- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Long before Audubon, the United States possessed one of the greatest of all bird painters. A mysterious character whose work, compared with that of Audubon, is now almost unknown (except for a few rare items in antiquarian circles, the paintings on the following pages are the first to be reproduced in faithful color from Wilson's original hand-colored plates in more than 100 years), he taught in a country school near Philadelphia, in a building that looked uncomfortably like a jail, there beginning in 1803 his survey of all the birds of America, from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. And it was a task which he faithfully completed, picturing 320 birds in his American Ornithology. He was a discoverer of birds as well—the whippoorwill, the song sparrow, the canvasback and the Mississippi kite were first distinguished and named by him, along with 34 other distinct American species. As a pioneering effort, his ornithological work has never been surpassed, his admirers comparing him to the greatest of explorers, a kindred spirit of Sir Francis Drake.
This man's name was Alexander Wilson, and his career was as remarkable as the lifework he left behind when he died. He was 37 years old before he began his great work. The nine volumes of American Ornithology appeared between 1808 and 1814, one of the finest works of art produced in the United States, the first classic of color printing, an explosion of color, hundreds of radiant paintings, vivid and exuberant, coupled with some of the most concise, informal and entertaining nature writing ever put into print. Other naturalists, especially Audubon, created more spectacular plates, but Wilson excelled them all in capturing the wildness of wildlife, the mysterious quality of being different from tame: his birds were really wild.
This freshness of approach, the devotion inspired by admiration and constantly enlivened by new delight, which characterize Wilson's work, was no accident. He was not a native American; in fact, one of the obscurities about him is that few people even knew he became an American citizen; he was born in Scotland, worked as a weaver in his youth, got into trouble with the law and migrated hastily to the United States at the age of 28. Tall and awkward as Irving's Ichabod, he presently numbered among his friends Thomas Jefferson and the famous trail blazer to the West, Meriwether Lewis.
But Wilson's interest in birds began with the day he landed in 1794. The ship Swift put him ashore at New Castle, Delaware, and as he had no money he walked through the woods to Wilmington, 17 miles away. On the way he saw a redheaded woodpecker, which impressed him as the most beautiful bird he had ever seen. He shot it. ( Wilson was a dead shot, and it subsequently developed that he had been, for a brief time, a poacher in his native Scotland.)
Thereafter his daily tasks were largely interruptions in his study of the flying wildlife of his adopted land. He picked up odd jobs in Philadelphia, despite the depression that followed the yellow fever plague the year before. He worked as a loom operator, then in an engraving shop, became a surveyor, wrote poetry and did a little illegal distilling. When his biography was published, long after his death, it was revealed that his father had been a highly respected illicit distiller of Scotch whisky in Paisley, Scotland.
Wilson finally settled down to teaching school, though he had no formal education himself, but he was an odd schoolteacher, constantly leaving his classroom in pursuit of some unclassified bird and neglecting to come back. Forever climbing trees and plunging into swamps, he mystified the people; once he was thought to be a British spy.
One of the most candid, open, honest, winning and innocent men in the history of literature, Wilson was entirely unaware of the impression he made on other people. He was romantic and impulsive, usually in love with some wellborn girl whose parents objected to him. His affections settled at last on Sarah Miller, a handsome Philadelphia heiress who visited her uncle in Milestown, where Wilson was teaching school. But this affair, like the others, was beset by difficulties. These gave rise to extraordinary reactions on Wilson's part; on one occasion when there was some dreadful catastrophe, with the girl involved forbidden to see him, he wrote gloomy poetry about graveyards and solitude, about someone who loved him "dearer than her own soul," and he walked to Niagara Falls and back, a distance of 1,200 miles. On his return he wrote a 2,000-line poem about his journey in which he combined accounts of every pheasant, canvasback, quail, teal, plover and duck that he shot on the way with fervent exclamations, such as "Hail, rural industry!" and tributes to the noble profession of schoolteaching.
But it was the birds of America which preoccupied Wilson more than anything else. Accustomed only to the far more commonplace and tamer species of his native Scotland, he developed an almost mystical feeling about their wildness. The bird life of America was so much richer than that of Europe that it hinted at the existence of a natural pattern of life on this continent, something that had existed before the coming of the white man, to which the habits and migrations and interwoven economy of birds provided a clue. Each spring, in the 40 days between March 21 and May 1, 100 million birds flew into Pennsylvania from the South. Wilson was so impressed by the magnitude of the feathered invasion that he made a systematic study of it. It being obviously impossible to count the birds on the wing, he limited his study to eight acres of woodland (1/400,000 of the Pennsylvania woods). There were 102 nesting wrens, orioles, warblers, robins, catbirds, flycatchers, sparrows, pewits, yellow-breasted chats and purple grackles who were summer residents of the eight acres, not counting the young birds, or the jays, hummingbirds and scarlet tanagers whose nests he could not find, nor guessing at the number merely passing through. The estimate of 100 million was conservative. The bird population of the United States, he concluded, was incalculable. There is only one species of hummingbird in the country, for example, but there were more hummingbirds in the United States than there were wrens in Europe.
This tremendous abundance was part of what Wilson had in mind—ducks whistled past him like meteors, he wrote in a graphic description—but it was not the central part. Wilson thought of the importance of birds as something diffused all through life rather than exemplified by the migration of species. High over Niagara Falls, he saw eagles gliding at immense height, sailing in easy circles, passing in a few minutes from summer into winter, from the intense cold of their highest flight to torrid summer below, outstripping the elements, unawed by anything but man—a bird of genius and energy, "fierce, contemplative, daring and tyrannical—attributes not exerted but on particular occasions, but, when put forth, overpowering all opposition." At the opposite extreme there were the green, silky, golden-bespangled wings of the hummingbird or the driving clouds of blackbirds wheeling in the smoky air of Indian summer, or the chimney swallow that he could never find in the American woods, an active and innocent little bird, so constantly in motion that each full-grown swallow would fly some two million miles in its lifetime. All these, and thousands upon thousands more, were aspects of nature in America that differed in degree or in kind from nature in the Old World—fragments of some pervasive element in American life, something filtering through all fields, orchards, forests, farmhouses, villages; taken for granted and yet never really ignored by the inhabitants, and still responding to terrestrial patterns formed before the country was settled.
Not only were there more birds in America than in Europe, uncounted billions more; there was also a greater range of species, there were more dazzling colors, more varied and exuberant songs, more extraordinary and ingenious adjustments to conditions. Wilson was absorbed in duplicating exactly the plumage of the birds he pictured: the brilliant red and jetty black of the scarlet tanager; the glossy golden-yellow and the bright flame color of the golden-crested wren; the rich lemon-yellow, reddish cinnamon, brown-olive and dusky bluish black of the goldfinch; the soft pale rose of exotic birds like the roseate spoonbill; or the rich vermilion and dusky brown of the summer redbird. A fragment of the original wildness of America persisted despite the settlement of the continent, something elusive and brilliant, diffusing a peculiar radiance in its intangible and constantly shifting pattern of vivid and vibrant life.