An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird
By Sean Flynn
Immanuel Kant wrote that only humans are capable of appreciating beauty — a claim refuted soundly by the existence of the peacock.
Before Charles Darwin, Westerners saw the peacock’s beauty as a gift from God to what we assumed was his favorite creation: people. But the peacock’s fabulous, extravagant tail was not crafted for our appreciation. As Darwin understood, and as subsequent science has proved, the intended audience for the peacock’s beauty is the lady peacock, or peahen, who is most apt to mate with the male whose tail she finds most enthralling.
Still, it’s hard for a human to resist a peacock’s allure. When the journalist Sean Flynn saw one sitting on a farm roof, he was awe-struck. “His train hung over the gutter like a ristra, catching speckles of midday sunlight sneaking through the trees,” he writes. The feathers were “sparks of green and gold, copper and turquoise, burgundy and blue-black, all of them flashing and fading again with the slightest movement. … It was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen.”
Soon afterward, and somewhat to his own surprise, Flynn takes three of these birds back to his North Carolina, to what he calls his “faux farm,” the next county over. His family names them Ethel, Carl and — a contribution from his younger son, Emmett — Mr. Pickle. The drama of their lives forms the story line of “Why Peacocks? An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird.”
One might deem these sublime birds unlikely companions for the author. Flynn, a National Magazine Award-winning correspondent for GQ, makes a living largely reporting on crime, war and other miseries. One of his sons, he writes, was “born between sex traffickers in Moldovia and prostitutes in Costa Rica.” Another son “was hard into his minerals-and-gems phase when he asked me to bring him some rocks from Arizona where 19 firefighters had burned to death.”
There’s nothing like senseless violence to prompt a search for meaning, as promised in the subtitle. Through most of the book, though, it doesn’t feel as if Flynn is up to anything so profound. He builds a coop. Carl falls ill, and Flynn assists with the surgery. Flynn attends a convention of the United Peafowl Association. Ethel starts laying eggs.
The writing is often witty, sometimes glorious (a peacock’s train “expands as it rises, falling open like a Spanish fan”), and his tales wry and charming. (Though at one point, it seems that Flynn just can’t stop reporting on human barbarity, devoting a chapter to the unsolved torture and murder of peacocks in a suburb of Los Angeles.)
But more is going on here. Something magical happens to this hard-bitten reporter as he gets to know his peacocks. “There is always the potential when dabbling with birds — and this no one tells you beforehand — of becoming enchanted,” he writes, “and it is impossible to understand this until it happens.”
Flynn grows to understand that Carl, Ethel and Mr. Pickle are not just living ornaments, but individuals with wants and needs. One of which is going to be for more company — specifically more peahens — because Carl and Mr. Pickle are likely to fight over Ethel.
More birds mean Flynn needs to expand the coop, taking up more space in the barn. His wife is not pleased.
“Where will the boys’ bikes go?” she asks in exasperation. “The firewood? The wheelbarrow?”
He says to make room for the new birds, he’ll move all that — but she cuts him off.
“All that?” she complains. “You mean, the stuff we actually use?”
His wife gives in, quickly and good-naturedly. But she, like too many of us, misses the point. Peacocks aren’t “stuff.” Unlike firewood, bikes and wheelbarrows, peacocks don’t exist for us to “actually use.”
Like their beauty, peacocks — or any animal, for that matter — don’t exist for us; they exist for the same reason we do. They love their lives as we love ours. In living with peacocks, Flynn discovers that his “birds have personalities and intelligence and foibles and charms and souls,” he writes, “and it all sounds ridiculous but it’s true.”
No, it doesn’t sound ridiculous. It sounds to me like a fine starting point to finding meaning in a world both cruel and beautiful.