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Audubon’s Footsteps – 10,000 Birds


    Denis Clavreul, artist, biologist, and Frenchman, obtained it into his head to observe the identical paths blazed, within the first a part of the nineteenth century, by John James Audubon, additionally an artist and likewise a Frenchman (born in Haiti) — although not a lot of a biologist or naturalist.  The result’s this massive and good-looking guide, an homage, Within the Footsteps of Audubon, with beautiful watercolors and entertaining and evocative writing.   

    To be able to create his dramatic, masterly work, ultimately reproduced and issued underneath the title The Birds of America, Audubon traveled, at varied factors within the first a part of the nineteenth century, throughout Pennsylvania and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Louisiana; alongside the Atlantic Coast from Charleston, South Carolina to the Florida Keys; to New England after which Labrador; and alongside the Missouri River into the Dakotas.  Every chapter of Clavreul’s guide covers his revisitation of one in every of these prolonged Audubon journeys, with a remaining chapter masking New York Metropolis, the place Audubon first set foot on American soil, in 1803.  (His journey to Labrador was the topic of one other fantastic guide, Audubon:  America’s Biggest Naturalist and His Voyage of Discovery to Labrador, by Peter B. Logan, reviewed beforehand on this web site by Carrie.)

    Clavruel’s guide isn’t a day-by-day recreation of Audubon’s varied itineraries, however moderately a free investigation of “areas and birds unknown to me,” he says, prompted by his “need to satisfy and sketch individuals who reside every day in touch with nature.”  However many of the guide “is extra a selective meditation on Audubon and historical past,” as David Allen Sibley says in his admiring Introduction.

    So Clavruel makes use of the information of Audubon’s life occasionally, as applicable, with occasional references, for instance, to his, and his spouse Lucy’s, diary entries and letters.  Typically, in these tough and primitive days, their luck was good:  as Lucy wrote about their flatboat journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, previous Wheeling and Cincinnati, to Louisville, “the seven hundred miles by water was carried out with out a lot fatigue although not with out some disagreeables.”  They couldn’t use sails, she says, as a result of “the numerous activates the river . . . brings the wind from each quarter in the middle of an hour or two.”  (Their journey took ten days; Clavruel’s, principally by automotive, was considerably faster.)

    However the principle attraction of the guide, it should be stated, isn’t Clavreul’s prose however his artistry in watercolor.  Birds, mammals and different wildlife, people and landscapes are all rendered magnificently.  Perhaps that’s so as a result of he labored totally from life and never pictures, he says.  Listed here are a bunch of his Jap phoebes and Home wrens surrounding Audubon’s home in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania (“ever to me a blessed spot,” Audubon referred to as it); it’s now an adjunct of the John James Audubon Middle.

     Audubon is an outsized determine in American historical past, and ornithology, however isn’t universally admired.  Some ornithologists regard Audubon as an excellent artist and a few artists regard him as an excellent ornithologist, as creator Jack E. Davis factors out in his guide revealed earlier this yr, The Bald Eagle:  The Inconceivable Journey of America’s Fowl.  However, Davis is, after all, an enormous fan of the Bald Eagle, as Audubon was not.

    The prose of Within the Footsteps of Audubon is a translation from the French, with the occasional quirks that such translations usually appear to have, most of them unnoticeable besides to pedants.  (The plural of carp, for instance, the fish and noun, isn’t carps however carp — that form of stuff.)  Luckily watercolor wants no translation, and what Clavreul calls his “lengthy companionship with Audubon” has resulted in a beautiful guide, with work which can be “the visible equal,” (to borrow, as soon as once more, from David Allen Sibley’s Introduction) “of poetry.”


    Within the Footsteps of Audubon.  Denis Clavreul.  Princeton College Press.  237 pp., $39.95, £30.00, November 1, 2022.  ISBN:  9780691237688 (hardcover); ISBN 9780691241555 (book).