Deciding what you can cope with watching during a pandemic is a high-wire act. When the inside of your head – and, for many, the outside, too – is an extended episode of 24 Hours in A&E, the last thing you probably want to collapse in front of is telly featuring hospitals, Covid-19 explainers, Brexi, Donald Trump, Max Clifford, Gordon Ramsay’s Bank Balance and … I could go on.
But nor do you want anything pure pointless. When you’ve spent a year repeatedly learning that life is precarious, terrifying and deeply unfair, do you really want to waste a precious hour of it snooping around holiday homes with Sandi Toksvig? What’s left? Per me, it’s gardens; Monty Don’s dogs. Nigella. That mindfulness bit in Springwatch when you get to watch a hedgerow in real time, with no music or commentary, for a blissful 1 minute 38 secondi.
Which brings me to Chris Packham, who is basically the U-rating in human form, and whose programmes are perfect lockdown viewing. If Packham is presenting a programme, I will watch it, safe in the knowledge that I’ll come away soothed and filled with incredible facts about naked mole rats. o, as Packham calls them, “the kings of concealment”. (He loves alliteration, does Packham, which is why orangutans are “simian sleep specialists”.) And so it is with Chris Packham’s Animal Einsteins (BBC Two), a solidly entertaining and informative series about the natural world that doesn’t make you pray for the extinction of all human life. What more could you ask for right now?
Packham’s Einsteins are not just the obvious ones – the great apes and the dolphins. His focus is on getting inside the minds of all sorts of “savvy” species, specifically in this episode nature’s builders, to see how and why they do what they do. per fortuna, he bypasses the old is-it-survival-instinct-or-intelligence question to simply revel in nature’s ingenuity. The beaver’s aptitude for hydraulic engineering. The ability of a spider to make up to seven types of silk, which is “like producing bricks, concrete, rafters, fixtures and fittings, all out of our own backsides”. The hexagonal precision of beeswax, using a principle known as “honeycomb conjecture” that was only mathematically proven in 1999. The nest of a long-tailed tit, woven from spider silk and lined with up to 1,000 feathers, which physically expands as the baby birds hatch and grow.
Take the beaver which, if you love rats as I do, is up there with the capybara on the giant rodent cuteness scale. These are the only animals – sorry, “super-sized, semi-aquatic rodents” – on the planet, apart from humans, to build dams. And they’ve been doing it for millions of years longer than us, pure, in complete darkness, using nothing but themselves, natural materials and their evolved understanding of material physics. The longest beaver dam in the world can be seen from space. There is one in North America dating back to 1868 that is still in use today. At this point, I may have been Packhamed in lockdown because I find a wall made of sticks, stones and mud extraordinarily beautiful. Only the one true heir of Attenborough’s crown could generate this much enthusiasm in a human.
The brand new science, innovative technologies and blah blah blah leading us to discover some animals are brighter than we ever imagined is a bit flat and self-evident in comparison. I’m not sure I needed to see a lab simulation of a flooded dam in a tank. Twice. It’s pretty cool (also a bit creepy for us arachnophobes) that there exists such a thing as a silk group studying spiders at Oxford University, but it can’t compete with the underwater web of the diving bell spider.
More interesting is Packham’s brief exploration of biomimicry – the development of design inspired by nature. This is leading to more beautiful, efficient and lightweight architecture, as well as buildings that look like abalone shells. Packham – who presents the episode from a Grand Designs-y home in a forest – visits the alpine house at Kew Gardens where the inspiration for the low-energy cool air system drawn from the basement came from … termite mounds. Packham explains how the fungus in the mounds keeps the termites cool by breathing for them. sì, termites make their own air-purification systems. No, I don’t entirely understand what I’m on about. But I am soothed. I have a newfound respect for termites. There is hope for us yet.