I had heard of John James Audubon, and his famous compendium, The Birds of America. I knew about the Audubon Societies who seek to preserve natural habitats and endangered species. But on a recent morning at the Indianapolis Art Museum (IMA), I was both surprised and captivated by the lifelike, lifesize depictions I saw in the prints being exhibited in Audubon: Drawn to Nature.
These were no stiff, scientific sketches. Audubon’s prints showed birds, often in flocks and gaggles, eating, preening, and preparing for flight. The birds’ poses seemed natural, their colors authentic, the detail of the feather patterns and webbed feet exquisite.
How did Audubon bring these birds to life so meticulously?
“Devotedly do I pursue my avocations…until I reach a seat by nature’s own hand prepared, when I pause, survey, admire, and essay to apprehend all—yes, all around me!” Audubon wrote.
As I thought about my own romp around the Museum gardens just minutes earlier, I wondered how my experience might have been different had I paused to survey, admire, and understand all that was around me rather than just speeding through from flower to flower, snapping photos to remember rather than really take it all in. And though I don’t consider myself a nature writer, I wondered how many of Audubon’s habits of engaging and observing nature might help us all as writers.
As warmer weather envelopes the northern hemisphere and most of us will spend more time outside than we do during the cold winter months, here are a few tips from Audubon that might just make us better writers.
Like other scientific artists, Audubon used stuffed specimens of the birds he drew in order to get the details right, but he also went outside, spending months observing and cataloguing the birds he drew in their natural habitats.
As writers, paying attention helps us take in the world around, capturing specificity and nuance. We listen to conversations. We make note of quotations and ideas that come to us in our reading. We capture the colors and brands of clothing and appliances. We inquire about the ingredients of our food. But then, we go outside to get away from it all, to distract ourselves.
That’s what author Andrea Nolan’s college professor seemed to misunderstand when he encouraged her to spend her summer taking a writing workshop rather than working at Chesapeake Bay, “mucking about in mud and boats.” He “worried that I was distracting myself from writing by going outside, but it was there that I learned to pay attention,” Nolan writes in her Fiction Writers Review essay, Not Your Grandfather’s Nature Writing: The New ‘Nature’ Journals.
This summer, go outside and learn to pay attention.
Write It Down
On their own, Audubon’s birds might have earned him artistic recognition, but the reason he was unanimously elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was his careful note taking and subsequent research that allowed him to identify and describe all the birds he drew.
“His days in the wilderness taught him to differentiate species, to note individual traits and personalities, to record his observations, and to draw accurately,” the IMA gallery notes claim.
Like visual artists, writers have this same power to illuminate and testify to the wonders around them. “Nature writers name the world and make it known,” Nolan writes.
I think of this every time I pull out an old journal and read the loopy handwriting of my youth. I remember most of the highlights of high school and college, but in my journals, I find the details I have long forgotten. The conversations, the music I listened to, the special meals. These are the contours and shadows that are lost when we don’t record them.
Make it Lively
This is what made Audubon’s drawings stand out—and at first almost kept him from success: his birds were too lively. His Carolina parrots practically dance in the branches, his Great White Heron seems a little too excited about the fish in her beak, and those Snowy Owls seem to be looking right at me. Audubon’s illustrations were a great departure from the “small, stiff drawings made from decaying, stuffed specimens that illustrated other books of the time,” writes IMA Curator of Print, Drawings, and Photographs Mary Kruse.
With the same attentiveness and discipline for recording details, our writing also will come alive. “… the difference between good and bad writing is the difference between precision and abstraction, between evocative nouns with power and ones that are mere placeholders, between weak adjectives and ones that are concrete and precise,” says Nolan. “If you are going to write about a sunset, you must write about it well, with specificity, tension, thought and reason. And if you are going to write about a walk, you must use details to fix your reader in place, and to set a foundation for metaphor and philosophy.”
The most surprising thing I learned about Audubon after visiting the exhibit is that he wasn’t just a great nature artist. He also was a great nature writer.
“We are all familiar with Audubon the painter,” writes Scott Russell Sanders, a nature writer himself who edited the Audubon Reader, a 1986 anthology of his best prose. “Reproductions of his vivid birds and beasts hang in our courthouses, lie in slick books on our coffee tables, decorate our bedrooms and greeting cards. Say his name, and in the minds of most listeners a colored print will arise. But Audubon was also a writer, and a remarkable one.”
Take, for instance, his entry on the wild turkey in his Ornithology Biography, Volume 1, the literary companion to his Birds of America prints. He writes about a page and a half on the technical description of the bird, but he spends more than 15 pages showing the reader what the wild turkey is really like based on his observations across several states.
As with his drawings, Audubon’s writings moved beyond the expected representations of nature to what he describes as “the results of my own observation with respect to each species.” He claims that “long descriptions, including the number and shape of the feathers, particularly in cases where the species are well known” would “annoy” readers, as would “tables of synonyms.” Instead, he painfully labored to provide “the more generally interesting descriptions of the habits of each species,” the habits that would have remained unknown had he not gone to observe them.
To that end, Audubon claims that he “should have less pleasure in presenting to the scientific world a new bird, the knowledge of whose habits I do not possess, than in describing the peculiarities of one long since discovered.”
And the same is true for us. We may not always be the first person to write about a topic, and we may feel stuck writing from a perspective we share with millions. But with the same patient observations, disciplined note-taking, and lively depictions that Audubon practiced, we can take what we see around us and present all that is “generally interesting” and “peculiar” to our readers.