Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bloody rags and cruel delight

Many years ago, for my birthday, my wife gave me the splendid two-volume boxed edition of The Original Water-color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America, published by American Heritage in 1966. Back then, when we were living pretty much from hand to mouth, it was an extravagant gift. Then, in 1993, I had the opportunity to see the original paintings at an exhibit in Washington's National Gallery of Art.

It was Audubon's genius that he was able to combine lively storytelling with accurate scientific description.

He refused to prettify nature or soften its apparent cruelty. When he arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, looking for a printer for his work, he showed his watercolors to the engraver William Home Lizars. Lizars was immediately drawn to the paintings depicting violence in nature: Mockingbirds attacked by a rattlesnake (see above), a hawk pouncing on partridges, a Whooping Crane eating newly-born alligators. He decided to begin his work with Audubon's Great-footed Hawks, "with bloody rags at their beaks' ends and cruel delight in their daring eyes."

Audubon shot his birds to paint them -- and to eat them. He experienced daily the continuum of violence that links us with the other beasts. He also participated in incidents of violence of a kind that separates us from the rest of nature.

In Kentucky, in 1813, a billion Passenger Pigeons came to roost in a forest on the banks of the Green River. Farmers traveled hundreds of miles to greet them. They came with wagons packed with guns and ammunition. Audubon was there. His description of the ensuing slaughter is chilling, During the course of one long night, uncountable numbers of the birds were shot with guns or simply beaten from the trees with poles, each man taking as many birds as he had provision to carry. Hogs were let loose to feed upon the considerable remainder. The carnage vastly exceeded any need for food.

Later, Audubon participated in a buffalo hunt on the Great Plains, a prodigious and terrible taking of life. After shooting his first bull, he cut off the tail and stuck it in his hat. Other hunters smashed open the skulls of animals and ate the brains, warm and raw.

The great ornithologist experienced a twinge of remorse. He wrote: "What a terrible destruction of life, as if it were nothing, or next to it, as the tongues only were brought in, and the flesh of these fine animals was left to beasts and birds of prey, or to rot on the spots where they fell."

Among Audubon's paintings are many of sweet tranquility and gentleness: the sad, wise face of the Great Gray Owl, and the Great Egret with a tail like a flow of water. But here too are Red-tailed Hawks engaged in the bloody aerial battle for a hare. Violence in nature is neither moral nor immoral. It is only to acts of human violence that we apply moral judgments. Most of us do not fault Audubon the use of his gun on behalf of his art and science, but we shrink from the unrestrained slaughters of pigeons and buffaloes of which he was an unfortunate part.