FOR A MOMENT in Monday night's fourth episode of PBS' "Land of the Eagle," you can imagine what the Great Plains used to be like, when literally millions of buffalo roamed across this flat grassland, sharing its bounty with herds of elk and antelope, grizzly bears punctuating the scenery with their ferocious magnificence, perhaps 500,000 humans living within this immense acreage, the golden eagle surveying it all from above.
The tableau must have been as stunning as any available today on the savanna of Africa. Yet within two generations of its first sighting by white men -- the explorers Lewis and Clark -- it was gone.
The strength of "Land of the Eagle," an eight-hour version of the "Nature" series that tells of the natural history of North America, is in its ability to let you re-create such images.
This is no polemic about the destructive forces of western civilization. It is a spectacular, informative look at the natural world that the people of the United States and Canada inhabit, and how man's relationship with that world changed after the onset of European settlement.
Cameramen, mainly from the BBC's natural history unit -- this was a co-production between the BBC and New York's WNET -- found places that still show the promise and pitfalls that awaited the Europeans who followed Columbus.
"Flight of the Eagle" starts Sunday night at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67. PBS is running two episodes a night, 8 to 10 o'clock, Sunday through Wednesday. )) The series will be re-broadcast in its entirety Thursday starting at 10 a.m.
The first program is "The Great Encounter," an hour on the early English settlements in America, what the would-be colonists found and how they reacted to it. Much of the focus is on the Chesapeake Bay, whose harvest of fish and crustaceans nourished the struggling new communities just as it had the native peoples for centuries.
Throughout its eight hours, "Land of the Eagle" not only shows you sights you've never seen before -- a crab cracking open a clam for a meal -- but also shows you the familiar in a way you've never seen it.
And so Sunday, when you are shown the common cardinal and blue jay, not on a suburban lawn, but deep within a virgin forest, for a moment you can understand what a surprising and interesting sight these previously unknown species of birds were to the newcomers.
The second hour Sunday moves into Canada where the French and their search for furs took them deep into an unknown wilderness, an economic imperative driving men, and the animals they trapped, to extremes.
Monday first heads south for a look at the mysterious swamps that the Spanish explorers encountered in Florida, odd lands that resisted attempts to conquer them, that hid renegade native tribes for decades after they had been forced from dryer ground by the conquering armies of the United States.
The second hour Monday, "Across the Sea of Grass," is a revelation about the Great Plains, that treeless table of land that supported a magnificent array of species, some thundering along its immensity, others burrowing beneath its treasured soil, before agriculture became dominant.
Tuesday goes to the Rocky Mountains, where the new country first decided to preserve nature at Yellowstone, and then into the desert of the Southwest for a spectacular hour marred only by the absence of the Grand Canyon. Wednesday's final two hours are on Alaska and California as the series traces the movement of Europeans from east to west across the continent.
Throughout, "Land of the Eagle" presents its share of how-did-they-do-that? photography, scenes within the burrows of beavers and snakes, inside the nests of birds, under the ice with the fish. The images range from the sublime -- an avalanche thundering down a mountain in the Rockies -- to the delicate -- the artful dance of a hummingbird as it gathers its nectar.
The narration by George Page never quite develops the grandeur of the pictures, but it is filled with information to please the nature buff, how Clark's nutcracker got its name, for &L instance. And, more importantly, in a convincing, non-confrontational manner, it advances its important thesis that the relationship between man and nature on this continent changed with the arrival of the Europeans.
As Sunday's first hour notes, the native Americans altered the landscape for their needs. They burned the woods to make the habitat better for the deer they hunted. They cleared land for agriculture. But their view, as expressed in their actions and their beliefs, was that man was an integral part of nature, that his fortune was inextricably linked to that of the land he inhabited, the plants and animals he shared it with.
The Europeans took a different view, seeing nature as something to be tamed, to be conquered, to be used. And they did just that, turning those plains filled with buffalo into the world's breadbasket, making the deserts bloom, mining the mountains, building a nation of impressive accomplishments.
The political and economic histories are inextricably intertwined with the natural history of the continent, and "Land of the Eagle" tells all of those stories, letting you judge the rights and wrongs. But it subtlely conveys the fact that the changes wrought by this settlement have taken place in the blink of a geologic eye, many of them dependent upon resources that are limited and that, in another blink, will be exhausted.
The amber grain has waved across the Great Plains for only a hundred years. The buffalo roamed them for thousands. And maybe they will again one day.