A Gift of Birds

Pexels | Eftodii Aurelia
By Susan Hand Shetterly

A rare volume of John James Audubon’s double-elephant folio, The Birds of America, rests in an honored place in the Bowdoin College Library in Brunswick. Every month, someone is invited to ceremonially turn a page of these hand-colored engravings, and on May 3, I will turn to the ruffed grouse page. It’s an invitation I was delighted to accept, although I had no idea what a double-elephant folio was, so I looked it up. It’s a book of the largest sheets of paper — 26½ by 39 inches — that could be put through a press in the early to mid-19th century.

On my page, two male grouse, their tails and wings and ruffs in dazzling color and pattern, stretch their necks toward a dangling cluster of ripe grapes. Before them, another grouse stands, watchful, in subdued buff plumage.

The leading American naturalist of his time, Audubon died in New York City in 1851. He styled himself a frontiersman, and he explored, with relentless enthusiasm, a wilderness that was dissolving before him. Art critics call Audubon’s folio “the greatest picture book ever produced.” A testament to beauty and loss, it reflects some of what our land was.

Years ago, I read Audubon’s journals at night by kerosene lamp in our cabin in Prospect Harbor. Those were my apprentice years, and Audubon taught me about the splendors of this continent’s wildness and about the human savagery often pitted against it. He witnessed massacres of passenger pigeons, which he recorded in detail, and seabirds on their nesting islands, as well as the wanton killing of seals, pelicans, and wolves. And this appalled him.

Audubon taught me about the splendors of this continent’s wildness and about the human savagery often pitted against it.

He loved birds. He noted, in precise detail, how different species walk, fly, and perch, how they stalk their prey, build their nests, and raise their young. A storyteller, he wasn’t above fleshing out the truth with a bit of embellishment, but he got birds better than anyone else of that time and better than most of us now. He loved the challenge of living among them and of learning all he could about them within a disappearing Eden.

In the year I spent reading Audubon’s journals, I saw a number of his magnificent prints, but I learned something about the life and the heart of this man from his words. He, of course, hunted birds, and he once bragged that if he hadn’t killed a hundred in a day, it wasn’t a good day. But he also wrote, “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

He shot birds, skinned them, often ate them, and regularly stuffed and mounted them or posed them like marionettes, suspending their bodies from wires to paint them. Did he borrow too much from us? I don’t know. But charged with the spark his illustrations give them, these birds live on as his offering of wild country and its complex beauty.

After years of living in the Maine woods, I know something about the ruffed grouse. As I prepare for my page-turning in May by rereading what Audubon wrote, his words, full of raw energy and immediacy, come off the page again and mix with my experience.

I remember reading these words by lamplight and learning to see what was in front of my eyes by first learning to see through his.