JEFFREY LONG, BIRDS OF THE WEST AND OTHER PLACES: BEYOND AUDUBON
John James Audubon never traveled west of the continent’s mid point. Late in life he visited the Missouri River country in the Dakota Territory. In painting his “Birds of America” he was at a disadvantage in not having seen the species of half the North American continent in their natural habitats.
Jeffrey Long, for four decades a Westerner, seeks to address this omission and more. Bringing a 21st-Century perspective to the subject, Long inhabits a world
in which nature has eroded to a degree unimagined in Audubon’s era. Only beginning to gain momentum in the19th Century, the unremitting onslaught of the human population explosion has continued to escalate through our own time.
By now, many of its effects are irreversible.
While it is an artistic and scientific document, Audubon’s project is also political. So too is Long’s project.
Audubon’s birds offer a political statement in that they inhabit a new nation of vast promise, a continent still perceived by newly arrived settlers from the Old World as a boundless Eden ripe for transformation into an agrarian civilization. The birds are emblems of the fecundity and purity of a seemingly inexhaustible natural world. They stand for the exoticism of the New World, its health, vigor and promise of renewal.
While Audubon’s work stands as a catalogue of North American wonders, it is also a record of the last moments of an innocent world inhabited by naïve species undisturbed by the maelstrom, which was to come.
Long’s project, on the other hand, catalogues the history of species from Audubon’s time forward, some now vanished, some greatly diminished, and others conserved at least to the present day. Long delivers up the animal together with its back-story – the twists and turns added to the mix by human history and environmental degradation.
In the brief one hundred and fifty years since Audubon’s time, the story of wildlife in America is the story of a great vanishing. The formerly abundant herds and flocks of North America have been destroyed. By the end of the 19th Century the last vast herds of bison (the planet’s most numerous large mammal) had disappeared from the plains. Pronghorn and elk, grizzly bears and wolves, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, prairie falcons, prairie chickens, and the world’s most staggeringly abundant bird, the passenger pigeon made up a tapestry of life. Within a couple of decades it was all gone.
An assault, which began with the hunt for food moved inexorably into a decadent phase of unrestricted slaughter for its own sake in which such super abundant species as passenger pigeons, prairie dogs, and bison were driven to the brink or beyond. Apex predators such as wolves, cougars, raptors and grizzly bears were destroyed as a matter of course. Hunting and trapping geared to market forces targeted such species as egrets and herons simply for their plumes. All manner of shore birds, waterfowl, upland birds and mammals became fodder for urban food markets and restaurants. Conservation measures instigated by Theodore Roosevelt came at the eleventh hour.
Audubon could not have anticipated the myriad byproducts of surging human population growth. With it came pesticide and herbicide poisoning, vast destruction of habitats, dam building, oil and gas drilling, the spread of plastics, pollution in many guises, the introduction of invasive exotic species, and climate change. Recent restoration efforts have also become part of the story. With the exhaustion of relatively accessible wildlife populations, we turned to the exploitation of the sea, where, in less than fifty years, we reduced many fish varieties to less than ten percent of their former numbers.
In some cases Long may depict a species in a straight forward way, without an obvious narrative, but even in such cases our view of the bird or mammal is reshaped by the changes in nature wrought by the industrialized world in which all life is now imbedded.
No bird, fish, reptile, mammal or insect, no organism of any sort has escaped being thoroughly saturated by the effects of our interference with natural systems over the past 150 years. Long depicts the glory, but also this inexorable narrative of loss.
Be it tufted puffin or carrion beetle, gray wolf or California condor, Chinook salmon or acorn woodpecker, each species is now locked into the story of the human attitude toward it and impact on it. Animals remain unfathomably mysterious and beautiful. It is our innocence that has been corrupted. We know what we have done, but we cannot stop doing it.