Audubon and Wilson: Giants at the dawn of an era

July 12, 2014 

COURTESY OF RONNIE BLACKWELL A beautiful Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Have you ever spent time comparing the range maps of North American warblers?

No? Well, somebody has to do it. And someone has to research those maps, which entails something called ground-proofing. It's a simple concept -- the ground-proofer travels to where something should be and reports back.

For us birders, that person was Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson single-handedly created the modern birding field guide.

But before him were John James Audubon and his great rival, Alexander Wilson. These pioneers had the same idea on the opposite ends of the Ohio River. Both dreamed of documenting and painting every bird in North America.

Wilson, a Scots immigrant, was one of the naturalists who thrived under Ben Franklin's tutelage. He was famous for his ramblings. Twenty miles was a jaunt for Wilson. One day, he happened upon a small boat that struck his fancy. The Ohio River's winter rise was just setting in when he bought it.

To the surprise of weather-savvier locals, Wilson stepped into his boat and bobbed along, ignoring ice, bandits, freezing temperatures and ridicule, as the Ohio was thought to be impassable in winter.

Small crowds gathered along his journey to see the crazy man who was surely doomed. He was offered food and lodging. And when Wilson came to Henderson, Ky., he came ashore and walked right into the country store owned by the only other man on the continent who had the same dream: John James Audubon.

Audubon had started his own journey, in Philadelphia. When Wilson walked into Audubon's store, he stepped up to the counter and proposed to sell subscriptions of his pictures of birds. Audubon, in turn, pulled out his own paintings. From that day forward, American birders can be sorted into either the Wilson or Audubon camp.

Audubon quickly won the hearts of the romantic birders with his use of dramatic scenes that draw us into a world of intrigue and action. But Wilson's stiff, classical style may well be more technically correct.

Audubon the storekeeper was never a success. But when roaming the great wilderness he was in his element. From the swamps to the beaches, he tramped the great bogs and crags of this new world.

Beginning birders are often startled Audubon to learn shot his birds to paint them. But Victor Hasselblad hadn't yet invented the bird-worthy camera.

The world would have to wait until 1941 for that gem. Audubon often painted in the field and he paid close attention to the flora around his easel.

North American birding flourished on the rivalry of Wilson and Audubon, both of whom spent quite a bit of time in the wilds of Mississippi. Our state was more of a notion than a defined place then.

It was still wild and dangerous, but it had the advantage of the settlements along the Mississippi River. Our ancestral birders often took shelter in the splendid riverside houses.

Within a few years, the focus of natural science had shifted from Europe to the brash new country still trying to organize itself. And on the easels of these two rivals, the golden age of North American exploration was launched.

Ronnie Blackwell, can be reached at RonnieBlackwell@gmail.com.

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