On The Road With John James Audubon

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by Mary Durant and Michael Hanvood Dodd, Mead and Company 130 photographs, maps 576 pages, $19.95

“I have a rival in every bird,” Lucy Audubon once told her sister. She did indeed, and in every tree, animal, insect, river, taste, and smell. For nothing could keep her husband, John James Audubon, connubially content at home. He loved his wife and children, but reading this lyrical travel biography makes it clear that experiencing the whole American outdoors was his compelling passion. Lucy was left to take care of herself.

The authors covered 35,000 miles and spent thirteen months tracing Audubon’s wanderings from Labrador to the Dry Tortugas, from the Atlantic west to Montana. With his voluminous writings at hand, they located his camps and found where he had discovered new birds. They tracked down descendants of settlers he had met. They found that wild areas he had loved (“the darling forests”) had been cemented over or manicured into state parks, often named Audubon. Even in 1833, Audubon had worried about the disappearing wilderness. “Where can I go now, and visit nature undisturbed?” he wrote.

The legend Audubon left behind, the authors found, is far from accurate, spread deliberately to disguise his illegitimate birth and to create for himself a romantic aura. An art critic wrote that “Audubon was one of those men who has never been born at all, but was erected—like a public monument.”

However he chose to imagine himself, this obsessed man produced a prodigious body of work. As artist, ornithologist, naturalist, he helped us learn about and appreciate our continent. This unusual, lovely journey through his life is a book to savor.