Can "Planet Earth II" help us love the ugly animals too?

On the surface, the ultra high-definition images of the exotic creatures in Planet Earth II can seem almost pornographic. Here are intimate encounters with nature, accessible to all with the click of a button, but curated and stylized to show only the most tantalizing views. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and the intense gaze of the camera exalt the animals like movie stars. And as with our relationships to celebrities, it is easy to forget one animal when a more interesting creature pops on screen.

 

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Premiering in the United States on Jan. 28 on BBC America, “Planet Earth II” is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who guides usthrough the six-part series focused on ecosystems throughout the world. The meticulously captured videos build on the legacy of the original “Planet Earth” (2006),evoking a sublime sense of wonder. In each hour-long episode, the viewer is catapulted from location to location for glimpses into the lives of creatures searching for food, safety or a mate. A glass frog protecting his developing eggs from vicious wasps offers a chance to experience the mystical beauty of survival in the jungle. This and other opportunities to empathize with the plight of non-human animals is the highlight of the series.

 

One gut-wrenching sequence shows crabs on Christmas Island being blinded by acid from invasive “yellow crazy ants,” which were, ironically, introduced by eco-tourism to the island. But that feeling of loss and guilt is quickly overcome as the series pivots to present the partnership of two chin-strapped penguins, who take turns on a daring commute across Zavodovski Island to bring fish back to their children while stepping past the dead bodies of their unsuccessful neighbors. The weakness of the series is that each emotionally gripping sequence is shortly followed by an equally moving portrait of another animal. It is so easy to get lost in the imagery of  “Planet Earth II” that it can become, in the words of Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’,” “escapism to help us endure the emptiness” of our own lack of connection with the natural world.

 

The “Cities” episode gives the best examples of the gritty connection between humans and other animals. It offers surprisingly hopeful suggestions for creating symbiotic spaces for our species and the rest of the natural world. Current examples include a vertical forest in Milan, groves of metal “super trees” in Singapore and the practices of local butchers of Harar, Ethiopia, who have been feeding bones scraps to spotted hyenas for centuries.

In the brief “Diaries” sequence at the end of each episode, members of the production crew speak about their own sense of wonder as well as the challenges of filming. Yet in the context of the series, this social commentary, which asks the viewer to reflect on and improve our connection to nature, seems like an afterthought to the extreme attention paid to visual storytelling.

Raw reflections on our connections to the natural world are relegated to YouTubeclips that accompany the series. Ruth Peacey, a BBC producer, who travels to the jungles of West Papua to film red birds-of-paradise, mentions growing up as a birder and learning about British birds from her father and she begins to cry as she tries to convey the gravity of the project. Clearly her personal experiences prepared her to have an intimate and moving encounter with birds in real life. Edited clips and privileged camera angles in “Planet Earth II” cannot replace individual conviction in the sanctity of the natural world.

Any sense of connection gained by watching these amazing creatures up close will be fleeting if our hearts are not open to finding and uncovering God in the ecosystems of our local communities. I will not be traveling to see the crabs on Christmas Island anytime soon. But can I instead commiserate with the rats trying to make a home in my apartment walls to escape the Chicago winters?

 

The stunning images and stories of “Planet Earth II”are not enough to give us, again in the words of “Laudato Si’,” a “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” In the end, we are left with the task to extend that sense of wonder beyond the screen and into the world around us.

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Bruce Snowden
11 months ago
After reading the beautiful account of the sanctity of the natural order in “Planet Earth ll,” even though I’ve never injured or killed a large animal, I feel the need of an examination of conscience , as I have killed hundreds of little creatures, all part of God’s sublime sense of wonder and awe in natural creation. As a Sulfi teaching says, “To pluck a flower is to trouble a star!” Yes, “Creatures big and small praise the Lord.” Its become known that, all creation is related one to the other in origin as “Laudato Si” reminds, evolution separating and typing, or coding, each creature according to species, a word invented by humanity naming what God knew all along, bringing to light the Creator’s intent. Following the “Big Bang” and its incalculable cosmological fling, nothing was left untouched, everything fingerprinted by God in stardust which all materiality is, interrelated within the concept of Divine Paternity assigned by Father God to look after all the needs of our Common Home, “Sister Earth,” as Ecology’s Patron Saint, Francis of Assisi might say. But I have killed hundreds of God’s engineering marvels, hundreds of his fabulous works of art like flies, their body structure composed of high quality protein. About this I read some years ago that scientists were trying to discover a way to use that high quality protein to help alleviate world hunger! Also mosquitoes, spiders, lizards, birds, sponges too and yes, even cockroaches, earthworms, ants included. . Did you know that one species of ant is so smart that if it wants to cross a body of water like a stream, it nibbles a leaf free of its connection then floats on the leaf like a boat to the otherside! Trying to honor the Works of God I once composed the following lines - We spit upon a snowflake, Or step upon an ant, awake. We pluck at buds assorted, Like fetal life aborted! Yet how we’d nod and fret, If works we did were rudely met! God’s natural wonders we disdain, Ecology is such a pain! Mea Culpa for my many disregards! Once as a boy I killed a sponge a living organism growing contentedly on a submerged ocean boulder, for no good reason, then threw it away. Unknown to me at the time, sponges like squids when predator threatened release a black ink-like substance as a self-preservation device confusing to the predator. As I held the severed, dying sponge, the black ink-like substance stained my hands, leaving a strong fishy scent, color and scent difficult to remove. So you my say the sponge got even with me for killing it! We believe God always forgives, we, sometimes do, but is it true that Mother Nature never does as someone has said? I doubt that. See how Mother nature revives herself if given a fair chance. The humble earthworm is especially glorious and to kill one is to contribute to the denuding of the earth! That little creature by furrowing soil allows Oxygen to enter, providing through its waste material Nitrogen – two elements, Oxygen and Nitrogen necessary to the greening of the earth. Without the earthworm Planet Earth would be barren, nothing growing! Lack of connection with nature’s ecology is as “Laudato Si” says, “escapism” resulting in the “endurance of emptiness” insightfully noted by Pope Francis in his Encyclical. I could go on much longer, but perhaps, enough said. I would like to end this “confession” of ecological guilt by repeating here the prayer I daily say honoring animate and inanimate creation. I live in southeast costal Georgia where roadkills are frequently seen, so I pray, “Heavenly Father I offer to you all roadkills of this day and all animals that will die in any way this day, along with insects and vegetation. May their life principles return to You to live forever in your memory and in the heart of Jesus." Amen I conclude this prayer with the “Glory Be” glorifying God, conscious of all my insensitive and careless use of God’s creative genius in the natural order.

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