It's been an awful year, but Attenborough made me grateful

It's been an awful year, but Attenborough made me grateful
Attenborough reminds us of our smallness in nature’s grander scheme. He gently informs us this planet is not all ours.
PHOTO: Silverback Films 2015

One of my favourite moments of the year involved a beetle doing yoga on a desert dune.

In the Namib desert in Africa, the darkling beetle's day begins with an ascent of a massive sand dune.

A tiny creature faced with a Himalaya-sized trek.

Undeterred, it marches on, its legs as skinny as a runner's, up towards the summit above which a fog from the Atlantic hovers.

When it gets there, the beetle inverts its body into a headstand and stands very still.

Then magic occurs.

No, wait, it is something more fantastic than magic, it is nature.

This is a planet about to do some of its very best work.

Droplets of water form on its shell as the fog condenses on its body.

Then slowly, using grooves in the beetle's casing, the water rolls into its thirsty mouth.

This is how life is sustained on earth.

Accompanying this scene unfolding on my television on a Monday night in the series Planet Earth II is a voice; a familiar voice which I first heard in 1979 when he made Life On Earth; a calming voice after a year of the hectoring, bragging tones of Trump, Hillary, Le Pen, Farage.

To listen to David Attenborough, 90, is to enter a meditative state.

In an awful year when we've been trampled by coarseness, and surrounded by suspicion, Attenborough and his BBC crew have redressed the balance slightly by offering us what we've perhaps forgotten: Wonder.

Starving lions design a trap for a giraffe in the desert sand and a small squadron of Harris hawks hunt in a sharp-taloned pack.

Male sandgrouses show paternal affection by making daily 195km trips to find water for their chicks while a baby iguana must outsprint a posse of snakes which are known as racers.

Flamingos in the Andes stand in lakes that freeze in the night and defrost in the morning sun.

Carefully they walk on thin ice, like women in high heels on a wet floor, and then collect for a courtship dance.

If you haven't seen any of this, you've missed something remarkable - television where nothing is ugly and no conversation is patronising.

In our urban worlds we've grown increasingly dismissive of any voice dissimilar to our own and deaf to the experience of those whose colour, sex, religion, citizenship doesn't fit our tribe.

We advertise our differences but Attenborough finds links, he shows us a bigger picture, he - even if it sounds a bit hokey - reminds us of our smallness in nature's grander scheme.

I needed this in a year where even god has been revealed as owning a warped sense of humour: We need Gandhi, he gave us Trump.

Of course, had the great Mohandas Gandhi been around, cynics would have taken just 140 scoffing Twitter characters to reduce him to an overrated fakir. Brevity may be the soul of wit but hardly the stuff of substance.

Prejudice now is worn almost like a triumphant badge and bigotry easily finds an echo on social media.

There's always someone equally small-minded out there. What brilliant technologies we have created to transmit ignorance and suspicion.

In Denmark, a retired gent tells the New York Times how immigrants have changed him: "I've become a racist."

There, as simple as that.

The earth on which we stand is cracking. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is not the saint we drew her as.

It has become acceptable to talk preposterous nonsense under the cover of not being politically correct.

Apparently this is bravery. We cluck over photographs of dead Syrian boys on a beach and then empathy dries.

It's easier to see the refugee as something dirty and dangerous the tide swept in.

Liberals and conservatives have made television deathly boring because discussion has been replaced by declarations.

Everyone is always right even when proven wrong. People see zealots in each other but not in the mirror and patriotism has now become only a single way to love a nation.

In India, a man was hit for not standing up during the national anthem in a movie hall till his assailants realised he was disabled.

Even as a sixth mass extinction is under way, it seems a new, vile species of human is appearing.

It's been a year hard to be grateful for and yet that is what Attenborough made me.

He's an old man to the rescue of a planet by showing us the best corners of the planet.

He reminds me the world is not just hostile cities and narrow-minded humans but forests, deserts, bush, mountains.

It is places still unpolluted by too many people, up there where snow leopards walk as silent as a mountain monk.

We have lost touch with this world.

Attenborough never raises his voice, a guide not a proselytiser, who gently suggests to us that this planet is not all ours.

It is theirs, too, the glass frogs, the blind moles, the viscacha - a rabbit-resembling rodent - which stands in the morning Andean sun like a sleepy, stoic Yoda.

All of them who take better care of the planet than we do, all of whom remind us that we know so little about this earth on which we live.

Planet Earth II is an education, a voyage, a distraction, a detoxification. Even in your living room, you feel you're inhaling something cleaner.

Attenborough understands this and wrote in the Radio Times that viewers "are reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is blemished, whose health is failing, because they understand that our own well-being is inextricably linked to that of the planet's. It's a form of two-way therapy".

Everyone will find something in it.

Knowledge, inspiration, pleasure.

One person perhaps donates $5 to save a tiger; another thinks, my kid should see this.

My brother, Rahul, who worked as a naturalist for a decade, says: "It's a reminder that we are the custodians of all this." My friend, Samar, wrote eloquently the other day about life's simple things, second-hand bookshops, old songs, a painted evening sky, and perhaps so is this film of the Earth.

Just something, in all the din, we tend to miss.

This year, more than any other, I've felt powerless and insignificant.

How does one ordinary person stop a widening racism, hate, ISIS, lunatics driving trucks into crowds, fake news, all these things that defeat prime ministers and kings?

Well, maybe by just living the decent life, by the small generosities of listening, by standing up at a party against the casual utterance of prejudice, by opening a door for someone, by letting our daughters know they are no less than our sons, by the simple kindness of a phone call to a lost friend.

And also by exiting the insulation of our bubbles and experiencing a wider world.

By watching cameramen sit in swamps and walk through a billion locusts just to tell us stories of life and awe and renewal.

In a busy world of so little memory, this was one to keep.

When Attenborough's programme ends after an hour, you think the strangest thing: This world is worth saving.

This world is OK.

Well, not always for the darkling beetle.

Watered and juicy, when it descends the sand dune, sometimes there is a Namaqua chameleon waiting, which lazily flicks out its tongue and has the beetle for breakfast.

No matter, the beetle has to get to the top of the dune, it has to drink water, it has to take its chances, it has to make that journey to survival.

Like us, you see, it is a hopeful beast.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
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