THE WASHINGTON POST – “It’s midnight on the coast of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, two hundred miles south of Java.” It is with this scene – of a million scarlet crabs invading a tropical beach like a swarm of nightmarish aliens – that the dean of natural history, David Attenborough, begins The Trials of Life.
Published in 1990 and designed to accompany the nature documentary series of the same name, it is a book on animal behavior, divided into chapters – “Growing Up”, “Making”, “Friends and Rivals” – describing different stages of cycle life.
I suspect I’m not alone in assuming that most children’s earliest curiosity about the rest of the world isn’t sparked by travelogues, or even adventure novels, but by factual and reference books.
As a child, I would sit late into the night and flip through atlases and encyclopedias, marveling at the vastness of continents and the seemingly endless miracles they contained. I have always considered these fascinations as the constituent elements of the desire to travel. As adults, we yearn for travel to rekindle the capacity for wonder we enjoyed when we were young.
When I got my hands on my copy of The Trials of Life, it quickly became a favorite repository of bookish knowledge. I received it as a glossy cardboard gift, and it was my most treasured gift, the one that for days afterwards I carried with me from room to room like a talisman.
The premise is simple. “My concern here is to describe events, rather than the psychological and evolutionary mechanisms that produce them,” Attenborough wrote. It makes no claim to analysis or theory. Instead, it reads like a collection of snapshots, each illuminating a facet of nature’s invention, brutality, and evolutionary logic.
The overall effect is to heighten the sense that every living creature is joined by universal quests for food, shelter, and genetic perpetuation. The hardships, we find, compel an opossum and an Amazon river dolphin in kind. This style, a sequence between the vignettes, from the jungle to the desert via the pole, echoed the structure of the flagship television programs that I had adored, which had been broadcast on the BBC on Sunday evenings this autumn.
The cover represents the moment people remember. In the foreground, two sea lions scurry across a beach towards the frame, while another peers over his shoulder, apprehensive, with what one imagines would be no small horror, that a killer whale is coming to explode from the Atlantic breakers behind them.
Years later, I visited the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, where these scenes of killer whales stranding themselves to catch baby sea lions on the pebbles were filmed. Alas, the ingenious group of killers who became famous for this unique hunting method had the day off. (An armadillo shuffled past and sniffed my shoe, which offered some consolation).
The other images, dozens in number, almost one for each page of text, are more illustrative than spectacular: a lion cub gnawing the nose of a dead wildebeest; a cleaner wrasse takes care of the oral hygiene of a gaping grouper; a male garden spider attempts to seduce a giant female by snatching a strand of silk. By modern standards, many of the photos seem innocuous, though I found them endlessly enchanting at the time.
Likewise, reading the book now, I’m surprised at how dryly observational it seems. Attenborough is a lucid writer and an outstanding educator.
But there are few literary flourishes, and certainly none of the personal, anthropomorphic musings that characterize so much nature writing today. There’s a kind of whimsical comfort in this simplicity, and the concomitant sense that in pre-internet times, bare facts, plainly told, were enough to fire the imagination. Maybe it’s my nostalgia talking.
The truth, after all, is that my copy of The Trials was more than the sum of its pictures and words. I distinctly remember my mother’s shelves storing an earlier Attenborough book, Life on Earth. This was a paperback, and its spine was cracked from use, proof that it had been a favorite of my father, who had died when I was a boy.
It’s no great revelation to suggest that boys growing up without a father will look for surrogates in other male role models, both immediate and distant. And I have no doubt that I saw, in Attenborough, another father figure for the list. I realized, while revisiting the book, that I was reading the words of his inimitable voice.
Perhaps, more than anything, what I coveted was the closeness to him, the great paragon of curiosity. In 1990, when Trials aired, Attenborough had already been knighted and seen as many people as anyone alive. Thirty years later, it is still on our screens.
In his latest program, La Planète verte, about the world of plants, he is there in the field, at 95, joy intact, like a living embodiment of the rejuvenating capacity of intellectual passion.
But the tenor of these latest offers has changed. Rarely does a segment pass without a reference to the myriad ways human civilization has developed to jeopardize exposed environments.
One of Attenborough’s most recent books, A Life on Our Planet, is both a memoir – he calls it his “witness statement” – and a manifesto, an exhortation for “Homo sapiens, the being wise human… (to) live up to his Name”. Instead of an animal spectacle, it opens in the abandoned streets of Pripyat, Ukraine, in the shadow of Chernobyl, emblem of human self-destruction. .
For many years, the old don controversially avoided contextualizing his writings and broadcasts about the natural world with warnings of his doom. The reasoning was that his job was to inspire a love of nature in society at large.
Undermining this exhibit with news about the plight of nature, however relevant, would turn off readers and viewers, alienating public support for conservation efforts.
I was always torn about how I felt about this change. Certainly, I don’t blame Attenborough for abandoning politics, which was eventually overtaken by the urgency of our current moment.
To ignore the global biodiversity crisis now that its true magnitude has crystallized would be an abandonment. Still, it’s hard not to see The Trials as a culmination, if not of the biological science and technology deployed in its documentation, then at least of the sheer, childlike enjoyment people of all ages could derive from witnessing it. .
It’s kind of an irony that when I started to travel seriously, animal watching quickly fell to the bottom of my agenda. It said less about his objective pleasures than about my discomfort with the intrusive circus of fairing safari vehicles and rapid-fire camera shutters. The wrong kind of context can dampen even the purest enthusiasms.
For those of us who were young when it came out, the book is therefore a bittersweet artifact. Flipping through its pages, all these years later, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that my fondness for it depended to some degree on its purity, its complete lack of criticism. And that we were blessed to grow up in a time of innocence.