One day, Sir David Attenborough will die. You might know Sir David, or at least you might know his voice: he’s the posh British man in your head who ruefully but matter-of-factly narrates the world around you, equally impressed by majestic blue whales and by the humble hedgehog in his backyard. He has been on TV longer than most people I know have been alive, and he is, in some obscure way, one of the touchstones of my life.
We all have celebrity patron saints, I think: those actors or musicians or writers whose works and personae hit us at the exact right moment and become, rather embarrassingly, part of our sense of self. This happens a lot to teenagers, who are not only encountering culture for the first time but encountering the world that culture is meant to interpret. In my day (way back in the internetless wasteland of the 1990s), you participated in this hero worship by reading biographies and buying every album or b-side and subscribing to a dozen magazines, and then scrawling lyrics or drawing portraits on every surface you could get your hands on. You made mix tapes and titled them with your favorite lyrics: “If you’re not angry, then you’re just stupid and you don’t care.” “What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts.” Nowadays, the youths (youths!) do this online, in the vast miasma that is Tumblr, and they are not ashamed (as I was) of their hero worship: everyone seems to acknowledge the soul-saving discovery of Big Feels.
I’m not saying that I have this teenagery, angsty, self-discovery thing with David Attenborough. But what I feel about Attenborough is like some funhouse mirror version of that: he somehow has become the celebrity patron saint of my occasionally terrific, occasionally tragic adulthood. He resides in my head the way Tori Amos did when I was 16. I want to live in the world in the way he does, because the way I live in it seems both too complicated and too shallow in comparison.
In 2009, my mother died after years of progressive illness. For me, years of overwhelming anxiety and anticipatory grief (will this be the day I get the phone call? will this? will this?) transmuted, instantly, into crippling insomnia. It wasn’t that I was crying all night, and it wasn’t that my mind was racing, not exactly; instead, my body’s desperate need for sleep was overpowered by a more desperate need to not sleep, to never sleep again. Sleep brought dreams, and dreams brought horrors: my mother’s disembodied head in a bowling bag I was forced to carry, my dead friend berating me for acting so sad when really I was the dead one. Dreams were where I met all my dead dears again, but not in the way I wanted: they were ghosts, haunting me whenever I wasn’t awake. So I became, involuntarily, a person who was awake all the time.
Eventually I got a prescription for Ambien, which was marvelous and helped my body not fall apart from sleep deprivation (and, delightfully, caused me to draw surreal cartoons before passing out).
But the nights when I didn’t take it were all the same: boredom, fear, despair, longing for normality. I knew it was grief, but knowing helped only a little. I was too scattered and exhausted to read or write. So I started doing the most soothing thing I could think of: I started rewatching my favorite nature shows in the middle of the night. I started inviting Sir David Attenborough into my own personal chaos and asking him to narrate it back to me.
Something good started to happen: I still didn’t sleep, but it didn’t matter as much. Here was the great alien world of the ocean, filmed by foolhardy camera-strapped divers in Blue Planet. Here was the grand opera of mating birds of paradise in The Life of Birds. Here was the long sleep of the polar bear and cubs in Planet Earth, and their miraculous waking. Here was a world of living things, of things that lived and then died, and here was a voice in my ear telling me that the beauty and the dying came from the same place. Here were no ghosts, only blood and teeth and howls and eggs and music. Here was Earth.
Sir David Attenborough has been called the most-traveled person on Earth. And in the most glorious moments of his documentaries, you can see exactly why: sometimes he will begin a sentence in one location and, through the magic of editing, finish it on another continent. For The Life of Birds alone, he covered 256,000 miles. (Most impressive fact about this: he flies economy!)
He was born in 1926, to a family that spawned other famous Britons (his brother Sir Richard, the acclaimed actor/director who, to people my exact age, will always be most memorable for saying “Welcome to Jurassic Park”) and fostered Jewish refugee children during WWII. Though Sir David studied science in school, he doesn’t have a higher degree: he got into nature television because his main job in his 20s was working for the BBC. In fact, he worked his way up pretty high in the BBC executive food chain before focusing full-time on broadcasting in the 1970s, when he was around 50. This is when he really became the David Attenborough we know: the plummy voice, the meerkats perching on his shoulders, the impossibly modest figure punctuating an impossibly vast landscape.
He knows that he’s become an archetype: watch him narrate this viral video of a turtle humping a shoe to see how much he gets the effect of his voice. (Bonus: watch the full episode to see him flirt shamelessly with Cameron Diaz.)
He’s the kind of presenter who, to show just how damn slow a sloth really is, will go up to one and say “boo”:
Watching The Life of Mammals made me want to make TEAM MAMMAL t-shirts. The animal kingdom changes from a catalog of beasts who would like to eat you to a giant family reunion. Who’s got warm blood? We’ve got warm blood! Though your sense of unity and kinship with all of mammalia may be challenged by this whale’s “12-foot-long, highly mobile” penis.
Another thing I’ve learned from these shows: never trust an orca. They will fuck you up.
I am not an outdoorsy person. I’m not particularly well traveled. I’m afraid of heights. I have a confusingly mutt-like American accent and I say “like” a lot when I extemporize. In other words, if I were to try to be like Sir David Attenborough, I would fail spectacularly. But his public persona, that old man wearing the same plain, practical outfit in several decades and continents, inspires me to be more okay with the world. He doesn’t believe in God, as he explains elegantly here, and neither do I—but I find him rather, well, sacred. He reminds me of Galway Kinnell’s great poem “St. Francis and the Sow”:
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Like Kinnell’s Francis, Attenborough can “reteach a thing its loveliness.” Even a highly mobile whale penis the size of a bus.
In the long dark nights of the soul, or whatever we should call them, after my mother died, I needed that. (Well, not the whale thing. The St. Francis thing.) I didn’t like the world very much. I didn’t like my brain very much. I spent so many hours just lying in my body wondering when I would feel like a person again. But that familiar voice reminded me that I lived on a planet, that I was a mammal, that my heart was beating. Everything dies, but first, everything lives. Including me.
Sir David Attenborough is 87 years old, the patron saint of my adulthood, and an international goddamn treasure. One day, his magnificent life will be over, and I will be bereft. But I like to think he will still help me sleep through the long nights on Planet Earth.
Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.