Penguins in Love

Last night I went to see March of the Penguins.   No drug wars, spaceships, special effects.  My kind of film, but before the lights went down, a lady in front of me was on her cell phone.

            "Know how much I hate birds?  Well, Harold's dragged me to this crazy penguins movie!"

            Everybody told her to be quiet.

            The show opened: parent penguins began to court.  Beautifully.  Even -- there is no other word -- lovingly.  It was the most moving thing I've watched in years.  And that's not just because I lead wildlife tours all over the world: Luc Jacquet's gorgeous documentary has been among the most riveting movies of the summer -- outperforming, on a per-screen basis, blockbusters like War of the Worlds, Fantastic Four, and Batman Begins.

            The reason why Jacquet’s flightless heroes are soaring, however, has the media all in a flap.

            That’s partly because, unlike most movies, this one is actually about something.  About us, really, though what we see are birds: plump, black and white marine torpedoes that, away from their home in the sea struggle to survive out on the open ice.  There, in the 70-mile-long pilgrimages they make to and from their breeding grounds, sacrificing half their 50 lb. body weight to protect each solitary egg from deadly wind-chill, these steadfast beings demonstrate genuine courage.  Hope.  Probably even love.

            "In the harshest place on earth,” reads the film's tag line, “love finds a way."  But therein lies the rub.

            "Emperor penguins are not brave or resolute or moved by romance and commitment" wrote Lisa Schwartzbaum in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.  Reviews in NEWSWEEK and the NEW YORK TIMES said pretty much the same thing.

            But wait.  Of course emperor penguins are moved by commitment.  Think they would ever attempt, on their stubby, toddler’s legs, anything resembling those blizzard-swept Dr. Zhivago marches ... without commitment?   Can you imagine that they’d really come all the way back to their mates and young -- would even exist as a species -- without vast selflessness?   Without devotion to family so strong that it stills every instinctual voice of self preservation that shouts  "Stay in the sea, stupid!  Near food.  It's crazy to stand out there in seventy below."  To protect, what, an egg?

            I know, I know.   In high school biology I, too, learned that birds operate mostly on instinct.  But that's old Conventional Wisdom.  Even among scientists.  What we now recognize is that everything that we are -- even that we feel -- has parallel antecedents in the eons-old parade of life that preceded us.  Antecedents that include not only our physical make-up, but virtually all of human psychology -- which means that every bit of what we feel is derived from the broad biological base of emotions that we share with every other sentient being.

            Including love, though that notion irks some among us.  But is it really probable that we alone are the sole originators of devotion?  Have been chosen as the single living thing able to claim love as our exclusive domain?

            The issue reminds me of those sober 19th century debates in which frock-coated gentleman scientists pondered whether tribal peoples actually possessed fully human concepts of musical tone or linguistic structure, inasmuch as none of them had composed a Fifth Symphony or written a Paradise Lost.  Today, the same prejudice is held against animals.  Especially birds.  Consider birdsong, bird migration.  Whatever leads us to think we're the only beings capable of creating a symphony?  Able to commit to a single mate for life, risk everything to return to our distant place of birth?

            Devote our lives to something larger than ourselves?

            Some of that emotional power is what people see in New York City's celebrity peregrines Pale Male and Lola.  It's what the high rise-living peregrines George and Gracie mean to their fans in Pasadena, and it's what draws rapt audiences to the falcon cams trained on the domestic lives of skyscraper-nesting peregrines in a dozen US cities.

            And it is what I found, once, in a little Cessna, following a female tundra falcon north with the spring -- a story told in On The Wing: To The Edge of the Earth With the Peregrine Falcon.  From the day our receiver first picked up a telemetry signal from Amelia -- named, of course, for Amelia Earhart -- she became the small, guiding angel whose journey ruled my life and that of my pilot, George Vose.  Ruled us because of the magnitude of what she was doing, entirely alone, setting off from Texas fueled only by hope and her mortal determination to reach some cliff-side ledge a third of the planet away in arctic Alaska.

            It was the place, or near the place, where she herself was born, and as Vose and I flew up the Rockies in her wake, every day we saw with what determination Amelia would launch her bullet-shaped torso into the wind, locked onto a trajectory aimed not only at her faraway  North Slope birthplace ... but one carrying her toward a reunion with her mate.  He would have been a partner that Amelia, like other peregrines, had chosen for life, but at that time, in spring, a partner she would not have seen for eight or nine months.  Yet, filled with her memory that male peregrine would have set out, more or less simultaneously,  from some tropical refuge far down over the southerly curve of the earth a thousand miles from where Amelia had spent the winter.

            Somehow he would have known to dig the long blades of his wings into the air in his own quest for the same small, almost inconceivably distant domestic niche Amelia that also sought -- a site where the two of them could already have nested for over a decade, and where they might still come back, long after they had ceased to procreate, to meet again each summer of their final years.

            The narcotic thrill of sharing those creatures’ global odyssey was what, week after week, kept Vose and me hanging on to Amelia.  It wasn't, however, because we were attributing to her any anthropomorphic awareness of what she was doing.  Instead, it was just that, little by little George and I began to see our own dreams in Amelia's flight -- came to feel the visceral pull her quest for home, to imaginatively share her expected rendezvous with a long-unseen partner.  The kind of thing everyone has wished for, yet goals that Amelia made more real --– as real as the ancestral aerie where untold generations of her family could have first opened their eyes to the perpetual glow of sub-polar summer.

            That kind of connection with the basics, it seems to me, is what people find so touching about Jacquet's movie.  In its long views of trudging, food-bearing parent penguins, every subway- or freeway-bound, homeward-headed commuter finds a primal perspective of himself.  And in the wind-up toy scurry of each of the film’s fuzzy, lucky-to-be-alive penguin chicks, every human family (including the kids who make up a third of Penguin's viewers) recognizes its youngest, sometimes most adorable member.

            And that is a fine, completely OK thing.  Much better than, as one reviewer suggests, regarding the Emperors with academic detachment: nothing more nor less than Aptenodytes forsteri. 

            Nope.  That would be as sterile as George and I seeing our Amelia as just another tundra peregrine, her grand purpose but a scholarly footnote tacked onto the established behavioral repertoire of Falco peregrinus.

            Not that anybody who sees March of the Penguins is likely to do such a thing.  At my theater, as the film ran on the stalwart parent penguins eventually prevailed: at last their gray-furred adolescents leapt into the sea on their own, followed by a windswept departing panorama. 

            The audience broke into applause.  Some actually cheered, and there, right in the middle of that enthusiastic chorus were Harold and his astonished, evidently no longer bird-hating spouse.  Clapping like mad.

Appearing, Fall 2006, in an Anthology of Natural
History Writing, New England University Press


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