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New Looks at the Birth of Birding

A review by Frank Izaguirre

Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature, by Christopher Iannini  

University of North Carolina Press, 2015

 320 pages, $50—hardcover

Roberts, Jennifer. Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America, by Jennifer Roberts

 University of California Press, 2014

240 pages, $60—hardcover

Birders might not think of slavery as one of the catalysts of American ornithology, but maybe they should. In his illuminating Fatal Revolutions, Christopher Iannini argues that the writing of natural history in the Caribbean and southern United States was not a discrete activity pursued for its own sake, but instead was closely related to the development of a West Indian plantation economy crucially dependent on slave labor.

In developing that thesis, Iannini draws on literary studies, history, art history, the history of science, and natural history. He explains that naturalists were often commissioned to document the natural history of the southern United States and the Caribbean—not out of idle academic interest, but with the goal of discovering how the region’s climate and ecology could be combined with slavery to produce lucrative tropical commodities for export. Much of the early knowledge of America’s birdlife was obtained in the course of explorations by sponsored naturalists such as Mark Catesby, William Bartram, John James Audubon, and even Alexander von Humboldt, names many birders are still familiar with.

Fatal Revolutions is divided into two sections, each comprising a series of essays on different travelers and writers. In the first section, Iannini examines the travels and writings of Hans Sloane and Catesby. In the second section, the focus broadens to consider the works of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, and Audubon.

Iannini Fatal Revolutions

Iannini’s analyses of written documents and natural history artwork are erudite and elucidating. For example, in the discussion of Catesby’s plate “Alligator and the Mangrove Tree” and the accompanying text from the Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, he argues that Catesby’s depictions of tropical nature as violent and ruthless can be interpreted as an attempt to justify the existence and proliferation of slavery in the Americas. It was the duty of colonists to “improve” the land from its natural state, which was full of predation, danger, and other undesirable qualities labeled by Catesby “scenes of devastation.” Catesby describes how conversion to rice plantations worked by slaves transforms fetid swamps into productive lands that yield wealth and improved health—at least for the European plantation owners. Iannini believes that this interpretation of nature was a catalyst for the spread of rice and of slavery into the Carolinas.

Fatal Revolutions is a work of significant but specialized interest to the birding community. A true work of literary and historical scholarship, it was not written with a birding readership in mind: Several of the essays don’t focus on birds at all. But for those birders eager to learn about the history of natural history in the Americas and to see its development from a fresh perspective, this may be an essential addition to the library. It is also certainly worthy of note that the book itself is gorgeous, containing nicely produced illustrations to support Iannini’s larger arguments. Fatal Revolutions will change, possibly in a very shocking way, one’s understanding of what motivated the pioneers of natural history to study our world.

If you are a lover of both art history and ornithological history, Jennifer Roberts’s Transporting Visions is for you. Roberts’s fascinating exploration argues that because the physical transportation of artwork was so hazardous in the era between 1760 and 1860, artists often embedded in their works, whether deliberately or subconsciously, references to the status of the art object as a thing in motion and at risk.

The book is divided into three essays, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. The first essay considers how the American painter John Singleton Copley’s work was affected by its transportation across the Atlantic. One of Copley’s primary concerns, Roberts points out, was that his paintings be well received (in two senses) at exhibitions in London. But to get there, his works faced the difficult journey across the Atlantic from Boston, where he lived and worked. Roberts argues that Copley’s anxiety about the journey was often imprinted into the pieces themselves. An example is Watson and the Shark, which depicts the dramatic rescue of an American who has fallen overboard and is beset by sharks. Roberts interprets Watson as representative of the breakdown in Anglo-American communications after the Boston Tea Party.

The third essay is about the landscape painter Asher B. Durand during the age of the telegraph. Roberts reminds us that with the invention of that technology, images and words no longer traveled at the same speed. Durand was urgently concerned with the differences between conveying meaning in images and in words. Roberts discusses the significance of the telegraph in Durand’s famous Progress, which depicts the technological development of America from a state of nature on the left, with two Native Americans looking on, to a more “advanced” state on the right, featuring railroads, boats, and other symbols of European colonization. The telegraph poles in the lower right corner of the canvas lead the eye away from the rest of the painting, hinting at a future in which American society would increasingly privilege the written text over images.

The chapter of greatest interest to most birders, of course, will be the central essay on John James Audubon and his Birds of America. Roberts reminds her reader that much of the drama of Audubon’s work is due to the birds’ lifelike appearance, a result in part of the artist’s insistence that all the birds be depicted in their actual size—an insistence that made the transportation of the huge prints a logistical nightmare.

Up to now, this circumstance has not been adequately considered by scholars. Roberts explains the significance of Audubon’s always depicting his birds to scale in a way that most birders have probably never considered:

The attitudes and poses of the birds must obey the size of the page, whose stubborn constancy thereby becomes evident. The pages becomes less a window or lens than a container, a box into which avian objects of various sizes, S, M, L, XL, have been placed, some more easily than others. The smallest birds seem dwarfed by their frame, whereas the largest birds, folded over in uncomfortable configurations like dry goods, only emphasize the status of the page as a container or crate straining to hold its cargo.

These differences in size and representation have enormous consequences. In order to fill up the large frames with smaller birds, Audubon sometimes depicted small birds in “quasi-domestic relationships,” while the large birds were sentenced to “solitary confinement,” which spared them “the anthropomorphized social relationships suggested elsewhere in the book.” In addition, the big birds “adopt awkward or ungainly postures that only reinforce their outsider status.” Roberts demonstrates convincingly that the size of each print influences immensely how we perceive each different species Audubon portrays.

These three artists—Copley, Durand, and Audubon—came from vastly different backgrounds, but Roberts succeeds in showing that the works of all three were strongly affected by the artist’s knowledge of their impending physical transport. Whether the artist’s preoccupation was with the perils of a trans-Atlantic journey, the speed of the telegraph, or the complexity of depicting birds large and small to scale, Roberts proves that the challenges of movement weighed heavily and appropriately on the artists’ minds.

Not only are Roberts’s observations of great interest, Transporting Visions is also a supremely elegant book. All of its pages are glossy, and beautiful images in black and white or color accompany Roberts’s text. Transporting Visions will make a lovely addition to any bird and art lover’s library, especially if transported from the obscurity of the shelf to be displayed handsomely on the coffee table or desk.

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer living in Pittsburgh with his wife, Adrienne. He has a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early ornithologists in the Neotropics. In the fall, he’ll begin a PhD program in English at West Virginia University, where he hopes to pursue eco-critical research emphasizing tropical nature writing.

Recommended citation:

Izaguirre, F. 2016. New Looks at the Birth of Birding [a review of Fatal Revolutions, by Christopher Iannini, and of Transporting Visions, by Jennifer L. Roberts]. Birding 48.1: 70-72.

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