Realizing that the natural environment requires protection from the
wiles of the human race, individuals have organized societies that work to support the
protection of species around the globe. I have always loved and supported those that
support the environment. So, when I would hear of the National Audubon Society, I
instinctively pictured Audubon as a wildlife conservationist and someone I liked very
much. I heard about Jean Jacques Audubon before this everglades course, and at least
I thought I knew him very well. But my perception of Audubon always stemmed from his
association to the society named after him, not from the writings of the man himself.
Needless to say, I liked him very much when I knew less about him. Or so I thought...
Never have my feelings toward an individual fluctuated as much as
they have in the past two weeks. Upon reading excerpts from Audubon's journals, I could
not help but dislike certain aspects of the individual. How could any society uphold the
name of a man who would shoot birds by the dozen and stick wire through them to paint them?
Artists are supposed to appreciate the natural world, not destroy it. At the same time, how
could he depict reality, if his specimens were manipulated into specific positions, positions
that met the painter's eye and not reality at all? These thoughts and many more spiraled through
my mind as my stomach squirmed in indignation of Audubon's atrocities. I was livid at the fact
that the plentitude of living species he described are no longer plentiful today. I could not
believe that a naturalist was among the first to contribute to the decline of the species of my
home state. Even the name of his pilot, Egan, sent chills through me when Audubon wrote that
Egan was the 'professional hunter of Sea Cows or Manatees for the Havana market'. I could not
believe my eyes and cringed at the idea of reading any more about the famous Audubon expedition.
In my mind, Audubon registered, not as a painter, but as a hunter, who was hell-bent on getting
his studies done in time to meet the expectation of his American and European patrons. Dollar
signs, not the sun, glittered in his eyes. I found myself rooting for one hundred and seventy-two
year old birds, hoping that they would hear me and fly away before Audubon arrived. I even cheered
when Audubon's troop lost the opportunity of killing pelicans because they made the mistake of not
waiting until the birds rose from their nests. My emotions continued in this light throughout Audubon's
"Best Writings", and the only critique I could think of was that Audubon was no conservationist at all.
The only specie that I wanted to see with "extended wings in the agonies of death" was Audubon himself,
who has long since beendead.
So, how did Audubon become the legendary world renowned painter considering he
picked up a shot gun before he picked up a paint brush? When reading, I closed myself up to the answer
and to any clue that would clear up the name of Audubon. I was extremely disappointed with this
naturalist and refused to think otherwise. However, once class discussion began on Friday, my perception
of Audubon was soon to take on a new perspective. Audubon took the shape of a true naturalist through
the poetry of Robert Penn Warren, who, with one line, redeemed in my mind the renowned painter. "He put
them where they are, and there we see them: In our imagination." Audubon is crucial to the history of
the natural world because in his paintings and journals he gave future generations a key to the doors
of the past. He killed, but he also observed what no one before him ever noted. He found new species
of birds and documented the rest in words and paint for the world to see. He gives readers and
observers today the chance to see through his imagination. I rooted for the birds because they
were real to me. Audubon wrote about them vividly, bringing them to life within my imagination.
I felt as if I were beside him, seeing and experiencing Florida for the first time.
As I pick a title for this journal, I think of the silly childhood girl's
habit of picking a flower and plucking off its petals one at a time saying, "He loves me, he
loves me not". 'I like him, I like him not' describes my ambivalence toward Audubon.
Class discussion led me to question my emotions, research, and refute or support my
opinion. I did just that, and plucking each detail about Audubon one at a time, I
realize that there are some facts I will always dislike, but some that I should
always respect. Probing into the Romantic time period, I found that Romanticism
"exalted individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and
nature - emotion over reason and senses over intellect" (HuntFor.com).
Considering the definition at first glance, it fit perfectly with my distasteful
perception of Audubon: He acted without reason and intellect! Of course, I
only wanted to interpret it that way and jumped to the conclusion with my own
superficial reasoning. Taking into account Audubon's heritage, class discussion,
and my twelve years at a Christian school, I could not overlook one of the many
elements that added to my dislike of Audubon's senseless killings: the religious
fervor that says that humankind "will be masters over all life- the fish in the
sea, the birds in the sky..." (Genesis 1:26). Taking this idea into account,
Audubon's apparently senseless killings were rooted into ideology that
seemingly justified his actions. I do not believe that his actions were
justified, but I understand one of the reasons he acted as he did.
In the end, it was Audubon's love for knowledge and his need to
pass that knowledge on that captured my attention and my appreciation.