Monday, March 21, 2016

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain

I couldn't put down this 90 page book that chronicles the adventurous life of John James Audubon as he compiled his famous book, "Birds of America," published in England in 1827. Nancy Plain shows his passion for nature and unusual self-taught artistry that helped him create unique pictures that not only showed birds in movement but also in their habitat. Anecdotes, hardships, and adventures made this a page turner. Audubon's labeled paintings are spread throughout the book and accompany stories adding strength to the text. Audubon's scientific accuracy combined with art and his experimentation with mixed media gave his pictures a photographic quality, something no other ornithologists were doing at the time.

Audubon got married and started a business until bad investments led him to live a life of struggle to make ends meet. His wife, Lucy, made money as a teacher and when Audubon wanted to pick up and leave to go collect his bird specimens, Lucy stayed in one place raising their two young boys providing the family some economic stability. Audubon periodically roamed and when he was shutout from the publishing world in the United States, he went to Europe to market his idea for a book that contained 500 bird species he had collected over decades. He was hugely successful but was away from his family for three years putting a strain on relationships and missing out on a chunk of his boys childhood. Eventually he made it home and the family started a business that combined his artistic ability with the skills of his wife and sons.

Lewis and Clark had recently finished exploring the interior of the United States and westward expansion was beginning when Audubon first came to the US. He was avoiding Bonaparte's draft in France where he was born to a well-off seaman and step mom. Audubon was an explorer who traveled all over the US creating honing his unique talent. He said that he killed 100 birds a day at one point to study them. He also didn't give credit to another artist that did the flowers in his paintings. The author shows Audubon as a flawed human being that cared deeply about his family and nature and who predicted the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and (the almost extinction of the) buffalo. He recognized the need for restraint in hunting even though his own killing seemed excessive. This contradiction would make for good discussions in a book club.

5 Smileys

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