Monday, June 27, 2005

March of the Penguins

On Sunday, I sat in the back of a movie theatre and watched a flock of plump, flightless birds waddle across ice sheets. They squawked, they mated, they laid eggs and hatched them, and then the chicks grew up and followed their parents back to the ocean. All in all, it was one of the finest films I’ve seen in years.

March of the Penguins begins with shots of icebergs off the coast of Antarctica. The photography captures the jutting peaks of the bergs above the dark sea. Below the water, the ice is only dimly seen, a luminous shadow. It was like light, drawn down into the water by gravity, and quenched.

With those evocative opening images, the film tells the remarkable story of the emperor penguin.

The penguins march from the sea, where they have spent three months fattening up, seventy miles across the ice. They mate in the middle of nowhere, far from any large predator, and then the females lay a single, large egg.

The male of each pair immediately takes possession of the egg, cradling it on his scaly black feet, under a specially-evolved ruff of downy feathers. Then the females leave, heading back to the sea to eat for the first time in weeks.

The males hold the eggs for more weeks, through the total darkness of Antarctic summer. They hatch them, feed them crop milk for a few days, and await the return of their mates.

Once the females return, the parents take turns caring for the chicks, males and females continuously making the trip back and forth to the sea, returning to feed the ball-of-fluff chicks. By the end of the year, both parents leave, and the chicks eventually follow, still molting, to dive into the ocean for the first time.

I knew some of this before I saw the film; a childhood spent watching Nova and Lorne Green’s New Wilderness will give you plenty of nature trivia. What The March of the Penguins does so well is capture that sense that is so often missing from modern film, the sense of real wonder.

The penguins who make that trek every year, who are making it right now, cannot understand the heroic nature of their own travel. They follow biological imperatives laid down by thousands of years of natural selection. Their minds may be finely honed for catching fish, for swimming, for strategies to huddle against the cold, but they cannot stand back and look with amazement at their own adventure.

On this planet, only one animal can look at everything and see the adventure concealed just beneath the surface. By accident, we have evolved our own adventure, the adventure of the mind. Every human being on the planet, or off it, has a ticket on this ride. Use it.

Today, for all humans, here is your homework: learn something. Learn something about the world around you that makes your jaw drop open in awe and joy.

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