Denis Clavreul, artist, biologist, and Frenchman, obtained it into his head to comply with the identical paths blazed, within the first a part of the nineteenth century, by John James Audubon, additionally an artist and in addition a Frenchman (born in Haiti) — although not a lot of a biologist or naturalist. The result’s this huge and good-looking e book, an homage, In the Footsteps of Audubon, with beautiful watercolors and entertaining and evocative writing.
To be able to create his dramatic, masterly work, ultimately reproduced and issued below the title The Birds of America, Audubon traveled, at numerous factors within the first a part of the nineteenth century, throughout Pennsylvania and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Louisiana; alongside the Atlantic Coast from Charleston, South Carolina to the Florida Keys; to New England after which Labrador; and alongside the Missouri River into the Dakotas. Every chapter of Clavreul’s e book covers his revisitation of considered one of these prolonged Audubon journeys, with a remaining chapter overlaying New York Metropolis, the place Audubon first set foot on American soil, in 1803. (His journey to Labrador was the topic of one other advantageous e book, Audubon: America’s Biggest Naturalist and His Voyage of Discovery to Labrador, by Peter B. Logan, reviewed previously on this site by Carrie.)
Clavruel’s e book will not be a day-by-day recreation of Audubon’s numerous itineraries, however quite a unfastened investigation of “areas and birds unknown to me,” he says, prompted by his “need to satisfy and sketch individuals who stay every day in touch with nature.” However a lot of the e book “is extra a selective meditation on Audubon and historical past,” as David Allen Sibley says in his admiring Introduction.
So Clavruel makes use of the information of Audubon’s life every now and then, as applicable, with occasional references, for instance, to his, and his spouse Lucy’s, diary entries and letters. Typically, in these tough and primitive days, their luck was good: as Lucy wrote about their flatboat journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, previous Wheeling and Cincinnati, to Louisville, “the seven hundred miles by water was carried out with out a lot fatigue although not with out some disagreeables.” They couldn’t use sails, she says, as a result of “the numerous activates the river . . . brings the wind from each quarter in the midst of an hour or two.” (Their journey took ten days; Clavruel’s, largely by automobile, was considerably faster.)
However the primary attraction of the e book, it should be stated, will not be Clavreul’s prose however his artistry in watercolor. Birds, mammals and different wildlife, people and landscapes are all rendered magnificently. Perhaps that’s so as a result of he labored totally from life and never pictures, he says. Listed here are a bunch of his Jap phoebes and Home wrens surrounding Audubon’s home in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania (“ever to me a blessed spot,” Audubon referred to as it); it’s now an adjunct of the John James Audubon Center.
Audubon is an outsized determine in American historical past, and ornithology, however will not be universally admired. Some ornithologists regard Audubon as a terrific artist and a few artists regard him as a terrific ornithologist, as writer Jack E. Davis factors out in his e book revealed earlier this yr, The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird. However, Davis is, in fact, an enormous fan of the Bald Eagle, as Audubon was not.
The prose of Within the Footsteps of Audubon is a translation from the French, with the occasional quirks that such translations usually appear to have, most of them unnoticeable besides to pedants. (The plural of carp, for instance, the fish and noun, will not be carps however carp — that type of stuff.) Happily watercolor wants no translation, and what Clavreul calls his “lengthy companionship with Audubon” has resulted in a stunning e book, with work which might be “the visible equal,” (to borrow, as soon as once more, from David Allen Sibley’s Introduction) “of poetry.”
Within the Footsteps of Audubon. Denis Clavreul. Princeton College Press. 237 pp., $39.95, £30.00, November 1, 2022. ISBN: 9780691237688 (hardcover); ISBN 9780691241555 (book).