Posts Tagged 'Audubon'

Raptors

In Raptor: A Journey Through Birds, James MacDonald Lockhart loosely follows William MacGillivray, the nineteenth century ornithologist, from Scotland south, searching for the fifteen species of British raptors.

You may recall MacGillivray from the Audubon connection: he was John James’s ornithological ghost writer. I was struck by this: MacGillivray called his knapsack a “machine.” A quick glance at the OED shows that we’ve much reduced machine’s meanings since then. “A structure of any kind, material or immaterial” is the base definition. Human and animal bodies, siege engines, plots and conspiracies, ships and vehicles…

I’m familiar with most of the UK raptors, for we share several genera and species, but the Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), a rare bird in the UK, is quite new to me. This is a bird that favors feeding on wasp larvae, its feet and bill rather different from the run of the meat-ripping-raptor mill. It will dig up nests to get the grubs. Here’s some video of the wasps’ response.

In the middle of the last century, Lockhart would have found many fewer raptors or none at all. This is the undercurrent of J.A. Baker’s remarkable The Peregrine. Hunters, farmers, egg collectors, habitat-destroyers, then DDT. Today, re-introductions, legal protections, and education mean there are many more raptors British Isles.

“You cannot separate the story of Britain’s birds of prey from the birds’ relationship with man. That relationship is the birds’ story.” For at the edges, the ravening hominid still lurks, the old battle is still being waged between the destroyers hungry for profit and the conservationists. The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)*, for instance, is ruthlessly persecuted by “gamekeepers,” employees of large grouse-killing estates. These bastards kill all the raptors they find, just to be sure they get the harriers. In fact, the Hen Harrier rarely predates grouse, but reality, as you know, doesn’t match up well with belligerent ignorance. And of course, the oligarchical types who blast grouse out of the sky are the same shits assaulting the precarious protections we’ve managed to carve for our only planet and its soil, air, water, and food.

This isn’t a tangent. I didn’t expected Lockhart, in his peregrinations, to discuss the clearances and enclosures that have so brutalized Britain. But there you go. Wandering the land you should not miss them (the same goes for here, where traces of ethnic cleansing and genocide stain the map). “In the end all landscapes tell the same stories,” he says, “Everywhere is layered with the same strata of clearances, displacements, resettlements.” This nasty history is rarely portrayed in the reactionary television soaps about the toffs and their servants, classes created by this violent usurpation of land and justice, that some Americans seem to devour like sticky toffee pudding.

*Just this year, the nabobs of taxonomy split our Northern Harrier from C. cyaneus; our sole harrier species is now C. hudsonius.

Cyanocitta cristata

Blue Jay. Called by Linnaeus Corvus cristatus. Still a Corvidae.

In his five volume Ornithological Biography,* written to accompany The Birds of America, Audubon begins the Blue Jay section with “Reader, look at the plate in which are presented three individuals of this beautiful species, — rogues though they be, and thieves, as I would call them, were it fit for me to pass judgement on their actions.” (Friends, Romans, countrymen…)

*Lucy Audubon helped with the editing (JJ’s Franco-American orthography was iffy; he thee’d and thou’d all his life after learning English surrounded by Quakers), and Scotsman William MacGillivray acted as ornithological editor. MacGillivray’s Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei), named in his honor, is a West Coast bird that resembles the Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia) found (with difficulty) on this end of the country.

Lucy’s Warbler (Oreothlypis luciae), a Sonoran Desert speciality, is not named after Mrs. Audubon, although the 13-year-old Lucy Hunter Baird who inspired the name was herself named after Lucy Audubon. Her father, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was a great friend of the Audubons (JJ named Baird’s Sparrow after him; Coues named Baird’s Sandpiper after him). Lucy’s, the smallest warbler species, was named by J.G. Cooper, son of the William Cooper who was honored with the hawk. Charles Bonaparte named the hawk after Cooper, but Audubon thought he had priority for the naming of this species, calling it after Lord Stanley, so there was some bad blood over this. None spilled, of course… except for the hawks’. This digression could go on…
*

Here’s a first draft of what articles of impeachment for Donald J. Trump could look like.

Audubon and Murals

Endangered Harlem by Gaia.

[By popular demand, here’s the short talk I gave in celebration of John James Audubon’s birthday to the Riverside Oval Association and friends last week. A good time was had by all, I think, and the cake was delicious. Photos are from the same day: I walked around looking at some the Audubon Murals in the neighborhood, a joint project of National Audubon and Gitler &_____ Gallery. There are some 80 murals up now, less than half of those planned; all of birds threatened by climate change.]

“The opportunity to speak today means I got to do something I’ve hardly ever done, and that’s read some Audubon. Everybody’s familiar with the art, I assume, but Audubon was also a prolific journal keeper, letter writer, and author.

Cerulean Warbler by Tom Sanford.

If I may quote the birthday boy: “Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the seven figures of Parakeets represented in the plate, that I spared not my labor. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure.”

So wrote Audubon about Carolina Parakeets in his Ornithological Biography—the five-volume work that accompanied the original four double elephant folios of The Birds of America.

Those magnificent Carolina Parakeets, by the way, ranged up the East Coast as far north as where we are today, and were the only indigenous parrot in this part of the Americas. The very last one died 99 years ago in a Cincinnati zoo.

We must credit Lucy Audubon and William MacGillivray, his Scottish collaborator, with revising and polishing Audubon’s prose and science, but the voice in the writings seems to me to give a good sense of Audubon himself. Just add those Quaker “thee’s” and “thou’s” he used after learning English in Pennsylvania at the age of 18.

Brown Pelican by Jason Covert.

“I am anxious to promote your pleasure.” These are the words of a showman; his life’s work was a performance, which is not say it wasn’t also stupendously hard work. Carrying a hundred-pound portfolio; walking hundreds of miles; braving the weeks it too to cross the Atlantic multiple times; working day and night hunting and painting birds; then hustling door-to-door subscriptions for the masterwork in Britain, Canada, Europe—well, at least Paris—and the antebellum United States.

It culminated in Birds of America of course. The final volume was completed in 1838 after a decade’s worth of publishing.

It was the profits from the smaller, cheaper, royal octavo version that helped the Audubon family move uptown from White Street to where we are today. They named it Minnie’s Land, after Lucy’s Scottish diminutive, and because the property was in Lucy’s name, since John James still owned debts from the great Panic of 1819.

I came across references to 14, 20, and 30 acres of land purchased here, with 300-500-yards of the Hudson shore. Such are the loose details of history. The Audubons introduced a menagerie of poultry, horses, cattle, deer, elk, bears, foxes, and wolves here; they planted pear, apple, quince, apricot, nectarines, and plum trees; and built a new house they moved into in April of 1842. Their first summer they caught an 8-foot long, 200-300 pound sturgeon from shore.

Bald Eagle by Peter Daverington.

By rights, the 57-year old, nearly-toothless John James should have been in retirement, but he and the Reverend John Bachman [BACKMAN] continued work on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

So in 1843, he journey out West for the first time beyond the Mississippi. This was a trip he wanted to do years earlier. He and his companions travelled up the Missouri to what’s now North Dakota through the summer and fall, through a landscape which had been devastated by a recent smallpox epidemic. At one point they were so hungry they came close to eating a wolf, before a last-minute bison was shot, back when there still were last-minute bison. In addition to numerous mammals, he bagged several more bird species to add to the royal octavo.

Of course, The Viviparous Quadrupeds, in two volumes, has nothing like the fame of Birds of America. As completed by [BACKMAN] and Audubon’s sons John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, Viviparous Quadrupeds isn’t the monumental, mind-blowing production Birds is. What could be? Birds was one of last monster-oversized, hand-colored, engraved art book. Havell, the London publisher, had 50 employees working on the project at one time. Lithography, the new printing technology used for the octavo Birds and Mammals, was not nearly so impressive.

Williamson’s Sapsucker by ATM.

Audubon was described at the age 57 as “a tall, thin man, with a high arched and serene forehead, and a bright penetrating grey eye; his white locks fell in clusters upon his shoulders, but were the only signs of age, for his form was erect, and his step as light as that of a deer.” But upon his return to Minnie’s Land in late 1843, he began a notable decline. His failing eyesight forced him to stop painting within three years. In the Matthew Brady daguerreotype of 1848, he has no teeth at all. That year, his old friend and co-worker [BACKMAN] said his “mind… was all in ruins.” The next year, Lucy wrote “Alas, I have only the material part of my old friend, all mind being gone.”

John James Leforest Audubon, who was given the name “Jean Rabin,” when he was born on Saint-Domingue, (SAN DOMING] passed away in January 1851, at the age of 65. Now, one of his biographers thinks he worked himself to death, but 65 was a pretty respectable age in 1851.

Black-chinned Hummingbird by Ashli Sisk.

Dying in 1851, though, means he never met George Bird Grinnell, who was born in Brooklyn in 1849. Minnie’s Land still resounded with Audubonalia when the young Grinnell’s family moved to upper Manhattan. There were antlers, stuffed birds, animal skins, and of course the original paintings (before Lucy had to be sell them in 1863). The elderly Mrs. Audubon, who survived her husband by 23 years, and outlived both her boys, had gone back to her old calling of teaching to make ends meet, opening her school in 1857. Grinnell was one of her students.

Lucy Bakewell herself seems to have possessed an indomitable character. She born in relative comfort in England in 1787 and immigrated to America with her family in 1801. Coincidently, the Bakewell family physician was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s pro-evolution grandfather. Lucy’s favorite book was one of Erasmus’s epic poems about the love life of plants. The half-hearted medical student Charles Darwin himself heard Audubon’s paper on turkey buzzards in Edinburgh in 1826 and quoted Audubon in Origin of Species and later works. We should take this as testament to Audubon’s powers of observation, since Darwin was nothing if not a compiler of evidence.

Swallow-tailed Kite (and Others) by Lunar New Year.

So, while John James was out shooting and painting and trying to get his opus published, Lucy was an independent frontier woman holding the family together in Kentucky and then Louisiana. The marriage was a strong and difficult one, fraught with financial worries and the sheer physical distance of a world in which their letters—addressed “my Dearest Friend”—took months to reach each other.

The sheer presence of his teacher’s late husband must have impressed young George Bird Grinnell as he ran around the grounds here. By the way, did anybody ever have a more perfect middle name than George Bird Grinnell? This was the person who, after all, in 1886 founded the first Audubon Society. Named of course to honor Audubon and his proto-environmentalist concerns about dwindling numbers of birds—Birds of America portrays six now-extinct species—not to mention the disappearing forests and bison. For Audubon had seen the desolations wrought by England’s industrial revolution and thought they foretold America’s future. “I hate this infernal Smoaky London as I do the Devil!!” Audubon wrote in 1834 with two exclamation points.

In addition to memorializing Audubon, Grinnell is also credited with helping to bridge the gender divide in the first phase of conservation in America, between sportsmen and women reformers battling over the slaughter of birds for their feathers. This is how historian Carolyn Merchant describes it: “a gendered dialectic emerges during the 1880-1900s that moves back and forth between male and female blame and responsibility, to female activism, and finally to women and men working together […] to pass laws to halt the trade in feathers and preserve birdlife.”

Fish Crow by Hitness.

It’s true this first Audubon Society went belly up in 1889 for want of more members and funds. But it was the women who’d joined forces with Grinnell and who he published in his sporting journal Forest and Stream—women like Celia Thaxter, Florence Merriam Bailey, and Mabel Osgood Wright—who regrouped and started the organizations in the Nineties that, in 1905, joined together in the national Audubon, the ancestor of today’s organization, and led to the great laws that still protect the birds.

This is only a guess on my part, but not I think a far-fetched one: the example of Lucy Bakewell Audubon was what made Grinnell unafraid of strong women in an era when men who supported women, particularly in reform movements, were called “political hermaphrodites” by their enemies.

Talk about continuity!”

This is the Audubon memorial over the remains of John James and Lucy Audubon in Trinity Cemetery. His birthdate is wrong! It was actually April 26, 1785. Fittingly incorrect, considering he was always embarrassed to have been born illegitimately and told a whopper or two about his birth over the years?

Red-faced Warbler by ATM.

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.

Audubon II

There is darn little art without political economy. Welcome back to another way of looking at John James Audubon.

In his book, Audubon’s Elephant, detailing the difficulties of getting the double elephant edition of Birds of America published in Britain, Duff Hart-Davis says Audubon’s portfolio weighed a hundred pounds. Hart-Davis doesn’t inform us that when Audubon referred to “servants” in the 1810s, what he meant were slaves. Richard Rhodes in his biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American gives more details. In the slave state of Kentucky, the Audubons bought and sold nine humans between 1813-1819, investing at least $10,500. Previously, Audubon’s father Jean had worked many slaves on Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution; that’s what allowed him to invest in the Pennsylvania farm property (which included a lead mine) that JJA was supposed to manage when he came to America at the age of 18 in 1803. (His father also wanted him out of the way of Napoleon’s recruiters.)

After the Panic of 1819, which financially crushed the Audubons and just about everyone else in the West (then the Ohio and Mississippi valleys), the family sold off the last of their slaves to pay their debts. Two, who had paddled Audubon down the Mississippi, were sold in New Orleans, the deepest of the Deep South, where the plantation economy was notorious for its brutality.

Wiped out and demoralized by the Panic, the nation’s first economic nose-dive (sparked by the bill coming due for the Louisiana Purchase), Audubon decided to turn to art rather than commerce. (But of course art was commerce, as it has always been in some form or another, as he knew or learned the hard way.)

The national image of slavery remains one of large plantations, all that Gone With the Wind garbage. Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) had radically transformed the cotton industry; production doubled each decade after 1800. The plantation economy, rather than the domestic labor economy, began to overwhelmingly dominate the slave market. That market was constricted because the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1808, although an illegal trade continued. It was the internal trade in humans that boomed, seeing a large population transfer from the Upper to the Deep South. In the decade before the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the biggest exporters of slaves to the plantations.

Slavery touched everything.  It was near universal at the birth of America, accepting those who could not afford a human (and, initially, those few who opposed to it on principle). Middle class folk, like the Audubons before the bust, had a middle class life because of slaves. While Audubon was away in Scotland and England producing and selling Birds of America, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon was teaching the daughters of slaveholders in Louisiana.  The Rathbone family, who welcomed Audubon to Liverpool so generously when others shied away from the long-haired frontiersman, had made their fortune in the cotton trade, although by then they were abolitionists.

In the Audubons’ time in Henderson, Kentucky, a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved. The western frontier was made by slaves just as much as the South was. So, of course, was Brooklyn: almost a third of Kings Co.’s population was enslaved at the time of the Constitution; although full emancipation came in 1827, some slaves were illegally kept until the early 1840s in out of the way corners of the county.

It’s marching season. Tomorrow is the People’s Climate March in DC and elsewhere.

Happy Birthday, John J.

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. 

Audubon Part II

audubonThe second of three John James Audubon exhibits is up at the New-York Historical Society. These are the original watercolors JJA did for his printer in England. Go! (I snapped a few details before being busted by museum security; since I wasn’t using a flash, I thought it would be ok.)audubonIt was a curious experience to see several species I’d just seen in Texas for the first time, for example Long-billed Curlew, Reddish Egret, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. And…somewhat unsatisfying. Nothing beats the actual individual animal. This, of course, is hardly fair to any representation, but JJA is often much too dramatic — all those twisted neck poses — for me. Not to take too much away from JJA’s towering achievement, however, which remains impressive indeed.audubonThe only dead bird JJA portrayed that wasn’t the prey of another species was this Eskimo Curlew, which has what I think is a haunting binomial, Numenius borealis. (Numenius: new moon, for the shape of the bill, but so close to numinous!) Haunting because the species is now considered extinct, with the last confirmed sighting half a century ago (as someone who was born half a century ago and destined to go extinct myself…). They ate blueberries, people, blueberries! It is of course coincidental that JJA portrayed one member of this species as dead; the birds were plentiful in his day, as were the Passenger Pigeons; this is just one of those damnable ironies of history. All the birds he used as models were dead, the standard operating procedure before photography and binoculars. He was a re-animator.


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