Stalking the wild lady’s-slipper orchid


It’s hot, it’s humid, I’m cranky, and I don’t feel like writing, so here instead is another thrilling documentary from the Undiscovery Channel. (No, I still don’t own a real video camera, and I’m still using Windows Movie Maker.)

By coincidence, today Bug Girl linked to a CBC exposé, Cruel Camera, and an accompanying chronological guide, Fakery in Wildlife Documentaries. I knew about some of the examples, but others were new to me — for example, that Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom “use[d] staged confrontations between various species of animals. Perkins was known to also put animals in situations where he will be filmed dramatically capturing them.” Even Sir David Attenborough comes under scrutiny for a scene in Blue Planet involving spawning lobsters that was supposedly filmed off the coast in Nova Scotia, but was in fact shot in a British aquarium, as well as for a couple of other, similar deceptions in other films.

I’ve blogged about the trouble with eco-porn more than once, but Bug Girl sums up the situation quite well, I think:

I have students showing up at the university that love the environment… but don’t want to go outside.
It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around. […]

Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
Stillness and silence are not what television is about.

Except, of course, on the Undiscovery Channel.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

13 Comments


  1. Heh, I first read ‘stalking the wild lady’! Lovely to have a forest of them.

    And I see CBC’s Fifth Estate continues its good work!

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  2. I did a two-day cookery course on fish at a pretty wellknown chef training school recently…..its two-year diploma course intake is amongst the most talented of the wannabe chefs. The guy teaching our course was impressed by our willingness to gut and clean fish. Apparently the 18-year-olds nowadays want to cook but don’t like touching or cleaning dead things (fish, chicken, venison). We are raising a world that wants the fix without the work….instant gratification. Scary.

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  3. I once went on a wildlife holiday led by someone who was a producer at the BBC natural history department, and he was full of amusing anecdotes about the process of making documentaries. It became quite clear that, particularly with smaller animals, they do a fair amount of work with captive animals — filming in aquariums, for example — and his argument was that as long as the behaviour being filmed was natural behaviour, that was OK.

    On the whole I agree with him; for example, in the scene mentioned in one of those links where David Attenborough demonstrates the spitting of a spitting cobra, does it really matter that the cobra was from a snake farm, and put there just before filming? The important thing is surely that it enabled them to get great footage of it spraying him with venom. Given that he came prepared with a welder’s mask that had been treated to show up pink in the presence of venom, I don’t suppose anyone watching thought it was just a chance encounter.

    There’s certainly a question about whether you can ever completely rely on behaviour being ‘natural’ in a captive animal, even if it’s just coral spawning in a fish tank; and also there’s an issue about the extent to which you are misleading the viewers — it might be more honest to have just filmed the cobra sequence at the snake farm instead of staging it in the bush, for example — but on the whole I think that they are using all their ingenuity to find ways to get footage they couldn’t otherwise get, rather than trying to cheat. That’s the BBC, at least: there have been some genuinely appalling examples of faked wildlife documentaries.

    I think it’s good that in recent series they have had a little feature at the end of the show explaining how things were filmed, because it helps demystify it a bit; and they are quite open about the fact that they might film spider behaviour in a university lab somewhere rather than in the field. Of course those sections probably don’t make it to the US, because part of their function is to fill up the time that will be used for ads when the series is sold to other countries.

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  4. marja-leena – Heh, I first read ’stalking the wild lady’! Yeah, when I first thought of calling it that I was bothered by what seemed like an unwelcome association, but then I decided that was the real attraction of the video, if any (especially after I discovered Bug Girl’s post on nature porn).

    Lee’s River – Glad those were useful. It’s always nice to find such solid support for my own semi-informed bloviating.

    Jo – Interesting. That “yuck” reaction speaks volumes about our alienation from nature and from our own bodies, I think.

    Harry – Thanks for the lengthy and solid response. I certainly don’t have a problem with that kind of filmmaking as long as viewers are informed about its provenance, though in many cases I think that could be done right within the narration. I’m actually more bothered by the naive expectation of many viewers that the camera is a passive mirror of reality, and that any attempt to impose a storyline detracts from the authenticity. This is I think closely related to the assumption that nature and artifice have nothing in common, and that therefore the proper role of wildlife photographers and filmmakers is to depict a world in which humans have little impact. It’s that kind of assumption that feeds the idealizing objectification at the heart of eco-porn.

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  5. “Eco-porn” is a new one for me. Although it shouldn’t be a surprise in an age of eco-tourism. We live like nature is something that only happens outside, and outside of ourselves. I think it’s a good thing that eco documentaries try to reveal a bit of what is going on in the natural world, even when they provide a stage for the occurrence. If it encourages one person to work to save habitat, then it’s accomplished something. Still, it’s an interesting balance to strike when everything is reduced or exalted to commodity.

    I think I heard a beautiful thrush song in your video. Swainson’s or Hermit?

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  6. Neither — that’s a wood thrush. (I wish we had hermit thrushes. But we’re not quite high enough in elevation, I don’t think.)

    Commodification, yes — thanks for supplying the essential missing concept here. But as you say, there may be some value in shows like Animal Planet and Sierra Club wall calendar eco-porn if it leads people to support conservation measures.

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  7. Love, love, love the orchids! But where is all your poison ivy? The underbrush all seems a consistent height, too.

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  8. The poison ivy rarely intrudes into the heath-chestnut oak forest type, which is strongly layered: a ground cover of wintergreen, trailing arbutus, moss and lycopodiums, followed by a low shrub layer of huckleberry and lowbush blueberry — which is what you’re seeing here — followed by a medium shrub layer of mountain laurel, azalaea and rhododendron and a high shrub layer of witch hazel and serviceberry.

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  9. This section of our woods is probably around 125 years old. But the chestnuts all died around 75 years ago and were presumably logged out at that time, and other firewood cutting too undoubtedly took place. The oldest trees on our property go back to 1815 or so.

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  10. I’ve seen very few lady slippers here in Kentucky. There used to be some in the holler below my mother’s house but I haven’t been down there for a while. You are fortunate to have so many.

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