The many faces of Audubon - Explorer, Scientist, Ornithologist, Writer, Artist and Visionary - All self-taught.
A Trip to the Bookstore
I took a trip to the beautiful Blossoms bookstore in Bangalore, India yesterday.
As I walk down the street, dodging vendors, vehicles and wavy pavement blocks a familiar feeling greets me. One of wonder and excitement. What will I find inside this time? fiction? fantasy? perhaps an old pre-loved book on the fascinating facts about fascist regimes.
I go past the display on the street - people browsing through postcards and old comics. I think to myself - are they browsing these on their way out of the store or on their way in?
A strong whiff of old book smell distracts me from my thoughts and the whole world opens up ahead of me. A portal to a whole new universe. I can feel my mind doing a quick check of my bank balance as well as how many more heavy cartons will be needed the next time I move.
I go straight up the narrow staircase, glancing at posters of events along the side, straight into the fiction section. I glance through the graphic novels - something I was meaning to explore and was greeted by a beautiful book tucked away in the corner.
Audubon, On the Wings of the World - A graphic novel by Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer.
I began reading this book at 11:30 PM and finished it at 1:30 AM, two hours later, with a weird knot in my shoulder - a by-product of hunching deep into the book to look at each illustration.
But enough about me and the process of stumbling upon / reading about the book.
The book is a dramatized, depiction of John James Audubon - a controversial but revered American self-taught artist, naturalist and ornithologist. He was most famous for the book Birds of America.
A kaleidoscope of skills
While we read today about multi-faceted, non-linear careers, what I found fascinating was just how diverse Audubon’s skillsets were. Way back in the 1800s. These skills were often used in different combinations to achieve different goals. From fundraising, and investing to travel, publishing and art.
Audubon would set off frequently on long-voyages with a local guide and an apprentice in a quest for birds. This made him great at surviving in different climates and geographies. Resilient and curious, always. (This came at risk of endangering himself, and his team as well as exhausting his savings on these voyages)
He studied birds very carefully. Hundreds of species. Knew how to dissect, sew, construct and set these birds up for preservation and art. He could find subtle differences that distinguished species from memory well before there existed other references.
He understood birds in their natural habitat, studied their patterns of migration, mating, breeding and feeding. He knew where to find them, estimating populations and habitats. (A large part of this involved loud guns, hunting down endangered birds and mammals all for a painting - a practice that would make your skin crawl today but was common practice in it’s times)
He wrote a lot. Descriptions of his exploring, his hunts, letters to his family on his voyages, proposals and more. A powerful skill that he kept alive through practice. His descriptions and writings live on.
It was common to bucket detailed, life-less drawings of birds as science and any paintings with expression or action into art. Audubon’s work had birds in postures and habitats that he brought to life. Mid-fight, Mid-flight, expressions of terror, lust, hunger. All the raw, unabashed facets of nature were suddenly brought to the front through his work.
He had a vision to find and document every single bird in America. This crazy obsession took him away from his family, damaged his physical and mental health and brought him close to being wiped out on many occasions. But the vision was so crisp and clear that he kept at it. Eventually, when his work found greater acceptance, he even had an influence on the life of Charles Darwin.
He had no formal training for most of these facets of his life. Self-taught through endless hours of observation, practice, application and reflection. A true life-long learner.
His book took 14 years and endless sacrifice. His work made a huge impact on the way we look at birds.
His life was possible because of his privilege and access to wealth and capital. He also had his share of unethical issues, controversy and extreme shortcomings - not discounting or forgetting them.
A trip to the bookstore, and a journey into a graphic novel led me to learn about the beautiful life of Audubon. Imagine what you could do with a trip to the bookstore with your child this weekend.
Most children are like Audubon - full of skills, potential and extremely hard to bucket.
So let’s try to give children avenues to explore, expand and go on some magical expeditions learning about everything from birds to blackholes. And one day, they too will leave gigantic legacies behind, making a huge impact on all our lives.
Have a playful weekend,