With his devilish good looks, flowing chestnut-colored locks, and stern visage, John James Audubon was an enigma in every sense of the word. Arguably the world’s most prominent conservationist—at least in name alone—Audubon is usually depicted with a hunting rifle nestled in his arms.
Oddly, in the minds of many, Audubon could not write a decent sentence. He also could not draw very well, at least not when he tried sketching people. But there was one thing he was passionate about and, at this, he was very, very good. In fact, many—both then and now—consider him the best wildlife artist that ever lived. He could expertly craft meticulously detailed portraits of any wild bird. And his fondest dream was to show his magnificent avian portraits to the whole world.
Despite the eventual repute of his name in the United States, Audubon was not born as an American. He first saw the light of day on April 26, 1785, in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his mistress.
In 1803, Audubon’s father sent his bright, brash teenager to the United States to escape conscription into Emperor Napoleon’s army. Despite many attempts, John James Audubon did not have business acumen. He tried to run a general store, a lead mine, a farm…all of these endeavors failed, to the point that he landed in jail. He continually shirked his obligations as a business man in favor of chasing birds in the woods! Audubon held a deep desire to paint every bird that nested in or visited the North American landscape. The fire to accomplish this burned so indomitably in his mind that he traveled throughout the eastern United States, observing and painting birds and trying every way he could think of, including painting portraits—his skills had improved by then, to raise the money to finance his ambitious goal. His wife, Lucy Bakewell, worked as a tutor to support his travels during these years.
Audubon even traveled to the United Kingdom and France in hopes of finding suitable financial backers. Finally, in 1827, while living in London, he connected with two talented engravers, Robert Havel Sr. and his son, Robert Havel Jr. Soon after that, production of what is still considered by many to be the greatest natural history masterwork ever created, The Birds of America, was finally underway.
Taking more than twelve years to complete, including several interim partial sets of plates, The Birds of America featured hand-colored, life-sized prints of every bird identified—at the time—on the North American continent. The publication featured 435 images presented in what was known as a “Double Elephant Folio” due to the enormous size of the paper (29 x 36 inches) required to reproduce Audubon’s meticulous work. The book even included six species that have gone extinct since its first publication—the Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, and pinnated grouse. Always a taker of copious notes, Audubon also possessed enough written material to produce a sequel tome entitled Ornithological Biography, which documented the life histories of birds and became a scientific treasure in its own right.
Of course, Audubon’s sumptuously detailed prints quickly created a sensation among nature lovers and early environmentalists all over the civilized world. And the lingering effect of his avian artistry remains unparalleled even in today’s society. Millions of homes throughout the United States and around the world still have their living and dining rooms graced with boldly emblazoned, life-sized prints of birds bearing the signature of John James Audubon in the lower right corner.
Assembling The Birds of America required legendary strength and endurance, and Audubon epitomized the spirit of young America—when our nation’s wilderness was still limitless and beguiling. Author and literary critic Lewis Mumford called Audubon “an archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Benjamin Franklin” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”
Audubon’s influence in the field of ornithology has never been matched. The majority of his later ornithological works were elevated by his insistence on accuracy and details in his paintings. He also had a deep appreciation and concern for conservation. Many of his writings sounded the alarm about the destruction of birds and their habitats. It is fitting that today, through the National Audubon Society, we carry his name and legacy into the future of environmental conservation and natural resource protection.
Although Audubon had no actual role in the organization that bears his name, there was a strong connection through his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. She tutored George Bird Grinnell—one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s. Owing to Ms. Audubon’s tutelage, Grinnell gained a deep appreciation for and thorough understanding of the sheer magnificence of Audubon’s accomplishments. This led to his choosing this grand ornithologist’s name as the inspiration for the organization’s earliest work to protect birds and their habitats. Today, the name Audubon evokes everything about birds—including their habits, habitats, and conservation throughout the world. In addition to the National Audubon Society, more than twenty-five separate entities in the United States—schools, roads, bridges, parks, sanctuaries, and so on—bear his name.
So what can we take away from our first past environmental hero, John James Audubon, that will help us solve the climate change crisis? First, to accomplish your goals, you may have to do some things you would prefer not to do. Many people know that Audubon was the foremost bird artist and one of the most ardent conservationists of his day. But what you might not know is that Audubon was also one of the most skilled bird hunters in the United States. Not because he enjoyed killing living things or needed trophies in his den but because—in the early to mid-1800s—it was the only way he could acquire the specimens he required for producing his art.
Next is the skill of mental dedication and endurance simply known as good old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. While enduring the slings and arrows continually hurled at him by critics, Audubon steadfastly maintained his unwavering trek toward his flawless artistic and conservation goals.
Also, while diligently pursuing and producing his portfolio of avian artistry in our young nation’s wild lands, Audubon was pounding the pavements in cities and towns throughout the United States and Europe, seeking the artistic and financial connections to make The Birds of America happen. Such extreme dedication to a cause is going to be required on the part of millions of people throughout the world to successfully make living with climate change a reality.
While thousands of Americans were being mesmerized by the vast diversity of avian life depicted in Audubon’s The Birds of America, our nation’s real treasure trove of natural resources was disappearing quickly, however. Westward expansion was eliminating wilderness and wantonly exploiting natural resources—often beyond recovery.