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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsJohn James Audubon - Chapter 4
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John James Audubon - Chapter 4 Post by :kippstips Category :Nonfictions Author :John Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :1176

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John James Audubon - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

About the very great merit of this work, there is but one opinion among competent judges. It is, indeed, a monument to the man's indomitable energy and perseverance, and it is a monument to the science of ornithology. The drawings of the birds are very spirited and life like, and their biographies copious, picturesque, and accurate, and, taken in connection with his many journals, they afford glimpses of the life of the country during the early part of the century, that are of very great interest and value.

In writing the biography of the birds he wrote his autobiography as well; he wove his doings and adventures into his natural history observations. This gives a personal flavour to his pages, and is the main source of their charm.

His account of the Rosebreasted Grosbeak is a good sample of his work in this respect:

"One year, in the month of August, I was trudging along the shores of the Mohawk river, when night overtook me. Being little acquainted with that part of the country, I resolved to camp where I was; the evening was calm and beautiful, the sky sparkled with stars which were reflected by the smooth waters, and the deep shade of the rocks and trees of the opposite shore fell on the bosom of the stream, while gently from afar came on the ear the muttering sound of the cataract. My little fire was soon lighted under a rock, and, spreading out my scanty stock of provisions, I reclined on my grassy couch. As I looked on the fading features of the beautiful landscape, my heart turned towards my distant home, where my friends were doubtless wishing me, as I wish them, a happy night and peaceful slumbers. Then were heard the barkings of the watch dog, and I tapped my faithful companion to prevent his answering them. The thoughts of my worldly mission then came over my mind, and having thanked the Creator of all for his never-failing mercy, I closed my eyes, and was passing away into the world of dreaming existence, when suddenly there burst on my soul the serenade of the Rosebreasted bird, so rich, so mellow, so loud in the stillness of the night, that sleep fled from my eyelids. Never did I enjoy music more: it thrilled through my heart, and surrounded me with an atmosphere of bliss. One might easily have imagined that even the Owl, charmed by such delightful music, remained reverently silent. Long after the sounds ceased did I enjoy them, and when all had again become still, I stretched out my wearied limbs, and gave myself up to the luxury of repose."

Probably most of the seventy-five or eighty copies of "Birds" which were taken by subscribers in this country are still extant, held by the great libraries, and learned institutions. The Lenox Library in New York owns three sets. The Astor Library owns one set. I have examined this work there; there are four volumes in a set; they are elephant folio size--more than three feet long, and two or more feet wide. They are the heaviest books I ever handled. It takes two men to carry one volume to the large racks which hold them for the purpose of examination. The birds, of which there are a thousand and fifty-five specimens in four hundred and thirty-five plates, are all life size, even the great eagles, and appear to be unfaded. This work, which cost the original subscribers one thousand dollars, now brings four thousand dollars at private sale.

Of the edition with reduced figures and with the bird biographies, many more were sold, and all considerable public libraries in this country possess the work. It consists of seven imperial octavo volumes. Five hundred dollars is the average price which this work brings. This was a copy of the original English publication, with the figures reduced and lithographed. In this work, his sons, John and Victor, greatly assisted him, the former doing the reducing by the aid of the camera-lucida, and the latter attending to the printing and publishing. The first volume of this work appeared in 1840, and the last in 1844.

Audubon experimented a long time before he hit upon a satisfactory method of drawing his birds. Early in his studies he merely drew them in outline. Then he practised using threads to raise the head, wing or tail of his specimen. Under David he had learned to draw the human figure from a manikin. It now occurred to him to make a manikin of a bird, using cork or wood, or wires for the purpose. But his bird manikin only excited the laughter and ridicule of his friends. Then he conceived the happy thought of setting up the body of the dead bird by the aid of wires, very much as a taxidermist mounts them. This plan worked well and enabled him to have his birds permanently before him in a characteristic attitude: "The bird fixed with wires on squares I studied as a lay figure before me, its nature previously known to me as far as habits went, and its general form having been perfectly observed."

His bird pictures reflect his own temperament, not to say his nationality; the birds are very demonstrative, even theatrical and melodramatic at times. In some cases this is all right, in others it is all wrong. Birds differ in this respect as much as people do--some are very quiet and sedate, others pose and gesticulate like a Frenchman. It would not be easy to exaggerate, for instance, the flashings and evolutions of the redstart when it arrives in May, or the acting and posing of the catbird, or the gesticulations of the yellow breasted chat, or the nervous and emphatic character of the large-billed water thrush, or the many pretty attitudes of the great Carolina wren; but to give the same dramatic character to the demure little song sparrow, or to the slow moving cuckoo, or to the pedestrian cowbird, or to the quiet Kentucky warbler, as Audubon has done, is to convey a wrong impression of these birds.

Wilson errs, if at all, in the other direction. His birds, on the other hand, reflect his cautious, undemonstrative Scotch nature. Few of them are shown in violent action like Audubon's cuckoo; their poses for the most part are easy and characteristic. His drawings do not show the mastery of the subject and the versatility that Audubon's do;--they have not the artistic excellence, but they less frequently do violence to the bird's character by exaggerated activity.

The colouring in Audubon's birds is also often exaggerated. His purple finch is as brilliant as a rose, whereas at its best, this bird is a dull carmine.

Either the Baltimore oriole has changed its habits of nest-building since Audubon's day, or else he was wrong in his drawing of the nest of that bird, in making the opening on the side near the top. I have never seen an oriole's nest that was not open at the top.

In his drawings of a group of robins, one misses some of the most characteristic poses of that bird, while some of the attitudes that are portrayed are not common and familiar ones.

But in the face of all that he accomplished, and against such odds, and taking into consideration also the changes that may have crept in through engraver and colourists, it ill becomes us to indulge in captious criticisms. Let us rather repeat Audubon's own remark on realising how far short his drawings came of representing the birds themselves: "After all, there's nothing perfect but _primitiveness_."

Finding that he could not live in the city, in 1842 Audubon removed with his family to "Minnie's Land," on the banks of the Hudson, now known as Audubon Park, and included in the city limits; this became his final home.

In the spring of 1843 he started on his last long journey, his trip to the Yellow-stone River, of which we have a minute account in his "Missouri River Journals"--documents that lay hidden in the back of an old secretary from 1843 to the time when they were found by his grand-daughters in 1896, and published by them in 1897.

This trip was undertaken mainly in the interests of the "Quadrupeds and Biography of American Quadrupeds," and much of what he saw and did is woven into those three volumes. The trip lasted eight months, and the hardships and exposures seriously affected Audubon's health. He returned home in October, 1843.

He was now sixty-four or five years of age, and the infirmities of his years began to steal upon him.

The first volume of his "Quadrupeds" was published about two years later, and this was practically his last work. The second and third volumes were mainly the work of his sons, John and Victor.

The "Quadrupeds" does not take rank with his "Birds." It was not his first love. It was more an after thought to fill up his time. Neither the drawing nor the colouring of the animals, largely the work of his son John, approaches those of the birds.

"Surely no man ever had better helpers" says his grand-daughter, and a study of his life brings us to the same conclusion--his devoted wife, his able and willing sons, were his closest helpers, nor do we lose sight of the assistance of the scientific and indefatigable MacGillivray, and the untiring and congenial co-worker, Dr. Bachman.

Audubon's last years were peaceful and happy, and were passed at his home on the Hudson, amid his children and grandchildren, surrounded by the scenes that he loved.

After his eyesight began to fail him, his devoted wife read to him, she walked with him, and toward the last she fed him. "Bread and milk were his breakfast and supper, and at noon he ate a little fish or game, never having eaten animal food if he could avoid it."

One visiting at the home of our naturalist during his last days speaks of the tender way in which he said to his wife: "Well, sweetheart, always busy. Come sit thee down a few minutes and rest."

Parke Godwin visited Audubon in 1846, and gives this account of his visit:

"The house was simple and unpretentious in its architecture, and beautifully embowered amid elms and oaks. Several graceful fawns, and a noble elk, were stalking in the shade of the trees, apparently unconscious of the presence of a few dogs, and not caring for the numerous turkeys, geese, and other domestic animals that gabbled and screamed around them. Nor did my own approach startle the wild, beautiful creatures, that seemed as docile as any of their tame companions.

"'Is the master at home?' I asked of a pretty maid servant, who answered my tap at the door; and who, after informing me that he was, led me into a room on the left side of the broad hall. It was not, however, a parlour, or an ordinary reception room that I entered, but evidently a room for work. In one corner stood a painter's easel, with the half-finished sketch of a beaver on the paper; in the other lay the skin of an American panther. The antlers of elks hung upon the walls; stuffed birds of every description of gay plumage ornamented the mantel-piece; and exquisite drawings of field mice, orioles, and woodpeckers, were scattered promiscuously in other parts of the room, across one end of which a long, rude table was stretched to hold artist materials, scraps of drawing paper, and immense folio volumes, filled with delicious paintings of birds taken in their native haunts.

"'This,' said I to myself, 'is the studio of the naturalist,' but hardly had the thought escaped me when the master himself made his appearance. He was 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. The expression of his face was sharp, but noble and commanding, and there was something in it, partly derived from the aquiline nose and partly from the shutting of the mouth, which made you think of the imperial eagle.

"His greeting as he entered, was at once frank and cordial, and showed you the sincere true man. 'How kind it is,' he said, with a slight French accent and in a pensive tone, 'to come to see me; and how wise, too, to leave that crazy city.' He then shook me warmly by the hand. 'Do you know,' he continued, 'how I wonder that men can consent to swelter and fret their lives away amid those hot bricks and pestilent vapours, when the woods and fields are all so near? It would kill me soon to be confined in such a prison house; and when I am forced to make an occasional visit there, it fills me with loathing and sadness. Ah! how often, when I have been abroad on the mountains, has my heart risen in grateful praise to God that it was not my destiny to waste and pine among those noisome congregations of the city.'"

Another visitor to Audubon during his last days writes: "In my interview with the naturalist, there were several things that stamped themselves indelibly on my mind. The wonderful simplicity of the man was perhaps the most remarkable. His enthusiasm for facts made him unconscious of himself. To make him happy you had only to give him a new fact in natural history, or introduce him to a rare bird. His self-forgetfulness was very impressive. I felt that I had found a man who asked homage for God and Nature, and not for himself.

"The unconscious greatness of the man seemed only equalled by his child-like tenderness. The sweet unity between his wife and himself, as they turned over the original drawings of his birds, and recalled the circumstances of the drawings, some of which had been made when she was with him; her quickness of perception, and their mutual enthusiasm regarding these works of his heart and hand, and the tenderness with which they unconsciously treated each other, all was impressed upon my memory. Ever since, I have been convinced that Audubon owed more to his wife than the world knew, or ever would know. That she was always a reliance, often a help, and ever a sympathising sister-soul to her noble husband, was fully apparent to me."

One notes much of the same fire and vigour in the later portraits of Audubon, that are so apparent in those of him in his youthful days. What a resolute closing of the mouth in his portrait taken of him in his old age-- "the magnificent grey-haired man!"

In 1847, Audubon's mind began to fail him; like Emerson in his old age, he had difficulty in finding the right word.

In May, 1848, Dr. Bachman wrote of him: "My poor friend Audubon! The outlines of his beautiful face and form are there, but his noble mind is all in ruins."

His feebleness increased (there was no illness), till at sunset, January 27, 1851, in his seventy-sixth year, the "American Woodsman," as he was wont to call himself, set out on his last long journey to that bourne whence no traveller returns.

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