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The Poppies of Terra #28 - Our Living World

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-04-24 09:00:10

Our current entertainment landscape is evergreen with fictional bounty, which may sometimes distract us from the fact that it’s also brimming with nonfiction wonders about the natural world. Last year, for instance, brought us the dependably excellent Planet Earth III, the bone-shakingly awesome second season of Prehistoric Planet, and the geologically penetrating Life on Our Planet.

And now fresh goodies have arrived with the Cate Blanchett-narrated four-episode miniseries Our Living World. Executive produced by James Honeyborne (Wild Patagonia, Blue Planet II, Earth’s Great Rivers, Our Great National Parks, and many others), this documentary takes a different approach to many of its brethren, which are typically organized by specific domains of space and time, such as habitats or historic periods. Here, each episode instead revolves around a central abstract concept, with the interconnectivity and interdependence of ecosystems and lifeforms across the globe as the main connective tissue throughout.

The first episode, “Nature's Amazing Network,” perhaps my favorite of the lot, dramatically kicks off at rush hour in Nepal, with a rhino walking down a busy street, en route to its feeding ground. The next sequence explores how the grazing patterns of reindeer, driven by wolves, allow snow cover to build up in blankets which reflect up to 85% of the Sun's heat back into space, forming an Arctic cooling system that drives sea currents around the world on thousand-year trips. These currents help to sustain tropical coral reefs, where cuttlefish infants, for example, are sensed via electrical currents by epaulette sharks, but manage to evade capture by slowing down their three hearts. Where Atlantic currents meet hot desert air, inward-bound fog arises, leading to thunderclouds and lightning that splits air molecules, creating nitrates that then pour into the Okavango Delta, transforming the Kalahari. Fighting and frolicking hippos stir waters and stop their precious pools from stagnating, so that surrounding creatures have learned, amazingly, that hippo-flavored water is safe to drink. Brush fires in Africa liberate microscopic nutrients in the soil, and phosphorous plumes are carried across the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Amazon rainforest, where they nourish three million species. In the rainforests, Brazil nut trees rely on neighboring orchids, bees, and light-fingered agouti for their life cycles, while jaguars keep the population of grazers in check, which would otherwise lead to fewer trees and an explosion of leafcutter ants. Truly immense fungal networks–“laid end to end, they would spread beyond our Solar System”–help regulate the sharing of nutrients between trees, forming part of a “wood wide web.” All of these connections powerfully illustrate “a vast web of life,” “a living network that spans our entire world” and “connects every living being.”

“The Rhythm of Life,” the second episode, explores the fine attunement of many different creatures to both natural cycles and extremely short-lived windows of opportunity for survival. We see how dragonflies’ super fast vision render their prey in slow-motion, how lionesses, banana fiddler crabs, and musk oxen adapt to daily, lunar, and yearly rhythms, how periodical cicadas, which feed on the sap of maple trees, wait underground for 17 years to minimize exposure to predators, before emerging to complete their cycles, and how hares molt from brown to white to better disappear into the background and avoid being picked off by keen-eyed goshawks. Locations in this episode include the Kalahari desert, Northern Australia, the Norwegian tundra, Indiana woodlands, the Sahara, and Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Nature can be incredibly patient, with the precession of the planet instigating changes on a-26,000 year cycle, or incredibly swift, with millisecond-decisions–but timing is always critical. The standout section for me in this episode shows how spotted salamanders must race to reach short-lived forest pools in order to breed. Perhaps as a means of increasing their odds of finding a mate quickly, these creatures have developed the ability to glow in the twilight.

In the third and fourth episodes, “Breaking Point” and “Road to Recovery” respectively, the emphasis shifts to the adaptability of diverse species under extreme pressures, and how certain environments might be restored to more human-friendly conditions by leveraging the planet’s own intricately connected resources. We learn, for instance, that wolverines use avalanches to their advantage, hammerhead sharks rely on their snout bristles to detect the magnetic signature of the volcanic seabed, pine trees are losing the battle against western pine beetles with increasing droughts, intrepid beavers who have pioneered farther north than any of their ancestors are inadvertently releasing more methane into the atmosphere, and water-acidifying jellyfish have proliferated in the oceans–“the rise of slime.” Baboons and polar bears are shown as having to work harder in order to stay alive; migrating salmon, which help fertilize forests after spawning, are aided by the removal of man-made dams; fruit bats can reforest fire-ravaged areas; forest elephants disperse seeds that create new trees, which sequester carbon dioxide; and populations of creatures like the saiga antelope can bounce back after nearly being poached to death. The two main ideas here might be summarized by saying that life has learned to harness all of the planet’s forces–“life doesn't just need our planet’s soft side; it also relies on its rage”–and that the rewilding movement can yield great benefits and should be one of our primary points of focus. Locations throughout these two episodes include the Rockies, Cocos Island, a park in Miami, Canada’s northern shores, the Sierra Nevada Forest, the Alaskan tundra, the Pacific Northwest, downtown Sydney, and the Iberá Wetlands in Argentina. I’d single out as most poignant the gobsmacking struggle of an anole lizard, clinging to a high tree branch by a single fingernail while facing down hurricane winds.

The series boasts excellent cinematography, competent visual effects, and a score by composer Pinar Toprak always perfectly tailored to the moment. The writing of the narration ranges from the poetic (e.g. the Moon pulls our oceans “into a watery waltz”) to the punny (“time and tide wait for no crab”), with a tendency to anthropomorphize (“how's a girl to choose?”, “a typical teenager,” “speed dating,” etc.) that instantly draws us into the challenges of countless species, causing us to root for them, at times at the cost of their genuine, startling otherness. Regarding the series’ overarching engagement with climate disruption, I think we would do well to remember Morgan Freeman’s words in the episode “Age of Ice and Fire” from Life on Our Planet: “Although rare, mass extinctions change the course of history like nothing else. So far, Earth has endured five of these apocalyptic events, each one wiping out more than three-quarters of all life. What's more, the dominant species going in are not the dominant species coming out. [...] whatever future awaits, if there's one thing we've learned from the past it's that life has always found a way.” The question of whether that life includes humans or not remains open, and is beautifully amplified by this evocative and informational series, which offers a few thoughtful suggestions on how we might increase our odds.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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