Audubon’s B’day

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(HOST) Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest naturalists – and commentator Ted Levin is celebrating his remarkable life and work.

(LEVIN) John James Audubon was born on this date in 1785. When he died in 1851, he left behind a legacy that rose resplendent out of the woods and wetlands of an infant nation. He was Daniel Boone with a paint brush.

Audubon wandered the wilderness dealing with every conceivable inconvenience – rain, snow, mosquitoes, soft river ice, quicksand, strandings, pirates, even the New Madrid earthquake, which temporarily changed the course of the Mississippi River. He lost one portfolio to a family of rats, which shredded the paintings for nesting materials. Audubon lived off his wits and his gun, always painting, writing, observing, and obsessing over his place in history.

Audubon’s America was mythic. In 1813, he encountered a flock of passenger pigeons three-miles wide that blotted out the sun like an eclipse; their guano covered the forest floor like snow. He estimated the flock at more than one billion birds, part of a three-day pigeon migration over the Ohio River.

Recently, I visited Dartmouth’s rare books collection and stood transfixed as a librarian showed me volume three of Audubon’s Birds of America. Many of the engravings were so lifelike the birds seemed poised to fly off the page. Several portraits depict species that are today extinct or so rare that you can track their wellbeing on species specific web sites. One of my favorite compositions, a wood thrush, seen from below, steps from one branch to another leaning into a dogwood berry; its mate perched above sings, bill pointed toward the upper right.

Published in London as a four-volume set, each of the 435 plates measures twenty-nine and a half by thirty-nine and a half inches. The birds are life-size, hand-painted reproductions of the original mixed media – watercolor, pastel, ink, pencil, oil, as well as egg tempra. Moving each volume is like moving furniture. At least two people are needed.

There was a single print run of two hundred, of which one hundred and twenty are extant. The rest were fragmented and sold for framing. Today an intact four-volume set is worth close to ten million dollars.

Dartmouth’s three volumes originally belonged to Daniel Webster, who never fully paid Audubon for his subscription. For years Audubon pestered Webster to erase his debt.

Because he considered him to be a financial risk, Audubon never shipped Webster the final installment of The Birds of America. He sought investors elsewhere. Like those Ohio River pigeons Audubon moved to a more promising harvest.

As I watch broadwing hawks high above our pasture, I recall the closing lines from an Ogden Nash poem, “Up From the Egg: The confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider.”

That is why I sit here growing old by inches,
watching the clock instead of finches.
But I sometimes visualize in my gin,
the Audubon that I audibin.

I’m more optimistic.

That is why I sit here looking for words
Watching the computor screen instead of birds
But I sometimes visualize in my tea
The Audubon that I autabe.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing.

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