MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

                Do penguins have emotions? Or does their behavior spring from instinct and evolution?  Morgan Freeman’s narrative voice tells us this is a story about love.  Is it really?  Or is this a joyously pure evolutionary cycle?  Luc Jacquet and his National Geographic team have spent a year filming “March of the Penguins,” and their fine film plays quietly to the human capacity for compassion.  They have captured a miracle, and it silences us. 

                First of all, the penguins are astoundingly beautiful.  Against a constant landscape of blue water and sky next to the whitest ice, these creatures stand tall in dignity.  Rectangular and blocky, they are topped by a head and neck of unyielding grace.  The faster they move, the more they waddle awkwardly from side to side – because they don’t have legs or knee joints to enable them to walk, just strong feet, first one, then the other, while the body sways from side to side.  And when they get tired, they dive onto their bellies and slide themselves along by force of flipper and foot.  They look comically clumsy at times and utterly graceful at others.  Their backs are the darkest gray, their heads of the same jet black that delineates back from belly.  A slash of rust marks each side of the neck.  Who designed this cloak?

                Each year penguins come from wherever they live to join a single line that treks 70 miles to the place where they were born.  Each year they walk a little farther to account for the receding ice.  There, each will choose a mate, make one egg, and then initiate the protective ritual that will bring one more glorious penguin into the world. 

What do they eat?  The females trek the 70 miles back to their starting point to get food from the open water and then back to the males who are guarding the eggs from the artic freeze in a fold of their skin.  The ritual between male and female is perfectly calibrated to prevent exposure of an egg to the fierce cold for even seconds.   After two months of standing huddled against wind and snow, the males, down to half their weight, make the same trip to feed themselves while the females nourish the chicks.

This is surely one of the most grueling life cycles on the planet.  In a rhythm so deft that it brings tears, these beautiful creatures fulfill the destiny that has evolved for them.  The pengu ins are stoic and patient, durable and dedicated.  But those are human qualities, aren’t they?  What is this miracle we are watching?  One thing it is, is unassisted.  When you consider what a human baby needs from a parent, what a parent in turn needs to nurture it – shelter, clothing, food – then the sight of the penguins repeating this generational process in the “coldest place on earth,” becomes a sight and a feat of surpassing beauty.

 


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