American Birding Podcast



A Pleasure at Any Age

A review by Beth Guldseth

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon, by Nancy Plain

University of Nebraska Press, 2015

112 pages, $19.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14488

In this handsome volume for readers ages 10-14, Nancy Plain reveals the many sides of John James Audubon, the complicated artist often said to be the founding father of modern ornithology. Birds of America, a collection of 489 paintings, is Audubon’s best-known work, but he also produced journals, letters, scientific papers, five volumes on the life histories of birds, and, with John Bachman, three volumes on the mammals of America.

Plain Strange Wilderness coverPlain lays out clearly the many contradictions in Audubon’s life. He was a loving family man who was rarely at home. He pursued his ornithological dreams with great single-mindedness, yet failed repeatedly in running a business or supporting a family; his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, was forced to maintain herself and their two sons by teaching. He was a passionate lover of birds, but he nevertheless shot many thousands of them, the better to depict them in the time before cameras. Ironically, he despised those who collected eggs, fearing that their efforts might lead to the birds’ extinction. An often passionately loyal friend, Audubon never credited the brilliant young artist John Mason, only thirteen when he accompanied Audubon on his early ramblings, for completing the mostly botanical backgrounds in fifty of the bird pictures.

Audubon used pastel, watercolor, pencil, ink, oil, even gold paint and clear glaze for his paintings; the hand-coloring of the black and white engravings was accomplished mostly by other artists. Plain’s simple descriptions of the artist’s techniques and the arts of engraving, lithography, and hand-coloring are welcome.

Plenty of catchy details keep the reader entertained and surprised, starting with the introduction’s account of Audubon shooting a Great Blue Heron off its perch. Plain describes Audubon’s invention of a wire contraption to hold the body of a dead bird in various poses as he drew it. This reviewer was delighted to read that Audubon probably became the first bird bander when he tied a silver thread around the legs of five phoebe nestlings (two returned the next year). Along the way, Plain notes that Audubon was a fine dancer, who sometimes taught dancing classes to earn money and was always a welcome partner.

BINbuttonThis Strange Wilderness is beautifully designed on heavy, creamy paper and generously illustrated, primarily with Audubon’s paintings of birds and mammals. The appealing cover features the artist’s Great Horned Owls. With an introduction, a list of places to see the original work, glossary, notes, bibliography, photo credits, index, and extensive use of primary sources, Plain maintains a high standard of scholarship.

But it is the author’s felicitous writing style that rewards the reader’s attention. Explanations are crystal clear, and the vocabulary does not condescend to the younger child. Some unfamiliar words are defined in the text but never in a distracting or obtrusive way. When Plain speaks of Audubon “combining scientific fact with his exuberant and poetic descriptions,” she might well be describing her own writing.

Besides being a good read, the book could serve to fill the needs of a school child required to dress as and report on a famous American, a common assignment—although they would have to leave Audubon’s ever-present shotgun at home! The wolf skin collar and snowy mane would be especially impressive.

This Strange Wilderness would make an attractive gift for a young reader already hooked on birds—or, who knows, it could inspire potential birders. It reminds me of a girl of nine or ten who asked for a copy of Birds of America for her birthday. I think it cost $5 then. Although the binding has failed and some pages were defaced by a little brother and his friend, the book remains in my collection.

Great science writing filled with interesting detail is a pleasure to read at any age.

Beth Guldseth headshot 1115

– A native of Vancouver, Washington, Beth Guldseth is a retired children’s librarian. She was a long-time contributor to Noteworthy Books for Children (Library of Congress), Capital Choices best books list, and Notable Books for Children (American Library Association). Guldseth and her husband, Frank, live in Tucson,enjoying the birds and the weather.

Recommended citation:

Guldseth, B. 2015. A Pleasure at Any Age [a review of This Strange Wilderness, by Nancy Plain]. Birding 47 (6): 78-79.