People need drama, they need wildness, and they need nature. And the BBC’s Springwatch provides it all. Set over an hour an evening four nights a week for three weeks in May in the UK, Springwatch transmits live from a variety of locations where wildlife scientists give scientific insight into the soap opera-like goings on in the wild. Filmed via live cameras, the show is full of violence, love, sex, humour and politics.
And all the drama and tragedy got me thinking about ancient Greek drama.
Here are some good reasons why…
Greek Drama has tons of dramatic irony. So do many dramas. But in Springwatch, the context is different: anyone watching the live cams during the show will see a predated nest before the bird that built it does. But there is more going on here than the panoptic vision offered by the live cameras. As viewers, we cannot be unaware of the current and worsening environmental crisis or of the real threat that raptors face from game-hunting. Will that White-tailed eagle we are all watching with such rapture still be alive next month, or will someone shoot it? Will the Spotted Fly Catcher survive its 95% decline, despite the dearth in insects?
There’s also the plot-twist of the Deus ex Machina, by which the Greek gods intervene to influence story outcomes. I am not purporting that humans have God-like power over nature. But in the natural world, positive human intervention is needed to combat negative interventions from others. Cue a report on John Stimpson, the 81-year-old making thousands of Swift boxes to try and shore upreverse the declining numbers of the species, due to the lack of places to nest through building renovation. And cue a former world-renowned explosives factory that has been transformed into an important heathland reserve.
Springwatch encourages us to look at our interventions in the natural world and assess how they either damage or benefit both us and it. Megan McCubbins’ report from the dunes in Studland Bay in Dorset is a very good example of an important ecosystem that is becoming rare in the UK, but is being preserved by the National Trust.
When my misplaced saviour complex led to a spider’s death (I put it outside, where it was swiftly devoured), I was reminded of two themes common in Greek drama: Hubris (vanity) and Anagnorisis (the recognition of the truth about one’s self and one’s actions). Both of these are embodied in Springwatch too. For every gamekeeper beating a buzzard with a stick, there are people helping to support the birds. The importance of Peripeteia (a reversal of fortunes) is also highlighted. Think of the migratory Ospreys at Poole Harbour, the stars of the series, successfully breeding on the south coast of England for the second time since 1847 when they were wiped out as breeding birds due to persecution. The Ospreys are part of a reintroduction programme led by conservation charity Birds of Poole Harbour which began in 2017 with the aim of establishing a breeding population.
And how about the Chorus? In Greek drama, the Chorus acts as a voice for the community, providing background information, setting the tone and interpreting action. The double act from the presenters/zoologists/filmmakers Chris Packham (whose recent film for C4 raises his profile as an activist) and Michaela Strachan (supported by Gillan Burke and Megan McCubbin standing in for Iolo Williams) is a joy to watch and their engagement with viewers is warm and welcoming. But this is always underscored by a commitment to presenting hard scientific facts, which enables all four to offer up lively and informative commentary on their subjects. And the fratricide and predation aren’t just brushed over, despite the complaints from some. As in Greek Drama, space is given for the logic of grief. Michaela Strachan provides room for the horror of a Buzzard chick bullying its sibling to death, which Chris Packham is then able to reign in a bit by reminding viewers that this is the reality of the natural world and the pressures of surviving within it.
And we even have Catharsis, which comes in the form of the show’s newest element, the five-minute mindfulness moment. Here, peaceful images of nature help people reconnect with nature’s beauty and tranquility.
I know I am stretching the parallels, but I do it to demonstrate how there is something about the power of this show which is bigger than the sum of all its parts. And it is something that has its roots in Greek drama. Greek theatre was- and still is – for everyone. It is both politically and socially harsh, but also celebratory and healing and inclusive. In that spirit, Springwatch does not shy away from ruffling a few political feathers. But it also makes sure it sends the message that wildlife is for everyone by including contributions from scientists and filmmakers from diverse backgrounds.
What has all this got to do with the climate crisis? I’m no scientist, but what I recognise in Springwatch is the same set of values that I see playing out in the climate activist and theatre groups I have been involved with. It’s not just the presentation of science and an enthusiasm for wildlife that makes the show iconic. That’s the easy part. It is the love and respect for inclusion, and the belief that the natural world is for everyone, and what happens in it – and to it – affects us all. It’s a skilful call to action. And in this time of unprecedented crisis, that’s just what the earth needs right now.
verity healey is an arts journalist, essayist, nature lover and avid walker.
Call to action:To volunteer and find out more about declining nests for cavity birds such as Swifts visit The Feather Speech Campaign, a one-woman project pioneered by Hannah Bourne-Taylor. Here you will find information, petitions and resources.