60 years of The Nature of Things

Television’s longest-running science series has made a profound impact on people, places and policies

A show that helps us understand our place in the world

As evolutionary biologist Maydianne Andrade soared over the Rocky Mountains in a helicopter, she felt as if her heart was in her throat. She is terrified of heights but was thrilled to be hosting an episode of The Nature of Things — something she never imagined when she was a little girl watching the show.

“It actually was incredible,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I really valued the idea that there might be some young Black girls like I had been who now realize that this was something that they could do too.”

Andrade was hosting a film called First Animals, which follows scientists as they excavate fossils in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park.

Much like the more than 1,000 episodes of The Nature of Things, First Animals takes viewers on a journey of discovery that entertains, educates, enlightens and encourages a sense of wonder about the world.

The Nature of Things has this magic formula, which is creative — really engaging with the science of what is being presented in an honest way,” Andrade said. “It’s hard for people to resist that combination.”

Indeed, that’s why The Nature of Things is the longest-running science program on television and is now celebrating a major milestone: its 60th anniversary.

Millions of people in Canada and beyond have been inspired by The Nature of Things. It has been at the forefront of every major discovery in science, medicine and technology since its inception. It has documented the beauty and destruction of the world and the challenges and triumphs of people and wildlife. It has challenged our assumptions and given us the information we need to understand the world and our place in it.

The Nature of Things has revealed very important science and environmental topics and has influenced the zeitgeist in Canada,” said Rick Kool, a professor and founder of the environmental education and communication program at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

Kool pointed out that it can be challenging to reach people about environmental issues, but the skilled storytellers behind The Nature of Things — producers, filmmakers, writers and researchers — have mastered the art of engaging audiences. “The Nature of Things creates a sense of wonder about the magic of the living world, which is a wonderful state to be in, and the outcome of that could be awe or it could be action,” he said.

Caitin Starowicz with her father, filmmaker Mark Starowicz, in Africa
Film crew in Uganda

One of those skilled storytellers is Caitlin Starowicz, who grew up watching The Nature of Things and went on to produce several shows for the series, including She Walks with Apes, which introduces viewers to three legendary women who fought to save the great apes and became role models for the next generation of young girls.

“The natural world around us is absolutely incredible and there are just stories that you can’t find in fiction,” she said. “It’s so exciting every week to tune into The Nature of Things, and that’s why it’s lasted 60 years.”

‘A remarkable little program’ is born in 1960

Sixty years ago, a physicist in a suit with a deep voice and expressive eyebrows stared into the camera and asked, “Science. What is it? Curiosity. A desire to understand the world we live in.”

It was the first-ever instalment of The Nature of Things and a pair of quirky physics professors from the University of Toronto were the original hosts: Donald Ivey and Patterson Hume.

Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey, hosts of The Nature of Things, 1960

“Like it or not, science, the scientific method, technology, and engineering based on science are changing the world that we live in,” Ivey continued. “And whether the influence of science is good or bad may well depend on people who are not scientists having an understanding of what science can do and cannot do.”

With those words, Ivey set the tone for a new series.

At first, the show was live to air and shot entirely in studio. It featured demonstrations, experiments and interviews with experts. It was like a lecture with professors who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

Back then — like today — the show covered the most pressing scientific issues of the day, such as Sputnik and the race to space and the success of the polio vaccine.

The new series received critical acclaim, with the Montreal Star writing in a 1960 review: “The Nature of Things is a remarkable little program. It operates on the rare assumption that a TV audience is intelligent, inquisitive and alert.”

Early on, the show encouraged that audience to consider the unintended consequences of our technological advances. The 1969 series Danger: Man at Work looked at environmental issues, such as air and water pollution and the long-term effects of pesticides.

If we treat the world like a garbage dump, that’s exactly what it will become. And that will be our legacy to future generations.Host, John Livingston

The Nature of Things soon started showing Canadians what was at risk by taking them around the world and into their own backyards to witness the beauty and fragility of the natural world. In 1966, the show invited viewers on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands in what was the first-ever CBC TV show in colour and one of the first television programs by any network on the legendary biodiversity hotspot.

It didn’t take long for those working on the show to notice a concerning trend: species and ecosystems were disappearing faster than they could document them. The producers were looking for someone credible, trustworthy and charismatic to help people understand and appreciate what we stand to lose and inspire them to protect and preserve it. That someone was David Suzuki.

‘The opportunity of a lifetime’ for scientist David Suzuki

David Suzuki was a young, successful scientist when he decided to get into broadcasting. While his academic colleagues thought it was a waste of his talents, Suzuki was motivated to influence policy and educate the public. He helped launch CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks in 1975 before joining The Nature of Things four years later. “For a young scientist, it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.

As a Japanese Canadian, Suzuki brought diversity to television in North America at a time when virtually all the faces on screen — hosts and guests alike — were white. The show’s producers have always endeavored to feature diverse guests and integrate Indigenous knowledge.

“There is a respect embedded in The Nature of Things and an understanding of how science and Indigeneity really do go together,” Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie said.

Suzuki, who was a faculty member at the University of British Columbia from 1969 until 2001, has always had a knack for connecting with audiences. Kool said it comes down to the fact that he’s an exemplary teacher.

“He’s revealed ‘the nature of things’ as they are, and he’s done it with a lot of verve and class,” Kool said. Under the guidance of world-class production teams, “he’s dug into things that other people weren’t aware of, and he’s presented them in such a clear way and with wide-eyed wonder.”

Suzuki’s trademark approach was inspired by his father, who had a high school education and would push his son to make the show more accessible when he didn’t understand a segment. Suzuki’s ability to break down complex concepts and make science interesting and relevant has attracted Canadians of all ages and from all walks of life, from preschoolers to pensioners and athletes to zoologists.

“There is something about how every aspect of our world and our existence is broken down, and it’s broken down in a way that you can understand it, you can get it, right?” said world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien. “And that’s what I love about it.”

Kool added that while Suzuki is the face of the show, the backbone is a talented team of creators.

“The CBC has given Suzuki what any communicator hopes to have, which is a really big canvas and an incredible palette for creativity,” he said. “He works with amazing filmmakers, writers and producers.”

The production crew is so highly acclaimed in the community that scientists don’t turn down opportunities to highlight their work on the show, Kool said. “No one says, ‘I’m too busy. I’ve got to write a research grant.’ People show up.”

Suzuki has also become “the host next door” by inviting viewers into his life and introducing them to his family throughout the years. His mother and her three siblings all had Alzheimer’s, which inspired Suzuki to investigate the disease in a deeply personal 2013 episode, Untangling Alzheimer’s.

He also worked with his youngest daughter, Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, on several episodes. In 2008, they launched The Suzuki Diaries, which introduced people to sustainable solutions around the world and was followed by Suzuki Diaries: Coastal Canada and Suzuki Diaries: Future Cities.

Cullis-Suzuki recalled her dad giving her only a couple of nuggets of advice: be yourself and listen.

“Those two pieces of advice allowed me to express myself and follow my own inner curiosity,” she said, adding that being curious is what The Nature of Things does best. “The Nature of Things is curious about the wild, about nature, about science and about people. And that curiosity is infectious, and it attracts viewers and lets them in on the curiosity.”

While Suzuki has put his stamp on The Nature of Things, he credits the people working behind the scenes with crafting an approach that resonates with the audience. As he explained, the show takes a topical issue, explores it from all angles and examines the implications, whether environmental, economic or ethical.

“Canadians have been hungry for that,” Suzuki said. “I really thank Canadians. They’ve believed in us; they’ve come to us in numbers; and they’ve kept us on the air.”

Making an impact on issues of the time

In 1982, David Suzuki perched on a log in rainforest on Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago off the west coast of B.C., wearing a puffy red vest under a slick blue raincoat and oversized glasses. “The vast forests of Canada are more than just a potential source of revenue,” he said. “They’re part of the spiritual mystique of the country.”

With those words, he launched into an impassioned episode entitled Windy Bay, which exposed plans to clear cut old-growth rainforest in Haida Nation territory. The show caused an outcry and bolstered anti-logging protests and the efforts of the Haida to protect their territory. Ultimately, the provincial and federal government came together to protect the area and create the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site.

“I don’t think we could have done that without The Nature of Things,” said Green Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May, who at the time was senior adviser to the federal minister of environment and was pushing for protection of the area. “There were so many people who wrote letters and took a stand based on how they were influenced by The Nature of Things. When the prime minister ended up supporting our efforts, our first thought was maybe he watches The Nature of Things.”

Suzuki said working on Windy Bay changed his life as he learned from the Haida how intimately connected we are to nature.

“We live as one small part of a web of relationships with animals and plants, with air, water, soil, sunlight — that whole web is what allows us to live,” said Suzuki, who has been honoured with eight Indigenous names and formally adopted by two First Nations.

May said the show has significantly increased the level of awareness and understanding of a broad range of topics. She pointed to 2013’s Ticked Off: The Mystery of Lyme Disease, which looks at the often-misunderstood and misdiagnosed disease that’s mired in medical controversy and is becoming more common with climate change. At the time, May was working on a private member’s bill to promote greater awareness and prevention of Lyme disease, address the challenges of diagnosis and treatment and push for further research. The bill was passed unanimously in 2014, and May believes the show gave the issue a boost.

The show isn’t about taking positions and being an advocate; it’s about increasing scientific literacy and environmental literacy.Elizabeth May

Several other shows inspired or bolstered movements to protect the environment in Canada and beyond. In 1989, Amazonia: The Road to the End of the Forest helped delay the construction of a dam that would destroy Indigenous lands in the Amazon.

Then, in 1991, Voices in the Forest exposed unsustainable forestry practices across the country and growing opposition to clear cutting. As a result of the damning report, CIBC, which finances logging companies, threatened to pull its ads from the show. When word got out, members of the public threatened to boycott CIBC.

“We touched on a lot of environmental issues long before they were part of the mainstream,” said former Nature of Things filmmaker and senior producer Caroline Underwood, who started working on the show in 1982 and continues to consult on it today.

Underwood added that the show started covering climate change long before the term was in the vernacular and has since aired dozens of shows that touch on what is now the most pressing issue of our time.

The Nature of Things has also challenged the status quo on many issues, such as nuclear power, animal testing, the science of race and AIDS, provoking further thought and debate and encouraging greater understanding and compassion.

In fact, The Nature of Things produced one of the first prime-time documentaries on the AIDS epidemic in 1987.

It was a very compassionate and informative show. It brought out the human as well as the science side of the story.Caroline Underwood

But The Nature of Things is perhaps most famous for its stunning nature shows. Through sheer grit and determination, film crews have brought viewers moments in the wild that had never before been captured on film.

For the 2014 Wild Canada series, a cameraman spent three weeks living in a tent on the edge of a snowy forest to film a reclusive, shy wolverine. And for the 2017 legacy series Wild Canadian Year, another cameraman tracked a lynx for days to earn its trust and capture it hunting a snowshoe hare.

The show has also documented animal behaviours that are new to science, prompting further research. After a film crew captured polar bears hunting beluga whales in the summer, also for Wild Canadian Year, scientists contacted them for more information.

The Nature of Things has brought Canadian wildlife to Canadians made by Canadians,” Underwood said. “We’ve really tried to bring our country to life.”

This is more important as species and habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. And that responsibility weighed heavy on the mind of extreme diver and filmmaker Jill Heinerth as she explored the effects of global warming in the Arctic for a 2019 show called Under Thin Ice.

“I felt like we [were] filming the last ice…. Will this film be shown in a museum of natural history in the future as evidence of climate change?” said Heinerth. “It’s left something inside of me in my soul that I will never forget.

It’s moments like these that allow Canadians to connect to their country and inspire them to protect it. “The Nature of Things has shaped the country to be far more environmentally aware and concerned,” May said.

“There’s a whole crew that deserves a lot of credit as the show is taking a bow [in] its 60th year. It’s a beautifully made, compelling bit of television that has stood the test of time, and I hope we have another 60 years.

The ripple effect: inspiring others to action

The Nature of Things has inspired untold numbers of scientists, doctors, engineers, environmentalists and filmmakers, creating a ripple effect as those people make positive impacts in their respective professions.

Celebrity anthropologist and filmmaker Niobe Thompson is one of those people. When he was growing up in the tiny Cree community of Wabasca-Desmarais in northern Alberta, CBC was the only TV channel, and he looked forward to watching The Nature of Things every Thursday night.

“That formative exposure to The Nature of Things in my childhood led me to come back to The Nature of Things as an adult, as a scientist,” said Thompson, a longtime regular contributor to the show. “I am the person I am because of the films that I’ve made with The Nature of Things.”

Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (Manitoba Chapter), said The Nature of Things has greatly helped his organization and others inform Canadians of the environmental and cultural value of our natural assets.

“Dr. Suzuki played a huge role in introducing Canadians to the beauty and wonder of nature and has shown us all why we need to ensure our lands and waters are healthy,” he said.

How did The Nature of Things astonish/inform/enlighten you? Share your memories with #natureofthings60 and see what other fans had to say.

Ian McAllister, a filmmaker and executive director of Pacific Wild, an advocacy group working to protect B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, said the show has filled an important gap in the coverage of natural history and Indigenous people. “For The Nature of Things to continually report such strong, well-researched, important stories has been a huge legacy for the CBC, the program and Canada,” he said. “As a filmmaker and conservationist, The Nature of Things has been a guiding light through my whole career.”

‘You can’t fake nature’: Everyone has a favourite episode

All Nature of Things fans have their favourite episode — or a few. (What’s yours?)

For actress Catherine O’Hara, it’s The Wonder of the Northern Lights which uncovers the mysteries of the famous aurora borealis. “He can’t stop wanting to know more, so thank you Dr. Suzuki,” she said.

For singer-songwriter Jully Black, it’s What Trees Talk About, which reveals how trees communicate with each other, form alliances with animals and team up to face the elements.

In the show, viewers learn how scrappy, charismatic black spruce trees are born to burn and how fire actually melts their cones’ waxy coating and releases seeds, thus regenerating the forest.

“The fact that the trees … will be set on fire, but yet the seeds are saved at the top,” Black said, the awe audible in her voice. “It’s really helped me understand that the body may experience something, but the soul is unscathed.”

“With The Nature of Things, it really starts from the vision of the show,” she said. “Intentionality, authenticity, passion — it’s truth. You can’t fake nature.”

And as The Nature of Things has shown us time and again, you don’t have to.