David Attenborough Stalks Flora and Fauna Worldwide for His Stunning Life on Earth

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Others may have seen the world in a grain of sand or heaven in a wild flower, as did visionary poet William Blake, but it took British naturalist David Attenborough, 55, to draw attention to a tiny insect that lives its whole life within the tear duct of a hippopotamus. Or to a housefly that beats its wings 1,000 times per second; an orchid that attracts pollinating male wasps by impersonating females; an amorous spider that signals its ardor by plucking a female's web like the strings of a guitar. From such phenomena Attenborough traces the 3.5 billion-year history of evolution in his lavish new coffee table book Life on Earth (Little Brown, $22.50) and in his stunning 13-episode TV series of the same name on PBS.

The book has been praised by author Desmond (The Naked Ape) Morris as "the best introduction to natural history ever written." The TV series, which required three years and 1.3 million miles of travel to 30 countries, is duplicating the enormous 1980 success of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Attenborough, the brother of actor-director Sir Richard Attenborough, has a lucid style that avoids Sagan's gee-whiz attitude. Though Life on Earth will not make Attenborough quite as rich as the astronomer (Sagan earned a reported $7 million from Cosmos), that's not what is important to David. "I'm the luckiest man," David admits. "I go to the most marvelous places in the world and I'm paid for it."

Some places are more marvelous than others. At one point Attenborough ventured into a Borneo cave and climbed a 90-foot mound of bat droppings only to find the top covered with "a glistening carpet of cockroaches." His flashlight startled the millions of resident bats into flying around "as thick as snowflakes driven by a gale."

David acquired his curiosity from his father, Frederick, a former Cambridge don and "a great teacher who understood that being too know-all with children can be crushing." He gave David a salamander on his seventh birthday. "The marvel of something else which had life was riveting," David says. Before long, brother Richard recalls, "You could never find David. He was either under a stone or in a pond catching newts and tadpoles." David went on to Cambridge intending to become a geologist, but switched to zoology. "I decided I was more interested in live animals than dead ones," he says.

After graduation he began a career in TV, and in 1954 took over the BBC's Zoo Quest show when the host fell ill. He stayed there 10 years. Later he initiated such critically acclaimed shows as Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and the late Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and rose to become head of all BBC programming. Fed up with the administrative life, however, he quit in 1972 to create his own programs.

These days Attenborough's peripatetic schedule keeps him away from his four-bedroom house in Richmond, Surrey and wife Jane, a former school cook, six months a year. (Their daughter Susan, 27, is a teacher and son Robert, 30, an anthropologist living in Australia.) Jane chauffeurs her husband around ("He just doesn't like driving"), but seldom accompanies him overseas. Even Attenborough sometimes complains about his jungle jet-setting. "I'm not a particularly good traveler when reduced to an inanimate bundle, which is what airlines do to you," he says. "But it's a small price to pay for the center of the Kalahari or the Amazon."

He means it. In the past few months Attenborough has visited Icelandic volcanoes, chased golden moles in southern Africa and examined prehistoric Saharan paintings for a new 12-part series to air in 1984. A destination David once dreamed of reaching was the top of Mount Everest, but he's given that up. "I'm no longer into discomfort for discomfort's sake," he says. "I regret I didn't go when I was 20. Not now. Too cold."

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