He’s become so famous, so significant, so normalized in everydayspeak, John James Audubon’s name has eclipsed its birth purpose. He’s become a brand, as marketing minds would say.
Born the same year the United States chose the "dollar" as its currency (1785), Audobon led a naturalist’s dream-life; he was a Daniel Boone of bird watching, snaking along the South’s backwaters and tromping in its woods, all in effort to complete his inspired project he called Birds of America. Though he didn’t find and paint all the feathered species (he came close, taking more than 400 to show off in Paris), Audubon left indelible marks on the region as we now know it.
***Above, Audubon’s "Mourning Dove," originally called "Carolina Pigeon"
Above, Audubon’s "Wild Turkey," which was Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the national bird.
In New Orleans, where Audubon once hoped to make a base of operations — until the war of 1812 derailed those plans — the city’s prized green space, Audubon Park near Tulane, honors the former resident with its name (as well as the zoo’s) and its rookery on Oschner Island. Up the Great River Road in sleepy St. Francisville, where he took a teaching post at the beginning of his Birds of America research, Oakley Plantation and Audubon State Historic Site remember his early years. In his own words:
The rich magnolias covered with fragrant blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground and even the red clay, all excited my admiration. Such an entire change in the fall of nature in so short a time seems almost supernatural, and surrounded once more by numberless warblers and thrushes, I enjoyed the scene.
Traveling extensively in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, Audubon completed his original folio of Birds. Each of those states now boast several birding centers, chapters, and sanctuaries in the Audubon Society name, started after his death but certainly in his spirit. Mississippi (6), Alabama (5), Georgia (8), and Florida (56!). Dallas recently opened a state-of-the-art, LEED-certified Audubon Center in the Trinity Forest, the first anchor for a vast plan to transform the Trinity River watershed. The National Audubon Society’s reach now is difficult to out-run, and each state continues to grow under the leadership of the organization.
Perhaps a lesser-known landmark for Audubon is Henderson County, Kentucky, a onetime home for the naturalist and painter. Today, the town of about 30,000, and site for the John James Audubon State Park and Museum, recounts his early life with original items from his bluegrass days, as well as two original copper plates from the Birds series.
For interested collectors, several galleries in the South sell fine folio prints. Through December 24, the Gilley’s Gallery in Baton Rouge will be selling its Amsterdam editions of Audubon’s work at a 50% off rate. Even if you don’t want to buy, Gilley’s is a world-class gallery.