I photographed this splendid cock pheasant last spring at snowdrop time. He was then less than a year old and had become quite tame in the garden, one of the tribe reared for the shooting season but that had somehow escaped the guns.
He was in the prime of his life. It was wonderful to see him every day and to have him take corn from my palm. If he saw me at a distance he would run to meet me and stand waiting while I shuffled about in the recesses of my pockets for a scrap of bread or some birdseed.
His feathers were tight and glossy, and shone with a metallic sheen. I used to think of the words of the Chinese philosopher Wang Ch’ung of 2,000 years before: “They dose themselves with the germs of gold and jade, eat the finest fruit of the purple polypore fungus. By eating what is germinal their bodies are lightened and so they are capable of spiritual transcendence.”
He was talking about a particular sect of religious thought more or less concurrent with that of Confucius, known as Taoism. This pheasant originates from that area of mountains and wooded valleys to the northwest of what is now Beijing so would have been very familiar to the Taos of the Han Dynasty.
They would have revered this bird and thought of it as a sacred emblem of existence on the planet. I doubt very much if that pertains today and many of the wild pheasant species that should live there are probably hardly surviving.
Taoists were nature-lovers, and like Buddhists, believed in the interchangeability of life on earth.
And like North American Indians they saw how beautiful all creation could be, not the least being birds, and imagined themselves into those life forms.
Cranes and pheasants had the red spot of pure divinity in their heads.
Red was the holy colour of creation. It represented everlasting metamorphosis into un-ending life forms. Alchemists thought sulphur and mercury could be made into gold, which was indestructible.
Wild pheasants had all these colours. They were the angels, the ‘hsien’, able to break mortal bounds and take flight from the material world. “They suck the wind and drink the dew. They mount on clouds and mists and drive the flying dragon.”
Disciples took to poetry, close observation of nature, landscape painting and thoughts of everlasting life in whatever form creation decided should be the next journey.
In the case of this exquisite form of life I was so privileged to know at such close encounter, this pheasant, with all the colours admired and worshipped by the ancients, became a fox.