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Unnatural Histories

BBC-EarthBBC 2011

Series loo­king at three of the world’s most ico­nic wild pla­ces and how they have been shaped over time by man.

Epi­so­de 1 of 3 · Seren­ge­ti

More than any­whe­re, the Seren­ge­ti is syn­ony­mous with wil­der­ness and has even come to rep­re­sent Afri­ca. But the sto­ry of the Seren­ge­ti is just as much about humans as it is about wild­life. Right from the ori­gin of our spe­ci­es in Afri­ca, humans have been pro­found­ly sha­ping this uni­que wil­der­ness – hun­ters and pas­to­ra­lists with catt­le and fire, ivo­ry tra­ders and big game hun­ters, con­ser­va­tio­nists, sci­en­tists, film-makers and even tou­rists have all play­ed a part in sha­ping the Seren­ge­ti.

Pro­bab­ly most power­ful of all was a tiny micro­be unkno­win­gly brought to Afri­ca by a small Ita­li­an expe­di­tio­na­ry force – Rin­der­pest, a dead­ly virus that swept through the con­ti­nent deci­ma­ting catt­le and wild­life ali­ke and fore­ver chan­ging the face of the wild. The Seren­ge­ti is far from timeless, it is fore­ver chan­ging – and whe­re­ver the­re is chan­ge, the influ­ence of Homo sapi­ens is not far behind.

Epi­so­de 2 of 3 · Yel­lowstone

As the world’s first natio­nal park, Yel­lowstone has long ser­ved as a model for the pro­tec­tion of wil­der­ness around the world. For Ame­ri­cans it has beco­me a source of gre­at natio­nal pri­de, not least becau­se it encap­su­la­tes all our popu­lar noti­ons of what a wil­der­ness should be – vast, unin­h­a­bi­ted, with spec­ta­cu­lar sce­ne­ry and tee­ming with wild­life. But Yel­lowstone has not always been so. At the time of its crea­ti­on in 1872, it was renow­ned only for its extra­or­di­na­ry gey­sers, and far from being an unin­h­a­bi­ted wil­der­ness it was home to several Ame­ri­can Indi­an tri­bes.

This film reveals how a remo­te Indi­an home­land beca­me the world’s first gre­at wil­der­ness. It was the ambi­ti­ons of rail­road barons, not con­ser­va­tio­nists, that paved the way for a brand new visi­on of the wild, a visi­on that took nati­ve peop­les out of the pic­tu­re. Ico­nic land­s­cape pain­tings show how Euro­pean Roman­ti­cism crossed the Atlan­tic and recast the Ame­ri­can wil­der­ness, not as a sata­nic place to be tamed and cul­ti­va­ted, but as a place to expe­ri­ence the raw power of God in natu­re. For­ged in Yel­lowstone, this potent new ver­si­on of wil­der­ness as untouched and deser­ving of pro­tec­tion has sin­ce been expor­ted to all cor­ners of the glo­be.

Epi­so­de 3 of 3 · Ama­zon

The Ama­zon rain­fo­rest is the epi­to­me of a last gre­at wil­der­ness under thre­at from modern man. It has beco­me an inter­na­tio­nal cau­se celeb­re for envi­ron­men­ta­lists as power­ful agri­cul­tu­ral and indus­tri­al inte­rests bent on fel­ling trees encroach ever deeper into vir­gin forest. But the latest evi­dence sug­gests that the Ama­zon is not what it seems.

As more trees are fel­led, the sto­ry of a far less natu­ral Ama­zon is revea­led – enor­mous man-made struc­tures, even cities, hid­den for cen­tu­ries under what was belie­ved to be untouched forest. All the time archaeo­lo­gists are dis­co­vering anci­ent, high­ly fer­ti­le soils that can only have been pro­du­ced by sophisti­ca­ted agri­cul­tu­re far and wide across the Ama­zon basin. This start­ling evi­dence sheds new light on long-dis­mis­sed accounts from the very first con­quis­ta­dors of an Ama­zon tee­ming with peop­le and threa­tens to turn our who­le noti­on of wil­der­ness on its head. And if even the Ama­zon turns out to be unnatu­ral, what then for the future of wil­der­ness?

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