John James Audubon has become a household name: we know Audubon the naturalist, the great ornithologist. We know Audubon the painter who redefined American wildlife art. We know Audubon’s legacy, and the conservation efforts he continues to inspire in the generations after his death. We know Audubon the woodsman, the frontiersman, the entrepreneur.
This week at the Abbeville Blog we’re celebrating Audubon and our rerelease of the gorgeous Baby Elephant Folio edition of his masterpiece, Audubon’s Birds of America, which reproduces, in brilliant full color, all 435 original engravings from the rare Double Elephant Folio. In their introduction to this edition, editors Roger Tory Peterson (who was himself a celebrated ornithologist and artist) and Virginia Marie Peterson have illuminated Audubon’s achievements and his role as pioneering naturalist, so that we may understand his work in the context of modern ornithology.
And so what about Audubon the man? If we want to know the man—who trekked through Louisiana swamps, through prairies and woods of the Atlantic coast, and along the banks of the Ohio in search of the birds he would study and preserve in his drawings, the man who told tall tales of hunting with Daniel Boone, the man whose delight is evident in his written recollections, in his “Happy days, and nights of pleasing dreams!”—then we must consult his writings and his art. Nowhere are we so transported into Audubon’s world, his life, than in his engravings, where it is as if through his eyes, and in astonishing detail, we see the wonders of the American wilderness and its communities of birds.
One of our favorites, of course, is the Great Blue Heron, poised to spear an unwary frog or fish, perhaps a perch much like the one Audubon pulled from the belly of one of these grand birds, in an anecdote from his Ornithological Biography in which he recalls:
While on the St. John’s River in East Florida, I shot one of these birds, and on opening it on board, found in its stomach a fine perch quite fresh, but of which the head had been cut off. The fish, when cooked, I found excellent, as did Lieutenant Piercy and my assistant Mr. Ward.
It is strangely delightful indeed to imagine the three men, elbow deep in entrails and half-digested fish, so keen to devour such impromptu dinner fare.
Click here to learn more about Audubon’s Birds of America, published by Abbeville press.