Saturday, May 29, 2010

In praise of the useless


Out for an early morning birding walk with my friend Richard Grant. Richard is an avid amateur ornithologist. Walking with him is to be awake to everything I might miss if by myself. And he takes his love of birds home with him. The photo shows a few of his beautiful bird carvings. We saw two of the three species on our walk.

It was a pleasant hour, and we didn't make a dime.

As far as I know, there is only one place on earth where birds are used as money. On Santa Cruz Island in the South Pacific, the tiny scarlet-colored honeyeater is hunted for its feathers, which are woven into a rolled wampum-like currency. Three hundred honeyeaters are required to produce a roll of feathers that in 1962 was worth about twenty Australian pounds. (My source on this matter is somewhat dated.) On Santa Cruz Island, a skilled birdfinder might make himself a bundle.

John James Audubon was an economic victim of his passion for birds. In 1807 he opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Audubon tells us the store "went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight." Rather than attending to business, he ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

Audubon wished for something else -- to see as many of the birds of North America as was humanly possible. The only part of the store business that he enjoyed were the trips to New York or Philadelphia to purchase goods for sale -- because he could study birds and their habits as he traveled through the forests of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Audubon's wife Lucy must have often wished her husband would forget birds and settle down to something "useful." But that never happened. Audubon continued to be a failure in business until he managed to turn his hobby into a profession. In the end, his paintings of birds found a wide audience and Audubon became reasonably prosperous. He and Lucy lived out their last years comfortably in a fine big house on the Hudson River in what is now the Washington Heights section of New York City.