Wild Side: Eye of the naturalist – The Martha’s Vineyard Times

Sometimes described as the founder of American ornithology, Alexander Wilson (1766–1813) was a naturalist and painter of prodigious talent. The nine volumes of his magisterial “American Ornithology,” released between 1808 and 1814, portray 268 bird species, roughly 10 percent of them new to science at the time.

John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” published starting in 1827, enjoys more fame. But Wilson’s paintings show incredible attention to the details of plumage, structure, and postures of birds, and in my opinion rival Audubon’s work in terms of both ornithological and artistic merit.

Unlike Audubon, Wilson included multiple species on each of his plates, resulting in some taxonomically odd bedfellows. And while Wilson’s birds are typically portrayed perched on some suitable substrate, he did not generally, as Audubon often did, render his birds in habitat or against a background.

One exception to this last rule is the Wilson plate showing magnolia (which Wilson calls “black and yellow”), blackburnian, and “autumnal” warblers toward the top, and the odd pair of belted kingfisher and “waterthrush” at the bottom. (Wilson did not distinguish the two waterthrush species we recognize today, and “autumnal warbler” turns out to be a mishmash of bay-breasted and blackpoll warblers.)

The kingfisher and waterthrush perch companionably over clumps of raised soil, and in the background is a miniature pastoral scene, rendered in precise lines by Wilson’s brilliant engraver, Alexander Lawson (1773–1846). Most of the background consists of horizontal lines, suggesting farm fields tilled for planting. Beside the field sits a businesslike mill building, with an undershot water wheel, a pitched roof, five windows, and a door. Next to the mill are two elongated shade trees suggesting Lombardy poplars, already being planted as windbreaks in Wilson’s time, and said to have been a symbol of liberty during both the American and French revolutions. A third tree, perhaps an American elm, completes the tiny vignette.

Why did this plate merit such a meticulous, if subtle, feature? I doubt we’ll ever know, but here’s a guess. There’s a real moment behind it.

The flat terrain and undershot mill suggest an alluvial landscape, perhaps in coastal North Carolina, perhaps in central Ohio. The mill, of course, implies a river, and in such a landscape, a river likely carves its way down below the level of the land, so it runs between steep banks perhaps four or six feet high.

This is perfect nesting habitat for kingfishers, which tunnel into clay banks to build their nests. And the waterthrush, as its name suggests, is a warbler that frequents wetlands and streamside thickets. In my mind, then, the miniature landscape commemorates a specific highlight in Wilson’s birding life, perhaps a moment of intense joy.

A perfect spring day; kingfishers, courting, give their rackety calls, and dive for minnows in a placid stream; a waterthrush sings from a thicket as the mill rumbles, and then the singer shows himself fully on a branch, perhaps making a playful lunge at a kingfisher as it flies past. Wilson sits, lays aside his gun, and enjoys a moment of perfect contentment and harmony with nature.

My point, which I’ve taken long enough to get around to, is that for a naturalist, the world is a rich matrix of meaningful places and lucidly remembered moments. Here I saw my first scarlet tanager! And here I once stumbled over a willow flycatcher sitting tight on her nest! As the years pass, the memories multiply, and the landscape gains more and more meaning.

One needn’t look too hard at the evolutionary biology of our species to see the reason behind this. Millenia before we could ask Google to find the nearest supermarket, the survival of individuals and communities depended on detailed mental resource maps. It was a matter of the utmost importance to know when and where certain things could be found, and the accumulation and transmission of that knowledge must have figured prominently in human discourse.

I think that’s why the study of nature can be so addictive: It taps into fundamental wiring in our brains, networks of memory and interpretation that underlie the more recently evolved neural machinery of so-called “advanced” civilizations. When birding, studying wildflowers, or photographing bugs, some of the deepest and oldest parts of our mind are being exercised. We’re doing precisely what our species evolved to do.

As I write this, I’m gearing up for my annual late spring natural history vacation in mainland Massachusetts. While I’ll visit some new locations, part of the purpose of this tradition is to return to familiar sites, some of which I know now from 60 years of memories.

The feeling such visits evoke is not, for me, nostalgia; it’s not even particularly emotional. Rather, it’s a deep sense of understanding and connection. Past and present, change and constancy, become a comprehensible whole. The landscape becomes me, and I become the landscape.

Like the time when Alexander Wilson watched kingfishers by a mill.

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