It’s Audubon’s 232nd today. Backyard and Beyond will be noting this in several ways over the next couple of days. Some of you may be surprised to learn that John James Audubon retired to Manhattan. In 1841, upper New York County was still pretty wild, as the city more or less ended at 14th Street. Wishing to get away from their downtown home at 84 White St., the Audubons moved way up the island. They purchased 14 (or 20 or 30, depending on the source!) acres bordering the Hudson for 550 feet in the neighborhood now called Washington Heights. They caught an 8-foot, 200-pound sturgeon their first summer, had a menagerie and planted many fruit trees. But JJ, having lost most of teeth by then, still wasn’t quite ready to park it yet.
The prodigious walker and traveller — he crossed the Atlantic a dozen times when it could take 2 to 3 weeks to do so; his first trip from New Orleans to Liverpool took 7 weeks — had one more journey in him. Out West! Finally! He and companions journeyed up the Missouri in 1843. It was pretty grim going. It took ages before there was any big game to shoot; at one point they were hungry enough to eat a wolf, but a bison was killed at the last moment. Also, the land was in mourning: some 17,000 Native Americans had been killed by smallpox spread by the fur trade starting in 1837.
Audubon bagged* 11 bird species in time to add them to the last volume of the cheaper royal octavo version of Birds of America. The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, his last work, completed by his sons and co-writer John Bachman, was published in 1845-46. By 1848, the once indefatigable Audubon was dwindling: his vision had dimmed and he was sinking into senility.
“Alas, my poor friend Audubon, the outlines of his countenance and his general robust form are there, but his mind is all a ruin,” wrote the Reverend John Bachman (the now extinct warbler was named after him). John James LaForest Audubon, born the bastard “Jean Rabin” on Saint Domingue (Haiti), died in 1851 at the age of 65.
I will be giving a short talk about the Audubon legacy at the annual Audubon Birthday Party hosted by the Riverside Oval Association on Saturday, April 29. Festivities start at 3pm at the oval at the western end of 156th St in Washington Heights. There will be cake and what one presumes will be a rousing version of Happy Birthday in the Grinnell Building community room after the outdoor activities. (Yes, that Grinnell!)
The location is just north of Trinity Church’s uptown cemetery, where JJA is buried. (A mausoleum there with the not particularly common name WILLS on it has always intrigued me.) Minniesland, the Audubon home, was knocked down in the early 1930s, long since out of the family. Audubon Terrace continues to carry on the local name. (The Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, is no longer called that.)
The neighborhood is also the location of the Audubon Mural Project.
*He wasn’t happy if he didn’t take a hundred birds a day. The old boy worried about the decline of the bison and the passenger pigeon, and saw in England the the industrial revolution destroying the land. On the other wing, he seems to have eaten a hell of a lot of the things he shot, commenting on their taste as part of his ornithological writings.