On this date in 1785, John James Audubon was born. I wrote about him once before, but the particulars of his life are worth reprising. Naturalist, artist, explorer, merchant, woodsman, writer, and scientist, Audubon was described by historian Lewis Mumford as the "archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin."
That's a little much, but John Audubon wouldn't have blushed. While writing up his own exploits, he would occasionally embellish his experiences. (Audubon probably did not, as he claimed, spend a night in the Kentucky wilderness with the above-mentioned Daniel Boone.) But as a chronicler of American wildlife, particularly birds, Audubon had no peer.
In his own time, Audubon was best known for his 435-page "The Birds of America," complete with life-size drawings of every bird then known to live in North America -- and some that weren't known, as he is credited with discovering three dozen avian species or subspecies. But he is best known today for delivering the message that if we destroy those birds' habitats, we destroy not only the birds but also the very landscape that helps define America.
One of the striking facets about John J. Audubon being the quintessential American is that he was really French -- or, actually, Haitian -- by birth. Born out of wedlock to a French military officer and a Creole mother, he was raised in France by a father who envisioned a naval career for his son. A propensity for seasickness ended that notion, and a love of birds set him on his chosen path. And what a path. Here is an excerpt from writer and documentary filmmaker Ken Chowder's evocative description of the man's life:
"Audubon's life seems invented rather than lived; at times his own version of it surely was invented, but even the real life has a distinctly exaggerated, mythical feel. … The story goes like this: born a literal bastard in Haiti, Audubon was raised like a little lord in France, emigrated to Pennsylvania to escape conscription in Napoleon's army, failed utterly in frontier Kentucky, was thrown in jail there and driven from his town in penniless disgrace. But he believed in himself, left his family and took a flatboat down the Mississippi, struggled on alone in Louisiana, and finally became a brilliant success, and a legend, overnight -- in England. That story then ends with the family re-united, now living on their huge wooded estate in New York City, occasionally pulling in a 300-lb. sturgeon from their Hudson River landing, with a pink sunset rippling over the Palisades. It's a whacking good story -- all of the above, and More! Much More! -- with pictures to boot."
Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with Ken Chowder's work, treat yourself. He's a delightful storyteller -- and one with a sense of humor. His self-description bio begins thusly: "Ken Chowder was born in Manhattan and raised in New England, and so has always tried to remain strictly neutral in the War Between the Chowders."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.