Audubon’s bird paintings remind us of where we’ve been
Reno, NV 89501
A red-shouldered hawk swoops down, talons outstretched, seconds away from grabbing a Virginia partridge. The group of quail scurries across the ground and attempts to fly, fleeing for their lives.
“This happens in our yard,” I overhear a woman telling her companion while viewing the John James Audubon and the Birds of America exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art. “The hawks come after our quail.”
Before there was the Discovery Channel, before Animal Planet or Planet Earth, there was John James Audubon. Born in Haiti in 1785 to a French sea captain and a chambermaid, Audubon took an ornithological approach to his art. He captured not just the physical appearance of birds, but also their movements, behaviors and habitats, in a way few, if any, artists had before him. They are shown in flight, on attack, under attack, feeding, wading, perched in trees, standing beside marshes and oceans. You can almost hear the flapping of wings as a ruffled grouse hops up for a berry on a branch. In fact, patrons can hear each bird’s call—from the traffic-wreck screech of the whooping crane to the sweet chirpings of the Baltimore oriole—by dialing a special phone number that goes along with the exhibit.
Though he killed thousands of birds while trying to document them through art, Audubon’s name has become synonymous with conservation. About 50 years after his death, a small group was protesting the slaughter of birds for their plumes to decorate women’s hats and decided to call themselves the Audubon Society. While alive, Audubon occasionally spoke out about humans’ impact on birds, particularly the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions but was overhunted—including by Audubon—to extinction. But it’s Audubon’s art, not the man, that most inspired a conservation message.
Art’s ability to spur environmental responsibility continues today. Evidence of that is on display throughout the museum, including in the neighboring exhibit, Natural Conflict, video and photography from Israel. The works there—from olive trees burned in the Lebanon War to ammunition rusting in the Mediterranean Sea—serve as a reminder of the destruction human activities can inflict on the environment. Yet, Audubon’s images maintain a sense of hope, even for modern audiences. After all, most of these birds are still with us.
Taking in Audubon’s famous, life-sized watercolor paintings is an immediate, personal exercise in memory—of where we’ve seen these birds before, and therefore, of where we’ve been ourselves.
When I see Audubon’s egrets, I think of egrets I’ve watched standing serenely along marshes in the Deep South or at the McCarran Ranch. When I see his mergansers, I remember mergansers skidding across the Smith River in California. His pelicans seem to be the same ones I watched swoop down in Florida, or guzzle fish from the Pacific Ocean. His woodpeckers once lifted my head with their loud pecking while walking my dog in Reno’s Old Southwest. His wild turkeys crossed my path on a gravel road in rural Missouri. His eagles joined a swarm of eagles I watched on the broad spit of sand in Homer, Alaska. They’re the birds of America, and seeing them takes my mind across the continent and its various landscapes, reminding me of where I’ve been and what I hope will remain.