A Pig, a Spider, and the Birds of John James Audubon
“Some Pig!” These many decades later, I can still hear the emphasis in my mother’s voice as she read aloud these words from E. B. White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web. This is the book that I “hero worship.” For who can forget this rich tale of life on Zuckerman’s farm, where the spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica, miraculously saves the life of Wilbur the pig? It is a tale about everything else, too—the beauty of nature and its changing seasons, the innocence of childhood, the magic of friendship, love and loss, life and death. And it is told in prose as
simple and clear as the ringing of a bell. Perfection. Charlotte’s Web connects me to memories of my mother in ways that resonate through my life. We shared a love of books and writing. (She was Belva Plain, who died in 2010 and was the author of the bestselling novel Evergreen and twenty-one more bestsellers. I write biographies and histories for the young-adult readership and beyond.) And we both loved animals. She always had a bird feeder in her backyard, and in June we would sit and listen to the birds as they revved up for the new nesting season. Springtime on Zuckerman’s farm inspired E. B. White to write, “The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is says, ‘Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.’ ”
Which brings me to my latest book, This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon, published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. Audubon was one of the world’s great bird artists, and his watercolors, on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, are so radiant and alive that, as I wrote in my introduction, to see them is like having “a magical visit with all the winged creatures in a vast secret garden.” The paintings comprise, as the spider Charlotte A. Cavatica would have said, Audubon’s “magnum opus,” The Birds of America. It is a magnificent collection of images of almost five hundred bird species, all rendered life-size and in meticulous detail and glowing color. Born in 1785 on Haiti, Audubon was a wanderer, and the path of his life took a strange trajectory indeed. His French father raised him in France, where he witnessed some of the horrors of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. When he was eighteen, anxious to escape conscription into Napoleon’s army, he sailed to America. On a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside, Audubon began a new life. The year was 1803, the same year that President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase and doubled the size of the country. A spirit of exploration was in the air. Young Audubon, who had a self-described “passion for rambling,” was very much a part of it. He also had a passion for birds, calling them his “greatest delight.” After some ill-fated business ventures on the American frontier, he conceived the notion of drawing and describing all of the country’s bird species. This had never been done before, and most of his friends and family thought the idea quite mad.
This did not deter him. With scarcely more than his gun, his dog, and his art supplies, Audubon took to exploring the continent from the Florida Keys to the wilds of Labrador and from the New Jersey shore to Indian country in the Dakota Territory. He spent decades sketching and studying birds and became not only an unsurpassed painter of the “feathered tribes,” but a groundbreaking naturalist and the founder of modern ornithology. The Birds of America was completed in 1838. Audubon then embarked on his next project, which was to do for mammals what he had done for the birds. His mammal paintings were finished by 1848 and published in a book called The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon’s whole life was an adventure that resulted in historic achievement. Writing about him and immersing myself in his spectacular art was an unforgettable experience in itself.
I feel lucky to be able to do what I do. The books I read when researching my biographies are books that I’d read anyway for pleasure. And I enjoy the challenge of trying to craft a good sentence, trying to present one person’s life and times as the fascinating story that it is. Every book I write becomes part of my story, too. Sagebrush and Paintbrush is a biography of the cowboy artist Charlie Russell. With One Sky Above Us recounts the courage and tragedy of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians. Light on the Prairie is about Solomon D. Butcher, the pioneer photographer, and is illustrated with his iconic photographs. I didn’t originally set out to be a writer. But now as I look back at the path my own life has taken, I see that it all began with the books of my childhood and the sound of my mother’s voice.
Nancy Plain is the author of numerous children’s books, including Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her most recent book is This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon (University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Susanne Nilsson.