02 February 2008

Drawn from Nature

I began my research of John James Audubon shortly after receiving a Christmas card of his cardinals and reading Anne Carson’s poem “Audubon,” which begins: “Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his. / On the bottom of each watercolor he put “drawn from nature” / Which meant he shot the birds / And took them home to stuff and paint them.” In this rare instance, my research went beyond the Wikipedia and the Google Image Search and into a museum of “history and industry.”

Behind those wood-grained double-doors I learned that Audubon was a sensationalist. I witnessed static rattlesnakes coiling around a mockingbird’s nest, peregrine falcons desiccating a duck corpse and king snakes opening their mouths to end the life of a chuck will’s widow (some of the vines are red with blood-drop-blossoms). The melodrama continues even in his less impressive quadrupeds of America—the river otters rear and snarl. The leopard marmot is sly, just as I would imagine in a Wes Anderson-Big Lebowski sense.

But the birds. The birds are lush color and small and life-sized in the reproductions of his original double-elephant-sized printing. A complete set of Birds of America brought down $8.8 million at auction “recently” (I learned this watching a VHS-grain recording—nice that the PBS from the 80’s already has its own crackly, classic patina). One of Audubon’s major breakthroughs was hiring a 13-year-old assistant to do the background branches. J.J. solved the main problem of natural bird painting by shooting them and taking them home but I guess he needed a sketchy little friend to recreate exactly where stuffed birds last twittered.

The most important Audubon quote: “I want to comprehend all that I see.”
Quite a bar to set for oneself but he did make the Birds of America more awake than I had expected. I think it is somewhere in the detailed underside of those feathered throats—I’m dumbly impressed with their texture as if they are still swallowing air below those bright shiny eyes. More Anne Carson (if only she were available to write this whole post for me):

he built flexible armatures of bent wire and wood
on which he arranged bird skin and feathers—
or sometimes

whole eviscerated birds—
in animated poses.
Not only his wiring but his lighting was new.

Audubon colors dive in through your retina
like a searchlight

I spent a long time over his fastidiously detailed whip-poor-wills. The leer out, beaks gaping, in choice between moths and caterpillars patterned in 70’s browns, oranges and white that exactly matches the birds’ own feathers. Beautiful, cannibalistic fabric swatches.

Audubon believed in his shadow-less epics so much that he went on a double-elephant tour, peddling the Birds of America in Edinburgh and farther afield:

this Haitian-born Frenchman
lit himself

as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist.
They loved him

for the “frenzy and ecstasy”
of true American facts

And here she reaches it—regardless of where he was born, we love Audubon because he brought us American truth, which is always separate from natural truth. Rattlesnakes might not slither up trees to eat mockingbirds that cast no shadow, but I saw a print of it that was beautiful.

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