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Upstream 1

When people say that we’ve got to take better care of the planet, my reaction is that the planet can take care of itself. For the next 7.5 billion years, or whatever the latest scientific estimate says, it will continue to absorb extinctions and other catastrophes, regenerating itself as it did after the Ice Age and whatever event accounted for the dinosaurs. There seems no reason why the Age of Man should not be just another passing phase, to be accepted by its host with a similar indifference.

Upstream, a new half-hour television film written by Robert Macfarlane and directed by Rob Petit, puts the viewer in the realm of that very different perception of time. It’s the result of half a dozen trips over three years to the Cairngorms, where Petit guided a camera-bearing drone over the River Dee from its floodplain to its source high in the mountains. Macfarlane, our greatest contemporary observer of landscape,  contributes an accompanying prose-poem, its spare, evocative lines murmured by the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.

Filmed in black and white, the images exert a mesmerising and eventually hallucinatory effect as the camera tracks slowly and inexorably upward, the direction of travel never varying as the sense of rising takes hold. Edited together with great but entirely unobtrusive skill, the individual shots are taken from many heights and distances, the puzzle-shapes of harsh whites, blurred greys and soft blacks playing quiet games with the viewer’s perception of scale.

My excuse for writing about Upstream is that it has a soundtrack by the German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka. Violin, cello and piano are blended with electronics in a way that shifts in and out of focus, rooted in the abstract but drifting towards the concrete, underscoring the images with a musical commentary that bears an equal emotional weight. Snatches of Gaelic, spoken by the poet Niall Górdan, are added to the weave.

I was going to describe the film’s beauty as unearthly; that, however, would be the very opposite of what I mean. Yes, Upstream brings us closer to a sense of the eternal, but its gaze is fixed on the ground beneath our feet.

* Upstream is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, September 29, at 8:30pm, and will be available for a month on BBC iPlayer.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your opening paragraph Richard is just so spot on (as usual!). What we are destroying is not the planet, but the rather comfortable way of life we have managed to create for ourselves in the last one hundred years or less. (Refrigeration, oil extraction, plastics, electricity are all 150 years old or less). The planet has been here for about 4 billion years. The human species has been on this planet in a recognisable ‘civilised’ form for only about 250,000 years. Dinosaurs inhabited the earth for 100 million years. There are probably thousands of species and organisms which have lived on this planet which we know absolutely nothing about, and never will. Yet we act as if we own the place, have always lived here and always will. We’re just a passing phase, and maybe for worse rather than for better. The film sounds beautiful.

    September 27, 2019
  2. nick grant #

    Wow. Amazed at your eco scepticism.

    Sent from my iPhone


    September 27, 2019
  3. GuitarSlinger #

    To play ‘ devils advocate ‘ to be honest your opening paragraph is the epitome of ignorance and naivite based on corptocracy , extreme right ( white ) wing ideology and misguided religious myth . Simply stated the earth will not ‘ take care of itself ‘ with the damage destruction and interference of man in the pursuit of greed is god and more is better in play .

    Simply stated we humans are the only species in the entire history of the planet causing our own and the planet’s destruction … and the only species potentially capable of mitigating it . e.g. There is no excuse / justification for our actions . We … are ( explicative ) up both ourselves and the planet …. with films such as this regardless of its inherit beauty only serving to exacerbate and justify our blatant stupidity

    Seriously mate … stick to what you know ( oh so very well ) and leave the science / ecology to the experts

    September 27, 2019
    • How can you so completely and utterly misunderstand what I was saying? Well, you’ve done it before, so I suppose it’s no surprise.

      September 27, 2019
  4. “Simply stated we humans are the only species in the entire history of the planet causing our own and the planet’s destruction”

    Yes, granted we are making a pretty good mess of things. But given that our knowledge of the history of this planet’s 4 billion years of evolution is pretty sketchy at best, I wonder how this bold statement can possibly be accurate or verifiable?

    September 27, 2019
  5. Tim Adkin #

    Richard, nobody thus far has mentioned Hauschka who was your excuse for writing this, somewhat surprisingly, controversial post in the first place. Let me rectify this. I encountered his work a couple of years back via picking up a CD en spec of ‘Ferndorf’ in a charity shop for the price of a chocolate bar. I was very pleasantly surprised in a Max Richter(I think they are, or were, labelmates) sort of way. Hopefully this film will help spread the word. Keep up the good work.

    September 27, 2019
  6. Just watched it, for the third time in a row. I’m a better person for it, and for it (and BBC4) I’m really thankful. Your review fits nicely, and your first paragraph just points out a fact of nature. Disagreeing or feeling insulted by it just shows how alienated we become to the natural world and our place in it. Indeed it’s the earth that will soon stop looking after us, which is another fact. Other species will be dragged into this catastrophe, but it also true that other specie will thrive because of it. And like you say the events will be accepted by our “host with a similar indifference”.

    September 29, 2019

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