Saturday, August 22, 2009

Attenborough and the Flying Squirrel

In the late 70s, little girls usually stayed in school until their parents came to fetch them. They would play Chinese garter/jump-rope games, patintero (a kind of tag) and show each other the contents of their Hello Kitty pencil cases. My mom the Biology professor didn't fetch me, because I was old enough to go home by myself. We also happened to live only four blocks away.

Walking home was fun, more fun than walking to school in the morning. I learned which flowers, when picked, had sweet dew in them that children sucked (I don't know the names, but it was a red trumpet flower that grew in a bush on the way home). I learned which hedges were the likely hiding places for pet spiders. On certain days, I practically ran home, because Sir David Attenborough's BBC series Life On Earth would be showing on Channel 9. Or it might be Jacques Cousteau, sharing yet another inner space adventure from his famous vessel The Calypso. These two are the heroes of my imagination.

The other day I read in print and online news about Nepenthes attenboroughii, a newly discovered species of rat-eating giant pitcher plant unique to the Philippines. The rare pitcher plant was found on the island of Palawan, one of our last natural frontiers. The species was named by its discoverers after Attenborough, as a gesture of thanks for his lifelong career as a natural history filmmaker for the BBC. His Life series (Life on Earth, The Living Planet, The Trials of Life) spanned from 1979 to 1990, which was most of my life in school!

One summer I was working as a student assistant at the UP Zoology Dept. where my mother was assistant to the Department Head. She gave an exam for Natural Science 3 and asked me to proctor while she lectured in the next room. One of the exam sections covered parallel evolution. She had two columns listing animals, and instructed students to match scientifically unrelated animals that evolved similar physical characteristics, and to name the characteristic they shared. The ones who'd listened to the lectures and read books had no problems answering the questions.

One guy, not particularly known for his studiousness, raised his hand. "Miss, er, can you explain the two-column thing again?" I explained it according to the script my mother gave me, without giving too many of the answers away. Then it transpired that he had no clue what some animals listed looked like. Obviously he didn't study. A bit exasperated, I said, "My goodness, many of the answers were on tv last week! Don't you watch Life on Earth with David Attenborough? If you watched that show you would be able to answer this entire exam." While most of the class started giggling, many of the other students had their "Aha!" moment right after that remark and scrambled to make up for lost time. The episode I was talking about showed and discussed the similarities between a bat and a flying squirrel.

The guy who didn't study was (I think) the same guy who later used brilliantine pomade to protect his hands while dissecting a cat in my mother's class for Comparative Anatomy. Eventually I believe he became a doctor. Now that I look back on it all I want to laugh at how prissy and supercilious I was as a proctor. It didn't occur to me that other kids preferred to spend their afternoons doing things other than watching BBC nature documentaries. But I loved it then, the way I love the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel now. In fact one day I want to order the Attenborough videos.

So now the Philippines has a link to David Attenborough. Jacques Cousteau has a link with the Philippines, too - the Calypso docked here in the early 1990s when Cousteau was investigating an underwater cave system in Palawan, before sinking in a storm off Singapore in 1996. Imagine, two of my TV heroes, both linked to the country via Palawan. How cool is that? My sister, our friends and I mourned when Cousteau passed away in 1997. We had decided to learn scuba diving because of him. I no longer dive, but I still enjoy snorkelling. The oceans still hold much fascination for me.

When I close my eyes I can see David Attenborough's wildly windswept hair, and I can hear his voice, cultured yet emphatic. He'd probably be walking on the beach in his chinos, barefoot, pointing at a horseshoe crab and examining the undersides, comparing it to trilobites. Goodness, he must be in his mid-80s now. Today we have a crop of extreme adventurer-naturalists, whom I think owe their inspiration in some part to his filmmaking. They're very entertaining right enough, but sometimes I do look for an enthusiastic but contemplative commentary from a naturalist who lets Nature be the star instead.