Monday, March 26, 2007

Planet Earth Runs at the Wrong Speed

Planet Earth, the new 11-part documentary from the Discovery Channel and the BBC, promises more than it delivers. Or maybe it delivers what it promises, but we've become so numb to seeing gorgeous images of land and animal all over the television dial that it's near impossible to pull off something truly awe-inspiring.

None of which is to say that Planet Earth is bad, just that it's not the revolutionary leap it professes to be.

There's nothing wrong with the images, which are beautifully shot and impeccably edited, but after three episodes they get a bit redundant. Seemingly everything in this show moves in either slow-motion or fast-motion. It's often extraordinary - such as a one-second shark attack leaping out of the water to snag a seal slowed down to 47 seconds or numerous time-lapse sequences of clouds pouring over mountain ranges - but slow-down scene after sped-up scene feels a bit dishonest after a time. Yes, seeing a vampire squid unfurling in the dark deep is beautiful, but Planet Earth relies on beauty to the point where it's little more than a moving post-card, beautiful but not deep.

Three episodes debuted on Sunday night - "Pole to Pole," "Mountains," and "Deep Ocean" - and they all follow the same basic structure: an unconnected set of vignettes with an emphasis on predator/prey relations. The opening episode, "Pole to Pole" offers a loose structure of moving from the North Pole to the South Pole but it was so loose as to be nearly absent. It starts very strong, slowly working down from polar bears in the Arctic down to the start of the planetary tree-line in northern Canada, but this overt structure is soon forgotten and Planet Earth dissolves into one vignette after another.

As 10-15 minute chunks, it's fine, but taken as a whole it all starts to bleed into a whole host of other documentaries shown all over the place. We could definitely use a stronger narrative - if you're going to have a narrator, you might as well have them tell a story instead of sounding like she's narrating her vacation photos.

Worse, while the production is entitled Planet Earth, it's real focus is on the non-human creatures that populate the planet - there's little about the actual Earth, except for a few quick infodumps through narration and time-lapse photography.

It's interesting television but it's not compelling television. It also relies on its beauty to go light on the science. In the segment on the panda bear (you knew there'd be a panda bear segment, just like you knew there'd be a polar bear segment and a penguin segment) from "Mountains," narrator Sigourney Weaver informs that the panda doesn't hibernate like other bears because it's sole food supply is bamboo, which doesn't provide enough nutrients to build up the fat needed to hibernate. This also prevents the mother panda from providing nutritious milk to its babies, resulting in the mother panda being able to provide for only one baby at a time; if she gives birth to two offspring, one is abandoned.

The obvious question - why is bamboo their only source of food? The panda is a bear, after all, so why doesn't it hunt? A quick perusal of the World Wildlife Fund website reveals pandas "are closely related to bears and have the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source." Even more, its not bamboo that's light in nutrients, but rather that pandas are "not designed to process plant matter," meaning "the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts - as much as 83 pounds or about 40 kg, and for up to 14 hours, each day." So pandas have chosen to become herbivores yet have chosen to stake their health on a food source that doesn't provide them with an adequate diet. I didn't hear an adequate explanation of that seemingly colossally bad decision.

That kind of information isn't what Planet Earth is going for, but if you half-raise an idea it's not really the audience's fault for completing it.

Further, there's plenty of rare footage - several times already they've heralded their footage with narration like "this is the first time a complete wolf hunt of caribou has been captured on film" or "this is the first instance of recorded intimate behavior between snow leopards," and so on. And it is amazing footage to see, for the first time, a mother snow leopard caring for her one year old cub (which is nearly her size yet incapable of hunting for itself), but, honestly, when you look at it, it's a cat licking another cat and anyone who's seen a domesticated cat give birth to a litter has seen this behavior. I'm not arguing all cats are the same, of course, just that if Ripley wasn't telling you it was the first time you were seeing it, you wouldn't think it was the first time you were seeing it.

And while it's great that they've captured a wolf hunting down a young caribou, if we're only getting to see one minute or so of edited footage, then it looks just like any other wolf hunting down a deer we've ever seen. The show can't show the entire hunt, of course, due to time restraints, but when you draw attention to what makes you unique and then the final result you offer doesn't look all that unique it's not the audience's fault if the footage appears to come up short.

The show is stronger when they show you the moments you are not familiar with seeing - such as elephants swimming in the Okavango Delta, or the Delta itself coming alive each year as the water rushes in, or a mother panda caring for her infant inside a darkened cave, or the teamwork between dolphins and birds to trap a school of bait fish so that they both may feed. For every sequence that's awe-inspiring, though, there's one you've sworn you've seen before, and no matter how gorgeous the images are, the repetitive hunter/hunted trope wears thin.

I'm sure I'll tune in every Sunday night to catch each new episode but the show is a bit of a letdown. Too many pretty pictures too often sped up or slowed down result in a show about nature that doesn't actually represent nature, as it is, all that much. We're getting a soft sell here - we're getting the visual but we're not getting it is nature gives it to us. We're also not getting the sound to go along with it. Nature is beautiful, but it's also raw, powerful, and comes with a kick-ass soundtrack.

You don't get a sense of that rawness, of that power, anywhere in Planet Earth, to the detriment of my enjoyment.

Planet Earth airs Sunday night at 8 PM EST on the Discovery Channel.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Are Humpbacks Nature's Jam Band?

January's National Geographic featured an article by Douglas Chadwick on humpback whales entitled "What Are They Doing Down There?" The article is one of NG's typical "state of the union" features where they touch on a range of issues without necessarily delving too deeply into any one area. I'm not criticizing the style; it serves to do what NG does best, mixing big picture ideas with gorgeous photography in an enticing blend of wonder and soft science. If the mag slips too much towards pathos, it tries to recover by tossing in a map (like this one on humpback migration) to regain some street cred.

I want to skirt National Geographic as a topic for this post. It is what it is - some like it, others hate it and I don't mean to belittle either argument by not raising the debate here. (If anyone wants to have that debate, feel free in the comments section.) My quick hit on Geographic is that it's an important gateway drug into thinking about the world beyond one's immediate place. In the pre-Animal Planet/Discovery days there wasn't a whole of access to the kinds of stories and topics Geographic covered, and the natural world came into our house mostly through Geographic, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and PBS.

I want to focus on the issue the article raises last - the singing of humpback whales. It's an interesting way to end the article; as a whole the piece offers a blending of the known and unknown about humpbacks, covering (in order): the rise in humpback population (with the North Pacific pop now somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 whales), migration routes, the breathholder phenomenon (humpbacks who stay under for 30 minutes just sort of hanging out, conserving energy), mating behavior (in which one female is trailed by a squadron of males), social behavior, child-rearing, and finally the humpback's song.

The song remains a mystery, which makes it the perfect topic to end the article. The public perception (and until 1997 the scientific perception) that the song plays a role in mating has been discredited in the scientific community but has yet to reach out into the mainstream audience. The topic serves one well for their next dinner party because whales are both extremely well-known in the general and unknown in the particular. They're "majestic," and "peaceful" and "graceful" and they didn't eat Timothy Treadwell.

(Sure, one swallowed Jonah and another nabbed Geppetto, but both potential meals got away.)

Here's a rundown of where Jim Darling, who's been working the humpback's song mystery for 25 years and is a Whale Trust Researcher (and the main source for this section of the article) stands:

- Only males sing.

- Singing is not part of a mating ritual. When males sing they attract other males to them and not females.

- Singing does not appear to be a challenge, either. Males will "often circle each other without obvious aggression. They may even swim off together like bachelor buddies, often to join other whales."

- On song structure: "Its formal structure is built from a succession of themes, or melodies, that have a striking range of tones from piccolo chirrups to low-pitched foghorn blasts. Some scientists say they can detect rhymes."

- Humpbacks from the same region will sing the same song (with subtle variations), while whales from different regions will sing different songs.

- The songs change over time, even changing over the course of a single breeding season: "A decade ago, the humpbacks in the ['Au'au] Channel ended their song with a rising series of whoops just before coming up for breath. The next year, the finale switched to a series of ribbits. Two years ago the song had only four themes, down from as many as eight in earlier years, and even a novice could pick out a new growly tone dominating a particular section. As of 2006, there were six themes, one with a recently added flourish of four loud squeaks, and the final noises before surfacing were more like a buzz."

Geographic (not Darling, tellingly) poses the following questions: "Could it be that the whales sing to establish their identity as a group or possibly as individuals? That they are telling others about who they are and where they come from? Or sharing lore about the currents and fish and maybe the stars?"

The fact is that no one knows, so however one feels about the possibility of any of Geographic's theories all of those options are still on the table because they can't be disproven. You gotta feel for a guy like Darling who's spent a quarter-century trying to figure this out. It seems like a mystery that should be rather solvable. Not easily solvable, sure, but it does appear from an outside perspective that a simple process of elimination based on other animal behavior should at least lead experts towards a generally accepted answer. But it hasn't. That "generally accepted answer" was the mating position, which Darling helped to disprove.

The first question I ask whenever this topic comes up (and I admit I've always got a kick out of listening to audio recordings of whale songs) is whether our labels are improperly herding us to a preconfigured discourse. It's called a "song," which lends to a certain mindset of rules and thinking and language. We read the following set of words and phrases in the article: formal structure, themes, melodies, piccolo, rhymes, finale, sections, flourish.

I'm not arguing it's wrong to label what the whales are doing as singing, but given that we know so little about why they sing and what function the song performs, I don't think we should let ourselves be trapped into a discourse dominated by musical terms. Use the language but don't become trapped by it.

I have no idea why the humpbacks are singing, or how regional difference plays a role in the evolution of the songs, but what draws me to this question is that the songs do seem to be evolving - the songs evolve and yet that regional cohesion remains. Are the whales composing songs as they go, or is it simply a matter of following the lead, the way a hit song or sound on the radio is quickly replicated by other artists? Is it right to even think of each season's song as independent from other seasons, or should we be thinking of them as one long epic poem or set of chapters? Or maybe, at the end of the day, the humpbacks just like to sing to pass the time and the function is simple amusement. If there's a human equivalent to be had, is it Homer, Beethoven, Phish, people who do karaoke?

And how does their singing position play into any of this? According to Chadwick, the typical singing posture has the humpback "positioned with its head down at a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters), its pectoral fins spread wide, and its tail toward the surface." (See image back at the start of this post for a picutre of the singing posture.)

I feel okay not knowing since even the experts don't know, but I can't get away from the idea that this shouldn't be that hard to figure out. And yet it obviously is, which leads me to think maybe we're not asking the right questions. Or we've got the right questions but we're not using the right language in asking them.

Above Image Copyright National Geographic

Monday, March 12, 2007

Eatin' Good In Your Neighborhood (Or At Least Thereabouts)

A few months back in Herbivore (a vegetarian alt-news magazine, for the uninitiated) I read a plea to the readership to eat locally. In the piece, author Jen Billig, the Activist Gardner, argues that one of the biggest issues facing people (anybody who eats, not just veg-friendly folks) these days is the connection between food production—in this case the growing of foods—and its distribution to America’s thirst for oil. The article, though loosely written, makes a valid point: growing food takes oil, both to produce fertilizers and pesticides as well as trails of unfixed carbon and other pollution in the wake of the trains, planes, and automobiles that tote foods to groceries. Plainly the impetus is some notion of reducing fossil fuel consumption, either as a means of production or of transportation. As such it dovetails nicely with the environmental movement at-large in that less oil used is a good thing. In any event, Billig’s point is well taken as, ahem, food for thought. (I'd put a link to it, but Herbivore is pretty low-fi. You can check what webstuff they have here.)

And then just last week, the alternative news matured to national standing. Venerable Time magazine ran with a cover image of a looming red apple whose sticker proclaimed, “Forget Organic, Eat Local.” Time’s piece was appropriately fluffy given its general audience, a not terribly introspective personal essay, really, detailing author James Cloud’s internal dialogue concerning which option—organic or local, as if they were mutually exclusive—serves his taste buds better. While Cloud’s essay presents a manageable picture of the state of eating locally today, it's woefully limited in its thinking. For Cloud the debate is new, a product of one American’s increasing sensitivity to the role petroleum products play in getting goods on shelves. In that sense his argument is even less complex than Gillig’s because he doesn’t even touch the fact that most fertilizers and pesticides are partially, if not wholly, derived from petroleum distillates.

Furthermore, his research smacks of the assigned story. He cites, most only obliquely, some books that have informed his thinking: Ann Cooper’s Bitter Harvest, Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life, Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Samuel Fromartz’s Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. The article notes that these books were published, respectively, in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2006. It’s this kind of “five year rule” mentality that comes off as the urbanite doing all his research at his local Manhattan Barnes and Noble. Similarly, the seemingly overt reasoning for the article in the first place—organic versus local—peters out at some point, becoming an amusing foray into what role local plays for Cloud, all the while chomping on his McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Then again, maybe I’m projecting the missing organic argument. There’s something about the Filet-O-Fish that undermines a writer’s credibility on organic stuff for me.

Urbanite mentality indeed, by the way. The tone of the article has a kind of New York condescension. He calls the farmer’s co-op—from which he buys a significant portion of his food, at least while he wrote this story—pejoratively “lefty” and is suspicious of it for reasons he doesn’t bother to explain. His position on farmer’s markets—he repeatedly calls them “inconvenient”—belies the urbanite’s hustle. While I understand that Time magazine isn’t America’s bastion of critical thinking and complex analysis, I had higher expectations for the article. At the very least I would have thought that the piece might engage in something other than the dilettantism that Cloud writes. His most interesting source is a trip to Google’s Café 150, one of eleven food service locations on the Google Campus, where the on-site chef prepares daily meals based solely on what is available locally—as they define it, within the titular 150 miles. And yet, as enlightening as the visit is (or could be), Cloud comes off more amused by the concept than its significance or utility, like a guy who's happy to be on a expense account.

By the end of the article, I wondered how much of the piece works as a valid explanation of a contemporary issue, what I presumed cover stories were supposed to be. In my judgment: very little. True, toward the end Cloud is willing to cop to the fact that he likes his organic granola bars and Froot Loops because they are easier to deal with than the eggs he gets as part of the eating locally program he eventually signs up for. At the same time there is a lurking sense that, despite all the nice things he has to say about the locally grown foods’ tasting better and possibly being better for him, he comes off as the city-dweller that can think about his food in only two ways. First, as commodity that needs to be wrestled with daily, primarily because he has to buy it to live, and ancillarily because it just might have something to do with gas prices. And second—when he has the chance—as a romantically connected to where his food actually comes from, like when he sees the kids on the family farm who gather the eggs he eats. That moment, by the way, is as warm and fuzzy as only a person who has never visited a farm can write it: it’s pithy and clichéd because he’s “connected” by being there (despite the fact that he doesn’t harvest anything himself).

A serious consideration of agriculture’s widespread use of petroleum is in order. Time, however, drops the rock. Perhaps the most important thing that comes from the article is the implied lesson for those who are willing to take up the eating local banner. Namely, that this business about local (and to a lesser extent, organic) foods is still, despite making it to the mainstream, a fringe movement. And by fringe movement, I mean—as Cloud seems to imply—something that city folk can’t be bothered with except as a hobby. That Cloud takes care to make a false opposition between organic and local doesn’t help either.