n 1964, the year Alice Ford published her landmark biography of John James Audubon, a few dusky seaside sparrows were still nesting near Florida's St. Titus River. Now, four decades later, we have a new Audubon biography, by Richard Rhodes, and the dusky seaside sparrow has gone extinct. It is hardly surprising that the nation Audubon knew in 1804 should be different from the America of today, but it is sobering to realize that the America known by Rhodes is quite different from the one known by Ford -- and that the one known by Audubon's next biographer will be different still.
The transformation of the American landscape is evident to anyone who has seen Burger Kings and Wal-Marts spring from old pastures and woods like toadstool rings after a heavy rain, but as Rhodes makes clear in John James Audubon: The Making of an American, this pattern of transformation is nothing new.
Rhodes's portrait reveals a self-made man in a self-made nation, where perpetual re-
invention was the norm. By the time he was 35, Audubon had changed his name, his country, and his career several times over. Born Jean Rabin to a Caribbean chambermaid in 1785 in St. Domingue (now Haiti), he was reunited with his French father after his mother's death and took the name Jean-Jacques Fougegrave;re Audubon. He later renamed himself John James when sent from France to America to avoid conscription into Napoleon's military.
At various times, he hid his illegitimacy, claimed (falsely) that he had studied under the great French artist Jacques-Louis David, and adopted rough frontier clothing partly to endear himself to potential European patrons. As Rhodes puts it, "If Napoleon could mask and costume himself in pursuit of power, why should Audubon do less in pursuit of art? What could be more American?"
Indeed, Audubon tried on numerous guises before he chose that of an artist. He unsuccessfully managed a lead mine, a general store, and a frontier mill, and eventually took to portraiture in 1819 because he was bankrupt and felt he had few other options. Audubon ultimately made his fortune from his artistic skill, but it wasn't human portraits that paid his family's bills. It was his ability to capture on paper the wild birds of his adopted continent.
Audubon's love of birds began when he was a boy, perhaps during walks in the French countryside with his father, or possibly when he witnessed the death of his pet parrot at the hands of his pet monkey. The parrot's death upset him, as did his early attempts to draw birds, which in his youth were always drawn from stuffed corpses: "My pencil gave birth to a family of cripples," he wrote. Rhodes suggests that the mature Audubon's innovative portrayal of birds in lifelike positions and natural surroundings stemmed from these experiences -- from "a desire literally to revivify the dead."
It's ironic, then, that he was so good at killing birds. It may be politically incorrect or vulgar to point out, but Audubon had a big gun, and he never hesitated to use it. Not only did he shoot game for the family larder during the lean years following his bankruptcy, but the illustrations for his masterpiece, The Birds of America, were made from dead specimens, most of which he had shot himself. Modern birders may struggle to reconcile Audubon's actions with their own ideals, but they must recognize that his work played a major role in popularizing wildlife and the activities of naturalists in the early nineteenth century.
Audubon began shooting (and drawing) American birds at the age of 18, soon after he arrived in this country in 1803. There were then but 16 states in the nation, all of them huddled to the east of the Ohio River, and Lewis and Clark were still preparing to set out into the uncharted Louisiana Territory. But by 1827, when the first installment of illustrations for The Birds of America was printed, Audubon could already foresee the taming of the American wilderness. As he wrote, "Neither this little stream, this swamp, this grand sheet of flowing water, nor these mountains will be seen in a century hence as I see them now. Nature will have been robbed of her brilliant charms." The country's vast interior was being cut up into farms and homesteads, just as today's remaining rural areas are carved into bedroom communities.
In these two centuries of ceaseless change, we have lost a lot: the passenger pigeon, the Carolina paroquet, and now the dusky seaside sparrow. But not all is lost. Last fall, while sitting atop a cliff on the mountain known as Little Stony Man, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, I saw a large, dark bird winging swiftly by, just below the level of my perch. Slate-blue in color, with a dark head, long pointed wings, and a narrow tail, it was a peregrine falcon -- a bird that I grew up expecting never to see. Audubon called it the great-footed hawk, and its portrait in The Birds of America is a stunner: a sharp-eyed, black-headed predator with the blood of its prey coloring its plumage.
In Alice Ford's day the bird was already in decline, if not in an all-out plummet, and by 1975 there were only 39 pairs of peregrines in America. But thanks to the Endangered Species Act, a federal ban on the pesticide DDT, and aggressive breeding programs that reintroduced the falcon to rocky places in the Appalachians, there were a thousand pairs of peregrines at the start of the twenty-first century -- a dramatic change both welcome and improbable.
Change continues to be part and parcel of the American identity, as it was for the nation's first great wildlife artist. With a scientist's eye and a painter's touch, not unlike those of Audubon, Rhodes has captured this mutable, multifaceted, and often surprising character in a work of perception, depth, and elegance.
-- Peter Cashwell