1. The Making of a Conservationist: John James Audubon (1785–1851)
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9 1 The Making of a Conservationist John James Audubon (1785–1851) You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings.  — ​Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds Best remembered for his precise and highly expressive paintings of wildlife, perhaps John James Audubon’s most profound legacy, beyond a prodigious body of artwork and publications, is the ideal of conservation itself. While his achievements as consummate artist, accomplished naturalist, and aspir­ ing entrepreneur are widely recognized, his contributions as author and conservationist remain less fully appreciated. His writings are certainly less well known, yet as author and environmentalist Scott Russell Sanders points out, “During the years when he was feverishly painting the illustrations that made him famous, he was equally busy writing journals, letters, autobiographical essays, and volumes of natural history. Taken together, these pages summon up for us the retreating wilderness.” 1 His later writings depicting the impact of frontier settlement across North America in the first half of the nineteenth century clearly reveal a “growing ecological anxiety,” though he had actually long recognized and lamented the wholesale destruction of wildlife from overhunting and destruction of habitat.2 While later writings published posthumously, such as The Quadrupeds of North America and the Missouri River Journals, show a growing concern about declining wildlife, Audubon had already voiced such themes repeatedly in earlier journals kept throughout the several decades he was engaged as a field naturalist exploring unsettled territory in proximity to America’s westering frontier in service of his painting and publications.3 While he did not live to see the publication of George Perkins Marsh’s seminal treatise on environmental history, Man and Nature, in 1864, he had independently 10 Nineteenth-century Artist–Naturalists reached similar conclusions about threats to natural abundance in the New World several decades earlier. Two commonly held and seemingly incompatible interpretations of Audubon’s legacy arise from reading his exploits in terms of today’s ecological imperatives. The first view holds that as a profligate hunter himself, he forfeits any credibility with regard to environmental ethics. Up until his time, however, diminishing wildlife populations were viewed as a merely local phenomenon, and what by today’s standards would constitute excessive hunting was then commonplace. Yet in the course of conducting those collecting expeditions, he chronicled major changes to game populations as ranges waned throughout North America. Moreover, he was among the first to recognize and articulate the imminent prospect of species extinction ; accordingly, the countervailing position hails him as a prophet of conservation. In this view, his work represents the seminal contribution of a quintessential nineteenth-­ century naturalist, and is perpetuated to the present day by the environmental advocacy of his namesake Audubon Society, whether through habitat preservation for the protection of endangered species, or by championing species biodiversity. Underlying both is our difficulty in imagining wildlife populations that so dramatically exceed today’s, frequently by an order of magnitude or more. His writings from the first half of the nineteenth century continue to provide a baseline for the abundance then still found across much of the continent. As a naturalist exploring the expansiveness of the American frontier firsthand, Audubon recognized the beginnings of its demise. Surely it would be hyperbole to beatify Audubon as the “patron saint” of modern conservation in America. Yet not only did he display remarkable artistry when depicting birds and muster an astonishing drive to canvas the continent on a succession of collecting expeditions, but he exhibited a prescient sense of environmental history. In light of the most recent edition of the Missouri River Journals published in 2016, however, we must reconcile the picture of Audubon as a conservationist coming to grips with frontier development with his lifelong reputation as an avid sport hunter. With few exceptions, the tension between his views as a conservationist and passion for gunning, above all for birds  — ​ for food, for sport, and for professional use as an artist and naturalist  — ​ has generally been rationalized, downplayed , glossed over, or excised entirely by biographers. Moreover, the credibility of some evidence routinely cited to demonstrate Audubon’s views on conservation has been challenged. There is 11 The Making of a Conservationist: John James Audubon­ evi­ dence that the text of several manuscripts may have been reworked after his death by editors, including both co-­ author John Bachman for The Quadrupeds of North America, first published 1851–54, and particularly the version of the Missouri River Journals that his granddaughter Maria Rebecca Audubon edited in...


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