John James Audubon, the American ‘Hunter-Naturalist’: A New Species of Scientist for the New Nation
Audubon played a critical role in helping establish those of American science…he also drew the attention of the American people to the richness and diversity of nature in America, helping them see it in national as well as environmental terms.
When John James Audubon died, in 1851, he had many admirers, but probably none more ardent than a Kentucky-born adventurer and author named Charles Wilkins Webber. Soon after Audubon’s death, Webber published a decidedly energetic description about first encountering Audubon on a canal boat in late 1843, when the aging naturalist was returning from a trip out West to study wildlife. As soon as Webber boarded the boat, he “heard above the buzz the name of Audubon spoken.” Apparently already familiar with Audubon’s reputation, Webber wrote that “there was one NAME that had so filled my life, that it alone would have been sufficient to inspire me.”
Audubon! Audubon! Delightful name! Ah, do I not remember well the hold it took upon my young imagination when I heard the fragmented rumor from afar, that there was a strange man aboard then, who lived in the wilderness with only his dog and gun, and did nothing by day, but follow up the birds; watching every thing they might do; keeping in sight of them all the time, wherever they went, while light lasted; then sleeping beneath the tree where they perched, to be up again to follow them again with the dawn, until he knew every habit and way that belonged to them.
And so Webber went on for a dozen exuberant pages, describing Audubon’s “fine, classic head” and “patriarchal beard” and “hawk-like eyes,” asserting that “the very hem of his garments—of that rusty and faded green blanket, ought to be sacred to all devotees of science.” Webber finally concluding in almost breathless satisfaction, “Thus it was I came first to meet him, laurelled and grey, my highest ideal of the Hunter-Naturalist,—the old Audubon!” (fig. 2)
To a modern reader, Webber’s passionate praise might seem like a bit of excessive adulation for a man whose fame came, after all, from studying and painting birds: on the scale of outdoor activities, ornithology is not normally ranked as an especially dangerous endeavor, nor are artists typically depicted as rugged adventurers. But Webber’s eulogy reflected its context—the American West in the middle of the nineteenth century—which, for Webber, could hardly have been an unconscious or coincidental choice. Writing at a time when talk of Manifest Destiny filled the political air—when the United States had just been pushing against the Oregon border in a battle of menacing words with Great Britain and had just taken a vast expanse of land, from Texas to California, in a true shooting war with Mexico—Webber depicted Audubon as a man of the West, returning from a trip up the Missouri River after retracing part of the path of Lewis and Clark. Like those two explorers four decades earlier, Audubon expressed the expansionist reach of American science. Much more than a master of ornithology or avian art, he embodied the ‘hero of the ideal,’ an unapologetically masculine embodiment of the ‘pioneer’ American naturalist. In Webber’s wide-eyed assessment, Audubon became the living image of the connection between natural history and national history.