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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Amazing Rare Things

Air Date: Week of

A red-billed toucan (Ramphastos tucanus), c.1705-10 (Courtesy of the Royal Collection)

Naturalist and documentary film- maker Sir David Attenborough talks with host Steve Curwood about his new book, “Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery.” In the book, Sir Attenborough explores how artists exposed Europeans to nature in the New World beginning in the 15th century.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In the 15th century European explorers set out for adventure and discovery in the New World. When they returned to Europe they brought with them specimens of the odd plants and animals they found: lobsters, porcupines, and chili peppers, to mention just a few. Scientists and artists of the time were the first to document these curiosities. And over time, many of their drawings and watercolors were collected by the English kings and today are housed in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.

That collection has recently been tapped for a book entitled “Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural history in the Age of Discovery.” Sir David Attenborough, who’s known for his nature documentaries, including “Planet Earth,” helped to write and edit the book. I asked him how this project got started.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, the Royal Collection has a gallery attached to it and regularly shows things from the collection. There’s a great wealth of natural history drawings in the collection and we decided to do a selection from there. And I was invited to help in selecting the pictures and selecting the artists, which was of course an extraordinary privilege. I mean to riffle through—if I may put it that way—riffle through drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, is quite a privilege.

Amazing Rare Things Book cover (Courtesy of Yale University Press)

CURWOOD: Indeed. In fact, those horse studies—I mean to look inside the mind of an artist and see how he was doing the studies.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, I mean ‘artist’ is an inadequate word, really, for Leonardo da Vinci. I mean it’s an accurate word of course. Leonardo’s curiosity into how things worked is just mind-blowing. And the details and of course the sheer beauty of the drawings is absolutely extraordinary.

CURWOOD: Leonardo, the quintessential—perhaps the definitional—renaissance man. In your book, Sir David, you quote something that he wrote around 1490 that shows that he was even formulating a Gaia hypothesis. Could you read from that for us please?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, Leonardo wrote: ‘Just as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, so this body of the earth is similar. Whereas man has bones within himself, the supports and frameworks of the flesh, the world has rocks, the supports of the earth. If man has within him the lake of blood wherein the lungs expand and contract in breathing, the body of Earth has its ocean, which also expands and contracts every six hours with the breathing of the world. As from the said lake of blood arise the veins, which spread their branches through the human body. Likewise, the ocean fills the body of the earth with an infinite number of veins of water.’

CURWOOD: So indeed, a vision that the earth is an organism—the Gaia hypothesis—just like a human. And we get this from Leonardo da Vinci in 1490.

ATTENBOROUGH: That’s correct.

CURWOOD: I guess today’s environmentalists should move over for a moment.

The uterus of a gravid cow, c.1508 (Courtesy of the Royal Collection)

ATTENBOROUGH: (laughs) But it’s a remarkable vision, isn’t it? And it shows such understanding of both the earth and the body.

CURWOOD: Perhaps one could say, of the people who are in your book, that they’re all at the same time artist-scientists. And perhaps that’s what, due to the time, that if you’re going to tell the story of the things you were observing that you would need to have the pictorial representation and there was no one else to do it but yourself?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes. But some weren’t even scientists. I mean it’s quite remarkable how you actually have to know how something works before you can draw it accurately. And that’s a very interesting little problem. I mean there’s a drawing from a man called Cassiano dal Pozzo, he commissioned artists to draw these things and the artist is faced with, for example, a sloth, or maybe you call it a ‘sloth.’ But it, as you well know, it spends its life hanging upside down. Now you couldn’t possibly know that it spends its life upside down if you’d just been sent the skin, unless you really understood the mechanics of the thing. And they looked at this and they naturally drew it as if it was standing horizontally but in the normal sort of way with its feet beneath it. And the result is, I mean to our eye, of course grossly unnatural—almost comic—because it doesn’t work that way. So you really have to understand about these creatures before you can draw them accurately.

CURWOOD: One of the most interesting characters, that I’d never heard of before I’d read your book, was this woman who’d went to Suriname. Can you tell me her story, please?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes she—Sibylla Merian was her name—she was a widow and she earned her living selling insect specimens in Holland. And in the mid 50s she decided that she’d like to go and see many of these specimens that she had been selling, and draw them in the wild. And so off she hopped, with her daughter, to Suriname. And there she collected caterpillars and watched them as they metamorphosed into the adult insects, not knowing what they were going to turn into, and produced, as a result of this, some magnificent plates which subsequently became very famous indeed, and very beautiful they are, too. You can certainly tell a Merian drawing. She has a deep affection for curls. I mean she can’t resist a curl.

A red-billed toucan (Ramphastos tucanus), c.1705-10
(Courtesy of the Royal Collection)

CURWOOD: So what was her intended audience? For these early artists of nature—who was expected to look at their works?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, buyers. There has been always people ever since the invention of printing, who buy books for the beauty of their plates. And what more beautiful subject can you have than animals and plants? And Merian, as I said, earned her living by selling insects by insect specimens but her books became very highly treasured and very sumptuously produced too, so that she made her living by selling her books.

CURWOOD: Now in your book, only a couple of the artists that you have here ever traveled outside of Europe to go visit some of these far-flung places like Indonesia or Suriname. How did the artists get access to some of the animals and plants that they painted?

ATTENBOROUGH: They were sent back to Europe—from Roman times onward. The Romans imported animals from Africa, sometimes to slaughter in the coliseum, but sometimes because they were really strange things. In the 16th century a rhinoceros was imported into Europe, and Albrecht Durer, the great German artist, drew pictures of this, which circulated around the whole of Europe because the image of this extraordinary armored creature was so remarkable. And of course there was a huge flood from the 16th century onwards, with the discovery of the New World. New creatures being brought in all the time. And people, you can almost see their jaws sagging as yet another extraordinary animal is unloaded from one of the ships.

CURWOOD: I have to say that looking at the work of some of these early natural history artists, I see a lot of abnormal or monstrous forms of creatures or dragons, of course, or deformed pieces of fruit. What’s the appeal in seeking out these monsters of nature?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well it’s not unusual. We too think, in biology, that things that are abnormal, there is something to be learned from them. And there is also something exciting, which is something rare. I mean today people are fascinated by white tigers, for example. They think ‘my goodness, how extremely interesting they must be because of how rare they must be.’ Now biologically one knows very well that that is a very simple genetic change, which produces an albino, and these are albino animals and that albinism can be transmitted from one generation to the next. So we today still have this fascination with the rare and the odd. And of course, in a more superstitious age, a lot of people thought that these things were signs from the gods. And indeed today there are parts of the world where people will tell you that they’ve seen in a deformed root some Christian symbol or other.

CURWOOD: Sir David you’ve made a number of nature films, including, well most recently the stunning series “Planet Earth.” And thank you, so much. It’s a tremendous gift your work.

Pitch apple (Clusia rosea), c.1725 "This plant starts life as a seed scraped on to the branch of a tree by a bird or a bat. It sends down long roots to the ground, develops a large crown and eventually strangles and kills the tree on which it sits, continuing life as an independent tree standing sometimes sixty feet (18m) high. The resin from its stem is used to caulk boats."- David Attenborough (Courtesy of the Royal Collection)


CURWOOD: So tell me, to what extent do you feel that pull to the exotic, the unknown, in some of the work that you do?

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh I think all of us are drawn to seeing the unusual. I mean it’s exciting to see the unusual. And it’s very nice to think that you were the first person to see something.

CURWOOD: Tell me perhaps something you have perhaps seen for the first time. Maybe it was in a remote place. Tell me the story.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well I’m fascinated by birds of paradise; I have been since I was a kid. Don’t ask me why—well, yes, you can ask me why because I can tell you, because they’re—


ATTENBOROUGH: (laughs) Thank you very much. Because they are unfailingly beautiful and extraordinary and unpredictable and in many cases unimaginable. I mean, there are 42 different species of them and they have amazing feather decorations, which the males display in courtship dances of great elaboration. And they live in a very very remote part of the world, that is to say Central New Guinea. And there are still species that have never been filmed before in performing their courtship dances

CURWOOD: Sir David before you go, could you tell us perhaps an illuminating or perhaps your most exciting travel story from all these many places you’ve visited all these years?

ATTENOROUGH: Well, 50 years of doing it, it’s difficult to choose. But let me revert to birds of paradise. There was a particular bird of paradise I was wanting to see and it displays on the ground. It’s a remarkable bird, which clears a space—an arena—on the floor of the jungle, of the rainforest, removing with great care every little tiny twig, every little bit of dead leaf until the ground is absolutely clear. And then in the early dawn it dances. The male turns up, courts the female, the females assemble and then the male performs this amazing dance displaying his plumes to the females. Most of the time, at the end of the dance the females will just look at him and just fly off and you think you can hear them saying, ‘if that’s the best you’ve got, forget it!’ But if he’s lucky, you see, he’s going to be okay.

Anyway, we spent a long time looking for this. And at the end of six weeks we found an arena and it was on the top of a ridge in a very wet part of the rainforest of western New Guinea. And we set up a hide that night and I decided that in the morning—we had two hides, one side on each side of the arena—and the cameraman was going to go into one and I was going to go into the other. And we decided that we wouldn’t take a sound recorder, I would do what I could there, but also that we would have electronic system of talking—me talking to the cameraman so that he could hear what I said and I didn’t—we were whispering. And the bird came down and it did its dance and I was just simply thrilled to the marrow. And then the bird finished and flew away and the cameraman and I scrambled down this very steep side of the ridge towards our camp. And as we came down the recordist who we’d left in the camp—the sound recordist—came out and waved and I yelled back I said ‘We’ve got it! We’ve got it!’ And the recordist said, ‘I knew the precise moment that you saw it because through that microphone, which was on your chest, the radio microphone, I could hear your heart beat. And it suddenly doubled its speed.’ And that’s the reaction which one seeks to create in view of looking at television programs of the natural world. And in many ways that’s the reaction that I’m sure these artists, who are in this book, hoped to create and those who came to look at their drawings.

CURWOOD: Sir David Attenborough’s new book is called “Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery.” Thank you so much, Sir David.

ATTENBOROUGH: It was a pleasure.



The Royal Collection: "Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery"

David Attenborough's "Planet Earth"


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