On Sunday Peter and I visited the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA for an exhibit called Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds. I learned that John James Audubon was born on a sugar plantations in Haiti in 1785, then after his mother died, went to France with his father, a naval officer. So as not to have to join the military under Napoleon, when he was eighteen he was sent to manage a plantation in the United States, but seemed to spend more time playing music, dancing, and walking in the woods than at work. Eventually he set off by foot, boat, and horseback, trying to paint every bird in America. He used various mixtures of graphite, oil paint, egg white, chalk, and pencils to paint birds as preparations for etchings, which would be hand-colored. When he couldn’t sell many subscriptions for a book in the United States, he left for England, where he traveled on horseback with 300 drawings in a heavy tin-lined portfolio. He made sales where he could, entertaining with stories about his adventures and doing bird calls. It was mostly a hardscrabble life, with few hints that one day, long after his death, a single copy of Birds of America would sell for over eleven million dollars.
Naturalists like Audubon shot and stuffed birds as a way to study them before most photography was available. Still, those birds made to look alive with arsenic and other chemicals have usually depressed me when I’ve seen them in museums and nature centers, though I understand it’s about heritage: the question being like what to do with a fur coat some inherit? Maybe it was the choice to take some of the stuffed birds, (which were were part of the museum’s earliest collection, about a hundred years old), out of glass cases, set between the engravings and under bright light, that let me see them more as something once alive, vibrant with second chances. They were surrounded by displays such as a small shelter with stuffed owls perched high, and where we were invited to listen for a recorded mouse noise, and test our hearing against the mightiness of an owl’s. I admired the craft supplies laid out so people could try to make a nest as gorgeous as that of a bower bird’s, and big chalkboards where children could measure the span of their arms against wings of various birds. Short videos showed masses of birds in fight, charting swarming patterns through sky. This wonderful exhibit will be up until June 17.
After we left, Peter and I drove to Pittsfield State Forest to picnic. A woman with a golden retriever we admired told us of the five mile loop up the mountain where we saw the state’s highest natural body of water, an amazing view of the Berkshires, and lots of what the park calls azaleas, and what I called honeysuckle as a girl, and what internet sources tell me can be called honeysuckle or native azalea. A lot of pink under a blue sky. Birds called.