We Know so Little About Nature

Toby Nowlan – photograph by John Aitchison

Toby Nowlan is an award-winning journalist, explorer and biologist who produces wildlife documentaries with Silverback Films based in Bristol. For the past four years he worked as an assistant producer on BBC1’s A Perfect Planet, a five-part series narrated by Sir David Attenborough. He is currently working on a film for Netflix, the content of which needs to be kept confidential at the moment. However, Toby is prepared to say that it involves travelling around the world to explore natural history and wildlife, and ‘It’s the same sort of family as A Perfect Planet but it has a new direction which is really exciting.’

Sue: Welcome Toby! You have such an impressive list of awards for your wildlife work and now you work as a wildlife producer. When did this start?

Toby:  I’ve been a producer for a year now. It was a little scary to step up into being a producer, but I am loving it so far. I love the boost in responsibility. There’s a lot more on your shoulders, but, creatively, you’re in charge. This means you’re responsible for the film and for the vision of the film, and the message the film delivers. 

Sue: Is this new Netflix film your idea? 

Toby: To an extent. My company pitched the series to Netflix, who loved the idea and gave us money to make it. I’m producing two of the currently four films. Within that, I’ve chosen what to film, what the sequences will be, what the animals will be, and how I want to tell the story in each film. 

SueHow did this love of nature and animals start for you?

Toby: I’ve been obsessed with all things wildlife for so long it’s hard to pin it down to a single inciting moment. I have early memories of being in the garden, picking up snails and woodlice and looking at them really closely and wanting to feed and help the birds. I always wanted to be outside and identify plants and press them into books. I started bird watching when I was about eleven, and that’s always been the biggest part of my life. 

Sue: So, working in this area is just a natural progression for you. 

Toby: Yes. I wouldn’t work in TV in any other part of it because for me it’s all about natural history and wildlife. That’s the be all and end all for me. It’s so full of endless wonder, surprise and fascination. We still know so little. But the information we do have available is mind-blowing.

Sue: What’s been the most mind-blowing thing you’ve experienced?

Toby: I think it’s often the little things. For example, we did this shoot for A Perfect Planet in Peru where we filmed fire ants rafting. Basically, you’ve got these three-millimetre little ants and when the forest floods in the Peruvian Amazon, the whole forest is inundated, and these ants have got nowhere to go. So, they pour out of the ground and come together by linking arms and legs to create this incredible sort of Gortex like fabric or structure to form a live floating raft. They then float the whole colony out with the Queen in the middle and all the little larvae are held, suspended on the raft. They float out on the current and hope for the best – which hopefully means getting washed up onto a branch of a tree. They then find a new place to colonise. It’s so bonkers when you see it, and you use these macro cameras to expose the detail of it all and this level of cooperation. 

Most people would argue that ants don’t show any degree of consciousness, but collectively the colony does pull off something quite incredible for the preservation of the entire group. It’s such an amazing behaviour. The raft they create is also hydrophobic so it kind of bobs up and down, and they press down on the meniscus of the water, which means they are suspended. Even more extraordinary is when one ant gets separated from the raft, it loses its water repellent structure, so it sinks, gets trapped below the surface and gets picked off by the fish. But together these ants are completely unbeatable and unsinkable. They can give you a nasty nip, and the ones we were filming, you could fit 10,000 of them onto a fifty pence piece. 

Sue: Wow! Wouldn’t that be amazing if human beings could learn from ants? For us to learn to behave in a way that we could help each other survive by understanding it’s not about individuality but about the power of the collective. 

Toby: Exactly! The strength in unity. It’s extraordinary. 

Sue: What other animals and insects do the same kind of thing?

Toby: On the insect macro level, there’s lots of surprises like that. We always assume and say that animals are kind of insignificant and have no consciousness or levels of complexity that deserves a label of intelligence. But the behaviours they exhibit in terms of looking out for each other as a colony and finding food is so complex and so surprising, and so finely tuned over millennia. We can learn so much from what they do. For me, learning about these creatures makes me feel insignificant in a really healthy way.  

Sue: Yes. It fills me full of awe. This is different, but I remember standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and feeling totally insignificant. But when you see something in nature behaving in that incredible way, which is way beyond our capability, the wonderment of it is almost beyond words. 

Toby: There so much to learn and as soon as you put the microscope onto something and you study a small leaf or insect or some sort of mutualistic relationship in the soil, it’s there immediately. Such a level of complexity and surprise, and I think it’s healthy for us to keep thinking about how big and how complex the world really is. 

Sue: Have you ever seen mammals doing something as sophisticated as the ants were doing? Or do you think mammals have gone beyond that level of consciousness and doing it in a different way?

Toby: Ah, that’s a good question. I’ve never seen anything that community originated compared to the fire ants. I’ve never seen that sort of level of cooperation. But there is great cooperation within some mammal species, especially mammals that are hunted by other mammals. I think mammals look out for each other a lot. 

Sue: Is this about the herd instinct to keep together as a protection? 

Toby:  Yeah, there’s wonderful adaptations in animals that are hunted and warn each other in meaningful ways. There are many different warning signals. 

Sue: Can you give an example? 

Toby: On the plains of Africa you’ve got gazelles species such as the Thomson’s gazelles and Impala that are hunted. You’ve got so many different prey species actually: the Topiblack wildebeest, blue wildebeesteland,orix, and all of these different species have ways of communicative displays which advertise threats to each other and to other species as well. There’s this wonderful sequence in Life of Mammals  of all the different prey antelope species cut together in a single four-minute sequence as if it’s one antelope’s family story. But actually, it’s this montage of all these different species showing what they do when threats are detected – how warning signs are put in place and the flags go up and how the alarms are sounded. 

Sue:  I am curious about how you feel when you been around the world studying animal behaviour and then you witness human behaviour. 

Toby: It drives me more and more to do what I do. I am so fascinated with wildlife because there’s an objectivity when you are looking at other species. I always take great solace being in nature because there’s this level of presence in species that I really envy, and which you don’t find in humanity. You know that the Thompson gazelle is existing. It’s eating, it’s judging threats on a day-to-day basis and working out what to do next for its mate. But it’s not getting anxious and neurotic about Covid or the problems of our times or you know, the Trump administration. There’s a level of freedom that you have in existing, because you’re there to exist. Yet there’s this sort of mindful presence that I really envy, which I don’t feel we have. 

Sue: I suppose we must have been more like that when we were hunter gatherers. 

Toby: Yes exactly. I think it was like that for the first 200,000 years of our existence. But with the boost in our brain size and cognitive revolution, this mismatches how to use our brains to survive. Actually, it’s left us with all sorts of problems and too much time to think. We seem to have evolved beyond ourselves.

Sue: And, it seems to me that its left us with an unconscious aggressiveness. Obviously, no species would survive without aggression because you need it to fight your corner. But aggression is playing out in completely different ways with humanity all the time. It seems to feed on itself. 

Toby: Yes, I think we have a lot more aggression than we need compared to when we were in hunter gatherer mode. I think this aggression is manifesting from our minds because it’s not fully absorbed in survival mode. It’s a kind of overflow effect. 

Sue: I’m very interested in the whole concept of what helps us to live more consciously for a better world. How do you think animals can help us to do this? 

Toby: It comes back to that presence thing. Being in nature and spending more time in nature helps us to be present because we are just in the moment, absorbed with what’s happening around us. We’re also seeing other species that are just doing what they do to get by. They’re completely present. Look at a dog. A dog is not being anxious or neurotic about the diseases of tomorrow or worrying about its life expectancy. It’s just living joyously from one second to the other. That’s why they are such a great joy to be around. I think you get that in spades from being in nature because it’s a continual source of guidance in terms of being present.

For me, the meaning of life – the purpose of existence – is to know that I’m part of this whole fabric and I’m composed of the same twenty-eight minerals that a tree, a flower, a bumble bee and a dog is composed of. We’re all part of this continuous flow of minerals from one life form to the next. We’re all completely interdependent on each other and very much related to each other. For me, that’s enough. I find this a big source of peace.

Sue: This gives you peace? 

Toby: Yeah, big time. That sense of utter connection.

Sue:  I know how much you love the natural world, so where are you with climate change that we are witnessing right now? 

Toby:  It’s not a great state we’re in. I mean, this is the last chance saloon to make radical changes across the board. Many scientists say that this is the last year, but it’s been too late for a long time – so, it really is the eleventh hour now. The COP 26 in Glasgow later this year is the final chance for the Summit to make massive changes. Otherwise, we are in serious trouble. 

Sue: What do you mean by serious trouble?

Toby: In terms of climate change, the effects are enormous and so far-reaching. I think the biggest one for me is this global ecological breakdown including species demise and ecological interruptions in most habitats, and that feeds back into making the world a less habitable place, where our dependence, our existence, and many species’ existence depends on living in the most diverse world we can. The changes that pollution creates erodes that diversity so it’s less possible to support life. It’s as simple as that. 

Sue:  Species have become extinct before, but obviously not against this backdrop of toxic pollution. That’s what makes it so different.

Toby: Yeah, there have been mass extinctions in the past, but it’s never been caused by a single species. It’s always been completely different such as tectonic movement under the earth surface or it’s been atmospheric changes, or it’s been extra-terrestrial bodies. It’s certainly never been a single species bringing it on. But this also makes it the first reversible one. Potentially we can actually stop it and do something about because it’s us who’s creating it, so it’s a unique position we’re in. We are creating our own demise but it’s the first time we have the foresight to be able to see it happening and to stop it. 

Sue: This is what David Attenborough saying, isn’t it? I’ve also read that climate change isn’t just due to human behaviour, it’s also being caused by the electromagnetic changes created by the procession of the equinoxes coming to the end of a 25,500 year cycle. Some scientists are concerned this could create a flip between the north and south poles. 

Toby: Yeah, that would be disastrous. Most of life on Earth uses the electromagnetic field to move and navigate the planet. They would become completely disorientated if the poles were switches.

Sue: I’m curious about it, because perhaps what we’re facing due to the ending of this huge cycle on the electromagnetic level is meant to happen, and perhaps we are just another cycle of life on the planet. 

Toby: Well, life changes and extinctions happen. It’s part of the continual flux of life. But what I believe is that if there are extinctions, we are causing it through a lack of care and respect. There are alternatives which don’t push species to the edge. We should absolutely make the extra effort to take those paths because we are part of the natural world. 

Actually, there’s no natural and unnatural world really. I like to say ‘being in nature’, but it’s a funny thing to say because it doesn’t really mean anything. All it means is not being surrounded by humanity. 

Sue: You’ve seen evidence of so many different forms of life on the planet. Most people sit in their garden or go for a walk somewhere. But you’ve seen life in the Amazon rainforest, up mountains and goodness knows where. Would you say that this planet is here to experience life for itself and we humans are not needed for this to happen. 

Toby: No, we are not needed! There was life four and a half billion years before us. The earth would get along absolutely fine without us. We may have assisted the survival of a few species – cows have done very well from us as have chickens. But no, you don’t need humanity for life on Earth. I think Earth itself is supposed to be full of life because it’s in such a unique position. It’s so rare in the Universe and we keep looking at every star we can find, but nothing has the same exact cocktail combination of factors as Earth has. For example, it has a molten core which means we have an incredible central heating system built into the planet. We have this incredibly thin, but properly protected atmosphere which is perfect for keeping out harmful ozone and UV rays from the sun. And we have an atmosphere that’s composed of the right chemical components for life to thrive. We have all the right minerals on board, we’re just the right distance from the sun – not too far, not too close – and just the right size that our gravity doesn’t pull in. Then we’ve got the security blanket of the asteroid belt in the solar system, lots of water and ocean currents which regulate our weather. There are so many unique things which makes Earth the most perfect planet for life to proliferate. We’ve never found anything close to this. 

Sue: No, probably won’t for a long time to come. I love the photograph from Voyager One when NASSAturned the camera back into our galaxy and there is Earth, which they identified as this tiny speck of dust.

Toby: Yes, it’s just a tiny, pale blue dot. It’s incredible to think everyone you’ve ever known and loved and who they’ve ever known and loved – and every single thing that has ever happened with humanity or to any species – is all contained on this one single planet. It’s amazing.

Sue: We really do need to take care of it. Apart from your beautiful fire ants, what other species have really touched you? 

Toby:  The land iguanas we filmed for A Perfect Planet on the Galapagos Islands. They do this incredible migration up one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. They live on a completely barren island and they do this bonkers ten day march up the volcano and when they get to the crater, they go two miles vertically down to lay their eggs. Earthquakes are continually reshaping the crater walls with rock falls blasting them as they go deep down into the crater to lay their eggs in the ashy floor because the ash substrates are just the right temperature to incubate the eggs. It was incredibly dangerous following them and only twenty to thirty people have ever been down into this crater – more people have been on the moon.  

Sue: Knowing how dangerous it was but knowing you were following your passion, did that help you to overcome the fear?

Toby: Well, I did feel I was doing something right because I love this sort of thing. But I also thought, actually I don’t want to die on this one. There’s a lot of other things I want to do.  But there was something appealing about the kind of risk as well, because it’s a real adventure. It’s something that so few people have ever had the chance to do. However, I was also responsible for the team of people going down. I was okay about me getting in and out, but the day when we all got out of the crater alive and unscathed was one of the best days of my life. It felt like a huge relief. I was so grateful. 

Sue: That’s what makes us so different from animals – to have those sorts of intense feelings.

Toby:  Yes, I can’t imagine animals being overwhelmed with the feeling of gratitude, but it’s a shame that it needs the descent into the middle of a volcano to feel grateful.

SueDo you feel that this trip changed you in anyway? 

Toby: I think it changed me in the way that every single trip changes me in that I am learning more about our world and how this adds to that weight of surprise, awe and wonder – and how it puts our place in the Universe into context. It gives more and more perspective every time I do one of these animal stories. 

SueWhen you look at the way human beings are behaving, how do you feel about it?  

Toby: I can be really sad to see how people aren’t connected to wildlife, and in doing so not connected to themselves. I feel the only way for us to connect truly to each other is to know our place among other species, on the planet and in the galaxy.

There’s so much damage we are doing that makes the news. But there’s so much damage that we have no idea about or how the knock-on effect will impact other species. We have no idea how we are affecting those iguanas and their journey down into the volcano. It may be very little, but it may be that climate change is changing the chemical composition of the ash substrate. For instance, those iguana eggs are reptile eggs. They have to be incubated at a certain temperature and a couple of degrees one way or the other makes the difference whether they’re all girls or boys. Therefore, any changes in climate could have a huge effect on something like that. 

Sue: I guess some species will continue to exist irrespective of climate change. 

Toby: Yeah, there will be lots of winners and some mammals will survive. 

Sue: What have you got your money on? 

Toby: I reckon some killer whales. As a group of mammals, they are very good at responding to what’s going on around them although they don’t do very well from toxic oceans. I think the plastic is here forever and it’s going to be really hard to get rid of microplastics from the oceans, but there will be some species able to manage it. 

Sue:  When you look forward in your life, what sort of journey do you think you’re going to go on? 

Toby: Oh, I don’t know. I’m really enjoying the journey at the moment. I’m really enjoying seeing and learning more about the planet. I think inevitably my journey should become an increasingly responsible one. I’d like to work more on feature films. Netflix is an amazing platform for responsible television and hard-hitting cinema, such as Seaspiracy. It’s gone completely viral. Lots of it is old news but the power of film means you’ve suddenly got people saying, ‘I’m not eating fish anymore.’

Sue: So, you’d like to be a real influencer out there about the natural world and how we need to become much more aware of our behaviour?

 Toby: That would be an amazing legacy.

Sue: Is there anything you would like to say to people who haven’t tuned into the importance of connecting with our natural world? 

Toby: It feels like the simplest thing to do, but if you live in a city or town, the next time you’re passing a green space or a tree, just stop for an extra thirty seconds or so and look at that leaf or that hover fly or that magpie. Really look at the green in that magpie’s tail and the twinkle in its eye and the smartness of its feathers or the intricate detail of that leaf. 

There’s this infinite source of peace, clarity and optimism around us. It doesn’t matter where you live, there’s always plenty of nature around to be able to soak up solace and inspiration from it. 

Sue: Is anywhere else in the world you would like to film? 

Toby: Yes, there’s loads of places. I’ve never been to the Tibetan plateau. I’d love to film the great herds and also high-altitude antelopes which are incredible. 

Sue: Have you come across native tribes who you feel are living much more in harmony with nature? 

Toby: I’ve never filmed with indigenous people who have been cut off entirely from Western influences. Most indigenous people live with some level of globalisation. I was filming in Ethiopia last year and some tribal people were living in these very simple, very small, almost wicker huts. Yet, they were incredibly efficient at air conditioning. It’s incredibly hot there, and they just worked brilliantly with heat regulation. It wasn’t very remote, yet it seemed these people hadn’t changed the way they were living, or the structure of their homes for a very long time. 

One thing that always struck me when talking to them about filming on their land was how their minds were almost entirely occupied with the present day and what was required for that day – ensuring that the family was kept fed and there was enough firewood for the evening and that the land was tended, and everyone knew where everyone was. It wasn’t worrying about the mortgage or debts or bills or the Covid numbers in the nearest town. There’s more of that mindful presence so I guess it’s inevitably a happier place to be. 

A note from Sue: Thank you for visiting this page. You may be interested in my Granny Mo children’s books, which help adults to talk with children about death and dying, and my books for adults on death and dying may help as well. You can also listen to a host of fascinating guests on my Embracing Your Mortality podcast and enjoy reading their interviews on my blog.

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