Calidris Reads: Attenborough

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in foreign countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Adventures of a Young Naturalist:
The Zoo Quest Expeditions

David Attenborough

Read for: Rediscovering the joy of adventurous travel

Opening: “These days zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring ‘em back alive. And quite right too. The natural world is under more than enough pressure as it is, without being robbed of its most beautiful, charismatic and rarest inhabitants.”

I admit with some embarrassment that I came late to the shrine of Sir David Attenborough.

Growing up, I had no exposure to British TV—it simply wasn’t available in our area. My childhood heroes were Jacques Cousteau, Joy Adamson, Thor Heyerdahl, and, of course, that paragon of nature documentarians, Walt Disney. I only really became aware of Sir D when his Blue Planet and Planet Earth series exploded onto our television in the early 2000s.

Today, when he is something of a cult figure, revered and followed by millions of fans around the world, it’s fun to go back and revisit (or, in my case, visit) his past. How did he get into TV nature documentaries in the first place? What was it like to make those groundbreaking BBC shows in the 1950s and 60s?

The world was literally a different place back then. International air travel was relatively new and many places were simply unreachable by plane. Many exotic species were never seen outside their native lands, some were impossible to capture and others could not be kept alive once caught. Zoos still sent out collectors to trap and bring back specimens to be put on display.

Into this uncharted frontier came young Attenborough, eager to make his mark as a TV producer of animal films shot, at least partly, on location and in the wild. Combining this goal with the London Zoo’s bottomless thirst to acquire new animals was his stroke of genius. Through circumstance, he moved from behind the camera to in front, hosting a series of programs from 1954 to 1963 under the title Zoo Quest and subsequently publishing accompanying books based on his field notes from each expedition. The 2017 volume, Adventures of a Young Naturalist, is a compilation of selected writing from the first three Zoo Quest books, covering trips to Guyana, Indonesia, and Paraguay.

The title is a bit disingenuous. If one didn’t know the kind of world-striding, internationally famed figure that Sir David represents, one might fancy the book to be a gentle reminiscence of some 12-year-old’s happy ramblings in the fields behind the family domicile, butterfly net in one hand and frog-catching jar in the other. While Attenborough may well have been that kind of child, this book’s tales range from trapping Komodo dragons to feeding a parrot chick by mouth (Sir David’s mouth, that is). Along the way, he also deals with a variety of non-wildlife challenges–politely obstructive officials, a gun-smuggling boat captain, “helpful” locals, reluctant or unreliable transport, tropical sickness, etc.—all with that uniquely English combination of pluck, cheer, and self-effacement. There’s a bit of danger (probably more than he admits to), a bit of drama, and lots of humour.

As I was reading it, a strong sense of nostalgia hit me and I realized that I was channeling some of my favourite childhood adventure stories such as Kon-Tiki and Born Free, not to mention countless National Geographic articles. I suppose one of the reasons I’ve joined the ranks of Sir David’s admirers is that at the age of 95, he still manages to convey the same wide-eyed wonder at the astounding world we live in that he shows as the cub TV presenter writing Adventures of a Young Naturalist.

Four knots: Recommended to those who enjoy looking back at the good old days of seat-of-the-pants film-making. Not recommended to those who would find white guys trading beads to natives in exchange for animals unforgivably offensive.

Are you a fan of Sir David? Why do you think he appeals to so many people? Let me know in a comment.