An Ornithological Life
“All that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life.” If there are home truths, this affirmation from St. John Paul II’s Fides et Ratiois surely one of them. Is there anything more deeply lodged in us than the knowledge of and trust in the character of a beloved spouse or friend? Consider what an inseparable part of us is the knowledge we have of our childhood neighborhood—the houses, the streets, the parks, even the trees and the slow unfolding of the seasons. Or, again, how strong is our love for the knowledge we have gained from patient study and long practice, whether of the pages of Sacred Scripture, the notes and nuances of musical composition, or the wonders and delights of nature?
Of all the strong lovers of knowing, one of the most lyrical in its praise is a man so devoted to his knowledge of the avian kingdom that his very life became an adventure in ornithology, John James Audubon.
At once the most celebrated American naturalist and one of this country’s preeminent painters, Audubon (1785-1851) is known for his Birds of America, a monumental edition of engravings of 435 of his paintings. The work was produced in London between 1830 and 1838 and was accompanied by his five-volume Ornithological Biography (1831-39) but was the result of his extensive field study in North America during the 1820s.
Born on Saint-Dominique (Haiti) and raised in western France, Audubon came to the United States in 1803 to reclaim a property owned by his father. In 1808, he married Lucy Bakewell, a Pennsylvania farmer’s daughter, and took his bride to Kentucky, where they helped to run a general store for the next decade. From his youth, Audubon had been a keen naturalist, collector, and artist. Now, living on the edge of wilderness, he became a hunter and explorer whose travels would take him from Louisiana to Labrador and throughout the territories between.
After his business fell victim to a bank crash, Audubon embarked on his second career. While he painted portraits and scenery for cash, he assembled a collection of his signature work, birds painted at life-size, in life-like poses, and against backgrounds faithful to their natural homes. Throughout the 1820s he trekked and sought and found and described and painted. In 1826, he first went to England with his paintings, which he showed in public for a fee. There he began interviewing engravers and soliciting subscribers to his great work and reducing his field notes into the inimitable narratives that are his ornithological biographies.
The reader of these brief but brilliant essays will quickly appreciate that Audubon preferred to convey information about the habits of birds through story:
The Mallards generally arrive in Kentucky and other parts of the Western Country, from the middle of September to the first of October, or as soon as the acorns and beech-nuts are fully ripe. In a few days they are to be found in all the ponds that are covered with seed-bearing grasses.
Here we have an initial sketch of habitat, diet, and migratory habit given with economy and spirit.
Audubon’s lively character is often on display in these biographies. Some of his most poetic passages are descriptions of the songs of birds, especially that of his “greatest favorite,” the Wood Thrush. Evoking a nighttime storm with “dense torrents of rain that seemed to involve the heavens and the earth in one mass of fearful murkiness” and that left him soggy and anxious, Audubon tells of his joy when he heard “the delightful music of this harbinger of day,” notes that “gradually rise in strength, and then fall in gentle cadences, becoming at length so low as to be scarcely audible, like the emotions of the lover, who at one moment exults in the hope of possessing the object of his affections, and the next pauses in suspense, doubtful of the result of all his efforts to please.” Small wonder that, upon hearing such a song in these circumstances, he should have “blessed the Being who formed the Wood Thrush, and placed it in those solitary forests, as if to console me amidst my privations, to cheer my depressed mind, and to make me feel, as I did, that never ought man to despair, whatever may be his situation, as he can never be certain that aid and deliverance are not at hand.”
“It would seem to be most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known,” suggested Aquinas, “because it was for this that the entire world was made.” What kind of knowers do we need to become in order to perceive the handiwork of God in Creation? Knowers who love like John James Audubon.