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Interview with Sir David Attenborough 'Collecting Memories Isn't the Same as Collecting Ammonites'

Sir David Attenborough has long been a household name for his landmark nature documentaries for the BBC. Now, his Netflix series "Our Planet" is starting on April 5. In a DER SPIEGEL interview, he speaks of his passion for collecting, joking with the queen and how to approach male gorillas.

A blue-painted house in the Richmond neighborhood of London, a vast living room ringed by a gallery, the shelves full of African masks and works of art from around the world. And thousands of books. The first impression is that David Attenborough lives in his own museum.

When he set out on his first journey in 1954, large parts of the world were still unexplored; black-and-white images from the rain forest  or wild animals in the TV studio were enough to capture people's imaginations. In the years that followed, Attenborough traveled the world for BBC, from the South Pole to Borneo, to Australia and the Galapagos Islands. He crossed mountain ranges and traversed deserts.

For much of his career, he presented nature as a wonder, but concern has crept in over the last several years. At the2018 climate summit  in Katowice, Poland, Attenborough demanded that world leaders finally take action and the BBC just recently announced that he is working on a documentary film about global warming, called "Climate Change: The Facts," which will be broadcast this spring.

Attenborough grew up in Leicester, where his father was the head of University College. His brother Richard played the billionaire John Hammond in "Jurassic Park." In 2002, David Attenborough was included on the list of "100 Greatest Britons," and several species carry his name, including a carnivorous plant and a variety of long-beaked echidna. He hates being referred to as a "national treasure," but is quite adept at imitating the queen.

DER SPIEGEL: Sir David, did you have a treasure chest as a child?

Attenborough: I had a cupboard in which I kept fossils, yes. Quite a lot of them.

DER SPIEGEL: Nothing else?

Attenborough: Oh, well, I had the nest of a long-tailed tit. It's a very beautiful little globular nest with lichen. I cut it out of a hawthorn bush, after the bird used it, of course. And I had a skin of a grass snake and a lot of tropical fish, tree frogs, salamanders, all sorts of things. I used to go on a bicycle 10 or 15 miles away to some quarries. Mainly to look for fossils.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you find so fascinating about them?

Attenborough: It is just strange finding a bone and wondering what it is. When a rock falls over and there's this fossil that nobody in the world has ever seen before you, and it hasn't seen the sunlight for 150 million years. It's magic, magic.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you remember the first fossil you found?

Attenborough: It was an ammonite from Leicestershire where I grew up. And I remember a holiday on an island in Wales by the seaside. There was a huge boulder and right on the top was a Dibunophyllum coral, worn smooth by the waves so that you could see all the details of it right in the middle. Of course, the only way you can possibly get it out is to demolish the entire boulder. And so, I spent the whole holiday destroying it.

DER SPIEGEL: You obviously haven't stopped collecting things since your childhood.

Attenborough: Yes, collecting is a basic male instinct.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is that?

Attenborough: I don't know. There are a few women who collect, but not really great ones. One or two I can think of collected 19th century porcelain in China. But by and large, collecting is a masculine thing. And it nearly always starts with the natural world. Darwin, the greatest biologist ever, he collected -- and he was astounded to find that there were hundreds of different kinds of beetles in the United Kingdom. He wondered: What's going on? It was that simple question, you see, which led to a lifetime of the most revelatory theory in the whole of biology.

DER SPIEGEL: What's the best part of collecting? The search? The discovery? The possession?

Attenborough: It's full of delight from beginning to end. It's pathetic. It's childish. And it's a kind of relaxation.

DER SPIEGEL: BBC produced a show on the occasion of your 90th birthday, to which a collector was invited. He brought along a fossilized shark tooth. But you had one as well, but yours was bigger. Is that part of it too?

Attenborough: Oh, yeah. Let me show you. (He stands up and returns with a pointy object about the size of a fist.)

DER SPIEGEL: There it is.

Attenborough: This is perhaps the biggest in existence. It's from an enormous shark that lived maybe 35 million years ago.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you find it or buy it?

Attenborough: This? I was given it by a rival.

DER SPIEGEL: How much stuff do you have here? How many books, fossils and pieces of tribal art?

Attenborough: Oh, no.


Attenborough: It would be a bit vulgar to count them, wouldn't it?

DER SPIEGEL: So it's more about the beauty of things, the aesthetics?

Attenborough: It's about beauty, yes. And of course, occasionally, it's about things that take you back. There's a beaded hat over there, one with leopard teeth, which was given to me by an old lady when we stayed in a long house in Borneo for several months. One night, she gave it to me. I love it.

DER SPIEGEL: It's for a rather small head.

Attenborough: Well, yes. It doesn't suit me, I know. But it suited her. She was a nice old lady.

DER SPIEGEL: You grew up during the war. Was that one of the reasons why you dedicated your life to pristine nature?

Attenborough: No. I was collecting before the war. I lived in Leicester, and we were bombed two or three times. But we weren't invaded. The war meant you didn't get sweets. We didn't get much food. That's all. I can't pretend that the war was a great wound in my consciousness.

DER SPIEGEL: During the war, your parents took in two Jewish girls from Germany for a couple of years.

Attenborough: More than a couple of years; they lived with us six or seven years. My father and my mother were both very active socially. They were very strongly pro-European, my mother in particular. She spoke very good German and French. One day, these two girls turned up aged 12 and 14. They were supposed to go onto New York, but then all passages were stopped. My mother came downstairs and simply said: "Helga and Irene are now our children. They're your sisters. And you'll have them until they can leave." They stayed with us until the war was over.

DER SPIEGEL: Was it OK with you?

Attenborough: My dear brother, the actor, used to tell the story of how wonderful we thought it was. I didn't. I thought it was mean. They weren't my sisters. But they were nice girls and we got to know one another. And in the end, they did become our sisters, really. We would visit them in New York and they would come over regularly. They are both dead now, but I was very fond of them.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you get along with your two brothers? Was there competition?

Attenborough: No, no. My older brother Richard was an actor and had been an actor since he was aged about six. I was interested in fossils, and my younger brother John was interested in anything, especially in motor cars. He eventually became the boss of Alfa Romeo UK. But there was no competition between us. When Dick started going out with girls, I thought: "God, he could be out there collecting fossils. What's he doing? Dancing!"

DER SPIEGEL: That wasn't your cup of tea?

Attenborough: Absolutely not. Good lord, when you could find fossils. Be reasonable!

DER SPIEGEL: Your brother played John Hammond in "Jurassic Park," the billionaire who build the dinosaur park. Have you seen the movie?

Attenborough: Yes, and I actually had something to do with the casting of it. When Dick got the script -- he lived a mile down the road -- he sent it to me and asked: "Who would you cast as the expert paleontologist?" And I told him Jack Horner, who was a great dinosaur expert, and the paleontologist was modeled on him. It was an outstanding film. We now know that it was wrong in lots of serious ways, but you could say that about anything. Science moves on. Understanding moves on. Whatever you did -- 20 years on, it's almost bound to be wrong.

DER SPIEGEL: All your life, you've pretty much been constantly pursuing things that are the stuff of young boys' dreams, haven't you?

Attenborough: Yes, absolutely, never-ending boy's dreams. That's fair. That's about it, end of interview. You've got it.

DER SPIEGEL: You would head out into the wilderness without Google Maps, without the internet and without a mobile phone. What's the best way to find your way?

Attenborough: Find someone who knows. You'll get in very serious trouble if you go out into the middle of Borneo entirely by yourself. I have been lost. I didn't make a song and dance about it, but I had no idea where I was.

DER SPIEGEL: Where was that?

Attenborough: That was in South America. It was in a forest with trees about 100 feet high, so you can't see the sun, you can't see a mountain. There's just leaves. Suddenly I realized I was lost -- I recognized a tree that I had only just seen about 10 minutes previously. But then somebody came, one of the local people, a hunter, who took me back. I pretended that I wasn't lost, of course, but I was.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you sense danger in the wilderness?

Attenborough: Well, if you're talking about danger from animals, there aren't that many. Very few animals want to eat you; they don't know what you are. Normally, they're very cautious and leave before you realize that they are there. So it's not a dangerous business. It's far more dangerous to cross Piccadilly Circus.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you behave when interacting with peoples who live in isolation?

Attenborough: You stay polite, and you take what they offer you.

DER SPIEGEL: Even if you don't know what it is?

Attenborough: Of course. I was once offered cassiri in a Guyanese village, it's a drink made from cassava bread pre-chewed by women. It smells of sick. And you know you might only bring it to your mouth once, otherwise you're going to be sick yourself. So I drank the whole lot in one go and then said: "Very good." And they said: "Ah, he likes it. Give him another one."

DER SPIEGEL: Did you ever find yourself wondering if the things you found on your trips were really worth all the time, effort and money?

Attenborough: Oh, it was always fun, even when we didn't find what we were looking for. Looking for a rare kind of armadillo is an excuse to be out there in the Chaco in Paraguay, riding horses with gauchos and Indios. And you needed excuses to explain to your bosses that you had to cross this appalling desert of cactus and stuff: I had to get the three-banded armadillo, that's what we were there for.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2019 (March 30th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you disappointed when you found the animals too quickly?

Attenborough: Oh, absolutely. On our very first trip to West Africa, we were there to catch a very, very rare bird that nobody had seen alive in Europe called Picathartes gymnocephalus (white-necked rockfowl). We found it in the first three weeks, and we were there for three months. So I didn't say anything right away. That's what they call editorial license.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you remember moments of sheer joy?

Attenborough: Diving on a coral reef with proper gear for the first time is just mind blowing. To hang there motionless is an extraordinary sensation. It's unlike anything you've ever seen, full of maybe 50 to 100 different species of creatures of unbelievably beautiful colors. That's a complete creation, a world that you've never seen before ever, and of exquisite beauty, fantastic colors. Amazing.

DER SPIEGEL: We spoke about collecting at the beginning. Is collecting mind-blowing moments like that part of it?

Attenborough: Collecting memories isn't quite the same as collecting ammonites. I don't sit at home in the evening turning over memories in my mind. I'm thinking about tomorrow, mostly.

DER SPIEGEL: You wrote in one of your books: "Natural history often deals harshly with our romantic illusions about wildlife." Can you give us examples for what you meant?

Attenborough: I meant that the way to attract the nicest butterfly is shit. If you want to attract it, get some shit, yours if necessary. It is also not fun seeing a lion rip the guts out of a deer or an antelope. You wait for that moment a long time and then you sit there hearing the pitiful squeals of this poor thing having its guts ripped out and struggling and blood everywhere. It's not pleasant.

DER SPIEGEL: What you did miss the most when you were traveling?

Attenborough: My family. Material things don't matter all that much. But now, looking back, what I miss is seeing my kids when they were seven, eight or nine. Every week, they learn a new thing, and you miss that. Sometimes, when they are unkind, they say: "You were never there."

DER SPIEGEL: Were you a good father to them?

Attenborough: You better ask them. I was back for every Christmas, but I wasn't back for birthdays, I missed a lot of them. But there were rewards, in that I brought back various animals for them. This house used to be full of animals: salamanders and cockatoos, pythons and chameleons, monkeys, bush babies, parrots and hummingbirds. It was nice.

DER SPIEGEL: You met many prominent people. Did you watch them through the eyes of a zoologist, seeing them as interesting creatures to be studied?

Attenborough: I can't pretend to have a powerful insight because of my work. I think I'm the same way as you and everybody else in the way I make decisions about whether somebody is pompous or shilly-shally or cowardly.

DER SPIEGEL: What about your encounters with the queen? There couldn't be a greater difference than that between the wilderness and Buckingham Palace.

Attenborough: The whole business of royalty is a very strange business. It interests me very much as an anthropologist that there's a societal need to have somebody who isn't the same as you are. And as absurd though it may seem, and as irrational and illogical as it is, that's what you feel: This is the queen; she could probably walk on water; she is different. In a curious way, you recognize this, and you move very gently. And she makes the move to more informality, not you.

DER SPIEGEL: In one documentary, the two of you can be seen laughing together. What about?

Attenborough: No idea. It's polite laughter.

DER SPIEGEL: You don't prepare a joke or a light-hearted story to break the ice?

Attenborough: No. To my great horror, I once did this in the garden. We were making small talk and the queen pointed to a sundial under some trees and said something like: "This is one of my favorite things." And I said: "It's so cleverly placed in the shade of the tree." And she answered: "Oh, yes, I suppose you mean we couldn't really tell the time?" Dreadful.

DER SPIEGEL: Does it make you proud that you and the queen are the most admired people in Britain?

Attenborough: Doesn't mean anything. With due respect to your profession, it's journalistic fizz.

DER SPIEGEL: The admiration comes from your having shown people the wonders of our planet. Would you say that you delivered a realistic picture of wildlife and nature?

Attenborough: Realistic is a curious word. You can't show the full range of truth; you can show one aspect of it or one or two aspects of it. I don't think we misrepresent nature in a fundamentally dishonest way. We are guilty of making it seem more dramatic than it might be, but that's part of our job. You've got the job of making this conversation sound interesting, which is difficult enough. It's the same sort of thing. But I've never deliberately told a falsehood on film.

DER SPIEGEL: People like the zoologist and columnist George Monbiot have accused you of having done too little too late to address environmental destruction.

Attenborough: He's got a column to fill every day, and it's a reasonable point of view. But I was talking about conservation before he actually wrote a word or had a word published. Still, it is perfectly true that in the 1950s and the 1960s, I didn't talk about conservation, but then nobody did. We weren't aware of it. On every one of the big series that I did, from about 1980 onwards, always at the end, there was a piece about conservation. But before people are concerned about something, you have to persuade them to love it. If you start your program by saying: "I'm now going to tell you about doom and gloom and then all the catastrophes that you silly people have started," you aren't going to get anywhere. I've just finished seven films for Netflix entirely about conservation. And that's been going on for several years, so my conscience is OK.

DER SPIEGEL: You spoke at the climate summit in Poland and said: "Leaders of the world, you must lead." What exactly do you want them to do?

Attenborough: Well, there's a whole range of things that they've got to do, and global warming is high on that list. Passing necessary legislation would be a start. But there are also a lot of things everybody should do in their personal life: stop wasting fuel, stop using plastic bags, move towards vegetarianism. Fundamentally, the problem is a global problem. But I am sufficiently aware of the mechanisms of how humanity works: We don't act unless it's catastrophic. Destruction is easy, but stopping it is much more difficult.

DER SPIEGEL: In all these decades exploring the natural world, what have you learned about yourself?

Attenborough: I'm not very introspective really. I don't spend a long time thinking: What have I learned about myself today? I don't ever remember saying that ever.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you learned something more generally about humankind?

Attenborough: The only things you really learn from are other primates, very obvious things. Approaching a big male gorilla, you have to show submission, and the way you show submission is very similar to the way in which you show submission to the queen. You keep your head down, you bow, you don't talk loudly.

DER SPIEGEL: Grief, envy, vanity, vindictiveness, malice: Do such characteristics exist in the animal kingdom?

Attenborough: It's hard to tell. It's tempting to think, when you see an elephant coming up to a pile of bones, which you happen to know are elephant bones, that it is saying: "This was my great aunt." But maybe it only thinks: "This bone's funny, what on earth is it?" Who knows? You'd be wiser to make a more modest speculation rather than the romantic one.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the dumbest animal?

Attenborough: Depends how you define an animal. Sea urchins are pretty dumb. Jellyfish aren't known for their sense of humor.

DER SPIEGEL: You often said that you're agnostic. Have you ever experienced anything otherworldly or divine?

Attenborough: I have seen great reactions to beauty which are very moving, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's an old man with a beard sitting on a tower.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you ever been in a situation when you've started to pray?

Attenborough: No. I was a rock climber when I was younger, and I once fell from a rock which was 40 or 50 feet high. And all I thought was: "You've really let down your parents. They will be very upset."

DER SPIEGEL: In one of your books, you wrote about the death of your wife, saying that you were "lost." What gives you consolation?

Attenborough: Activity, I suppose. Get on with something.

DER SPIEGEL: The greatest journey of all still lies ahead. Are you curious?

Attenborough: Are we talking about death?


Attenborough: I am not particularly curious. I think I can delay it for a couple of days, if it's okay. You shut your eyes, and life drifts away, I imagine. Who knows?

DER SPIEGEL: Have you ever thought about where you want to be buried?

Attenborough: No, I would think that would be a waste of good space on the already overcrowded earth. I think cremation is probably a good thing.

DER SPIEGEL: Nowhere like New Guinea or some other remote place?

Attenborough: Why? I wouldn't be able to smell or see or feel any of the beauty there. It doesn't matter where they put a man once life has departed from him.

DER SPIEGEL: Sir David, thank you very much for this interview.

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