Friday, March 21, 2014

`The Moment When Most People Are Quiet'

After a morning tramp up Mount Bonnell in Austin, we noticed a park surrounded by walls built of smooth river stones, one of those creations that straddle folk art and functionality. Mayfield Park is easy to miss on Old Bull Creek Road. I was reading the plaque next to a lush Texas persimmon, certifying it as Austin’s 2009 “Small Tree of the Year,” when we noticed a large, off-white bird lying in a patch of brown grass. I briefly mistook it for a pheasant, until we saw a peacock in full regalia, the male of the species, shamelessly parading down the walk. The first bird was the drabber female, the peahen. Soon, we saw them on the roof of the guest house and walking along the top of the stone wall. Mating season and its attendant rituals were in evidence. 

When a male spreads his plumage to interest a female, he also quivers the smaller fan of brown feathers beneath the more conspicuous iridescent quills. This produces a sound like wind in dry leaves. Their call is from the soundtrack of a Tarzan movie. With its flower-like crest and shimmering blue and blue-green feathers, they’re decked out for Mardi Gras. Like butterflies, they are gratuitously beautiful. They are profligate with their beauty, almost vulgar. Their beauty exceeds necessity (please spare me your dull evolutionary explanations), and could not be designed by humans. Flannery O’Connor, of course, raised peacock at her home, Andalusia, in Millidgeville, Ga. Read her wonderful essay “Living with a Peacock,” first published in Holiday magazine in 1961, and revised and retitled “The King of the Birds” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969). Here’s a sample that won’t surprise anyone familiar with O’Connor’s fiction:

When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.”

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