Someone recently asked me over a glass of wine in a busy bar why I had gotten peafowl. I fumbled to answer, as the response was not neat or tidy. It was all somehow entangled with grief, a long drought, and my place in a decisive turn of the wheel of time. As we reflect on the violent tide rising everywhere—Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Paris and most recently Aleppo—I find myself again returning to her question.
We received our peafowl chicks a short few months ago, but the thought of peafowl came up two decades ago when visiting an old, dear friend Valerie Quercia in London, who was living there as an expatriate during the first Gulf War, the one simply called Operation Desert Storm. I remember at the time I had lit a single candle in my window in Boston during each of the evenings of the aerial and naval bombardment of Iraq. I was horrified that innocent children might be slaughtered in the name of my country while we ate dinner and went about our daily activities in the U.S.
During my visit, Val had taken me to the British Museum, London Tower, the beautiful Albert Bridge, Kensington Gardens, and other British icons that were monuments themselves to survival beyond war. But it was this one tiny park in her neighborhood that stood out to me at the time: Holland Park. The park had itself been heavily bombed during WWII, but was since lovingly restored, complete with a theater built on the rubble and partial foundation left of the original Holland House.
While in London, I had seen original manuscripts from Charles Dickens marked up in his own hand at the British Museum, yet this paled in comparison to the peacocks and bunnies roaming Holland park, a living Beatrix Potter book, complete with garden gates and misty meadows. This park was a partially manicured landscape with a large portion of its confines still wild, like a piece of art that continues to breathe and grow.
While Europe felt at peace and my visit like a Sunday picnic, just across the Mediterrean allied bombs were lighting up the night sky in a display named “shock and awe,” as if it were a carnival ride and not thousands of bombs dropping over the span of five weeks on 1,000 targets in Baghdad. Estimates of casualties have varied, but conservative accounts put the Iraqi deaths from the combined air and ground campaign at more than 20,000. Baghdad had been shattered.
When my brother Dave died of a heart attack at 52 in 2011, my own heart too had splintered like a glass window thrown a rock. We had only a few years earlier moved from Boston to our fifth generation family farm when my mother and then father had died in close succession. Claire Corcoran, a dear friend of ours in the city, explained our move away to her three small children, who were at the time the same ages as ours (ages 5, 3, 1), as our generation’s turn at the wheel of the farm.
My brother Dave, who lived next door, was the real farmer. The plan was that we would only need occupy the farmhouse like some sort of ghost or tenant. Claire had been right: we were simply taking our place in a river of time that my family had been carried by for a hundred years. Yet once Dave died, the broken rubble left felt more like a tumultuous river strewn with stones too distant apart to navigate across safely.
In an attempt to pick up the pieces, I had committed to figuring out how to make the farm economically sustainable without my brother. It was something I could control. I visited farms across Connecticut and Massachusetts and talked to farmers about what was working and not working for them. And while many of the farms had found clever combinations of ways to use their land and their outbuildings for everything from events to vegetable CSAs, there was a resounding win in the game: perennial flowers and peafowl. It conjured up the most lovely of images to me, peacocks roaming fields of lavender and sunflowers, like some vision Van Gogh would have had in Provence fueled by his singular love for the light.
As the once temporary War on Iraq settled into a second decade and expanded fronts, I learned more about peacocks and created rudimentary budgets where income from fertilized eggs, hatched peafowl chicks and dropped feathers helped defray costs of other farm activities. I read about Flannery O’Connor’s disdain for her peafowl noise or how they ate her mother’s flowers. Yet it was a well known fact that O’Connor loved her peafowl. She often wove images of them into her writing describing the peacock’s tail as revealing a “map of the universe.” In The Displaced Person, O’Connor had longingly written of a peacock and how “tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head.”
I learned in my research that blue peafowl are described in the art of its native India as symbols of “love, rain and separation.” I turned those words around in my heart and felt something shift back into place. Sanskrit poets wrote about the clouds on the horizon as not threatening, but having eerily similar colors to the peacock, bringing hope back to the sun parched land.
In a Sanskrit poem by Kalidasa in his Round of the Seasons the arrival of monsoon rains are announced by a peacock.
Groups of gay amorous peacocks
Rend the air with jubilant cries
To hail the friendly rain
And spreading wide their jewelled trains
They hold their gorgeous dance parade….
This past spring, the parade was through our neighboring town of Whitinsville, only there were no floats or balloons. The parade carried our collective grief about a 22 year old infantry man, Spc. John Dawson of the 101st Airborne Divisio, killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan, who was brought home to military honors throughout the streets, yellow ribbons encircling trees along the funeral march’s route. I was late to a dentist appointment because of it, and felt a hot flash of shame at the acknowledgement that someone now lying in a casket because he had signed up to protect our safety had even for a second felt like an inconvenience. Death should, in fact, stop us in our tracks.
We can walk through the collective desert of denial about the violence and hate that is fueling the world’s events or we can awaken to the rain.
I waited on buying peafowl, all summer watching the drought brown our pastures and burn our hayfields, even as my own heart craved the relief of rain and the return of spongy peat to cushion my footsteps. But then, just like a turn of the dial, the rains returned this fall, in fits and starts. At first the rain did little more than kick up dust, but gradually the pastures had started to green again. Life was doing what it does, asserting itself no matter the ruin.
The monsoon rains are revered in India for the renewal it brings, as they flood the alluvial plains that nourish the rice paddies and offer relief from the intense heat. But they also carry a simple message. We can walk through the collective desert of denial about the violence and hate that is fueling the world’s events or we can awaken to the rain. We can use our grief and loss and pain to remember the precious gift that life is. We can choose beauty over despair; love over hate, as this Iraqi cellist did playing in the rubble of a car bomb. We can ask not why he is playing music while bombs drop, but rather audaciously, the opposite.
The peafowl are now four months old. They wear crowns and are ringed in jewel-toned iridescence. Oddly, in their dazzling other-worldly beauty they remind me of the compost hidden in death. They help me to commit to awakening to rain and to remember the suffering of those in distant lands, from which our only separation is our ignorance.