Audubon and His “Birds of America”
Last weekend I took a trip to see the James John Audubon exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As I entered the gallery filled with Audubon’s drawings, I was struck by a feeling of connectedness to the natural world. In his Birds of America (1827-1839), it is as if Audubon is extending Quaker beliefs of the brotherhood of man to the creatures of the air.
Audubon really was a man without borders. He was someone that the world tried to form into an acceptable type — a cabin boy who’d have a military career, or perhaps a businessman who’d run a lead-mining venture. But, alas, he was a free spirit drawn to the splendors of nature. When Audubon was a child, his father “would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called [his] attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.”
As an adult Audubon didn’t simply speak of the birds or study them, he seemed to understand them. He knew nature. He wrote the ornithologist rule: “The nature of the place — whether high or low, moist or dry, whether sloping north or south, or bearing tall trees or low shrubs — generally gives hint as to its inhabitants.”
How does that “insideness” occur in a man’s heart and pen?
In his drawings Audubon chronicled the world as the birds inhabited it and as they lived it. Like Dian Fossey with the gorillas, Audubon could stay put forever, employing exceptional powers of observation. Somehow, through the patience of his eye and his pen, Audubon makes birds relatable, as relatable as your next door neighbor.
Audubon’s majestic drawing of the grand “White Pelican” placed as the exhibit’s sentry, encourages you to enter the gallery with respect, maybe even reverence. In the line and form of the drawing, there is an absence of fear. It is as if the White Pelican possesses an absolute right to be there – a web-footed, solid confidence.
The White Pelican’s pride, as well as the other plates of Audubon’s birds, got me thinking: What did it mean to Americans in 1839 — 33 years after the return of Lewis and Clark — to be provided again with absolute proof of the unspeakable wonders of their land? Did such graceful, colorful, careful images of wildlife imprint themselves on the adolescent nation’s consciousness? Are these images reverberating still? Did they inspire in us the need for the National Parks to preserve our holy heritage?
Even today, 175 years after publication, viewing Audubon’s beautiful birds can wake you. There they are in all their glory, proclaiming our country’s great natural heritage. They seem to say, look Americans — not at the cities and cathedrals of Europe — look at us and contemplate the mystery and beauty of life. America’s special grace.
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