Hope for the Botanically Challenged -- the Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behaviour by David Attenborough

By Austad, Steven | Natural History, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Hope for the Botanically Challenged -- the Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behaviour by David Attenborough


Austad, Steven, Natural History


THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS: A NATURAL HISTORY OF PLANT BEHAVIOUR, by David Attenborough. Princeton University Press, $26.95; 320 pp., illus. This book accompanies a six-part television series, airing on TBS Superstation from October 9 to 14.

I first realized that I was among the botanically challenged one raw spring day while crossing Harvard Yard with a plant-enthusiast friend of mine. The wind was blasting the ancient elm trees in the Yard, making seeds rain on the paved walkways below. There, scurrying students heedlessly ground the seeds underfoot. "My God," said my friend in something between real and mock horror, "look at all the road kills."

To make that observation requires a certain imagination--an imagination that I unfortunately lack. But it does point out how a visceral appreciation of plants requires an awareness of fulfilled or squandered possibilities rather than the mere observation of intrinsically dramatic events. Appreciation of plants also presupposes an ability to come unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five. After all, plants do little that we can actually observe in everyday human time, except perhaps attract animals that are more immediately rewarding to watch.

Not that plants don't perform all the same biological necessities--voyaging, mating, sacrificing, fighting, aging, manipulating, and deceiving--in as interesting a fashion as animals. But they operate on a different time scale, one more suited to, say, weathering house paint or people who drive ten miles per hour below the speed limit.

In principle, if we get the perverse thrill that most of us do from seeing a lion eviscerate a wildebeest, then we might also find the spectacle of a fungus eviscerating an oak thrilling-if we had a few years to spend watching it happen. Alternatively, we can view David Attenborough's new television series, The Private Life of Plants, and let the camera speed up the evisceration to a rate that is indeed thrilling.

The series doesn't only cover plants. It also covers fungi and algae and might more properly be titled The Private Life of Things That Aren't Animals and That Most People Think Are Boring. But the series is anything but boring and represents what I think is Attenborough's, best work so far. The medium of film, with all its tricks of time lapse, slow motion, stop motion, and animation, is ideal for dramatizing the superficially mundane. And Attenborough has used all these tricks to excellent effect. Besides the expected, but spectacular, time-lapse shots of sprouting leaves, blooming flowers, and ripening fruit, we also see leaves dance and dodge as they try to track spots of sunlight fluttering across the forest floor; vine tendrils lassoing twigs as neatly as any cowboy; and toad-flax reaching high to tamp its seeds inside castle wall crevices as precisely as a persnickety gardener.

In addition to these cinematic tricks, there is the usual incredible photography--the perspectives so difficult to get and so exquisite to perceive that any normal nature documentary would be built around one such sequence. Yet this Attenborough series packs in many such shots: ants slipping into a pitcher plant's throat, taken from beneath the liquid inside the pitcher plant; the fate of the seeds inside the chambers of an ant colony; or close-ups of a hummingbird so near and clear that we can almost count the individual pollen grains on its beak.

Attenborough's gift should not be misunderstood as merely a talent for recognizing and arranging superior cinematography. He also has a knack of identifying especially intriguing phenomena and knowing how to dramatize them. The usual suspects are here, of course--the giant sequoia for its immense size, the bristlecone pine for its great age. But more typically, he dramatizes something less well appreciated, such as the remarkable ability of trees to draw groundwater up into their canopies. …

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