BOOKS: Into the Woods

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2003:

Into the Woods:
John James Audubon
Lives His Dream
by Robert Burleigh
with paintings by Wendell Minor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
(c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Ave. of the
Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2003. 34
pages, hardcover. $16.95.

“John James Audubon was a famous early
American woodsman and artist,” explains Robert
Burleigh on the copyright page of Into The Woods.
“Despite his father’s objections, Audubon had to
follow his own special destiny. This story
consists of an imaginary letter in which Audubon
explains to his father why he has chosen the
unique life he leads. Quotations in script,
taken from Audubon’s journals, further emphasize
the profound world view of this remarkable man.”
On the concluding page Burleigh adds that
Audubon “came to America as a young man from
France in 1803. Already a talented artist, he
became fascinated with America’s wilderness and
its wildlife, especially birds. After failing
at several attempts to be a businessman, he
devoted the rest of his life to his artÅ Although
Audubon hunted and often killed the birds he
drew,” Burleigh admits, “he had a keen
appreciation for wildlife and the environment.

When he died in 1851, he was one of the most
beloved artists in the U.S. Today, he is seen
as an early champion of preserving America’s rich
inheritance of plant and animal life.”
This matches the much sanitized
autobiography offered by Audubon himself, but
Peter Matthiessen in 1959 revealed a different
version in Wildlife In America, a landmark
critique of U.S. wildlife conservation which
eventually helped to win passage of the
Endangered Species Act.
“In 1785, the second year of a new
America,” wrote Matthiessen, “there was born in
Haiti a bastard child called Jean Rabin. Rabin
became, successively, Jean Jacques Fougere,
Jean Jacques Laforest Audubon, and John James
Dodging creditors from the Caribbean to
the western frontier, Audubon noted the
increasing rarity of many of the birds he shot
and painted, but also boasted of killing seven
whooping cranes with one shotgun blast.
Scarcely a scientist, Audubon jeered at the
theory of evolution, as presciently outlined by
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz some 26
years before Charles Darwin published the essay
which a year later became the book The Origin Of
Far from promoting conservation,
Matthiessen noted, “A consequence of a
flourishing public interest in private bird
collections and oology (the study of eggs),
inspired in great measure by Audubon, was the
quest of birds’ nests by schoolboys. Often as
not, the oology of the latter was devoted to the
simple destruction of eggs, and where
circumstances permitted, the adult birds into
the bargain.”
Others invented the philosophic rationale
behind killing wild animals in order to save
their species, as opposed to merely killing wild
animals to eat, in defense of livestock, and
for bloody recreation. The name Audubon is
associated perhaps more than any other with the
early 20th century success of hunters in
establishing “hunter/conservationism” as the
prevailing philosophy of wildlife management
chiefly by historical accident.
Fifty-four years after Audubon died, and
18 years after cofounding the Boone & Crocket
Club with Theodore Roosevelt to regulate trophy
hunting, George Bird Grinnell in 1905 started
the National Audubon Society to do the same for
birding. Birding, then and until Roger Tory
Peterson popularized nonlethal sighting
verification with a camera in the 1930s, was
done mainly with shotguns. Grinnell named his
new organization after Audubon because Audubon
was the most renowned shotgunner, with the
longest and best-verified “life list” of birds
Unlike the Boone & Crocket Club, the
National Audubon Society has managed to attract
substantial support over the years from
nonhunters. Yet it continues to front for
hunting, in the name of conservation, much like
the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife
Fund, and African Wildlife Fund.
The Wendell Minor painting concluding Into The
Woods shows Audubon paddling a canoe that in
almost-silhouette looks remarkably like the
Monitor, the Civil War ironclad that helped to
introduce modern naval warfare. A flock of geese
appear to have just evaded the “cannon”
protruding from Audubon’s luggage.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.