I am not a nature boy. I have been camping maybe once in my life and it must have been pretty horrifying because I've blocked any memories of it out completely. That fact coupled with The Blair Witch Project pretty much guarantee that my communion with nature will for the most part remain at home on my couch. Even then, they tend to be few and far between. I know people who stayed glued to NatGeo or Animal Planet. Bless their lil' hearts, but after a while all the scales and fur and greenery and ice and stuff becomes white noise to me.
That being said, I love a good documentary. I am always impressed when people can take reality and shape it into a narrative that is so good it feels like fiction. With a great film like Grey Gardens, no one would have believed it could ever possibly have happened. But it did, the Maysles filmed it, and my world was changed. Most of the time, however, nature documentaries feel slow and indulgent, lingering over every Hi Def shot until your eyes cross, or they are really cruel, both to the senses (jump cuts and jumpy camera work) and to the animals (it's just nature's way for us to watch that little baby seal get... um... sniffle... never mind). They don't seem to put as much care into the storytelling as they do into editing, which aren't the same thing.
I love all of the True-Lifes and there are some amazing pieces of filmmaking in the series. The booty-scratching sequence in "Bear Country" is hilarious. Being from Florida, I am partial to "Prowlers of the Everglades". The boa battling with panthers in "Jungle Cat". Each film collects stories from natures to weave a loose narrative of what it is like to live in this world, to fight for your existence every single day, and to protect the ones that you love from harm. Just this morning, I turned on one of the DVDs to have background noise as I got out of bed and got ready to begin my day. I got so engrossed in it that I was almost late for work.
They put these animals in the context of how they are relatable to us. I found myself constantly amazed at how ingenious these animals are. How a resourceful spider can pull bubbles down from the surface to create an underwater nest of air to protect her young. What parent has not gone to great lengths to ensure their children's safety? I think that anything that breeds empathy for nature is important in an age where many are convinced that the Gulf Coast oil spill is all cleaned up (it's not and probably never will be) and that the rain forests can spare some acreage (it can't and we are shooting ourselves in the foot by destroying them).
They released all of the True-Lifes in 2006 on four double disc sets. They were in really fun packaging and were remastered with scads of special features on everything from merchandise to the filmmakers. Roy E. Disney made the release of these films a priority because they were the first films he worked on at Disney. Roy did a lot to keep classic Disney alive, thankfully. The sets are now, unfortunately, out of print. Where did I get my hands on them? You guessed it. eBay. If you are patient, you can find them for a reasonable price and they are completely worth owning. I am excited to one day watch these with my kids. They are such a great way to introduce kids to nature without sugarcoating or pandering to them, but by infusing the experience with excitement and humor.
Disney also did a series called People & Places around the same time in the 50's that did for different cultures what the True-Lifes did for nature. The only one that's been released that I know of is Disneyland U.S.A. on the Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic Walt Disney Treasures set, so that is the only one that I've seen. And, of course, it's amazeballs. It's a great time capsule of what Disneyland was like in the early days. Though it doesn't seem to be anywhere close to on the horizon, I would love to see that series available someday.
I think when all is said an done, one of the great Disney legacies will be the time and creative energy that they poured into enlightening people about nature, which fits snugly into their larger goal of transporting their audiences to fantastic times and places and letting us experience things we wouldn't be able to otherwise. The company has done it through their films and their parks, bringing us face to face with nature's mysteries far before cable TV overload and searching for new and exciting ways to keep bringing us closer. As for me, I'm content with my exposure to nature being Central Park (now), my backyard (later), Swamp People ("Choot de gatuh! He comin' twa de boat!"), and Disney.