I have a fascination with the Canadian north. What has made men and women trek to some of the most inhospitable land on earth? I’ve read the fictional works of Jack London and the real-life triumphs and tragedies of men like Ernest Shackleton and Captain John Franklin, the latter of whom is featured in Franklin’s Lost Ships, The Nature of Things’ season finale.
The news that one of Franklin’s ships, the Erebus, was discovered last year after being missing for 170 years was a discovery that excited and entranced me, and Franklin’s Lost Ships doesn’t disappoint in its exploration into how the Erebus was found. In 1845, Capt. Franklin and 129 men set sail from England aboard two ships—the HMS Erebus and Terror—headed for the uncharted waters of the Arctic. None survived. Graves and notes left by crew members have been found since, along with Inuit tales handed down through generations detailing what happened, but the ships remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Thursday’s documentary not only details the six-year search Parks Canada has been on for the duo National Historic sites, but the story of how Franklin and his crew ran into trouble in the first place. Franklin was a decorated war hero, but had failed in earlier overland mission to find the Northwest Passage. On his last mission, he not only had enough food to last three years, but warships Erebus and Terror had been fitted with central heating and propellors. It was expected that the elusive Northwest Passage would be traversed and mapped without problem.
Experts like Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier of Parks Canada, John Geiger of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, historian Huw Lewis-Jones and authors Ken McCoogan and Dave Woodman breathe life into the tale with help from re-creations, explaining not only how last year’s adventure was undertaken with state-of-the-art sonar and satellite maps paired with the last coordinates left by the crew before they perished.
Franklin’s Lost Ships is also a story of British arrogance, of a society that preferred—in the 1800s—to ignore Inuit reports of cannibalism among the crew and reports of one ship locked in the ice and sinking while another was carried south. In fact it was those stories, and luck, that caused last summer’s mission to be a success. Incredible footage of Erebus looming up in the murk, covered in seaweed and dwarfing the divers around her is dramatic stuff. But that’s just the first chapter in the story; future dives will venture inside the ship to search for documents, film and bodies for a more accurate telling of what truly went wrong during Franklin’s last expedition.
Franklin’s Lost Ships airs as part of The Nature of Things on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBC.
My Toronto backyard is a playground for songbirds. We have a resident cardinal and his mate that have claimed our property as theirs. Robins, sparrows, chickadees and crows land on the lawn in droves. We’ve had woodpeckers on our dying tree in the back, and goldfinches in the flowers out front.
But we’re on the verge of losing our birds forever. That’s what SongbirdSOS—part of Thursday’s episode of The Nature of Things—posits. As York University’s Dr. Bridget Stutchbury says, species of birds still exist, but their numbers are way down. The wood thrush population in the Americas is down 62 per cent since 1966; the Baltimore Oriole is down over 45 per cent; the Bobolink has seen a 64 per cent decline. The question is, why?
Beautifully shot, SongbirdSOS suggests a few sobering answers. Mankind’s creation of artificial light has messed with the birds’ ability to migrate during the night, disorienting them and causing midair collisions. And, of course, we’ve constructed huge skyscrapers that songbirds fly into, a point driven home by FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada when they lay out the bodies of hundreds of dead birds on a plain white sheet for all to see. Lost breeding and wintering habitats in rain forests, wetlands and boreal forests, oil pipelines and farm pesticides are contributing to declining song bird numbers, as well as house cats.
On the positive side, there are steps being taken to halt the dropping populations, including allowing birds to feast on hurtful insects in Costa Rican coffee fields and mandating building owners to switch off the lights at night. Hopefully enough changes will come in time to save the songbirds before their tunes cease.
The Nature of Things airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Why have homo sapiens emerged as the only hominid left standing, capable of settling the world? That’s the goal of Gemini Award-winning anthropologist Niobe Thompson’s ambitious, gorgeous three-part The Great Human Odyssey.
Debuting Thursday with “Rise of a Species” as part of The Nature of Things, Thompson’s energetic narration can’t help but keep you interested as he traces mankind’s origins back to Africa and the cradle of life, where our ancestors battled for survival among other beasts in sometimes inhospitable conditions. Why did homo sapiens survive? Thompson—who has no qualms about putting his own life on the line for his studies—joins the bushmen of Africa’s Kalahari Desert where he witnesses how water is gained by watching where elephants quench their thirst and how harvesting grubs that live among the roots of a deadly tree gains poison for their spears and arrows.
Filmed over the course of 18 months, Thompson’s adventures are stunning to witness, a riot of colour, action and education. He and his crew of 22 cinematographers braved some of the most hostile sections of the planet, including Siberian winter, African deserts, remote islands in the Pacific and the ice of the Bering Strait.
Excavations that occurred during filming uncovered a treasure trove of new research. Among the new information gathered is proof that South Africa’s Cape Coast is the source of man’s earliest use of language, art, jewelry and projectile weapon making, and samples of human remains from the Russian Arctic show humans settled far earlier in that area than previously believed.
The Great Human Odyssey airs for three weeks under The Nature of Things banner on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
I’ll never look at pigeons the same way again.
Living in Toronto for over a decade has taught this small-town boy a few things, including watching out for the ubiquitous grey-feathered beasts fluttering around the downtown core. They bob and coo their way up to people sitting on park benches, eager to dart in and scoop up any morsel of food that tumbles to the ground. I viewed them with scorn and labelled them as pests. But I’ll show them a little more respect the next time we cross paths.
This week’s excellent episode of The Nature of Things, “The Secret Life of Pigeons,” pulls back the curtain on a bird that was once an important part of our daily lives. Written and directed by Scott Harper (The Age of Anxiety), “Pigeons” goes back in time to reveal that they were the first animal on earth to be domesticated and the crucial role they played during wartime of old by flying important messages to troops.
And the suckers are smart. Among the uncanny skills revealed during the episode: pigeons recognize human faces, spread themselves out amid food scraps so each gets some, and their young are among the fastest-growing on the planet. The highlight of the instalment for me was not only an explanation into how pigeons find their way back home from long distances, but the moment an HD camera was strapped to a bird’s back, offering a glimpse into what life is like for a pigeon in flight.
My second favourite segment? A peek into the life of pigeon fanciers, who strive to prolong the life of some of the world’s rarest–and pretty freaky-looking–pigeons.
The Nature of Things, “The Secret Life of Pigeons,” airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC.