Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 5

--Sorry to be getting this in late. I was without internet the last couple days, but hopefully things will get back on track. Last week Audubon had just returned from his work to reunite with Lucy Audubon after nearly a 5 year absence. While renown and respect for his work was beginning to grow, the money still wasn't coming in, but at least the Audubons were together.

While J.J. and Lucy were back together, his work was not yet done. He returned to England and then Scotland, this time with Lucy and his sons, John and Victor. While Audubon worked to promote his books, both those that were printed and the upcoming editions, his sons focussed on publishing and copying, while his wife dazzled their English friends with her wit and charm. It became apparent to both Audubon and those around him that he was still missing a real scientist in his undertaking. As he confidently notes: "I am now aware that no man living better knows the habits of our (North American) birds...I cannot however scribble tolerable english letters, and I cannot give scientific descriptions, so here I required assistance."

J.J. Audubon had more direct experience and field-time than any other ornithologist working in North America, but if his work was to be more successful and acceptable to those with strict scientific and terminological sensibilities, he would need a technical assistant. His first choice was Mr. William Swainson, but since Swainson was unavailable, Audubon went with the recommendation of Mr. James Wilson and set up a partnership with Mr. William MacGillivray. Again, it's impressive to see the names of Audubon's associates. There's not a man without at least one bird to his namesake. MacGillivray was very diligent, and with his technical focus Audubon's work gained strict scientific analysis to go along with Audubon's excellent, more personal accounts of each bird.

The Audubons returned to the U.S. in 1831, and J.J. immediately set out on a brief trip to Florida. On the way, he forged a friendship with Rev. John Bachman, a birding enthusiast and kindred spirit with Audubon. J.J. collected a few new species in Florida, and then promptly moved his family in the opposite direction, taking them up to Maine in 1832. At this point, his sons John and Victor returned to England to supervise his publishing, and Audubon hired on some help and set out on a treacherous journey to the Labrador Islands of Newfoundland, where he found and collected 73 new species. Unfortunately, many of Audubon's older notes, journals, and samples were destroyed in the New York fire of 1835, but his work had now gained enough support and momentum that it was moving along almost with a mind of its own.

His son John married Maria, Rev. Bachman's oldest daughter. The first Audubon grandchild, Lucy, was born in 1837, shortly before the latests and most extensive edition of Audubon's ornithologies was published in 1838. The Audubons now had enough money and established credit for J.J. to buy his beloved "Minniesland" (minnie being a scottish term for mother/wife) outside of New York City. The piece of land is today preserved and known as Audubon Park, and during the mid 19th century 11 of the 14 Audubon grandchildren were born there.

While Audubon does not directly comment on his change of fortune, I think it is very interesting that his success and comfort dramatically improved as he involved more and more of his family in his work. His early excursions were done in solitude, in part because his sons were still young and Lucy had to care for them. But during those early days, Audubon lost a lot of money and had a more difficult time establishing himself in the ornithological world. While reading Audubon's accounts, I often wondered at his frequent absences from his wife and children. Was it just an understood and necessary part of a young man's work in the early 19th century, or was he a little bit inconsiderate? At any rate, it certainly seems that when Audubon's family was able to help him more directly, his work became increasingly successful. In my limited experiences, I've always found birding to be much more enjoyable when I can share it with friends and family. While at times I recognize and sympathize with Audubon's yearning for the open country, for the secluded beauty of nature, it's always better with company.