Just The Ancient Ones We Have Not Come To Know Yet
One of the most popular shows on the cable channel Animal Planet is a wildlife documentary series called “River Monsters.” The show is actually great fun and it’s appeal is easy to understand: go to fascinating places and see animals you have never dreamed or heard of. Television watchers love journeys into the unknown, guided by slightly imperious but trustworthy guides. This interest is more than just a hunger for mindless entertainment that passes as learning in our culture, it is a rugged and well developed consumer sensibility that we have here in the West with roots in the way people are taught about the “discovery” of the world.
The basic River Monsters formula is simple. Jeremy Wade, the show’s strikingly handsome host and protagonist, is a “man of science” and “extreme angler” who investigates “mysterious deaths” around the world that he suspects are due to unwanted encounters with dangerous river fish. He then conducts respectful investigations, complete with seriously talking to natives with a notebook in hand finding where he might go further upstream where he has suspenseful fishing scenes in which he attempts to catch the suspected culprit. More often than not, Wade hooks what he’s looking for. But only after they stretch the action out for the back half of the show.
I love the show (Mekong stingray episode was my favorite – this animal is a 16 foot long undulating disk!). But it seems to me (as a former television development executive) that the narrative structure they pursue is pretty fixed. Wade is the Western rationalist and scientist. He honorably sifts through evidence and takes on the unknown so that no corner of the world is unexposed to our piercing Western eyes. It is nature porn writ large. And nature porn, like real estate porn, food porn, moral outrage porn, or (for that matter) porn porn has all the simulacrum of the encounter with the adjectival noun in the phrase but none of the labor, cost, consequences, or responsibility of an actual encounter. So nature porn, and the other versions, gives the false notion that we know more about the world and are more connected to it. And this world—as revealed by Wade’s “discoveries”—is full of monsters, myths, superstitions, and danger. Which certainly are in the world but this is a reductionist version.
Despite the pedagogical fun, this approach is bog standard. The West is deeply in the rut of romanticizing the discovery of “exotic” cultures and “foreign” countries that have, in fact, been inhabited for thousands of years. This attitude is so prevalent that it’s almost invisible to us—but it is the engine that fuels much of the popular culture we consume, from “River Monsters” to CNN’s wildly popular “Parts Unknown,” starring Anthony Bourdain which still airs despite his death.
Though the “Age of Discovery ” is centuries in the past, the literate Western world’s cultivated “instinct” to “discover” the world around us is entrenched. “River Monsters” is a continuation of the trauma of colonization. People who are very much of a place but for some reason can’t stay there for long because there is world out there to discover because where they are from somehow isn’t worth anything. A world full of savages who must be tamed and understood. This is Cortez. This is Columbus. There are consequences.
The mind of the colonizer automatically puts themselves near the center of making sense of the world as opposed and because of this fish become “monsters”. The “mysterious deaths” that Jeremy Wade investigates are of humans encroaching in the world of the fish. These fish may have been cause to wonder and proceed with caution for people long ago. Those people would have had to learn the ways of the water and the fish and court and earn a relationship with them so they might live.
Wade treats nature like little more than a zoo in the sense that he feels entitled to waltz in and get to grab a fish just to show it off to us and we see his mercy that he lets them go.
There is such wonder in the world. Are we entitled to it just because it is there? Or just because we are?
The cows that die so that I can be on the receiving end of their tallow don’t live solely so I can get it and process their fat and sell it. They don’t die at a convenient schedule for me. Properly so. I wonder so much about the place for caution and patience in proceeding into and with the world. Almost coming in obliquely sometimes. Less direct but trolling with more fine words seeing if a relationship might be courted with that which I seek to come to know which are whispered towards the deep. Not with me at the center of their casting. Primal Derma is an expression of one of my ways of trying to know and have a relationship with the living world. Maybe it is a reminder for you too.
Now it might be that In that way the monsters that inhabit our lives might not be monstered at all but simply just ancient ones that we have not come to know yet. Their teeth may not be set up to pull you down at all.