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The “American Woodsman”
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
Occasionally he did well enough to help support his family while he stubbornly proceeded with his essential work. But it was Lucy who remained throughout the next eight years the consistent family breadwinner. She followed her husband south after a separation of fourteen months, and he soon found remunerative employment for her as a tutor and companion and, when that petered out, as a governess. This left him more free to leave home and roam as need be, to hunt and draw until his portfolio bulged with fresh material.
Each drawing was to be the size of life. He vowed never to draw from a stuffed animal, and every day or evening he carefully wired his latest specimen into a lifelike position against squared paper and drew off the likeness on similarly squared paper as rapidly as possible to catch the full color of the plumage before its brilliance faded. The method gave a measure of control to his draftsmanship, but it could have resulted in the most mechanical and artificial constructions. That it rarely did so was because Audubon’s mind’s eye brimmed with keen observations of the creatures in all their winged freedom, as the small-scale sketches of living birds on the margins of his journals make clear enough. In fact, no bird artist until then, and possibly none since, has so perceptively and spiritedly caught the natural likenesses of his models.
On March 25, 1821, Audubon started work on a great white heron. Two days later he was still frantically trying to make the bird come alive on his paper, but the stench of the putrefying carcass had by that time become overpowering. However, he braved nausea to open the bird for clues to its sex and eating habits. He examined the crops and gizzards of the birds he drew to learn how they fed and to help him decide under what circumstances to represent them. Often enough he ate a bird he had shot during the day, sometimes as a normal way of satisfying a healthy appetite, sometimes out of serious curiosity. Starlings and hermit thrushes he found “delicate eating,” although the latter were fatty; herring gulls were too salty for his taste; the flesh of flickers had a disagreeably strong flavor of the ants they fed upon; telltale godwits were “very fatty but very fishy”; and so on.
He was probably one of the most omnivorous of naturalists. Later in life, when he was working on a book about mammals, he found wildcat meat not unlike veal in flavor and alligator flesh “far from bad.” Dog meat was excellent, and although he gagged at the frontier delicacy of raw buffalo brains, still warm after the kill, he admitted they might be delicious.
How keenly Lucy may have felt the abrupt, prolonged, and trying separations of the next ten years can only be guessed. At least occasionally she seems to have questioned her husband’s judgment and values, called him to his better senses, and asked him to consider his family before his feathered friends. “I have a rival in every bird,” she observed to her sister; but there could have been as much pride as bitterness in such a remark. If she did not wholeheartedly believe in his destiny, the loneliness and renunciation of those years must have been great indeed.
It was with seventeen hundred dollars of Lucy’s earnings, in any case, that Audubon set sail alone for England to launch his publication in the spring of 1826. He carried with him 240 drawings, many of them redrawings of earlier efforts, and letters of introduction to Sir Walter Scott, Lafayette, Baron von Humboldt, and other dignitaries. He had learned to a certainty that no one in America would publish his work, but he was still full of his purpose. The conviction that it was worth all the years of dedication was often a desperately lonely one. His field work had been almost without reference to informed scientific or artistic opinion. With little formal training and less professional guidance, he had doggedly and unsparingly set his own criteria.
Audubon made an immediate impression on the Old World. The lithe and handsome “woodsman,” with curly chestnut hair falling in thick clusters to his shoulders, and with his inexhaustible, lyrical stories of life in the wilderness—told with an engaging French accent—walked out of the forests of America into the social and scholarly circles abroad with the freshness and wonder of the New World still upon him. At parlor gatherings he was called upon to imitate the calls of owls and other wild birds, to yell like an Indian, and to sing the songs of the western rivermen. He had some difficulty assuring a curious audience that his worst enemies in the wilderness had not been tigers, bears, and wolves, but ticks and mosquitoes—which, he added with feeling, were “quite enough.”
He was, in fact, all his admiring public wanted him to be, and something more. He had roamed the length and breadth of the American borderland with all the freedom of the wild creatures he knew so well and recorded so faithfully. He had talked with Daniel Boone. He had hunted and camped with Indians along the frontier; he knew their ways and may have spoken their language. He had traveled by ark and keelboat with the rough rivermen of the western waterways, and he could speak their language eloquently. (In spite of repeated resolutions, in later years his profanity was the envy of sailors he shipped with.) He was a Mason, had a hand for chess and billiards, and for good measure he could also knowingly discuss the books, drama, and music of the London season.