Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithologyby Edward H. Burtt Jr., William E. Davis Jr.
Audubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt/i>/i>
Audubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson’s pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first ornithologist to describe the birds of the North American wilderness.
Abandoning early ambitions to become a poet in the mold of his countryman Robert Burns, Wilson emigrated from Scotland to settle near Philadelphia, where the botanist William Bartram encouraged his proclivity for art and natural history. Wilson traveled 12,000 miles on foot, on horseback, in a rowboat, and by stage and ship, establishing a network of observers along the way. He wrote hundreds of accounts of indigenous birds, discovered many new species, and sketched the behavior and ecology of each species he encountered.
Drawing on their expertise in both science and art, Burtt and Davis show how Wilson defied eighteenth-century conventions of biological illustration by striving for realistic depiction of birds in their native habitats. He drew them in poses meant to facilitate identification, making his work the model for modern field guides and an inspiration for Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and other naturalists who followed. On the bicentennial of his death, this beautifully illustrated volume is a fitting tribute to Alexander Wilson and his unique contributions to ornithology, ecology, and the study of animal behavior.
One of the objectives of this book is to publish all of Wilson's previously unpublished illustrations...Wilson's artwork is superb...The case Burtt and Davis make for Wilson being the true father of American ornithology is overwhelming, and in that sense they
have succeeded admirably.
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.70(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)
Read an Excerpt
Nature: The Love of His Life
Wilson began his literary career as a poet in Scotland where he could draw on a rich literary tradition and participate in an active literary community that included Robert Burns, Robert Tannahill, other minor poets, and poetry contests. The infant United States had no such tradition, no such community. He was a citizen in a nation without a history, without an oppressive class system to protest, without legends or ruins to contemplate. What he had in abundance was nature. He continued to write poetry and prose after his immigration to the United States, but no longer did he write about working conditions, no longer did he write about interpersonal relationships, no longer did he write protest poetry. Wilson wrote about nature. However, unlike the naturalist-writers who preceded him, writers such as Cotton Mather, John Smith, Mark Catesby, even William Bartram, he did not write about nature as something to be feared, conquered and tamed. Instead Wilson wrote about the wonder of wilderness. He wrote as an observer of nature, an observer who was fascinated by what he saw. Even William Bartram who would figure prominently in Wilson’s achievement, even Bartram who described nature in loving detail, always had an eye on what excellent farmland it would be or how navigable the river was. Wilson wrote about the wilderness itself, about its aesthetic and spiritual value, about the wonder of birds and their lives. He established this theme in a wonderful anecdote in the Preface to volume 1:
In one of my late visits to a friend in the country, I found their youngest son, a fine boy of eight or nine years of age, who usually resides in town for his education, just returning from a ramble thro the neighbouring woods and fields, where he had collected a large and very handsome bunch of wild flowers, of a great many different colors; and presenting them to his mother, said, with much animation in his countenance, ‘Look my dear ‘ma, what beautiful flowers I have found growing on our place! Why all the woods are full of them! Red, orange, blue, and ‘most every color. O I can gather you a whole parcel of them, much handsomer than these, all growing our own woods! Shall I ‘ma? Shall I go and bring you more?’ The good woman received the bunch of flowers with a smile of affectionate complacency; and after admiring for some time the beautiful simplicity of nature, gave her willing consent; and the little fellow went off, on the wings of ecstasy, to execute his delightful commission.
The similitude of this little boy’s enthusiasm to my own, struck me; and the reader will need no explanations of mine to make the application. Should my country receive with the same gracious indulgence the specimens which I here humbly present her; should she express a desire for me to go and bring her more, the highest wishes of my ambition will be gratified; for, in the language of my little friend, our whole woods are full of them! And I can collect hundreds more, much handsomer than these.
Wilson clearly relates to the innocent pleasure of the little boy, to the delight the boy expresses in what he has found in the woods. Indeed, he uses the little boy’s own words to describe his collection of birds and its display to the reader. There is no hint of the terror of the woods so often conveyed by earlier authors. The theme is nature as a source of inspiration and joy, as it clearly is for the mother, her son, and Alexander Wilson. Such a theme as applied to the American wilderness was new, but Wilson carried the theme throughout his own journeys in search of birds and throughout his writing. A deep appreciation of wildness, a perspective of wonder at the natural world that was picked up by those like Emerson and Thoreau who came after him.
Meet the Author
Edward H. Burtt, Jr. is Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
William E. Davis, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at Boston University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews