A “Slow TV” Guide for Indoor Days
Extremely long nature videos won’t satisfy our need for the outdoors, but they just might fill the gap until your next excursion outside.
Text — Mark Mann
On 24 December 1966 New York City television station WPIX aired Yule Log, a looping two-hour shot of a fireplace. The station’s CEO, Fred M. Thrower, thought of it as a Christmas gift for New Yorkers who lacked a fireplace of their own.
Half a century later Thrower’s inspiration has evolved into a sprawling genre, which includes trail cams, live streams, and scenic loops. Sometimes grouped under the banner of “slow TV,” these long videos frequently try to offer something that city dwellers typically lack: a window onto nature’s splendour.
TV and movies have always promised access to that which eludes us in real life. In theory, Yule Log reversed that polarity by introducing a new possibility: instead of escaping through our television screens — and later, computers, tablets, and smartphones — we could instead draw something authentic or natural from the wider world into our actual lives. A Norwegian forest in the living room, a coral reef on the bedside table.
Peter Kahn, director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab (HINTS) at the University of Washington, calls this phenomenon “technological nature.” (His definition includes nature documentaries, certain video games, and robot pets.) Kahn, who was featured in BESIDE Issue 05: What does our future with nature hold?, suggests that we seek out technological nature not because it’s realistic or compelling, but because we all possess an innate biophilia, which E. O. Wilson described as our tendency to be drawn toward nature and to feel an affinity for it.
Does technological nature satisfy our biophilia? The short answer is no, not really . . . but maybe somewhat. Kahn’s research indicates that technological nature offers some of the benefits of actual nature, but it’s not nearly as good as the real deal. No surprise there. Still, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, most of us are stuck at home, and nature scenes DO reduce stress, even on a screen.
So in the spirit of biophilia, here’s a list of slow TV offerings to help you sustain your link with nature until the confinement is over.
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The biggest trend in slow TV is videos of long trips. Norway basically invented the genre; the first program ever aired by their public broadcaster consisted of minute-by-minute footage of the train trip from Bergen to Oslo. Amazingly, 20 per cent of Norway’s population tuned in. Since then the country has continued to produce annual slow TV events, including more trips by land and sea, a knitting marathon, and 24 hours of non-stop national history lectures. Today, slow travel is abundant on YouTube. You can sail the Caribbean Sea or take a traditional reindeer sleigh ride in the Arctic. On summer solstice in 2016, Iceland’s national television broadcaster aired a 24-hour remix of the song “Óveður” by Sigur Rós, paired with uninterrupted footage of a long drive around the entire perimeter of the country. There’s nothing dreamier.
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Animals being animals
A lot of wildlife cams want to put you awkwardly close to animals, especially eagles, in their homes, which seems like the naturalist’s equivalent to close-talking. If sitting in an eagle’s nest feels claustrophobic, this stream from Transylvania really delivers — bears, wolves, boar — and from a respectful distance. My favourite wildlife cam is from this humpback whale sanctuary in Hawaii, because you don’t actually see any whales, and that feels real. To actually see a whale, try the “rubbing beach” for orcas in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait. I really did see one, and in under 30 seconds. Also, it’s not exactly wildlife, but may I recommend this kitten rescue cam?
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Forest for the trees
The most subtle sub-genre of slow TV is definitely forests. A lot of the time, the only way you know they aren’t still images is that the leaves flutter slightly, and you can hear the birds. For starters, try these lovely Swedish forests. YouTube is full of long forest videos, organized by features like season, time of day, and noises: sunny autumn, summer with birds, full moon forest, and so on. Some videos will take you for a walk; some look up. Google now enables you to do the “walking” yourself through their Trekker program, which lets you navigate certain trails in Street View, like this one in Banff National Park. It’s nice, but so much clicking!
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Under the sea
Another thriving genre with many millions of views on YouTube is undersea and aquarium videos. No wonder: It feels good to set yourself adrift in a world of undulating creatures, where everything floats. Also, the soothing music they play down there is really relaxing. Or, to really cleanse your brain, try a video of ocean waves meeting the shore. Gentle, lapping waves are easier to come by online, but rocky coastlines and choppy waters are even better if you ask me.
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TV for cats (and dogs)
No list of nature video offerings would be complete without TV for cats. Some of these videos have millions of views, and if the comments are to be believed, cats genuinely love it. Viewers also report that their cats sometimes attack the screen, so beware, cat owners. Speaking as a human, I find these videos hold my attention better than most nature streams. It’s fun to watch birds and squirrels just doing their thing: all the hubbub is both entertaining and soothing in a way that reminds me of ASMR sensory-stimulation videos. For what it’s worth, there are videos for dogs too, usually with bigger fauna like sheep and cows, as well as ducks and ravens. But you really don’t need pets to enjoy these videos. Just ask YouTube user John Schrader: ”I’ve been playing this video every day for a week, and I don’t even have a dog.”