse, even as learning half of nature has vanished in a lifetime still comes as a cold shock.
The way an orangutan’s hands are like an old man’s.
The way we watch Attenborough pause as he absorbs the loss.
The way this loss will be eclipsed.
The way I start to hear intractable political arguments and the pledges of virtual summits in my head when the subject turns to solutions.
The way I begin bargaining with myself about how nature films place spectacle before science, so possibly a lot of this could be an exaggeration for effect.
The way even this spectacle tries to lay it on us gently.
The way our plans are going.
The way they say we are the only species capable of imagining the future.
The way the drones sustainably harvesting the forests of some future might be the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on a drone without having the urge to swat it out of the sky with a baseball bat.
The way we’ve almost always gotten the future wrong.
I came out of heart surgery. I’d had a cardiac ablation to repair an irregular heartbeat. It wasn’t necessarily the highest risk operation, but it was also not nothing. When I awoke from general anesthesia, my chest felt like it had been stepped on by a foraging elephant. I was lucky to get the care I needed though. I was lucky it had nothing to do with the virus that defined the past year. I was lucky to have loved ones waiting when I returned home. I’d made it.
A few days into my recovery, I watched The Year Earth Changed, again narrated by David Attenborough. This film provided an update and an overview of what had happened to the world in 2020. I kept my feet up for the viewing. My dog joined in, setting watch on the couch in case there was any more trouble on our horizon.
Attenborough, meanwhile, gave us unexpected news of global revival.
Sparrows near the Golden Gate Bridge had started new songs in the absence of traffic. Their breeding went crazy. Likewise, without the YOLO-presence of spring breakers, sea turtles could lay eggs on Miami Beach. Whales echoed uninterrupted across empty shipping lanes while cheetahs chirped to their cubs across open safari paths. Deer in Japan went cold turkey on crackers from tourists. There were so many more baby penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. There were still capybaras.
Animals everywhere were better off without us showing up to marvel at them.
Testing this point, the film also offers the exotic sight of the cameraman. He is filming at an abandoned safari lodge when a leopard rounds a corner. The male predator is hunting the impala that have wandered into the property during the day. As the leopard slowly approaches, the cameraman freezes but stays focused through his lens. Once the leopard passes by uninterested, the cameraman cups his hand to his mouth, choked up, terrified and still in one piece.
The scene was enough to alert my dog. Something about the prowl triggered his canine territorial instincts. The danger must have been in a high enough definition. My small dog growled until the big cat disappeared somewhere into the kingdom beyond the ever-changing window framed in black, leaving his dear delicate humans safe for now.
Meanwhile, I got the fresh sense of how powerful the wild creatures are. It’s a feeling that the standard super-zoomed wildlife shots don’t often provide anymore. But here we had the leopard within mauling distance of the cameraman and—according to my dog—of us on the couch. It’s a reminder that our status is not always apex. In some places and in some years, humans can still be prey. In some evolutionary cycles, we may not be the winners.
These kinds of implications are all over the edges of this more recent release that strives otherwise to plug coexistence. Where A Life on Our Planet pressed an alarm, Attenborough’s tone returns to buoyancy in The Year Earth Changed now that humans have given animals a much-needed break. But the question stands: what happens when human activity resumes? The title of the film itself belies the impermanence of these positive developments. After the year of change, we humans have wandered back outside in our vehicles, boats, and planes. The film doesn’t delve into what to do once nature’s short sweet relief is over. Similarly, there’s an omission with regards to human and wildlife interaction that marked 2020, the singular reason for all our change—zoonotic disease.
Because animals retaliate—not just with claws, talons, or stingers, but sometimes by slipping us a pathogen. Though the science is still confirming this, the consensus goes that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to us from wildlife. The Year Earth Changed gives us a fleeting glimpse, among a montage sequence, of a pangolin. It’s not mentioned, but this scaly anteater was initially speculated to be a COVID-19 intermediate host. Virus transmission may not be an animal defense, but when an entire hyper-advanced global civilization can be shut down by a plodding nocturnal mammal dressed up as a pinecone, it feels like nature has a story.
And we told ourselves we had everything under control. We were supposed to be the only species that decided who lives or dies. We were counting on dominion and on our own endless, robust health.
I stood up slowly at the end of this second documentary. I remembered I was decrepit, brought back to the reality of my own recuperation. Nature might be moving on without me. As I’ve heard my entire life, it might be moving on without all of us. Yet somehow, we assume the planet will always remain hospitable to us. Somehow, we keep reverting to the same jeopardized plans of believing other animals will always be at our disposal.
I stared up at my bedroom ceiling trying not to think. My mind was running where my body couldn’t. I was exhausted but unable to sleep. I thought about how long it would take me to return to full normal cardio function. I wondered what the treatment is for a heart condition in, for instance, the mountain gorillas of the Ugandan jungle. Do they know not to overexert themselves? Do they make dietary changes? Do they lighten up on the chest-thumping? Do they ever have trouble getting to sleep? According to Attenborough, mountain gorillas gave birth to twice the number of babies last year. I would love to see some of them up close someday. I fantasized about travel. I justified the carbon footprint of a commercial flight to Uganda. I wondered about my instincts and best intentions. I should stop anthropomorphizing animals first.
I followed these thoughts into the after-hours quiet with everyone else in my home deep asleep. Then I heard noises from the 20-something neighbor on the floor above us. I figured maybe she wasn’t well, until I understood it was the opposite; the sounds were of some especially vigorous sex.
Whatever was on my mind, sex of any kind was dead last. Did my body ever do that? Would it ever again? Naturally, I couldn’t avoid listening to the action upstairs. Things crescendoed, followed by a muffled collapse. Almost immediately afterward, the visiting guy tromped back down our apartment building’s stairway.
Maybe neither of them had heard that the world is not as wild as it once was. Maybe they were still only living once.
Prior to our year of change, IMAX theaters showed blockbusters. They were often about impending doom. Only superheroes could save worlds. The technology that presented these stories went more dazzling, and much clearer than was actually realistic, in HD, 3D, or 4K. The screen at the National Air and Space Museum became the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater. Not that any of these superpowers could mount a real defense against the dangerous, shared breath of the audience. The theaters went dark. Nothing went according to plan. Though, the sky never fell either.
It was left to the non-fiction of nature films to offer something besides the apocalypse. It’s the rare genre that contains inherent uplift. These spectacles never really work as dirges. In A Life on Our Planet, we get more crises than usual—especially in the hell-scape visions of the year 2100—but it can only fixate on this for so long. In one of its most excruciating scenes—in which we see walruses toss themselves to their death off barren seaside cliffs—the POV reverses to the audience members at the Davos World Economic Forum. The closeup is on the tearful reactions.
But the film pivots back to the living. It pushes onward like its main photogenic subjects, despite what we now know. It holds out hope. The Year Earth Changed, which premiered ahead of Earth Day 2021 after a full year of pandemic, reinforces a stance against despair.
In interviews, Attenborough has acknowledged this grasp for positivity. When asked if he can be optimistic given the global outlook, he has said, “We don’t have an alternative.”
I may forever search for the first IMAX-sized utopia where we trotted around the globe on a screen as big as the sky. I may always want to see the widest shot of nature where everything is grandiose and entertaining and I don’t need to dwell too long on any one organism other than the whole of the planet itself. I may continue to relapse into cinematic dreams of how the world should look as it turns to music through space.
For the moment, I didn’t make plans beyond my minor personal revival. I was doing fine. It turned out my heart could take it. I managed to walk steadily down my apartment building’s stairs. My dog led me straight to the park where he sniffed through the new green grass. A crow landed nearby, a bird that’s always bigger than you expect once it gets close. This could’ve been a bad omen. But that was on me.
I didn’t take a picture of it or whisper to the grass pushing up from the thawed earth on this only planet we ever loved. I only tried to take another step with no other choice but to recover.