John James Audubon and Birding Today
There was a dark side to the story of John James Audubon. To draw the beautiful birds that he was obsessed with painting and cataloguing, he killed many of the birds. Sometimes he killed more than one of the same species to be able to capture the detail that he needed for these gorgeous portraits.
For many reasons, Audubon captured the imagination of writers, but most notably for their interest in the paradox of Audubon’s methods, and that of the artist more generally. Is it not strange to require that you kill something – or to pin it to the page – to be able to articulate something about its living qualities?
We do birding differently now. Check out birding resources at the library and elsewhere.
And enjoy some varied literary takes on Audubon, below.
These birds keep modelling for Audubon
the Snowy Egret of White Heron in a book
that, in my youth, would open like a lawn
in Emerald Santa Cruz, knowing how well they look,
strutting perfection. They speckle the islands
on river-bank, in mangrove marsh or cattle pasture,
gliding over ponds, then balancing on the ridge
of a silken heifer, or fleeing disaster
in hurricane weather . . .
Audubon's work is the fruit of complex negotiations between life and death, destruction and creation, brutality and beauty, humans and the animal world, the outdoors experience of the wilderness and the indoors reality of the studio, real presences and emblems: Walcott's close examination of the nature of these negotiations, as we will see, provides him with an opportunity not only to reconsider Audubon's politics and poetics of representation but also to rearticulate his own.
from A Still Moment
Audubon's eyes embraced the object in the distance and he could see it as carefully as if he held it in his hand. It was a snowy heron alone out of its flock. He watched it steadily, in his care noting the exact inevitable things. When it feeds it muddies the water with its foot . . . It was as if each detail about the heron happened slowly in time, and only once. He felt again the old stab of wonder --
Robert Penn Warren
He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.
Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low,
But not in grief.
There is, however, an irony here. To paint the bird he must “know” the bird as well as “love” it, he must know it feather by feather, he must have it in his hand. And so he must kill it. But having killed the bird, he knows that the best he can make of it now in a painting would be a dead thing, “never the essence, only a sum of parts,” and that “it would always meet with a stranger’s sight, and never be one with the beauty in the other man’s head in the world.”
From "Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty" by Robert Penn Warren