The Way the Hen Kicks
Note: An extract from a novel in progress
My most successful idea, hailed by my producers as genius for the way it humanised and made very real the plight of animals on the verge of extinction, was a show in which six teams of biologists, two women and a man usually, followed a different vulnerable or endangered species throughout a whole year, one species in one year in each episode, for six episodes (very expensive, but still bought by the BBC).
The idea was to follow a family, or a unit of individuals, or a pack, or a group of that species, to create a sense of familiarity with that group, or pack, or family, as one would if one watched a human family make their way through a year in a life.
From the potential candidates of threatened or vulnerable species to follow we made an initial list of twelve, including: the Slender Billed Vulture, the Iberian Lynx, the Tasmanian Devil, the Polar Bear, the Fishing Cat, Kirtland’s Warbler, the European Eel, the Cuban Crocodile, the Metallic Tarantula, the African Elephant, the Tree Hole Crab, and finally the Caspian Seal. As we needed six species only, the creative minds of the company I was employed with gathered together to filter the list down to what we would consider a set of species that would be able to capture the viewer’s imagination and hold it there, captive, for a whole hour. We also had to consider the logistics of filming and the feasibility of, let’s say, following an eel over the span of a whole year.
1. Slender Billed Vulture
Rationale: chosen for its naturally bad reputation, but also for its strong sense of family/group (groups of vultures are called wakes) and its highly territorial behaviour. The creative group really enjoyed picking this species whilst they knew it was a so-called left-field choice, but felt certain that viewers would find the animal fascinating and therefore feel quite cool about themselves for overcoming a prejudice towards an animal that everyone would usually consider despicable.
2. The Iberian Lynx
Rationale: the most threatened of all feline species, the Iberian lynx was a clear candidate for inclusion in the series, but still a difficult choice while choosing to film it might endanger it further. The team fell in love with the Iberian lynx because of its striking good looks, but also for its name. The researchers thought the name would remind viewers of Michael Jackson’s song Liberian Girl and that this would create an immediate bond. Also, who doesn’t like big cats? And big cats with beautiful ears and a beautiful leopard-like fur, from Spain? A sure-shot it was agreed. No further discussion. The Iberian lynx needed saving and all the help we could give, we would give, and stay as much out of the way of conservationists as possible, promising not to do anything to threaten further its presence on this earth.
3. The Metallic Tarantula
Rationale: the team thought this one a left-fielder as well, and were very happy with the choice, and themselves for making it. That was in itself argument good enough for choosing this amazing-looking gigantic sapphire blue spider, it was maintained – that it was an odd choice. Also the Latin name of the spider, Poecilotheria metallica, appealed to the heavy-metal listening portion of the team of researchers, and the nail in the choicecoffin was that it could be filmed in the exact same area as the slender billed vulture, in northern India towards Bangladesh, to be exact. It didn’t hurt the metallic tarantula’s candidature, either, that its females are known to be aggressive towards males before mating.
4. The Polar Bear
Rationale: there was really no need to justify why the polar bear should be a part of this series. It was practically on the list before anybody had even thought about creating the programmes. Obvious qualities include: cuteness, strength, fierceness, ability to withstand cold, close family ties between mother and child, patience, clumsiness when playing, and so on. Being at the edge of the world, symbolising the unknowing victims of changing climatic conditions, the polar bear, it was unanimously agreed, would be the flagship species of the series, the focal point around which all the other one-hour emissions would revolve, bounce from, and be in dialogue with.
5. Kirtland’s Warbler
Rationale: a story of near-extinction and recovery, a true heartwarming and uplifting counter-thrust to all those who say the world is doomed and that we can’t ever change anything, Kirtland’s warbler was again an obvious choice to give the series a touch of hope and light. Also important, felt the team, was the unique habitat of this songbird, being as it is very close to human dwellings in, amongst other places, the US of A. Human conservation super-story the team agreed, and looked forward to filming it while being able to spend their nights in comfortable US motels, relaxing with a few beers after a long day outside, watching HBO specials.
6. The Caspian Seal
Rationale: it was clear that the team needed to choose an animal of the sea as well, though it wanted to include the Tasmanian devil, for obvious reasons, but couldn’t as it was another landdweller. The choice fell on the Caspian seal, ahead of the European eel, the Cuban crocodile and the tree hole crab, again for the obvious reasons of cuteness and general accessibility. If you have ever seen the eyes of a Caspian seal pup you wouldn’t even think twice before choosing it ahead of the young of the European eel. That said, this seal does live in the Caspian Sea and it would have been better for the series as a whole if it could have been a seal threatened with extinction that was also at the same time threatened by the polar bear, on a day-to-day basis. Also chosen ahead of the European eel because, let’s be frank, it would have been impossible to make anyone empathise with an eel for a whole hour and near impossible to film anyway.
It wasn’t usually my job to execute the ideas I came up with. I had never had any interest in directing, nor producing, but during the yearlong research and filming of the episode concerning the polar bear, I did, albeit briefly, get involved. I wanted to come along for a week just to get a break from office work, and it so happened that my sister was up around Svalbard that summer as well, doing her initial PhD research on the Minke whale, so we decided I should come with her for the few weeks when she would be passing by where we were filming, on her way to Jan Mayen. I had planned to return to London after that, quite sure I would’ve had enough of the outdoors by then.
What I hadn’t expected, or what I had no way of knowing, was that after a few days with the film crew, first in Longyearbyen, and then at a camp on the island of Nordaustlandet, I would feel no interest in filming the polar bear, and even less interest in spending time with the crew and the show’s chosen presenters, or talent as they are called. I felt a more or less immediate aversion to the whole project I had concocted, and it didn’t feel better by being around the very people I had convinced that this was a good idea.
When it came time to go with my sister on the scientific hunting vessel Magerøy, I eagerly left my colleagues and hoped I’d never have to work with them again. It wasn’t that they were terrible people. No. I really liked many of them, but I just couldn’t stand the idea of working in TV anymore.
Aboard the Magerøy, as we approached Jan Mayen in worse and worse weather, and as the small ship started filling up with whale meat, I decided to quit my job.
What I realised was that, standing in the midst of Nature, watching the mountains and the frothing icy ocean that surrounds Jan Mayen, as opposed to being in the midst of Culture, in London, I had been wrong about everything I thought the people of the world needed to know about the world. I felt something as strong as a revelation, or a vision, rise up in me, and the essence of the vision was that Man is not the measure.
I felt the dull indifference of the cosmos to the human narrative about it. It gripped me, this indifference, and I sighed very loudly where I stood watching the majestic mountain tops disappear into some quickly moving mist.
I thought about all the species that had come and gone since the beginning of life on earth, and I could not argue for why any of the currently threatened ones should be saved, which on a fundamental level was the very idea my TV series was based on. I felt an immediate disgust with the culture I was a part of that had made me think that I was somehow significant and that the things I wanted to do would have an impact on the world around me. I felt disgusted that I was preparing to make other people feel guilty and anxious about something they have no control over. You could say I lost my illusions that day.
I was looking out at the vast ocean, holding onto the ship’s railing as it fell down onto each wave’s trough, and what I saw was inevitability. It was written large everywhere. The ocean spray was spelling it out across the deep. Even the act of killing the Minke whales felt inevitable and insignificant, in the ultimate perspective of the universe.