Lose it all, try again. Repeat.

That's how I'd sum up the story of John James Audubon's life. 

It sounds less like a scientist's life, and more like the saga of an artist. Which maybe all scientists are. Afterall, they go after that great unknown, with no idea of what they'll find, if anything.

Audubon is known for his work with birds: he discovered new species, studied their behavior (he completed the first known "bird banding" experiment in the United States, learning that certain birds return to the same nesting spots each year), and created the massive The Birds of America, known as one of the finest ornithological works ever made. 

But his fame and fortune were never guaranteed. Audubon's birth mother died a few months after he was born. When he first arrived in the U.S., he came down with yellow fever. After a visit back to his father in France, an English privateer overtook his ship (Audubon survived, somehow keeping his gold safe). Rats ate his collection of sketches (more than 200), but after weeks of depression, he decided to make the sketches again, this time even better. He went bankrupt in 1819 and was thrown into jail for debt. He made portraits and taught drawing to make ends meet. His wife taught school in order to support their two sons.

About those years when success was nothing more than a dream, he wrote, '[M]y heart was sorely heavy, for scarcely had I enough keep my dear ones alive; and yet through these dark days I was being led to the development of the talents I loved."

Somehow, Audubon stayed focused on his goal: to find and paint all the birds of North America. He attempted to paint one page each day. He was always working to improve: when he discovered one new painting technique, he decided to redo his earlier works. 

Then finally in 1826, at the age of 41, Audubon headed for England to show others his paintings. His work was extremely well received and he raised enough money to begin publishing his book.

Per one reviewer: "All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men."

Success - finally!

Stories like Audubon's are always stirring. Because they remind us that it takes courage to venture into the unknown. To sacrifice for a dream when the results are not guaranteed. To listen to that small yet insistent voice that tells you to keep working, keep improving, keep trying.

Maybe it's birds. Maybe it's a book. But it's brave to follow those dreams. And see where they take us.



American Crow | Audubon by James Syme, 1826 | Barn Swallow




Near famous: ornithologist Alexander Wilson

For the past few weeks, my morning drive to work has taken me right by a Wilson's Snipe. The small shore bird, with its pebbly tan body and white chest and incredibly long beak, is always perched on a fence rail overlooking a damp field.

The beak makes the bird.

The beak makes the bird.

I looked the bird up and learned that these birds are shy, nest in well-hidden spots, use their long beak to probe soft earth for insects and worms, and have a special courtship flight that involves flying high in circles then making shallow dives to produce a distinctive noise. And, I learned they were named for Alexander Wilson, a man who's considered the greatest American ornithologist after John James Audubon, but who is definitely not a household name.

Wilson was born in 1766 in Scotland and started off on a weaving apprenticeship, though soon turned to writing poetry (some that was politically charged, most that was not good) and walking the countryside. After failing in writing and in love, he journeyed to America in 1794, settling near Philadelphia.


He began working as a schoolteacher, then in 1801, left his job over a second love affair gone wrong - this time with a married woman. He started teaching again in Gray's Ferry, Penn., and lived down the street from naturalist William Bartram. 

At Bartram's urging, Wilson decided to produce a collection of drawings of birds. He spent much time outside, alone, once journeying from Gray's Ferry to Niagara Falls. In 1806, he took a job at Roe's Cyclopedia and studied and drew birds in his spare time. He continued with his journeys through the forests, and in 1808, he published his first volume of ornithology, which included his drawings and notes on the behaviors and habitats of the birds.

He continued to travel, trying to garner subscribers for his volumes on ornithology, hitting towns from Maine to Georgia. At one point in February, he decided to take a small skiff down the Ohio River for 720 miles, floating to Cincinnati. By the end, his hands were stiff and unfeeling. He later rode through the thick swamps from Lexington to Nashville, battling dysentery and forests so thick there was barely the light of day.

He went on to publish his volumes, gaining national and international recognition. He took a final long journey north in late 1812, saying he was devoted to finishing his work, even if it killed him, which seemed to be prophetic as he died of dysenterry in 1813.

I love these stories of American naturalists. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe because I enjoy the outdoors, and like to imagine what it would've been like to walk through a land where much of what you saw was still unnamed. Maybe because they're the ultimate adventurers, risking their lives and forgoing a comfortable existence in the effort of identifying the plants and animals around them. 

Maybe because, in a very small way, it reminds me a bit of writing. Setting off into the unknown. Not exactly sure of what you'll find. Going along for the journey anyway.

Hopefully writing won't kill me. Sometimes, especially in the middle of first drafts or tenth revisions, I wonder. But I do it anyway. And I know I'll discover something along the way.



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American Ornithology by Alexander Wilson | portrait of Alexander Wilson attributed to Thomas Sully