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Green and Growing: A night at the nature movies

Get out of the way, comedy, sci-fi, and mystery. Here are four beautifully filmed documentaries about nature, landscapes, and wildlife that, in my opinion, offer delight for our eyes and ears and ideas to intrigue our minds.

A Life on Our Planet

There’s nothing like a down-beat message to discourage an audience. Yet when David Attenborough opens the cautionary documentary, “A Life on Our Planet,” I dared not look away or flip the channel. I felt as if he was speaking directly to me.

“I am 93 years old,” he said. “This is my witness statement and my vision of the future.” At 93, Attenborough has nothing to lose by talking bluntly. He delivers a clear-eyed, unsentimental summary about the state of the atmosphere, the seas, and wildlife through statistics and images as he understands them. The film-making is so good, and the pace so taut, that I barely noticed the time had passed when it ended, even though upwards of two hours had gone by.

Attenborough wove his own story into the larger tale. “I’ve had a most extraordinary life,” he said. Indeed, he may be the most awarded documentary filmmaker ever. Owing to a 70-year career as an explorer, Attenborough has visited nearly every place on earth. For these privileges, he expressed humility and gratitude at several points throughout the film.

Attenborough left me with a renewed sense of urgency about the state of nature, but also with gratitude for the gifts that Attenborough himself has shared. Not many people would or could provide such compelling insight at the age of 93. The film is available on Netflix.

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolph

Piet Oudolph is one of the best known landscape designers in the world, with signature works in the United States such as the High Line and Battery Park in New York City, the Delaware Botanic Garden, the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago, and Belle Isle Park in Michigan. He is a master of horticultural color, which he “paints” in seemingly casual drifts of seasonal blossoms. His designs are so fluid in space and time, I think of him as a plant and landscape choreographer.

The Netherlands-based designer is also one of the best-known horticulturalists in the world. He has authored or co-authored eight books exploring his design philosophy, plant selections, and planting practices.

This beautiful film offers an insider’s view of a master at work. “Five Seasons” often uses aerial photography to achieve unique views of the gardens. Through scenes from his design and planting processes, we glimpse the actual complexity behind his eye-catching allusions to nature. Information on virtual screenings of the film is available at fiveseasonsmovie.com/organize-a-virtual-screening.

The Gardener

“The Gardener” is the story of one man’s quest for visual perfection in the landscape at Les Quatre Vents estate in Charlevoix County, Quebec. Gentle on both eyes and ears, the film lets us drift through endless fields of pastel blossoms accompanied by the music of Bach, Saint-Saëns, and others.

But there’s more to the story than eye candy. The gardener, in this case, is Frank Cabot, an heir to the Cabot fortune whose experiences in the business world left him empty. Though lacking formal training in design or horticulture, landscape beauty eventually became his full-time pursuit. This film is about his most ardent project, his summer home, Les Quatre Vents.

Cabot strove to create landscapes that move their visitors emotionally. Cabot understood that the pleasure principle has a role in the life of a garden, particularly high-end gardens that represent years of investment and curation. He seemed to realize that, just as honey catches more flies than vinegar, a deeply felt, positive experience in a garden can help us all move closer to a better relationship with the earth.

“The Gardener” has its jarring moments. Cabot’s wealth is on full display. His budget was apparently without limits, and some of his projects were jaw-droppingly impractical. It would be easy to write off his accomplishments and label his privileged journey irrelevant to the rest of us.

Yet Cabot’s energy and inspiration drove him to preserve a long list of properties for posterity and public visitation. In 1989, he founded the nonprofit Garden Conservancy to help save private gardens. Cabot’s wealth helped him pursue his personal vision of landscapes, and gave back to the world through his passion for public landscapes and vision for their care. “The Gardener” is a beautiful film, available on Netflix.

My Octopus Teacher

Headline: South African free diver spends a year befriending and filming an 18-inch octopus in an underwater kelp forest.

It’s unusual subject matter, to be sure, and I loved it.

This beautiful film weaves two storylines, one about a human who bonds with a wild creature, the other about that person’s relationship with himself. It begins one day when the little octopus reaches out and wraps her tentacles around Craig Foster’s arm during one of his dives. He is surprised, touched, and intrigued. Over a year, he revisits her habitat, encountering her during quiet moments and watching as she lives with the dangers of ocean life. Though it pains him, he never intervenes.

Simultaneously, Foster shares small insights from his human journey. We learn he is retreating from his life, reassessing how to spend his time and direction, but we never know why. In the course of the film, his healing is evident. His relationship with his son grows closer. He seems more prepared to go forward with life.

What did the octopus think when she lost her fear of this diver? No one will ever know. We do know, though, that the encounter is life-changing for Foster. This film is documentary storytelling at its best. “My Octopus Teacher” is available on Amazon Prime.

Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker on horticulture and landscape ecology. She can be reached at kathy@speakingoflandscapes.com.

Editor's Note: This corrects an earlier version.

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