Planet Earth II Review: Deserts

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II is admittedly not this blog’s usual fare.

But I did watch last Sunday’s episode, after a day’s hard NaNoing, having had no previous experience of it (including the 2006 series), and two things really struck me about it, both of them things you wouldn’t necessarily expect from what’s essentially a wildlife documentary.

The first was the self-conscious artistry of the show: it’s stunningly shot, artfully narrated and constructed with a very obvious eye to storytelling.

The second was the taut and ambiguous environmental politics that clusters around it. It’s obviously going for observational objectivity, at least on the surface, observing the wonder of nature without commenting on wider-world issues – a kind of snapshot of desert life, without interpretation or commentary. But, of course, true objectivity doesn’t exist, and we should be wary of anything that makes a claim to it.

Where do I start? Well, if Deserts has a theme it’s that of fragility. This is an episode that’s keen to remind us that nature is red in tooth and claw indeed; that all the ways mankind has invented of killing each other is matched and more than matched by the inventive barbarism with which evolution has equipped the animals of our planet. Here, we see the butcher bird (a cheerful creature that looks not unlike a jay or a magpie) impale prey animals on spikes as a larder; the blind and extremely fluffy golden mole which swims through desert sands swallow insects whole from beneath (surely the inspiration for China Mieville’s Railsea); the sand grouse risk its life carrying water (in its chest feathers) to its family 120 miles away.

But it’s about fragility in a wider sense, too: no wildlife documentary can skim over the fact of dramatic and possibly catastrophic climate change, and with deserts getting hotter and drier by the year there’s an ever-present sense of threat hanging over everything that happens in the episode, the warning that all this wonder and strange savagery could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

And I think this temporal, this historical fragility is encapsulated in the case of the locusts. One of the episode’s segments features an enormous locust swarm, which the episode’s HD filming captures lovingly, as a thing wondrous and amazing and “wow, look at what nature can do”.

And yet – we’re told, both in the narration of this sequence and the diary section at the end where the filmmakers relate how difficult it was to find any bloody locusts (my favourite part being where they were in a helicopter saying “Look! Is that a swarm?” and the pilot said, “No, it’s just smoke”) that such swarms devastate crop fields that people are relying on to survive.

It’s a segment that’s brilliantly demonstrating the constant tension between the need to conserve nature and the need to keep people safe and alive and happy.

It’s not a conundrum to which Sir David offers any answers; partly, I suppose, because there aren’t really any good ones. But it’s this tension, this focus on the fundamentally untenable state of affairs in which what’s good for nature isn’t what’s good for us, that made Deserts, for me, so much more memorable than wildlife documentaries usually are.

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