President Barack Obama has journeyed far in life, as well as on land and water.
He travels well.
The path to his presidency featured a ringing speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, crowds showing up on a visit to his father’s family in Kenya, and a three-point shot that swished into a basket net before cheering American troops in Afghanistan.
Obama has now embarked on a journey through the natural wonders of our shared birthright.
The 44th president is taking viewers on a visual, educational tour of great national parks, as the first production in his deal with Netflix.
The five-part series features parks in Kenya and Indonesia, as if to mock years of attacks on Obama’s origins and childhood from wacko birds of the right.
Obama strolls barefoot on beaches, but his main contribution is his gift of the spoken word.
Birds are a big part of the series, particularly when it pictures the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary along the central coast of California. So are hippos venturing into the surf off the west coast of Africa, orangutans in the jungles of Borneo, killer whales attacking a gray whale calf, and pumas hunting against a backdrop of Chile’s Torres de Paine National Park in the peaks of Patagonia.
The five-part Netflix series is instructional. Black rhinos are not Republicans in Name Only, but a species reduced in the 1970s and 1980s by poachers to the point where just 10 were left in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park.
The population has been brought back to one hundred, a half-dozen of whom are filmed at night at a watering hole.
Elephants’ sense of smell directs where they can dig for water in a dried-up river bed. They are the boss of Africa’s steppes, with even lions showing respect.
Elephant seals similarly rule ocean beaches, with grunting confrontations of dominant males. Water buffalo, in temperament, surpass the ornery hostility of Senator Ted Cruz.
The narrators of television nature series tend to speak with a hushed solemnity of Passion Gospel reading or announcing the Masters golf tournament. Not so Obama. The man’s wry wit infuses his commentary.
Hippos venturing into the surf are “hanging ten.” A bug-infected sloth in the jungle is a “pharmaceutical factory” of ingredients for disease-curing medications.
The series delivers, but does not dwell on, threats to the life of natural systems. Obama keeps its message direct and simple. “Vote like the planet depends on it,” he says. “Will we allow something so precious to disappear forever?” he asks.
We’ve witnessed debates, in the Northwest, about the size of parks and wilderness areas. The timber, mining and petroleum industries have readily agreed to protect every glacier out there. They balk at rain forest valleys or coastal plains that are calving grounds for Arctic caribou.
The Obama series pictures the dangers surrounding parks, from population incursion to bulldozing Borneo’s jungles to plant lifeless palm oil plantations. Again, however, the touch is light and sensible. “The larger the park, the more animals will call it home,” Obama tells viewers.
The 44th president walked his talk in office.
Just before leaving office, Obama designated a 1.3‑million- acre Bears Ears National Monument to protect peaks, mesas and native petroglyphs in Southern Utah. Trump slashed it to 213,000 acres, but the monument has been restored by President Biden. Obama expanded a marine sanctuary off Midway Island in the Pacific, and created the first such sanctuary in the Atlantic.
The national park series is a journey through natural wonders of our shared birthright. Obama often returns to a theme: The interests of humankind are served by protecting and nurturing these lands (and waters).
“They are our life support,” Obama argues, talking of benefits that go far beyond boosting eco-tourism.
Seemingly not a week goes by without an alarming report on buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the expanding fire season in our drought-stricken West, or release of methane from melting permafrost.
Obama acknowledges the multiple mounting dangers, but the man still believes in a word central to his 2008 campaign: Hope moves him.
“As long as we make the right choices, we can heal it, too,” he concludes.
But the Netflix series also underscores a message from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted by President Obama: the urgency of now.