The undisputed king of wildlife television, Sir David Attenborough has worked tirelessly to introduce generations to the wonders of the world for more than 60 years – and his shows are every bit as popular today as they were when he scripted and presented his landmark 13-part series Life on Earth way back in 1979.
Why? Well, because Attenborough – who turned 91 this year (8 May) – doesn’t just make nature shows: he brings the natural world, in all of its glory, into our living rooms. His narration is compelling and engaging, his manner warm and almost grandfatherly. And, despite calling upon his studies in geology, geography, biology, zoology, botany, anthropology and more during each and every single episode, he does not remain cool and aloof.
Instead, Attenborough is the Willy Wonka of the natural world, treating each and every documentary as a complex story about our planet. He recognises our excitement, feeds our fascination, reawakens our childish curiosities, and forces us to wake up to the fact that the world needs us to look after it.
In short, Attenborough is a national treasure – and, to celebrate the British icon, we’ve taken a look back over his most immense, profound and memorable quotes.
Images: Rex Features
On nurturing childish curiosity:
“I can't remember a time when I was not fascinated by nature. I would say that nearly all children find wildlife interesting. You only have to show a child a snail or a spider to see that he or she is captivated by it. So of those that lose that interest with the onset of adulthood, I can only ask: ‘How on Earth did you let it happen?’'”
On wildlife conservation:
“I think sometimes we need to take a step back and just remember we have no greater right to be here than any other animal.”
On the most fascinating creature in the world:
“The one creature that really makes my jaw sag, that I find absolutely fascination so much that I can hardly stop looking at it, is a nine-month-old human baby.”
On the power of humanity:
“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lies upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”
On true love lost:
“[When my wife Jane passed away in 1997], the focus of my life, the anchor had gone… now I was lost.”
“In moments of great grief, that's where you look and immerse yourself. You realise you are not immortal, you are not a god, you are part of the natural world and you come to accept that.”
“I don’t know [why we're here]. People sometimes say to me, ‘Why don’t you admit that the hummingbird, the butterfly, the Bird of Paradise are proof of the wonderful things produced by Creation?’ And I always say, well, when you say that, you’ve also got to think of a little boy sitting on a river bank, like here, in West Africa, that’s got a little worm, a living organism, in his eye and boring through the eyeball and is slowly turning him blind. The Creator God that you believe in, presumably, also made that little worm. Now I personally find that difficult to accommodate…”
On the world:
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
On women's rights:
“Where women are given the rights over their own bodies; where they have political independence; where they have medical facilities to enable them to control the number of children they bear; where they are literate; where they have the vote; When those things happen, the birth rate falls. And that is a great start so that should be a lesson to us as to why we should send more help and not less to the parts of the world that face those problems.”
“I suspect that happiness is not a state but rather a transition. If things are getting better, and circumstances. You’ll find people where their conditions aren’t changing in any way, it’s rather rare for them to be happy. And you get that bubbling happiness when you achieve things.”
“I just wish the world was twice as big and half of it was still unexplored.”
On remaining connected:
“Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. It’s also very sobering, and reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”
On the meaning of life:
“The whole of science, and one is tempted to think the whole of the life of any thinking man, is trying to come to terms with the relationship between yourself and the natural world. Why are you here, and how do you fit in, and what's it all about.”
“I would rather have people around. The thing is, when you go around the house, you know that, no matter how many doors you open there is not going to be anybody there, and that's a pity. Then you go down to have a meal that you have to cook for yourself, which is not too odd, but, you know, it is nice to be able to talk to someone.”
On the future:
“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”