In the presence of Sir David

I don’t recall exactly which documentary was my first introduction to Sir David Attenborough, but I think it might have been Trials of Life or maybe The Private Life of Plants. I came upon Sir David a little later than I probably should have, having been raised in Canada. Yet, life before Sir David – a time I like to refer to as BD (Before David) – seems a distant blur as he has educated me about the natural world, shaped my decision to be a biologist and inspired my passion for communicating science.

So, you can imagine my thrill at being in the presence of Sir David during the recent opening of the University of Bristol’s new £56.5 million Life Sciences building. I was one of 200 guests, staff and students that were crowded onto the floor of the new atrium, which is really just a fancy and very open foyer that has challenging acoustics.

Sir David Attenborough gives an inspiring speech at the opening of the University of Bristol's Life Sciences building.
Sir David Attenborough gives an inspiring speech at the opening of the University of Bristol’s Life Sciences building.

I had cycled through an absolute downpour to get there and arrived looking rather like a drowned rat despite lots of quality rain gear. I didn’t care though – if I had the opportunity to meet Sir David, I’m sure he would just congratulate my choice of sustainable transportation rather than shun me for my sogginess. As I tried to look professional hanging my soaking rain gear up on the coat rack beside the designer trench coats of various Deans and Council Members, I had a daydream of how that conversation would go.

David would spot me as he walked by and would say “My word young lady [because age is relative], you look as though you’ve been swimming, where on Earth have you been?”. To which I would reply, “I cycled here Sir David. Terribly sorry for my appearance, but you know, it’s not as bad as when I worked in the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada…talk about wet!”. At this point we would start trading soggy stories and he would invite me as his special guest to join him at lunch. A girl can have her fantasies right?!

There was, of course, no such conversation, but I was nonetheless inspired by always. A friend I was with mentioned his concern that when we see our idols in person, the persona that is portrayed in film or on stage can be diminished in life. Yet, this was not the case with Sir David. He was just as passionate, just as eloquent and just captivating as he is in his documentaries. There is such energy behind this 88 year old body that the room suddenly felt too small to contain it.

During his speech, Sir David spoke of the importance of understanding the natural world.

“It has never been more important…ever…that human beings should understand the workings of the world which is our home,” he said. “We know that we’re in trouble and we know that it’s going to get worse. And the only way that we will actually deal with the problems that are facing this planet Earth of ours – which WE have created – is to understand what goes on.”

Sir David rarely speaks in his documentaries about the troubles we face. He has said previously that he has seen his role as that of education and inspiration – to get people excited about the world around them without overwhelming them with the gloom and doom. Yet, he spoke about this here and of how important it is to share that understanding with the wider community, with the world – to share how important it is for us to do something.

“…understanding the plants…the sequences of flowers that open in a meadow in the spring…those are the things that bring joy to our lives and understanding them enhances that joy,” he continued. I admittedly got a little teary at this point. He was articulating something that I have always known but never voiced – things are just so much better when you understand them. It sounds rather straightforward writing this now, but in hindsight many of the people closest to me find joy in the mystery of life – purposely NOT understanding every detail of how it works, so I have always felt a bit odd in that respect.

I left the event feeling inspired. I did not have the audacity to elbow my way in for a selfie with David and though a small part of me regrets that, most of me knows I did the right thing for me. So, now I shall go forth with renewed vigor to share my stories of the world around us with those who will listen. I will endeavour to share the research of others with a wide audience in order to improve their understanding and thereby enhance their joy – it puts a new and important light on my rather insular life in my home office. Thank you David.


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