The Man With the Double Elephants Under His Arm
The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.
We killed them all. We can’t deny it. A fact, though regrettable. And the crime? Fruit thievery. Raucousness. Illegal gatherings. Excessive, feathered and mischievous free-living. Of all the Audubon portraits, I covet this one the most. They look exuberant, these parakeets. Fearful of nothing, they look alive. Who knows of doom? Audubon lived among them. Saw them crowd and crackle brightly in the trees. Almost certainly he shot a few himself to make this picture. It is the world that was.
I guess it is not surprising that Audubon had a difficult life. Early on anyway. Artistic and shy, prone to doubts, what was there to keep him from a haunted life, dragging his drawings across America? He was mostly uneducated. He was probably almost completely self taught artistically. His father sent him from France to avoid the troubles brewing there. His art had not been tested much in France. America was opportunity and safety and wilderness.
He arrived in America at age eighteen from France. He came just in time for the great plague of Yellow Fever that was burning through the population in the northeast. It was not the only time that his Birds of America book almost failed to be because Audubon did not survive. He fell through ice as a young man and lost consciousness in a frozen river, he was once caught in quicksand, he was atop his nervous horse when the great New Madrid quake struck the eastern states. The Yellow Fever did not touch him then. He walked through the empty streets. He spoke little English. He was part owner of a lead mine. He collected eggs, snakeskins, and freshly killed birds. He was already a superb shot. He trained some phoebe’s in a nearby valley to be tame enough to let him hold them on his hand. He worked hard at his drawing. Mostly, he focused on birds from the start, he struggled to make them more than just lifeless birdshapes of crayon and chalk. He tried drawing his phoebes in the field from their natural animations. He tried to sketch other birds in life and then shoot them soon after, rushing back to his home to dangle them by threads, trying to make them look reanimated, trying to make them look like anything but feathered failures.
He dreamed of drawing birds. And I can see a young man tossing and turning in his sleep, chasing birds like some hound snoozing by the fireplace whose paws won’t stop dancing after the hare. They say it was a kingfisher that finally did some magic trick in his head, changed the world of drawing. He took the bird fresh, shot it like all the birds before it and then wired it in position, cocking its tail up like a kingfisher would. Every now and then, while he drew the bird as it stood there before him, he would reach over and lift its eyelid just to watch it seemingly spring back into sentient life. It was the beginning of his own new life of drawing. That eye, in that drawing, even now, looks very, very alive.
I’ve tried to remember dreaming of Snowy Egrets. I don’t think I have, frankly. My white dream-birds were less defined. They were in some nocturnal genus that is not well described. Their character varying with the day and the dark, birds flapping through the world with very unbird-like appendages and voices. They frightened me; they came as saviors or as fiends. Audubon’s Snowy looks like it is waiting for a storm to pass. It has its plumes in the wind, its beak pointed toward pastoral places, bright sun on its back, shadows around the legs. Stare at it long enough and one begins to think he could part with eighteen thousand dollars for an original etching. If only you could sit inside your room and watch this egret just watching you back whenever you wanted.
One wonders if each of us had tried to draw birds at some point in our lives how many of us would turn out to be real bird artists in disguise. Very few I suspect. But out there surely are the undiscovered ones. Alexander Wilson, the other prominent figure in early 19th century ornithology, tried to force his own hands to bird artistry. He changed his life suddenly when he came to America from Ireland. He set himself to draw and publish all the birds of North America himself. Unfortunately, he started with very little inherent skill. Still, the deep woods hypnotized him and he believed he could do it.
The woods from that time are hard for us now to fathom. Much older trees, unharvested, brooding towards the sky like nothing we have now, short of, say, a redwood forest. Densities and spans of forest that men could vanish inside. Sycamore trees that were twenty feet in diameter at the trunk. Lush riverside fern forests that sheltered panther and bear. Herds of elk wandered the Kentucky woods. The lynx still hunted in abundance in Arkansas. The human population of the state of Kentucky in Audubon’s time was about 400,000 and 80,000 of these were slaves. This was only thirty years or so into the great human influx. The place was booming with life, birds uncountable. The skies were periodically dense with Passenger Pigeons. The fruited fields raided by those carefree Carolina Parakeets.
Audubon married Lucy Bakewell and took her west, into frontier wilderness. She had previously been refined and social but she did not mind, remarkably. There was nothing much to do out there, nothing to read out there for a reader like her. No library. She was without her piano. Audubon would wander off and leave her for months at a time ransacking the wilderness with his guns for the birds and animals he needed for his drawings. There he fell for one of the birds that would be with him all his life—the Wild Turkey of the American forests. He once watched one swim a river. It is conceivable that he spent more time with turkeys than with his wife for good portions of this happy wilderness section of his life. He was never as happy again. He said it somewhere himself.
His skill with a gun became legend and myth. How much time he spent honing this skill is difficult to imagine. He said of that time in his life that a day when he killed less than a hundred birds was a wasted day. He used shotguns, mostly, loaded with a fine grained shot. There was no such thing as modern shotgun shells of course. The shotguns were muzzle loaded with pouches of shot packed in above the powder load in each of the two barrels. Dangerous things for removing a hand if one was not careful in adding the second load out there beyond the barrel, and one could end a whole artistic life if one was truly hurried and incautious. Shooting birds on the wing certainly required a great deal more skill. There was a significant delay with a flintlock, muzzle-loaded shotgun between the trigger pull and the flash of fire. So, leading and bringing down a fast flying duck, took on whole new dimensions of skill.
He also carried a rifle, of course. Who didn’t, back then? In fact, the man bore quite a complex burden wherever he walked. There were his drawing supplies: watercolors, pencils, chalks—Audubon, perhaps counter to the memory of most, never used paint in the wilds and never really mastered painting in his lifetime. Pastels and pencils were his means. He carried sheaves of paper, to be guarded against the things that liked paper in the wilderness—water, insects, mold, hell, virtually everything. Try to imagine crossing a virgin eastern swamp forest with a hefty load of fine paper. And remember, this was not just typing paper, this was big, big paper because Audubon, from youth to dementia, sketched every bird he ever drew life-sized. I’m talking full-sized. This included herons and eagles. So I mean truly large paper, damn big paper. In fact, he carried the largest there was, it was twenty-seven inches by forty inches, a size known as “double elephant.” And he was often loath to leave his finished drawing collection anywhere and thus, along with all the blank sheets, he would carry his full, burgeoning bird portfolio with him wherever he went.
Despite the difficulties, he destroyed most of his first drawings. On purpose. Not trusting that they were up to his own standards or the world’s. But as he progressed with pencil shading and coloration, as he tested his way to patiently touching up individual feathers and talons then the drawings moved past anything anyone had drawn before. We must assume he kept every image he made at that point.
The famous Mockingbirds. Audubon presented a long story about rattlesnakes and birds to the society in England when he showed them this drawing. He described the great capabilities of rattlers to scale trees and steal the eggs and young of birds. He also described a speedy rattler chasing down a squirrel in the Louisiana forests. Unless the squirrel was truly thick-skulled or drunken it is a difficult story to believe. Most think Audubon was so needful of attention and so fearful of disappointing his new friends that the accounts of his exploits in America were becoming disconnected with reality. Hard to say. But the picture remains impressive. Knowing the Mockingbirds from my own experience, however, watching my own local polyglots over the years, I’d say the snake is in as much danger as any bird in this wild interaction.
Alexander Wilson, pounding around America himself, was doing his own drawing and shooting in America. He was selling subscriptions to his serial color platebook known as American Ornithology. Personally, I have trouble picturing anyone working frontier townships door-to-door trying to sell bird books. It would be a tough job even now. But in the early 1800’s? Good Lord. The accounts and stories in the American Ornithology text are sometimes eye-popping for us softened modern birders and readers, for anyone really. In one striking incident Wilson relates his experience in bringing a wounded Ivory-billed Woodpecker back to his room. Ivory-bills, as you may know, are now extinct in the United States and possibly the world. They were magnificent birds that grew to half again as large as the Pileated Woodpecker of our Arkansas woods—a monster woodpecker. Wilson only wounded the bird and he was able to run it down and capture it. Whereupon the great black-and-white animal screamed like a wounded child as Wilson covered it and rode into town with the bird on the saddle in front of him. He went to a hotel where he supposedly asked for a room for “he and his baby.” He then released the bird in his room and went to attend the, no doubt, traumatized horse. When he came back, the Ivory-bill, with its huge dagger of a beak had furiously dismantled various large sections of the plaster hotel walls. He tied it to a table and went to find something to feed the bird. When he returned, it had demolished the wooden table. He suffered several wounds thereafter furiously trying to paint the bird before it died. I have tried to imagine the puncture wounds a frightened Ivory-billed Woodpecker could inflict on a man. It is a wonder that wasn’t his last painting. It is a wonder he wasn’t known afterward as Lefty-one-eye Wilson.
Audubon moved his wife and growing family many times in his wanderings, in the stretch of life before the Birds of America. Things were never settled. He never gave thought to publishing the pictures that he spent most of his time on. Not then. Not according to Audubon anyway. And in a turning point moment in his life, after they moved back once more to Kentucky, he opened his trunk of 200 pictures, with over a thousand birds depicted, only to find that rats had destroyed virtually every image therein. Baby rats were roiling in his tattered orioles and kinglets. He had to start from zero. The loss apparently hit him hard and possibly defined the way he felt about these pictures. They were far more than a pastime. He worked harder.
It was not until 1824 at the age of 39 that Audubon brought his portfolio to Philadelphia in the hopes of finding someone who would tell him the bird pictures were important. He found open eyes (thank goodness) in a community of doctors who were amateur naturalists. And one doctor in particular connected Audubon to Charles Bonaparte, a relative of Napolean, and a Frenchman who was linked with the Academy of Natural Sciences. Charles had figured that this Audubon, this figure from the frontier, might have some interesting pictures, perhaps a few species he had not seen. Bonaparte had seen artistic renderings of birds in the United States from others. He had certainly seen Wilson’s. Okay, he’d have a look. He’d be a nice guy. But when Audubon flopped open the big picture folio, Bonaparte’s face would have surely been something to see.
Unfortunately, in 1824 the legacy of Alexander Wilson was already heavily established in the eastern United States. Wilson’s American Ornithology had proceeded on to fame after Wilson’s death in 1813. The stiff silhouettes of birds that were the foundation of American Ornithology were considered the norm and the standard. Audubon failed to be adequately impressed. And this cost him everything in America at that time. He was blackballed by the Academy, hated by several men there for the duration of his life. Many were just being protective of Wilson’s legacy. And Audubon’s lifelike, life-sized, contorted and energetic birds were considered almost a form of artistic blasphemy against the accepted ways of doing things. Audubon, wincing and wounded, fled back into the wilderness.
He was virtually penniless several times in his life. He stabbed a man and nearly killed him over debts and thievery. At one point he had no home, no job, no property (other than a portfolio of bird pictures) and several young mouths to feed. When pushed to that point, to the point sometimes of thoughts of self destruction, what he did was pause, breath deeply and draw more birds. And, oh, the occasional portrait of the newly dead frontiersman for money.
It wasn’t until July of 1826 that Audubon finally made it to the British Isles where he had long pinned his hopes on publishing his work. America would not have him. He thought the British would. And he had letters of introduction to several prominent men in Scotland. It took him sixty-six days to cross the Atlantic. It was raining when he arrived there. Audubon shot and drew seabirds on the way. What else? You took your life in your hands just to get across the ocean then. And, of course, it was another instance where if the boat had gone down the prints would have been lost for good and for ever.
First it was Liverpool and London. He conquered the rich families there and eventually had a meeting set up with Lord Stanley, a member of parliament and an expert on the British birds. The Lord had a notable collection of bird art in his home. Audubon said later that his hair was actually standing on end when he made it to the famous man’s house and met the great Stanley. When he handed over his portfolio and unstrung the images his heart pounded. But the Lord gaped and then slowly spread the drawings out on the floor and crawled around on his hands and knees looking over them. He spent five hours carefully examining them, the original prints. Surely, they were stunning. Lord Stanley pronounced them “utterly beautiful.”
He became the toast of the town and moved on to Manchester. He was alone much of the time. And despite the raves and the lifting of all the worry he had carried that no one on that side of the ocean would appreciate his drawings, he became even lonelier so far from his wife and his family and his woods.
Audubon lost confidence once more when he moved on to Edinburgh where he hoped to show his pictures to Professor Robert Jameson at the University of Edinburgh. Jameson was an eminent professor of natural history. He was at work with Jardin on an illustrated book of the British birds. Fueling Audubon’s fears, when they first met, the professor was brusque and had no time for some unknown ruffian from backwoods America with a stack of bird pictures. Audubon spent the next week trying to show his portfolio to others in town. He was close to surrendering when a business man named Neill finally expressed interest and took Audubon and his pictures to see another man named Lizars. Lizars was an artist and an engraver at work on a bird book by Selby and another on human anatomy. Neill convinced Lizars to at least see the pictures and, after Lizars studied Audubon closely, they went off to have a look. Raining again, the wet Lizars sat in a chair while Audubon quietly untied his life’s work again. Lizars looked at the pictures. His mouth opened. “My God,” he said.
"My God," I said, the first time I saw this compact bird. Now they come to comfort me each winter. Vagaries in the sheltered woods, slashes over water, I remember nearly every time I have seen them. I have yet to witness them taking a bird from the air. I will live on for it. I have seen their larger cousin the Peregrine knock ducks from the sky. I’ve watched Merlin, (the Pigeon Hawk’s true name) preening over ice atop a bare spire, face to the wind. In fall, when I stare up into the southbound Monarchs, a Merlin will sometimes shock me out of the last clinging threads of summer stupefaction. They are angled deathdealers, making me so gravitationally challenged, so burdened with my own thick bones when they go over. I can see them but I cannot draw them. I would like to sit, really, with Audubon and watch the memories leap in his head as we turn the pages of the portfolio. In the visitor’s room in purgatory perhaps, or the waiting room for someplace where the Carolina Parakeets still live (surely Birds of America sits there for our perusal), Audubon could show up. "Where and when was your first?" I would ask him, pointing to his Merlin. I can imagine his smile rising up at the Pigeon Hawk, I can see the reflective nod of the head. “Ah, that one,” he might say, “that one still takes my breath away.” If he would sketch one feather for me, I could move on.
The journey from a stunned engraver naming God over the prints to the actual printings of the images and of Audubon’s return and acceptance in America is a long one. Involving a long separation from his wife and a constant battle to keep subscriber’s paying while he continued his bird work. There were hundreds and thousands of bird skins to examine, the difficulties and benefits of fame to contend with, the struggles of writing a book to accompany the pictures by a man who feared writing like he feared rats in a chest full of precious prints. And there was fortunately a long friendship with Bachman, the Pastor, the man who would give his name to a beautiful southern sparrow. John James never had many friends.
Sadly, after all the troubles involved in producing the Birds of America, after all the time Audubon spent trying to sell copies on both sides of the ocean, not to mention the years he spent (happily) slogging the big portfolio through the wilds, only about 200 complete copies of the original large format prints were created. You could sell that many at a single church gathering today. Fewer than 80 of the original engraved copper plates still exist. They were being melted down for their metal when some thoughtful soul spotted them and called a halt to the firing or else they would all be gone. The Audubon museum in 2002 struck off some shorebirds from one of the original plates. They were still remarkable, without color, with all the scratches that time put on them. The last time a full set of the double elephant prints came up for sale it was auctioned off for something close to nine million dollars.
Audubon was a lost mind in the end. A man dreaming of ducks and shooting, confined to his bed. He swore off gun slaughter for sport late in his life. Inside his head, he ran through forests and along his favorite ponds as much as he wished. I wonder if he carried his chalks and papers with him in those dreamscapes?
Prematurely gray, his teeth long gone, it is said that all the arsenic used to preserve the bird skins clung to his fingers and his lungs over his lifetime of handling them. The dust made him prematurely old. Sapped him. Many of the birds he collected are still in the great museums of America and still displaying their preserved colors. The arsenic is still working its dusty wonders, I guess. Me, I’ll stick with chasing them outside, these birds. They can keep their skins if they just keep brushing by me close and often. Or, I’ll just stick to staring at Audubon’s lovely egrets and his falling falcons if all else fails, if my back goes, if my window and my room is all that I have. One should decorate the last walls of your retreat room with birds and angels, with the faces of children. One tries to take pictures, you know, just in case, as we go along, but we rely on memory mostly. What camera can be there that is as fast as the eye and as clear? Beauty comes in bolts that strike between two heartbeats. Especially the winged ones. There is something to be said for taking the birds down in your own hand, chalking them up just like they were, like they are in your head. Something to be said for striving to make one eye of a kingfisher that looks like it is looking back—to have and to hold. I’m glad someone tried so hard. Even if it burned him down.
Who wouldn’t give nine million for such an eye?
Please read William Souder's recent life of Audubon "Under a Wild Sky." Available from North Point Press. He tracks Audubon's life in counterpoint with Wilson's and other contemporary naturalists in Audubon's time. Wilson is his own story, along with Ord, Bartram and others. He also delves more deeply into Audubon's personal and business life. And traces the difficulties of Audubon's later adventures in America and his explorations of northern Florida. The modern released texts of Audubon's Birds of America are also out there in paperback printings as well. These include the tall tales, the truth and all in a vivid mix.
The image of the Kingfisher and its eye is not available. It is located at the Harvard Library among many other associated papers.