For the Birds Radio Program: Review: The Living Edens, Costa Rica

Original Air Date: June 4, 2001

Laura hated this overblown “documentary.”

Audio missing


I’m not much of a TV watcher except for movies and a few sitcoms that I see with my kids, but when one of my friends called up and told me to tum on Channel 8 for a special program about Costa Rica in a series called The Living Edens, I turned on the set.

The program had already started, and was in the middle of a segment about army ants. When I was in Costa Rica, I watched a couple of massive battalions of army ants, and was fascinated. These entomological marauders march together, killing insects and small vertebrates.

When army ants are marching through, so many animals run and fly helter skelter trying to avoid them that a host of birds follow the army ants about, snatching up many of the critters trying to flee the ants—sort of the tropical version of out of the frying pan into the fire. The program also showed leafcutter ants at their nest, a blue morpho butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, a fight between two huge beetles, pairs of Resplendent Quetzals and hummingbirds at their nests, a Three-wattled Bellbird making its wonderful bonking call, and baby sea turtles emerging from their sandy nests, scrabbling to make it to the ocean before Black Vultures and Wood Storks and ghost crabs could eat them.

The TV show had wonderful film footage, with vivid magnification of the insects. But the whole program left me angry and unsettled, and feeling cynical about the Emmy Award-winning series The Living Edens.

There was one obvious mistake in the script, when the narrator said mangrove roots bring oxygen to the leaves. I wondered how many more subtle mistakes I didn’t catch. But much worse, the filmmaker made the program far more sensationalistic and violent than necessary or even seemly.

The program focused inordinate attention on army ants chomping on their victims, but didn’t even mention the huge variety of birds that follow the bands. It showed baby turtles being tom apart, after setting the scene by showing how hard the tiny creatures had struggled, digging their way out of the nest. A scene with a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a rat seemed wholly contrived—the rat appeared to be a pet store creature, and was perhaps even sedated, or in an enclosure with the boa, since it was oblivious, in contrast to the wild rice rats I saw in Costa Rica that were all extremely wary.

In a couple of places the action was speeded up which made the veracity of the whole program seem suspect. It was hard to tell when we were seeing reality and when we were simply watching special effects. But what annoyed me most was the soundtrack. There was all manner of music and weird sound effects like laughter, applause, and even at one point the sounds of a bullfight. The music, heavy on percussion and building in intensity during the violent scenes, made the whole program feel like a cross between Survivor and a John Woo movie.

I spent a month in Costa Rica. It really felt like a living Eden. I saw a few violent interactions between animals, but I also witnessed extraordinary tenderness and accommodation, with many species associating together in peaceable flocks, and parent birds tenderly raising their babies. Even the most dangerous snakes spend the vast majority of their time lolling around. Why contrive a snake-killing that lasts several minutes, and show only a few seconds of Quetzals flying? Most Costa Rican birds are fruit and nectar eaters, apparently too peaceful for the filmmaker’s taste. I would have devoted at least a few minutes to the tender way quetzals and trogons and other birds feed and brood their fluffy babies.

I often find nature programs disturbing because they distort the rhythms and contexts of the natural world, but this segment of The Living Edens seemed worse. People are becoming farther and farther removed from the natural world, and tum to nature programming to vicariously experience at least a bit of the wild. Why mar this experience with distortion and movie sensationalism? As Robert Frost wrote, Earth’s the right place for love. The Living Edens seem the wrong place for anything.