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Education, Enlightenment, and Eggs

A review by Chelsea Biondolillo

America’s Other Audubon, by Joy M. Kiser

Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

192 pages, $45.00—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13683

Some books entertain, others educate or enlighten, and still others dazzle with their visual display. America’s Other Audubon by Joy M. Kiser, a former librarian at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, works hard to do all three, and with a few minor bumps, it succeeds brilliantly.

In this gorgeous large-format volume, Kiser tells the story of Genevieve Jones and her life work, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. All of the plates from Jones’s book are reproduced in full color in their original size, accompanied by engaging selections from the book’s text.

America’s Other Audubon has three separate components. First, there’s the story of Kiser’s discovery of the original paintings and the history of the Joneses of Ohio. Then there are the plates themselves, created by Gennie Jones with her friend Eliza Shulze, Gennie’s brother Howard, and Gennie and Howard’s mother, Virginia. And last, but certainly not least, come the notes accompanying the plates, most of them written by Howard Jones but with occasional contributions from Gennie and Howard’s father, Nelson.

BINbuttonKiser’s Preface tells the story of her finding a copy of the Illustrations displayed under a staircase at the Cleveland Museum in 1995. The Introduction goes on to relate all that is known of the life of Gennie Jones and the origins of her book. If America’s Other Audubon has a weakness, it is the scarcity of facts that Kiser could draw on in setting the stage for Jones’s beautiful paintings of nests and eggs. In the hands of a fiction writer, the story of the intelligent but socially awkward Genevieve and her broken heart would contain flourishes that Kiser’s necessarily lacks—the details are lost to history.

But Kiser is a skilled researcher and writer, and the story she so engagingly narrates is still a compelling one. Genevieve Jones, born in 1847 in Circleville, Ohio, was the only daughter of Nelson and Virginia Jones. Gennie grew up birding and collecting with her father, an amateur ornithologist and naturalist. She had long wished for a guide to nests and eggs, and when her parents forbade her to marry her only suitor (“a periodical drunkard”), her father encouraged her to produce such a book herself, in hopes that the project would distract the artistically inclined young woman from her heartbroken disappointment.

With her father’s help, Jones planned a total of 130 plates depicting the eggs and nests of Ohio’s breeding birds, many of which were also common across much of the US. Nelson Jones energetically recruited subscribers to the project, who would pay for the book over 23 installments. The first installment, with plates engraved and hand-colored by Gennie and her closest friend, Eliza Shulze, was delivered to twenty purchasers.

Gennie Jones would not complete any further installments. After only five plates had been finished, she was stricken with typhoid fever and died. Her family, however, went on to complete the book in her memory, at great financial and physical cost. Kiser’s moving account of the struggles that the Joneses endured to realize Gennie’s dream makes the plates seem all the more wondrous for existing at all.

The large format, admirable design, and careful production of America’s Other Audubon quite appropriately gives the book a look and feel reminiscent of the fine illustrated works of the nineteenth century. The plates, presented in their original size, are reproduced on matte tan pages, each faced with excerpts from Howard Jones’s text. Just as in the original, the plates here are followed by an edition of Howard’s “Key to the Eggs of the Summer-resident Birds of Ohio.” While it would be cumbersome in the field, that key was meant to function as a reference rather than as a merely attractive object, though it certainly is that, too.

The hand-colored plates, prepared by Gennie and Eliza and, later, by Virginia Jones, are carefully composed, accurate, and informative. Often, several eggs are presented to illustrate variation in shape or color; the text identifies the most “representative” specimen. Botanical details provide information about nest-building behavior, carefully differentiating materials such as cattails or blackberry briars.

There are a few rough spots, notably in some of Virginia Jones’s first illustrations after her daughter’s death; the eggs are barely visible, for example, in her painting of the Gray Catbird nest. As the work progressed, though, Virginia’s compositions would become as lyrical and as elegant as her daughter’s had been. A notable example is the Marsh Wren nest with its dramatic seedpods and calligraphic grasses.

The nests of some birds, such as the Osprey and the Turkey Vulture, were too large to be depicted even on folio paper. For those species, Howard Jones painted careful rows of just the eggs, three examples of each, fitting as many species as was prudent to the page.

While Gennie Jones is the tragic protagonist of America’s Other Audubon, Virginia, Nelson, and Howard are its heroes. Virginia went temporarily blind painting the remaining plates with grace and precision, and both Nelson and Howard’s extensive texts helped the illustrations function as both historical record and modern field guide.

The notes that face each plate are full of observations on bird (and birder) behavior and on the ecology of nineteenth-century rural life. The Jones men describe the ways in which birds fit into farming life and how birding fit into their middle-class lifestyle.

Passages that could pass as merely quaint now speak volumes about how the American landscape has changed in a hundred years. Nelson’s entry on the Northern Bobwhite, for example, describes that species as

really a bird of civilization. He flourishes best near the abodes of man. The cultivation of the soil and settlement of the country increase their number seemingly by lessening their dangers and giving an easy mode of subsisting. With no friend but agriculture, with no protection but fields of grass and grain, they become abundant in spite of the hawk, the owl, the crow, the blue jay, the opossum, the raccoon, the polecat, the weasel, the fox, the Norway rat, the snake, the dog, the cat, the mowing machine, the sportsman, the trapper, the heavy summer rains, and the winter snows.… [Their activity] as an insect exterminator is only one of the many instances illustrating the practical usefulness of these birds to the farmer.

The small-scale agriculture of this Circleville, Ohio, farm, teeming with birds and other wildlife, is nearly extinct. And twenty-first-century civilization has proved to be much less favorable to Nelson Jones’s quail.

Likewise, it is hard not to envy the experiences of those who, back then, lived a life spent listening to birdsong. Howard describes the vocal acrobatics of a catbird, which

commanded the attention of a large audience, which he would first please, then astonish, then disappoint, then enrapture, then amuse, and finally, just as twilight was fading into night, as if it was a fitting tailpiece to his opéra-bouffe, he would convulse his hearers with laughter by mimicking the crow of a young Cochin rooster confined in a coop nearby.

America’s Other Audubon is both a beautiful and a useful object, the well-wrought account of a family committed to seeing one woman’s vision made real. Joy Kiser’s research captures a long-lost place and time that gave rise 150 years ago to a spirit of enthusiastic and conscientious amateurism that can still inspire birders today.

14-2-03-05 [Chelsea Biondolillo]

Chelsea Biondolillo is a nonfiction writer from Wyoming. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, River Teeth, Flyway, Diagram, and elsewhere. Biondolillo holds master’s degrees in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming, and is currently working on a book about vultures.

Recommended citation:

Biondolillo, C. 2014. Education, Enlightenment, and Eggs [a review of America’s Other Audubon, by Joy M. Kiser]. Birding 46 (3): 57.

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Birding Book Reviews

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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