Audubon’s writings on ocean voyages and seabirds complicate his legacy

John James Audubon is known as many things: a tenacious birder, a compelling painter, an enslaver who might himself have been a man of color. But when you think about the founder of American ornithology and wildlife art, the words “writer” and “seafarer” don’t necessarily come to mind.

A look at “Audubon at Sea: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon,” published by the University of Chicago Press, will change that. Edited by Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King, the book further complicates the story of Audubon’s life by highlighting the man’s writings about his sea voyages and water birds.

The book draws on Audubon’s journals and published books, framing him as a figure who, despite being a ship captain’s son who made extensive sea voyages, was challenged, sometimes even flummoxed, by the unpredictability of sea life.

Audubon painted indelible images of sea birds soaring, swooping and frolicking in the open sky. Birders will delight in his descriptions of albatrosses, petrels and curlews.

But he also documented the cruelty of human incursion into these once untouched landscapes — and his own participation in their destruction. Audubon not only shot and killed countless birds for his drawings but also witnessed poachers whose “great object is to plunder every nest, wherever they can find it, no matter where, and whatever risk,” he wrote.

Although Audubon referred to these egg-seekers as “destructive pirates” and was shocked by their violence, he also described how his own group gathered thousands of common murre eggs, killed seabirds and startled them with gunfire.

Irmscher and King make sure Audubon’s often horrific legacy is on full display, even though he also helped preserve a now-destroyed world. Many sights described in his vivid prose can no longer be seen, like the great auk, which the naturalist mistakenly called a penguin.

The naturalist, who often loathed sea voyages, at one point wrote about himself as “not unlike a newly hatched bird, tottering on feeble legs.” “Audubon at Sea” reveals a brilliant man whose legacy is no longer so bright and uses the ornithologist’s own words to force us to see him in a new light.

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