Before Audubon, there was Alexander Wilson. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
For years now, I have been showing the gorgeous four volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America to visitors and students at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Each time, I take pleasure in the sumptuous colors of Audubon’s plates, still luminous after almost two centuries, and the dramatic stories of avian life the plates tell, with their fancy botanical backgrounds. I like even the sound the pages make when we turn them, slowly, gently, one at a time. I tell my students that Audubon’s volumes are called “double elephant folios” because they are so large, and sometimes I have to assure them that no elephants were harmed in the making of them.
“But what about the birds?” someone will inevitably ask. Yes, he did kill those—so many of them that the experience seemed gruesome even to him. “A two-legged monster armed with a gun,” he once called himself. Occasionally, I will show Audubon’s plate of the white egret, which does indeed feature the tiny figure of a hunter stalking the bird, clutching his matchstick-sized gun. And then I find myself mentioning Alexander Wilson, the Scotsman who came to the United States in 1794, who did not kill birds as a default option, and who, more than Audubon, deserves credit for having founded American ornithology, as biographers Edward Burtt and William Davis rightly insist.
Wilson’s plates were smaller, and his birds often seem clumsier and less artistically posed than Audubon’s. But then he had wanted them as his friends, not as art objects. Wilson readily shared his life with hawks, owls, and crows, inviting them into his rented rooms, a hospitality he never seems to have extended to any human companion. When describing, in a letter to his mentor William Bartram, the sacrifices he had to make for his American Ornithology—eight marvelous volumes of plates and bird essays published between 1808 and 1813—Wilson lamented that he had to give up “the pleasures of social life.”
But I suspect that he would not have wanted it any other way. During his travels south in search of new birds—as well as new (human) subscribers for his great book—Wilson kept a parakeet named Poll as a pet and would pull her out of his pocket or cage to demonstrate to astonished spectators that she would accept food right out of his mouth. Such tricks, he thought, won him the respect of the Chickasaw, although it’s possible that all it really did was assure people that Wilson was a harmless nut. (It appears that Poll saw their relationship a little differently, too, and seized the first opportunity to escape. Unfortunately for her, that happened in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.)
Wilson drew his birds from life—if at all possible—making numerous sketches, which Burtt and Davis have assembled here for the first time. He also took copious notes. Back in Scotland, he had been a poet as well as a weaver and was good enough with his pen to enrage the authorities when he satirized a local mill owner. His fine literary sensibility is evident in every page of the ornithological essays he produced in America, many of which are excerpted here.
They are quite wonderful indeed. For example, we’re right there with Wilson when, one cold winter’s day on the banks of the Roanoke River, he sees “armies of grackles” arise from the bare fields with a loud, thunderous sound, and then descend on a cluster of leafless trees nearby, making them appear as if they were “hung in mourning.” Wilson’s metaphors are nearly always memorable (the kingfisher, he tells us, sounds like “the twirling of a watchman’s rattle”) and his anecdotes are funny. Who could forget the German farmer sharing his dislike for the purple martins? They eat his “peas,” he complains to an uncomprehending Wilson. Pea-eating martins? But the man assures him that he has, indeed, seen those blasted birds “blaying about the hifes and snapping up my pees.” Now Wilson gets it; the birds have been eating the farmer’s “bees.”
Equally entertaining is the quick math Wilson performs for us in an attempt to rehabilitate the red-winged blackbird, so often maligned by American farmers. Beginning with the average amount of “noxious insects” consumed by a pair of red-winged blackbirds, Wilson multiplies that figure by the millions of such pairs that “enter” the United States each summer. Then he adds to that figure the estimated number of young red-winged blackbirds that each year join their parents in the feast. His grand total: Red-winged blackbirds eat as many as “sixteen thousand two hundred million” noxious insects annually. Think of how much farmland they save each year. At this point in Wilson’s argument, only the dumbest peasant would still want to shoot a blackbird.
Every souvenir tells a story worth hearing. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD ACHORN
A few years ago, I found the scorecard my grandfather had kept of a September 16, 1904, doubleheader he attended at Boston’s Huntington Grounds. He saw Cy Young pitch in the opener for the Boston Americans (now Red Sox) and Jack Chesbro pitch in the second game for the New York Highlanders (now Yankees). A newspaper clipping noted that George Wright, a member of the first openly professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, had watched the action that day from the front row.
A famous spy’s first steps toward betrayal. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By DAVID AIKMAN
It will probably never be known how many people died because they were betrayed by Kim Philby to the NKVD, or its successor, the KGB. Konstantin Volkov, a KGB agent working under diplomatic cover as a consular officer in Istanbul in 1945, is just one standout example. For the sum of £5,000, Volkov offered to defect to the British with a treasure trove of intelligence information: the names of 314 KGB agents in Turkey and 250 in Britain.
7:02 AM, Jul 16, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
Despite an admission by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that the Federal-aid Highway Programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) are "susceptible to significant improper payments," the DOT Inspector General (IG) has terminated an audit initiated in April "due to other higher priority work demands."
The Ballets Russes and the dawn of modernity.Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By EVE TUSHNET
“There was a definite puppet-like quality about [Vaslav] Nijinsky’s Petrouchka. He seemed to have limbs of wood and a face made of plaster, in which his eyes resembled nothing so much as two boot buttons.
The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial. Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
The collected versatility of a ‘really good’ critic. May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By JOHN SIMON
Drama critics come in all kinds, besides, of course, good and bad. There are those who regurgitate the plot and those who gallop off on hobby-horses. There are those with sound ideas but no style; those with impressive styles but no taste. Some tergiversate, even without a Janus face; others ride one point into the ground. Then there are the really good ones, like Britain’s Benedict Nightingale, whose song should be heard far beyond Berkeley Square.
The rebirth of the national pastime after World War II.May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By COLIN FLEMING
In an American sports world where football is king, the notion of baseball as our country’s national pastime is a quaint one, a sort of nostalgic throwback to a bygone era, like westerns in the 1940s or heroic literature in the century after the Crusades.
Familiar premise (art heist) meets tired device (amnesia).Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade.
They’re people, too, and often based in Paris. Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By JUDY BACHRACH
I’m burning with envy. Here I’ve been plugging away of late in places like Oklahoma City and Scottsdale. Meanwhile, both Susan Mary Alsop and Kati Marton, heroines of two ostensibly different books, had a much better idea.
7:48 PM, Dec 10, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
The Republican National Committee announced the formation of a committee set to examine what the party did wrong in the last election.
"Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus today launched an initiative to grow the Republican Party and improve future Republican campaigns," the RNC announced today.
10:08 AM, Nov 23, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
I happened to read Michael Connelly's first mystery, The Black Echo, when it was published twenty years ago. I've been a fan every since. His books are now bestsellers, but it's always a nice feeling to have discovered someone (or something) before everyone else did—even if one deserves no particular credit for it.
‘Because I wanted to be pretty again.’Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By JUDY BACHRACH
The main reason I wanted to read Prime Time, which is Jane Fonda’s latest book—there have been others—about Jane Fonda, is because of its cover. On the right-hand side, next to a large color photograph of the actress, her lips painted the precise color of her sweater (tangerine) and her hair abundantly streaked, ’70s-style, are the following words, punched out, perhaps, in order of their importance to her:
Montaigne’s persistent search for meaning.Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Reading an essay by Montaigne is like strolling through a labyrinthine flea market. You are likely to find all sorts of things there, except maybe logic, and you are likely to get, like the author, a bit lost. His essays, ruled only by curiosity, wander, wonder, sidestep, and circle, accumulate anecdotes, quotations, and conjectures as they go, but never arrive at a definite conclusion or offer an argument that might drop you off at one.