Birds were “the objects of my greatest delight,” wrote John James Audubon (1785–1851), founder of modern ornithology and one of the world’s greatest bird painters. His masterpiece, The Birds of America depicts almost five hundred North American bird species, each image—lifelike and life size—rendered in vibrant color. Audubon was also an explorer, a woodsman, a hunter, an entertaining and prolific writer, and an energetic self-promoter. Through talent and dogged determination, he rose from backwoods obscurity to international fame.
In This Strange Wilderness, award-winning author Nancy Plain brings together the amazing story of this American icon’s career and the beautiful images that are his legacy. Before Audubon, no one had seen, drawn, or written so much about the animals of this largely uncharted young country. Aware that the wilderness and its wildlife were changing even as he watched, Audubon remained committed almost to the end of his life “to search out the things which have been hidden since the creation of this wondrous world.” This Strange Wilderness details his art and writing, transporting the reader back to the frontiers of early nineteenth-century America.
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About the Author
Nancy Plain is the author of numerous children’s books, including Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days (available in a Bison Books edition), winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction, the Nebraska Book Award for Youth Nonfiction and the Will Rogers Medallion Award.
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This Strange Wilderness
The Life and Art of John James Audubon
By Nancy Plain
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Hot sun and hummingbirds. Orange trees with dark green leaves. These were some of John James Audubon's earliest memories. He was born a little French boy named Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785, in Haiti. Haiti, then a French colony called Saint-Domingue, forms a part of the island of Hispaniola, set in the warm Caribbean Sea. Jean never knew his mother, Jeanne Rabin. She had come from France to Saint-Domingue to work as a maid and died a few months after Jean was born. His parents had not been married to each other—a fact that he would try to hide all his life—so he was given his mother's last name.
The boy's father, Jean Audubon, was a French sea captain who owned a large sugar plantation on the island. He also bought and sold African slaves. But enslaved Africans far outnumbered white landowners, and during the 1780s, rumblings of an uprising against the brutal system were growing louder every day. So Jean Audubon brought his son and a daughter, Rose, back to his home base in France. There they would be raised by his wife, Anne, who had no children of her own.
Anne loved them as if they had been hers from the start, and she especially doted on Jean. "She therefore completely spoiled me," he later recalled, "hid my faults, boasted to every one of my youthful merits, and, worse than all, said frequently in my presence that I was the handsomest boy in France." She gave him plenty of pocket money, too, and allowed him to buy whatever he wanted at the candy stores in town. After a few years, the Audubons formally adopted the children. Now Jean had not only a new mother but a new name—Jean-Jacques Audubon.
The family had a home in the city of Nantes in western France and a country house called La Gerbetière in the village of Couëron. Both places were on the banks of the Loire River. In the countryside, young Audubon first learned the joys of rambling. Every morning, his mother packed his lunch basket for school, but he often played hooky instead, running off with his friends to explore meadows and marshes and the banks of the river. After he had eaten his lunch, he would load his basket with "curiosities"—birds' eggs, flowers and mosses, interesting stones. His bedroom began to look like a miniature natural history museum, crammed with small treasures. He felt a bond with nature that grew stronger every year until, as he put it, it bordered on a "frenzy."
Most of all he loved birds. The "feathered tribes," he called them. His father shared this love, and together the two went bird watching, studying the creatures' habits, admiring their graceful flight. When Captain Audubon showed his son a book of bird illustrations, the boy was inspired to draw.
He made pencil outlines and filled in the colors with pastels. At first his birds were just stick figures with heads and tails, and he became frustrated with his "miserable attempts." Even as his work improved, he thought it was never good enough. "How sorely disappointed did I feel.... My pencil gave birth to a family of cripples." Every year on his birthday, he threw hundreds of pictures into a bonfire and vowed to do better.
"A vivid pleasure shone upon those days of my early youth," Audubon would one day remember. Yet there was another side to French life during his childhood. The French Revolution, which had begun in 1789, turned into a nightmare known as the Reign of Terror. In 1793, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded on the guillotine. One year later, the Terror came to the Audubons' own city, Nantes, and it was worse there than almost anywhere else. The revolutionaries set out to exterminate their enemies, the royalists. Mass shootings and beheadings were common, and the streets came to smell like death. Hundreds of people, many of them priests, were tied up, thrown onto barges, and drowned in the river. In later life, Audubon would write little about these dark days except to say, "The Revolutionists covered the earth with the blood of man, woman, and child."
One day in 1796, Captain Audubon, who was now in the French navy, came back from a long sea voyage. What had his children learned while he was away? he asked. Rose showed how well she could play the piano. Jean-Jacques, who in addition to his school classes was taking private lessons in drawing, fencing, dancing, and music, had almost nothing to show. He hadn't even bothered to put strings on his violin. "I, like a culprit, hung my head," he wrote. His father usually had a temper "like the blast of a hurricane." But this time, he just kissed Rose, hummed a little tune, and left the room.
Early the next morning, Jean-Jacques found himself in a horse-drawn carriage with his suitcase and violin. His father sat silently beside him. As the horses trotted farther and farther from home, Captain Audubon still said nothing, and Jean-Jacques did not know where they were going. After several days they reached the surprise destination—the naval academy in the town of Rochefort. The captain had decided that Jean-Jacques should follow in his father's footsteps and train for a career in the navy. The boy was only eleven years old, but Captain Audubon himself had first gone to sea at age twelve. "My beloved boy, thou art now safe," he said. "I have brought thee here that I may be able to pay constant attention to thy studies." Unlike his wife, he was a practical person and wanted his son to get an education and prepare himself for the future.
Jean-Jacques, expert hooky player and adventurer, quickly learned how to shoot, sail, and climb the masts of ships. But he rebelled against the military discipline at Rochefort and the long hours of study. Mathematics, especially, was "hard, dull work." One morning, he decided to escape from his strict math teacher. "I gave him the slip, jumped from the window, and ran off through the gardens." He felt like a young bird fleeing the nest. But in no time he was caught and punished. Later, when he flunked the qualifying test for officer training, his father gave up. The elder Audubon retired from the navy, and father and son returned home.
The Audubons now spent all their time at their country house. Jean-Jacques was a teenager, but he had not forgotten his boyhood passions. "Perhaps not an hour of leisure was spent elsewhere than in woods and fields, and to examine either the eggs, nest, young, or parents of any species of birds constituted my delight."
In 1799, the French Revolution ended, but this did not bring peace to France. A general named Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, and, mad with dreams of empire, he plunged the weary country into war with the rest of Europe. In the spring of 1803, Napoleon was preparing to invade England, and his already enormous army would need a fresh supply of young men. Audubon was now eighteen. He had survived the revolution, and his father was determined that he should survive Napoleon's wars, too. In his travels, Captain Audubon had stopped in America and bought an estate called Mill Grove in the state of Pennsylvania. He decided to send his son there to escape Napoleon's draft and to start a new life.
That summer Audubon boarded a ship bound for America. "I received light and life in the New World," he wrote, and now he was heading back. His mother cried when the ship sailed away, and the young man watched as the coastline of France faded into the distance. "My heart sunk within me.... My affections were with those I had left behind, and the world seemed to me a great wilderness."CHAPTER 2
America, My Country
Audubon sat in a small cave, watching a grayish brown bird, an eastern phoebe, as she sat on her nest. At first her mate had tried to chase him away, darting and scolding. But he had returned every morning until both birds had grown used to him. Now he was able to peek at the first newly laid egg. "So white and so transparent," he wrote, "that to me the sight was more pleasant than if I had met with a diamond of the same size." Soon five eggs hatched, and five baby birds jostled each other in the nest. They allowed Audubon to touch them. When they were old enough, he picked up each one and gently tied a silver thread around a tiny leg. The phoebes would fly south for the winter, but the threads would show him if any came back to the same spot in the spring.
The next April he heard cries of "fee-bee, fee-bee!" Were these the same "little pilgrims" that he knew? He searched for silver-threaded birds and found two nesting nearby. The experiment had worked. This was the first time that birds were banded in America. No older than twenty, Audubon had just made a major contribution to the study of bird migration and to ornithology, or the study of birds, in general.
The phoebes' cave was on the banks of the Perkiomen Creek, a stream that flowed through the estate of Mill Grove, Audubon's new American home. His father had chosen the property well. Not far from Philadelphia, Mill Grove was a lovely place—a big stone house on two hundred acres of lawn and orchard, forest and field. An underground vein of lead had been discovered on the land, too, and Captain Audubon hoped to develop it into a mine. Not so his son. Young Audubon was happy just to wander the countryside "with as little concern for the future as if the world had been made for me." Along the creek and on old Indian trails, he hunted for all kinds of woodland animals to draw, but as always, he looked mostly for birds—wild turkeys, ducks, geese, eagles, and more.
It did not take long for Audubon to think of Mill Grove as a "blessed spot" or to adopt the motto "America, My Country." He worked hard at learning English, although he would always speak with a French accent. And he changed his name from the French Jean-Jacques Audubon to the American version—John James Audubon.
He set up a drawing studio at Mill Grove but was as disgusted as ever with his bird pictures. Many of them were flat profiles, done in the tradition of the ornithologists of his day. Others were sketches of birds that he had shot and hung upside down on a string—more like signs for a poultry shop than art, he thought. How could he pose his birds to look alive? The solution came to him in a dream one night, and he jumped out of bed before dawn to try it out.
First he made a "position board" out of a piece of wood, then drove into it sharp wires that could pierce a bird's body and hold it in any position. He tested the device with a newly killed bird called a kingfisher, arranging and rearranging its head, tail, and feet until his fingers bled. "At last—there stood before me the real Kingfisher." Now it was time to draw. In order to get the proportions right, he had drawn a network of lines on the position board and a matching grid on his paper. "I outlined the bird, aided by compasses and my eyes, colored it, finished it, without a thought of hunger.... This was what I shall call my first drawing actually from nature." The new method was a turning point for Audubon and his art, and he would use it for the rest of his life.
Soon after he fell in love with America, he fell in love with a girl named Lucy Bakewell. The eldest of six children, she was seventeen years old to his nineteen, and she lived across the road from him in a white-columned mansion called Fatland Ford. Her family, the Bakewells, had just emigrated from England. When Audubon first met Lucy, she was sewing by her parlor fire. He was struck by her friendly ways and the "grace and beauty" of her figure, and he believed—rightly—that she admired him as well. "I measured five feet ten and a half inches, was of a fair mien, and [had] quite a handsome figure." He was especially proud of his strength—his "muscles of steel"—and his wavy brown hair, which hung down to his shoulders. John became a frequent visitor to Fatland Ford. The two young people played music together, with Lucy on piano and John on violin or flute. They rode horseback, walked in the woods, and visited John's hideaway, the phoebes' cave. In the cave, they first talked about marriage.
While Lucy was modest and sensible, John was anything but. "I was what in plain terms may be called extremely extravagant," he wrote. On an allowance from his father, he bought the best horses and dogs and fancy guns decorated with silver. "I was ridiculously fond of dress," he added. Even to go hunting—often with Lucy's youngest brother, Billy, tagging along—John wore black satin breeches, silk stockings, and a ruffled shirt. He was also a fearless natural athlete who never missed a chance to show off: "Not a ball, a skating-match, a house or riding party took place without me." One day another Bakewell brother, Tom, dared Audubon to shoot a hole in his hat while skating by at top speed. "Off I went like lightning," Audubon recalled, and when the hat was thrown into the air, he shot it so full of holes it looked like a sieve. A neighbor observed that Audubon was not only the fastest skater he had ever seen, able to leap over gaping holes in the ice, but also the best dancer: "All the ladies wished him as a partner." No wonder Lucy's father, William Bakewell, thought that John was "too young and too useless to be married."
Audubon's own father agreed. So in 1805 John sailed back to France to convince him to change his mind. He stayed for one year. Much of that time he spent hunting for birds in his old childhood haunts with a neighbor, Dr. Charles d'Orbigny. A naturalist and bird expert, d'Orbigny taught John how to conduct his bird studies in a scientific way—how to weigh and measure, how to dissect, and how to classify the different species. This type of classification, called taxonomy, was new to ornithology, and ideas about it were constantly changing.
Audubon would return to America with a deeper understanding of the feathered tribes. He would also return with a business partner, a Frenchman named Ferdinand Rozier. Both Mr. Bakewell and Captain Audubon had advised John to become a businessman, serious and responsible at last. Only then would he win their permission to marry. This time when Audubon left France, he wasn't sad. He couldn't wait to see Lucy again.
In 1807 he sold his share of Mill Grove to fund a general store, which he and Rozier planned to locate somewhere in Kentucky. Kentucky was then a frontier state in the "Western country," on the very edge of the unknown. Only twenty-four years had passed since the end of the American Revolution. And only four years since Thomas Jefferson had made the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country. There were no states at all west of the Kentucky border, yet Americans were moving to Kentucky to build towns and farm its fertile land.
The future storekeepers set out from Pennsylvania in late August on what would be a rough trip. They trudged through the rain on horseback and endured long days in stagecoaches that bogged down in the mud. But Audubon loved it all. Moving through ancient, towering forests, surrounded by an orchestra of birdsong, he fell under a kind of spell. "Who is the stranger to my own dear country that can form an adequate conception of the extent of its primeval woods[?]"
They reached the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, loaded their supplies onto a flatboat, and started downriver. In those days before the steamboat, flatboats—raftlike crafts with squared ends—were the best way to move cargo and people on the nation's waterways. The boats had no sails but floated with the current or were pushed along by means of long poles thrust into the riverbed. Audubon's flatboat was carrying everything from hogs to horses, plows to spinning wheels—and whole families of pioneers. Gliding downstream, Audubon was enchanted by the clear, calm river, the untouched forests on shore. At night he saw the moon reflected in black water and heard owls sweep by on quiet wings.
Excerpted from This Strange Wilderness by Nancy Plain. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Drawn from Nature
Chapter One: Beloved Boy
Chapter Two: America, My Country
Chapter Three: The American Woodsman
Chapter Four: Down the Mississippi
Chapter Five: On the Wing
Chapter Six: The Birds of America
Chapter Seven: Team Audubon
Chapter Eight: This Strange Wilderness
Chapter Nine: Audubon Then and Now
Appendix: Looking for Audubon and His World