October 17, 2017

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A New Season of “Nature” | On the Screen

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Screen from Naledi: One Little Elephant Tom Barton-Humphreys/©Vulcan Productions

The visually rich, compelling PBS series “Nature” returns this month for its 36th season with titles that are ready-made for classroom viewing, thanks to rare and often spectacular footage. They are also natural tie-ins to recent celebrated titles for children.

The series kicks off with Naledi: One Little Elephant (aired Oct. 4; Gr 4 Up), which comes on the heels of Katherine Roy’s acclaimed How To Be an Elephant (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, Sept. 2017; Gr 2-6). Although the film contains statistics on the status of the African elephant population, the emphasis is on bringing up baby. The story line follows the birth of a calf (in a brief sequence) named Naledi and moves on to the pachyderm’s first tentative steps. The program’s focus pivots when the calf’s mother dies from an intestinal illness only weeks after giving birth, and it becomes the responsibility of the staff of an elephant orphanage in Botswana to bond with, and care for, the weak and lethargic newborn. Tension rises in scenes that depict the more than eight hours of trial-and-error attempts by the staff until the animal begins to take nourishment from a bottle.

Although there is less scientific information presented here than in Roy’s book, the enthralling episode captures caretaking in action as one rescuer, posing as the orphan’s mother, cradles Naledi in his lap and later sleeps in the enclosure overnight with the elephant. The caretakers and calf also take exploratory walks together, with one staff member leading his ward by the tip of her trunk.

Naledi’s minders face a bigger challenge, though: whether they can reintroduce the animal into the wild and her with her two sisters. They do, but as soon as she has joined her herd, another crisis arises: the growing pachyderm has severe constipation. Through surgery to remove the blockage, veterinarians discover the culprit: hard-to-digest palm leaves. Viewers can rest assured, as all ends well for Naledi. However, in its closing minutes the film warns that the continent’s elephant population has declined by 30 percent since 2007, a statistic that provides a natural segue to further discussion and research.

Screen from Fox Tales (Hugo Kitching//©Fantastic Mrs.Fox Inc.)

 

 

 

 

 

Like baby elephants, the spry red fox is a contemporary publishing star, as seen in Sara Pennypacker’s fictional Pax (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray; Gr 4-7) or Laurence Pringle’s nonfiction title The Secret Life of the Red Fox (Boyds Mills; K-Gr 5). Nature’s second upcoming episode is an excellent companion to Pringle’s life cycle examination, with its emphasis on the omnivorous mammal’s remarkable ability to adapt. Fox Tales (airing Oct. 11; Gr 5 Up) is likely to cause viewers to reconsider what they know about wild animal behavior in general and foxes specifically.

Remarkable footage from a night-vision camera embedded in a den when the pups are born in the spring reveals that the formation of a hierarchy among the skulk begins early, as the mother allows her offspring to fight it out, without interfering. (On average, one of five pups will not survive, primarily because of predators.) Also depicted is the moment when the five-week-old foxes venture out of the den for the first time, cavorting and rolling around—a moment that is as addictive to watch as any YouTube animal video. However, what is really being captured on film is the emerging battle for dominance.

The narrative moves from the rocky coastline of English Harbour in Newfoundland to Madison, WI, where red foxes are penetrating residential zones, owing to the abundance of rabbits and squirrels and the absence of a top predator (generally the coyote here). The second half of the segment could stand alone as an examination of the red fox’s other incursion—into the territory of the Arctic fox—and where adaptation is fully evident. Enduring temperature of minus 70 degrees, the red fox has arrived in large numbers in northern Manitoba, occupying what were once Arctic fox dens. Overall, the program is filled with fascinating facts both fun (Arctic foxes produce the largest litters of mammals) and possibly disturbing (yes, foxes have been known to eat their young).

Screen from H Is for Hawk (Mike Birkhead/©Mike Birkhead Associates)

Through verse and Bagram Ibatoulline’s intricate illustrations, Danna Smith’s The Hawk of the Castle (Candlewick, Apr. 2017; Gr 1-5) introduced elementary readers to the lure and work of medieval falconry. H Is for Hawk: An New Chapter (airing Nov. 1; Gr 5 Up) brings that attention to the present day in what is something of a sequel to British author Helen Macdonald’s award-winning adult book, H Is for Hawk (Grove, 2015), which centered on her training of her beloved goshawk, Mabel. Now 10 years later, Macdonald has set out to train another wild goshawk, a wide-winged predator she describes as “half dragon, half leopard, something very old and prehistoric.”

First step in the training a hawk: gaining the bird’s trust. The secret to success: “take things slowly.” Macdonald becomes the embodiment of the word patience while serving as the most enthusiastic guide to this elusive bird of prey imaginable—without downplaying the breed’s violent nature. Among the highlights are the graceful and sleek movements of the animal filmed in slow motion. (Here viewers may want to tune out the sometimes gushy voice-over of her private, personal journey).

All three programs will be released on DVD, with Naledi: One Little Elephant arriving in December. Check Nature’s website for streaming information.

Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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