The complexity of John James Audubon

New York-based sound artist Robert Peterson talks about the inspirations behind his new work at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum…

This week I am flying to Liverpool to participate in an exhibition called The Spectacle of the Lost with Bird’s Ear View Collective, a project based collective focused on the life and work of John James Audubon. It’s in this context that I have been reading the collected works of one of the first of America’s peculiar breed of itinerant men of letters. We’ve been working in and around the ether trail he left to us to establish a nexus point from which to talk about both the historical and contemporary Audubon, the character both mythic and real, and the overlaps between the two. I’m interested in how these overlaps have shaped American identity-making and worldview establishment and the direction that our relationship to our ecological environment has taken. Going deeper into the man’s work it has occurred to me that the perspectives evinced in his writing are even today crucial to our understanding of the history of our contemporary environmental problems. He perceived America as an Eden possessed of all the natural and human will needed to sustain a democracy rooted in natural law, stewarded by noble devotees to such an idea, welcoming of others seeking to do the same. The balance struck between our sense of who we are as people of a certain country and living beings amongst others on Earth has never been more crucial to our survival than now. It is through a thorough reading of Audubon that one is struck by how dramatically the landscape and our relationship to it have changed in the last two centuries.

Can you imagine a lake so full with swans in the dead of a Northeastern Tennessee winter that the lake remained open water whereas everything else around it froze solid? Can you think of the last time you were walking somewhere and came upon a riverbed filled to the brim with so many alligators that the bull roars of the adult males were in constant chorus with one another? The imagery Audubon constructs is very much in the same vein as Thoreau and Emerson, but Audubon takes transcendental image mechanics and applies them to places and people that those two could have only imagined and many that they could not. The abundance of the woodlands and lakes regions and the grandeur of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers with which he was most intimately aware were populated in his stories with wild animals and exotic ways of life that he was openly aware were under grave danger. The gravest threat was posed by the very civilised culture to which he gave great credit as exponents of America as a set of ideals. Here lies the complexity of John James Audubon. Having witnessed the brutal violence of total revolutionary war by the time he was 6 years old in Les Cayes, Haiti where he was born and again during the French Revolution a few years later his belief in meritocratic democracy was firmly entrenched. In the new Eden of America every man, regardless of status or title would be free to pursue his destiny. It occurs to me that he saw the natural world of North America as the delicate crucible within which the experiment was set in motion. His writing evinces an undertone of warning that if the integrity of the crucible is compromised, the experiment will fail.

“Can you imagine a lake so full with swans in the dead of a Tennessee winter that the lake remained open water whereas everything else around it froze solid?”

The crucial aspect of Audubon’s writing to me is that it is at once a civic and natural history of the midwest recorded as that region was changing from paradise to the scene of that epic terrible struggle perpetuated by the doctrine of manifest destiny. The conundrum is that the social ideals he held dearest and the crucial ecological balance which he is memorialized as a guardian of are now, as they were even then, at total odds with one another. For example when he goes swan hunting in northwest Tennessee with a party of Shawnee he recounts techniques and tactics of Native American hunters, he describes the landscape along the journey and even details the gender roles during the hunt. It’s a fascinating ethnographic sketch, one rife with exotic imagery that then would have filled readers with desires of adventure and now causes one to harken back in the mind for a simpler time. The power of Audubon the writer comes in the the last bit of the story when after all the florescence and gripping narrative he reveals that all the pelts collected, “to the number of at least fifty, their beautiful skins all intended for the ladies of Europe.” It is in these last few words that Audubon signals his ecological alarm to his contemporaries. It is here, hidden in anecdotal sketches, that he alludes to the grave realities of international commerce and its ominous effects on the sanctity of his beloved Eden.

As I read I began to gather a sense of Audubon as a vessel holding in it two distinct and opposing vapors. At once he writes about the boundless grandeur of the great valley between the Appalachians and the Rockies in his pastiched creole of Quaker English and French with all the awkward frills that come from askew syntactic translation. In the very next breath his manner of speaking alludes to an inherent progressiveness that is, at its fiber, antithetical to the future well-being of an ecosystem that supports hectare after hectare of wild strawberries in what is now most likely grazing land for thoroughbred horses. I’m thinking of his eloquent narrative account of a 4th of July celebration in the countryside of Kentucky. He writes of the preparation and execution of a celebratory feast attended by giants of men and soft porcelain ladies, everyone dressed in white like angels. He writes in such a way as to suggest a symbiosis of human actions and natural life. Trees bowing toward the earth to gift the earth with their fruit, the noble and intriguing methods and manners of the Native Americans, and the haughty and alive characters seeking their destinies in the perpetually unfolding opportunity of the west.

It occurs to me that Audubon saw himself in the role of itinerant preacher of the doctrine of democracy born of natural law. Like many men of true faith he seemed conflicted by what he witnessed of that spirit of democratic freedom to seek one’s own path and how that manifested negatively on the land. He believed in an America informed as much by its undisturbed natural magnificence as by its, as he thought of them, wise and benevolent Euro-American civilizers. It’s not as though he is naive or unaware that the two cannot exist, it seems more like he is writing from a desire for them to figure out how to. It is from this moment of psychic and spiritual conflict that Audubon is pleading with us to seek balance. In order to live out his version of America as a dream in the process of being achieved it is our sense of this socio-ecological balance that will determine whether or not the dream turns to a nightmare.

Robert Peterson

The Spectacle of the Lost previews this Thursday at the Victoria Gallery and Museum 5.30-7pm. Exhibition continues until 25 August 2012

Listen to Robert’s NY radio interview talking about how Birds Ear View Collective began…

Posted on 29/05/2012 by thedoublenegative