Sir David Attenborough OM celebrates his ninetieth birthday on 8 May 2016. He is best known for his BBC television series, but he also writes extraordinary books.
In 1936, Attenborough attended a lecture by Archibald Belaney (the English conservationist who worked in Canada and was known as Grey Owl). According to his brother, the actor and film director Richard Attenborough, David was “bowled over by the man’s determination to save the beaver, by his profound knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Canadian wilderness and by his warnings of ecological disaster should the delicate balance between them be destroyed.”
Twenty years later, Attenborough began writing articles and books about aspects of life on earth (the name bestowed on one his best known television series and its accompanying book published in 1979). A bedrock of facts underlies the fluency with which he speaks and writes with a seemingly instinctive understanding of what will fascinate the man (or woman in these gender-sensitive times) on the Clapham omnibus.
The early books have become classics. Zoo Quest to Guiana (1956), Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1957), and Zoo Quest in Paraguay (1959) resulted from expeditions and natural history films done for BBC Television and the London Zoo. They were later abridged and published as a trilogy: The Zoo Quest Expeditions (1980).
The three that followed were Quest in Paradise (1960), Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961), and Quest Under Capricorn (1963) and they, too, were republished together under the title Journeys to the Past (1981).
The ground was prepared for a visually imaginative and, as it turned out, immensely popular series of television programmes, all of which are now available on DVD. They were distinctive, erudite, captivating, and contributed to growing public awareness about human impact on the environment, growing threats to biodiversity, and the need to combat global warming.
Among the many forms of life on earth Attenborough has explored, everyone has his or her favourite. But check out The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man, a documentary series first broadcast by the BBC in 1987. Set in what Attenborough calls the oldest humanised landscape in the world, it is “an attempt to describe how our attitude to the natural world, and our treatment of it, has changed over the centuries and has produced the living communities we see today.”
The book of the series is equally interesting. The writing is lucid and informative, joining up a myriad of dots that serve to underline David Attenborough’s genius for communication. And it doesn’t matter if the subject is the mountain gorilla or the Jersey Tiger moth:
“Petaloudes Valley – the name means butterfly – is the one place on the Island of Rhodes which remains relatively cool and moist throughout the hot dry summer. A stream, fed by an unfailing spring, runs down the valley and supports a dense grove of trees. There, in the humid shade, a million insects assemble to wait for the return of the cool months. In spite of the valley’s name, they are not butterflies, but moths, the Jersey Tiger. Several other assemblies are known elsewhere in the Aegean islands and southern Iran, but none can rival the spectacular numbers of the Rhodos gathering.”
Thousands of people care more passionately about life on earth because of David Attenborough. The world will be a poorer place without him, but for now let’s celebrate his dedication, determination, and sheer passion.