A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The March of the Penguins, the acclaimed Luc Jacquet documentary. The screening room at the William Morris agency did the sweeping Antarctic vistas and majestic aerial shots of the movie justice, and some friends were on hand to
share the experience. If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the breeding ritual of the emperor penguin, one of the few animals that
makes its home on Antarctica (where I hear beachfront real estate is still eminently affordable — buy before everyone else catches on to
this whole global warming thing).
The story goes something like this. Towards the end of the Antarctic summer, penguins rocket out of the water and start a
migration en masse to the breeding grounds where they were born. Now penguins are pretty picky about their real estate. Because
they will be particularly vulnerable during this time, they need to be far away from predators. They also need to be in a place where
the ice is thick enough that it doesn’t crack or melt under them. And the breeding grounds also need to be somewhat sheltered from the
unforgiving Antarctic winds that can blow as hard as 160km/hr and create a windchill of -50 centigrade. For these reasons, and many
others known only to the penguins themselves, these breeding grounds are 80-100km away from the water’s edge.
Now let’s think about that for a second. A penguin is about 60cm tall. It has really short legs, and basically can only
waddle. Like in Los Angeles, there is no public transportation in Antarctica, and taxis are hard to come by. So the penguins travel
the length of 2-3 marathons, just waddling along or scooting themselves endearingly on their bellies, for the better part of a week (or two). There are no fast-food stores along the way offering fresh krill or mackerel. They carry no luggage. There are no motels. The don’t
complain — they just go. And, most remarkably, there are no roads or street signs — just the barren sweep of white ice, with its
crevasses, slopes, glaciers and ever-shifting surface features. No one has figured out how the penguins navigate to their ancestral
breeding grounds, but they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Their existence is testimony to the effectiveness of
whatever natural GPS they have.
One of the craziest shots of the movie is that of the lines of penguins from different parts of the Antarctic shore marching in tidy single
files and converging like spokes of a wheel upon one breeding ground, all of them within a day or two of each other. Besides the
navigation system, apparently these hardy souls must also have some highly accurate system of telling time that no one has figured out either.
Once the penguins have assembled on the breeding grounds, they start looking for a mate. All the penguins look pretty much identical
to me, but apparently they know what they’re looking for, and wandering a while amidst the cacophony of mating calls, they pair up (there are
fewer males than females, so not all of them do). They mate as the male fertilizes the single egg, and the process of genetic
recombination that has kept sexually-reproducing organisms one step ahead of their parasites and is ostensibly the whole purpose of the
100km trek takes place.
Now this is where things get interesting. The couple now has to wait for the egg to get laid. Seems like this takes about a month,
during which time they do — pretty much nothing. They just sit there, with no food in sight. Still, no complaining (then again, I don’t
speak Penguin). Every day, the temperature drops and the days get shorter, until the worst of Antarctic weather is upon them. So
they press together in a big huddle to protect against the driest, coldest, windiest climate on earth, shuffling around in a highly
organized fashion, regularly rotating in the penguins from the outside fringes to the inside of the huddle where it’s warmer. It’s
completely mind-boggling to watch this — almost as much as imagining what the camera crew must have gone through to get these astounding
And then, the egg is laid. It sits on top of the female’s claws, behind a sheet of skin on her belly, protected under her feathers from the
harsh elements. But now for the crux of the affair: the female has now lost about a third of her body weight to create the
egg, and must trek back to the ocean to feed, or otherwise perish. She also must bring back food for the ravenously
hungry soon-to-be-newborn chick. So before she can leave, the female must execute an intricate dance of transferring the egg from her
pouch to the male’s. If the egg rolls off and stays out for more than 30 seconds or so, it freezes instantly to rock-hard lifelessness
in the -50C air.
As an aside, another mind-boggling thing is how the penguins find one another again when they come back and find a mass of thousands of
identical-looking species. Apparently emperor penguins really do all look alike, even to one another, and the way they find each other is
through voice. It’s amazing to see how in the midst of the cacophony of thousands of penguin calls all blending into each other,
one penguin actually finds the other. Then again, you and I can identify a friend’s voice on the phone from just a couple of
syllables, so the penguin brain must have gotten very good at a similar task.
If the transfer is successful, the female waddles off to the shore, which is now several kilometers farther away because of the formation
of new ice. The females are literally starving, and some of them never make it to the shore, or get killed by predators, in which case
the chick perishes, too. In this movie, they get this sweet underwater shot (those waters are cold)
of a leopard seal, lying in wait for the arriving penguins, and somehow manage to capture the seal’s successful hunt. The movie is
structured as a story, and if the penguins are the heroes, then the leopard seal, of the wide-open jaw of menacingly sharp teeth,
mercilessly killing a mommy penguin (and by extension, its unborn chick) is defnitely the villain (as is a single petrel, in a cameo
appearance). The soundtrack insinuates the permeation of an evil miasma in the penguin’s otherwise peaceful home and restaurant (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM), and the audience audibly gasped when they saw the penguin nabbed. But the
seal’s not evil — it’s just being a seal. And it’s probably taking the food home to feed a cute little baby seal. And on the
way home, it may get nabbed by another predator itself (maybe a human). And we’re not telling the story of the krill and the
fish, but the penguins are eating somebody’s brother, son, daughter or mom, too. It’s just the way things are. So let the eating
of food be a humble celebration of our place in the cycle of being (and all you vegetarians who think that plants are less alive than animals
may wish to reconsider). The movie sequence reminded me of the chapter “On Eating and Drinking” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
“Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.
But since you must kill to eat, and rob the young of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship,
And let your board stand an altar on which the pure and the
innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and
still more innocent in many.
When you kill a beast say to him in your heart,
“By the same power that slays you, I to am slain; and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.”
To summarize the rest of the story, the mom gorges up in the ocean, comes back to feed the hatchlings, and in the second crux of the story,
the chick is transferred from the dad’s belly pouch to the mom’s (and if they don’t do it quickly enough, the chick freezes to death before
their eyes), and the dad trudges off to the ocean after 4 months of starvation, so then he can gorge and come back and feed baby. So if you thought that one triple-marathon was remarkable, think again: the penguins end up doing it about a dozen times, for a total of about 9 months until the chick has enough protective feathers and can walk on its own. By now, the ice has melted enough such that the ocean is just a few hundred yards away, and the penguin chicks start life on their own for the 5 years before they make their own pilgrimage to their birth site.
So what is the point of this all? The penguins endure unimaginable hardship to make this march and breed so they can make more penguins that grow up to be old enough to endure unimaginable hardship to make this march and breed so they can make more penguins… It seems that life is the ultimate circular argument, and like the famous phrase “This statement is false,” it defies examination or any attempt to make sense of
it. Maybe Kurt Gödel would have said life is an undecidable proposition — there’s a new book on him and the Incompleteness Theorem
by Rebecca Goldstein entitled, trickily, Incompleteness.
I like Alan Watts’ formulation of the meaning of life: he says life is meaningless not in the sense that it lacks purpose, but rather in the sense that it is meaning. If I say the word apple, or draw a picture of an apple, it’s a representation, a referent to an actual apple. Once you have that actual Fuji apple that you can hold, smell and bite into, it doesn’t have any meaning beyond it — it is the meaning. You do not seek the meaning behind an apple — you celebrate it and eat it. And you do not seek the meaning behind life — you live it. If you’re a fan of the circular argument, maybe you’ll like what I heard some wise man recently say: “The purpose of your life is to find your purpose.” And in the same way that the
computer will never know how it came about and who its creator is, so we simply do not have access to the mind of the universe and why we are
here, if there is any why at all. In the meantime, a state of perpetual celebration sounds fine by me. Who’s bringing the Riesling?