Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
-- John Muir
I hope the millions of viewers who stood in long lines, plunked down $15, and slapped on a pair of ridiculous 3D glasses to watch the spectacle that was Avatar also will find themselves in front of a television some Sunday night in the coming weeks to soak up -- sans disposable spectacles -- the wonder that is Life, the 11-part series on the Discovery Channel that debuted on March 21, the first full day of spring.
Life, which airs in two one-hour episodes each Sunday night for five weeks, is a joint project between Discovery and the BBC and is the follow-up to the much-heralded, truly epic series Planet Earth. When our 10-year-old son Vasco arrived from Malawi last April with only a few English words in his vocabulary, the Planet Earth series, which we own on DVD, was one of the first things we watched with him. Even though he understood virtually nothing that the narrator, Sigourney Weaver, said, the sheer wonder evoked by the stunning visuals kept him (and us) riveted for many hours.
Life is narrated by the familiar voice of uberstar Oprah Winfrey -- the ersatz guru to millions of men and women around the globe whom some have dubbed "America's pastor." Visually, Life is as striking as Planet Earth, and takes viewers into an even closer look at plants, animals, fish, reptiles, birds, and amphibians than its predecessor.
Like Planet Earth, Life was an epic endeavor four years in the making, with more than 3,000 days of filming on every continent on Earth. Photographers in the air, under water, and wielding equipment from the biggest telephoto lens imaginable to the tiniest camera attached to a stick able to capture hyper-close-up footage of a Venus fly trap digesting a fly or the teensy stalk-eyed fly literally blowing up its own head like a balloon, captured breathtaking footage, much of it of sights never before seen by most humans.
The inaugural episode, "Challenges of Life," did not begin with heartwarming images of sweet baby mammals or soaring vistas from the Himalayas. Instead, the episode began with three beautiful leopards stalking and killing -- rather brutally -- a female ostrich while her mate stood by wailing. Life is as difficult and horrifying as it is beautiful, the filmmakers seemed to be saying.
"Open your eyes to the beauty, the power and the wonder ... of Life!" is the program's slogan. It's as much a spiritual call to attention as it is scientific, educational or commercial.
Be awake. Be aware. Pay attention to the world around you.
Life is complicated. Another scene -- unbelievable footage taken in the mountains high above the Dead Sea in Israel -- tracked a 10-day-old ibex kid as it fled for its life pursued by a red fox. Phew! It would have been hard to keep watching with high-spirited enthusiasm of the ibex baby had become lunch for the fox.
On the flip side, in the second episode aired, "Reptiles and Amphibians," we sat gape mouthed and wincing as a water buffalo died a slow, horrible death over a three-week period, slowly poisoned by the bite of a Komodo dragon. As the buffalo writhed in pain, more and more dragons gathered, nipping at its hooves like demons. When the buffalo finally gives up the ghost, 10 Komodos strip its carcass clean in just a few hours.
This is not a Disney-fied version of nature. Life presents the natural world as complex and troubling as it really is. Therein, I believe, lies the peculiar power of this particular series.
Happily, there is a healthy dose of whimsy and delight both in God's creation and in Life. I could have stared for hours at the riotous colors of the panther chameleon with its sticky lasso-like tongue that could shoot out and capture a grasshopper more than a foot away. And I have a new appreciation for frogs after watching the inch-long strawberry frog load one tadpole at a time onto its back and haul them hundreds of feet up a rain forest tree so they would develop out of harm's way.
We giggled joyously as we watched a basilisk aka the "Jesus Christ lizard" skittle upright across the surface of the water to escape a praying raptor, and we marveled as baby brown-tufted capuchin learned -- by trial and error -- how to use just the right rock to crack open a palm nut.
Life is extraordinary. It's full of colors and creatures and stories that are better (and truer) than anything James Cameron could have dreamed up on his fictitious Pandora.
L'Chaim! To Life!