Audubon III

Welcome back to several ways of looking at John James Audubon.

Lucy Bakewell was born in Burton-upon-Trent, Straffordshire, England, on January 18, 1787. Seventeen years later, by then translated to Pennsylvania with her family, she met her neighbor John James Audubon. They were married for 43 years beginning in 1808. Then she survived him by 23 years. Their two boys (two daughters died in infancy) also predeceased her: Victor Gifford at 51 in 1860 and John Woodhouse at 49 in 1862. (In the pages of Rhodes’s Audubon bio, Lucy is often ill, but she clearly had a sturdy constitution.)

Whilst in England, the Bakewell family physician was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). What a marvelous coincidence! Darwin was a Midlands polymath: doctor, abolitionist, inventor, poet, translator of Linnaeus, member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society (they met on nights of the full moon), and grandfather of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), as well as of (hiss, hiss!) eugenicist Francis Galton (1822-1911). Erasmus was a proto-evolutionary thinker, sure that all life was related. For although Charles Darwin is often simplistically portrayed as pulling the idea of natural section out of thin air, the atmosphere of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was thick with thinking about evolution and the mutability of species. It’s not for nothing that Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) grasped the principles of natural selection on his own out there in the jungle. The idea was floating around. It needed to be distilled.

Erasmus’s air was pretty bubbly stuff. He fathered at least fourteen children (with two wives and at least one mistress, possibly another). He chose to present many of his notions in rhyme. In fact, Lucy’s Bakewell’s favorite book was his The Botanical Garden, (1791), an epic poem on “The Economy of Vegetation” and “The Loves of the Plants” with “philosophical notes.” It has been called one of the first popular science books. “The Loves of the Plants” is an explanation of the Linnaean classification system, with all its gendered anthropomorphism (plant sex parts are brides and grooms, etc.)

Charles Darwin, as a young, half-hearted medical student, heard John James Audubon’s paper on turkey buzzards read at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh in 1826. Audubon was in attendance, but his paper was read by another, which was standard operating procedure. Besides that odd fish Constantine Rafinesque, Audubon is the only ornithologist quoted in On the Origin of Species. Darwin quoted him more frequently in later works. They are not known to have met, however.

Audubon and the shambolic Rafinesque did meet, in 1818, a meeting that reminds me of Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning.

Eight years earlier, Audubon had met Alexander Wilson. Wilson had come from Scotland in 1794 where he had penned a bestselling comic ballad and, more pointedly, some sharp political verse which saw him thrown in the pokey. At 42, he was in the midst of his projected ten volumes on American ornithology. Famously, Audubon would not take a subscription—the way such multi-volume works were sold then—to Wilson’s project, supposedly because his business partner said Audubon’s drawings were so much better.

It was a big frontier, but all the bird-mad knew each other. In Audubon’s biography, you come across Bachman, Baird, Bell, Bewick, Bonaparte, Harlan, Harris, MacGillivray, Nuttall, Sprague, Swainson, Townsend, and Traill, who were all memorialized in bird names. Someone Audubon never met was George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), the man who went on to form the first Audubon Society in 1886.

For, to make ends meet in her widowhood, Lucy Bakewell had returned to teaching. One of her students was the Brooklyn-born Grinnell. Grinnell would go on to play a large role in the American conservation movement as editor of Forest and Stream and a campaigner for birds, bison, Native Americans, and hunting as a sport (yes, he contained multitudes). We may assume young George took in a lot of Audubonalia on the Minniesland property. But it doesn’t seem so far fetched to guess that he was also mighty influenced by the indomitable Lucy B. Audubon as well.

Grinnell, if not a feminist, was certainly proto-feminist, happy to include women in his pages and his organization. (Men who supported women reformers were then disparaged as “political hermaphrodites” by their enemies). Indeed, the author I write about here argues that he was instrumental in bridging a gender gap in the early conservation movement. (Manly hunters versus feathered hat wearers.) The women who joined Grinnell’s Audubon, which petered out for lack of funding, re-grouped and started again, first in Massachusetts in the late ’90s. The National Association of Audubon Societies came together in 1905.

2 Responses to “Audubon III”


  1. 1 Diane d'Arcy April 30, 2017 at 8:29 am

    The article was a wonderful completion of early development of ornithology as we know it today.
    Can you weave Edward Lear into the picture. After all he is considered the greatest illustrator of birds in the western world.

    Thanks for the great postings.

    Cordially, Diane

    • 2 mthew April 30, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      I don’t know all that much about Lear’s birds, and have only seen a few of his parrots and been very impressed. I think I remember reading that he also did some of the illustrations for Gould’s birds of Europe (Mrs. Gould did most of those.) He is on my radar!


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