Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Things don’t come cheep these days: Birds in print and exhibit

Bird-watching is not my idea of intellectual excitement. Its metabolism is too slow for my antsy nature. Still, memories triggered by a sudden efflorescence of bird-art expos and publications, I remember vividly my first bird-generated epiphany almost 50 years ago in Michigan.

I was taking the statutory 14-mile hike to qualify as a Boy Scout, First Class, when suddenly out of the cattail rushes bordering the approaches to Saginaw Bay, a red wing blackbird took flight, a smear of orange and red on the blackest of bodies.

Wowee! This was something much more visible than the dull as dishwater sparrows (I had yet to read William Blake) or the robin red breast, the harbinger of spring that was about the only bit of nature lore we Rin Tin Tin regulars at Holy Rosary Academy had in our mediated world. There’s a bird worth writing home about, I thought, blowing on my hands, which were slowly sinking into the permafrost of December in Bay City.

I can see, in retrospect, what turns these avian addicts on. The feathers they leave behind are as beguiling evidence of unique lives lived as whatever it is that inspires archaeologists to dig in. Thus I look forward with eagerness to the Feather Expo Penn anthropologist Reuben Reina is cooking up for the University Museum’s centennial.

It will be a fit culmination for the bird-art roll that has overtaken me since October when I looked into the Arion Press’s publication of the long hidden masterstrokes of Andrew Jackson Grayson’s Birds of the Pacific Slope. His contact at the then-new Smithsonian Institution dubbed him the Audubon of the West. (Next year, by the bye, is the centennial of the Society, whose social legacy began in the bird fancying of its eponym but has matured into one of the strongest and most enlightened voices for ecological sanity. Birds bring out the best in their unfeathered fanciers.)

Unlike Audubon, Grayson didn’t have enough luck in funding the publication of his bird paintings. Like Audubon, he grew up under the contumely of a businessman father and a pedantic schoolmaster who couldn’t see the usefulness of the boy’s wandering about in the bayous of his native Louisiana in search of fauna just for the fauna of it.

So he became a businessman manqué, earning just enough to eventually finance his forays onto the Pacific slopes. (His caravan to California took a last-minute turn to the North, thereby avoiding becoming part of that metabolic apocalypse we know as the Donner Party.) When he died in his early 50s, his wife waged a losing campaign to get his bird paintings published. They have lain fallow in the Bancroft Library of UC / Berkeley until this season to be jollied.

Andrew Hoyem, that paragon of fine painting, decided to make their publication the 20th volume in his internationally acclaimed series of fine books. Over 150 of the extant paintings, with finely marbled Victorian prose glosses by the painter, don’t come cheap: $4,500 for one of this edition of 400. Lean on your nearest philanthropist to get this gem into the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Hoyem’s flogging of his prospectus at the American Library Association convention in Manhattan in June moved me to track him down to this Bryant Street lair in San Francisco. I arrived the day the color proofs arrived in his office. I watched AJG’s flock of birds with growing astonishment. They are a national treasure, nobly saved from the amnesia of the nation after a century of hiding. Hooray for Hoyem!

Meanwhile, down in Dallas, at the Museum of Natural History in Fair Park, two Fort Worth twins, Scott and Stuart Gentling, were brandishing their brushes in honor of their state’s sesquicentennial for a book entitled Of Birds and Texas. Don’t ask me how these genetic birds of a feather do it together, but the 42-year-old twins do.

Like Grayson, they tend to place their objects of admiration against human backdrops. Robert Frost talks in his Kennedy inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright,” about how our country was given to us outright—“artless, unstoried, unenhanced.”

Well these two books enhance our national memory in two regional ways most memorably. Enhancements, thank you very much, very-much-alive Gentling twins; and than you very late, very-much-ignored genius Andrew Jackson Grayson (1818-1869).

The Gentlings’ opus is as pricey as the Grayson volume, but you can get one signed plate as poster from the Dallas Museum of Natural History for $25 and have the satisfaction of supporting that museum’s continuing commitment to Texas flora and fauna. Its dioramas are among the liveliest I’ve savoured anywhere.

While these thoughts fluttered through my newly energized head, my eye caught an ad in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Bird Watcher’s Digest, a tiny ad trumpeted, with an 800 number for speed-of-light subscribing. I called to find out more about the mag with the unlikely dateline of Marietta, Ohio.

Unlikely or not, it is the cottage industry of ex-Marietta College administrator William H. Thompson and his once-upon-a-time high school English teaching wife Elsa Ekenstierna. First they published it in the kitchen, then in the parlor, until bit-by-bit it grew too big for their by-now mortgaged home. A small ad in the New Yorker, Christmas 1978, drew 200 subscribers.

Now they set their benign baits in Natural History, Family Circle, Yankee, and they get 50-60% renewals. In their blurbery sent to potential advertisers, they cite a New York Times estimate (March 22, 1986) that with 21 million birders, the sport they tout with a passion has become the second most popular passive sport (after gardening). The Digest’s paid circulation is now 55,000 with newsstand sales of 1,500 per issue.

It’s easy to see why. Its features tell you how to keep bird watching records simply, why swallows have “site tenacity” (they keep coming back, in non-birdese), what kind of binox are best for older eyes, how to teach children about birds, how to provide winter shelter for flighty ones, and the White House Christmas Bird Count.

There’s a bird watcher’s crossword (1-Across, a six-letter word for “diving motions by birds”). Swooping right along, there’s a golden jubilee recollection of a birder’s camp in Maine by the godfather of birding, Roger Tory Peterson. Books galore about birds. Gear for feeding the critters. “Birding Trivia,” a 500-card / six-category parlor game. A Cornell U. home course on ornithology.

Migod! There’s a whole subculture out there for humans with finely feathered friends. So you can’t afford $4,500 for A.J. Grayson? How about $15 for six issues (BWD, Box 110, Marietta, OH 45750). Oh, yes, they’ve paid off the second mortgage and never regret their loving decision to leave the stability of a 9-5 double salary for the fiscal roller coaster of getting a specialized magazine going and growing.

You don’t have to go to Ohio or Dallas or San Francisco to indulge in bird watching. The Academy of Natural Sciences here has two bird watcher bonanzas, but both fly away for good January 3.

“Photographs: Form and Flight in Birds” links art, bird science and engineering with images drawn from VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology), the Academy’s research archive of more than 100,000 photos of birds from all over the world. Each of the 30 images in this show depicts scientifically some aspect of the biology of birds—such as habitat, coloration, posture, plumage or shape of a particular species. But they have aesthetic as well as documentary value. Two “ahs!” for the price of one look.

The second is the greater display, if you will, “Shorebirds of North America: The Watercolors of Robert Verity Clem,” 32 original paintings of 47 species from all the North American coastlines. This is the first showing since they went into book publication in 1967. They are delightfully garnished with sketchbooks and preliminary drawings as well as correspondence with bigwig birders.

Meanwhile, back out in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences is fielding “Animals: The Best in ’86,” the annual juried exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists, through February 1. It’s not strictly for the birds, but it flies.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 17, 1986

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