Sunday, January 23, 2011

Airy Castles and Brain Windmills

Alexander Wilson said of himself: I am “long accustomed to the building of Airy Castles and brain Windmills.” He used those words to describe his lifelong quest to write verse that would do justice to the poetic tradition of his Scottish homeland and his older contemporary, Robert Burns. In 1790, when 24 years old, Alexander published a small volume of his poems and tried selling the collection while traveling as an itinerant peddler. Neither the book sales nor the poems were very successful, and life as a packman was difficult

The poet came from a family of weavers; his father also worked as a smuggler and operated an illegal distillery. Alexander wrote a libelous poem about a mill owner who was cheating his workers; he tried blackmailing the mill owner, got caught, and went to jail. More serious was his involvement with the Scottish unrest toward English rule, typified by the popular pub toast: “To George the Third and last.”

In 1794, young Alexander Wilson, age 28, had just enough money to book passage to America. One suspects the sheriff may have been near at hand. He landed at Newcastle, Delaware, and walked thirty miles to Philadelphia with his pack and his gun. According to the summary of a modern writer, he “shot the first bird he saw (by most accounts a red-headed woodpecker, a species he did not recognize), and in the days to come, he was struck by how much more colorful the birds of this new country appeared to be. His ornithological path, like the wagon road to Philadelphia, lay open before him ....” (Scott Weidensaul, “Of a Feather”)

Alexander Wilson, the young weaver, peddler, poet, blackmailer, and political rabble-rouser, began a whole new course in young America, although it took him a decade to find his focus. He tried printing, weaving, day labor, and peddling. He landed a job as a schoolteacher, but that seems to have ended when he had an affair with a married woman.

What he did manage to do was to establish relationships with some of the most prominent and educated men of Philadelphia, men who recognized talent, and who encouraged and mentored the young Scotsman. William Bartram was a naturalist, botanist, artist and writer. Charles Willson Peale was a prominent American artist. Samuel Bradford, editor of “Ree’s New Cyclopedia,” employed Wilson and eventually became Wilson’s publisher. George Ord of Philadelphia was a wealthy and influential naturalist who championed Wilson’s work.

Even with prominent supporters like this, Alexander Wilson showed audacious ambition. Somewhere around 1803 he got the idea of creating a book which would document all of America’s birds. The idea was audacious because “Wilson still didn’t know very much about American birds, even how to identify the majority of them.” (Weidensaul)

Wilson learned the birds. His “American Ornithology” was published in nine volumes between 1808 and 1814. The last two volumes were published after his death. In addition to learning his birds, Wilson also had to learn how to draw, paint, and engrave. When the first volume was published he again became an itinerant peddler, this time selling subscriptions to his work. He sold subscriptions to President Thomas Jefferson and the president of Dartmouth College, but in general there was no great rush to snap up copies.

Wilson spent months in the field, and sometimes the old poet reemerged. After a 1200 mile walk to Niagara Falls, he watched an eagle soaring above the falls. The poet emerged:

Now 'midst the pillared spray sublimely lost,
And now, emerging down the rapids tost,
Swept the gray eagles; gazing calm and slow,
On all the horrors of the gulf below.

He set off from Philadelphia in freezing weather for Pittsburgh, 250 miles away, then traveled down the Ohio River 700 miles by small boat, and another thousand miles by horse to New Orleans. On all journeys he collected specimens and made extensive notes.

Wilson’s “American Ornithology” described over 250 species out of an estimated 350 species that were present east of the Mississippi. Wilson had limitations as a draftsman and artist; some of his birds are hard to identify.

Carolina Parakeet and the 3 Wilsonia warblers
Alexander Wilson’s impact on ornithology was deep and lasting. The Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1902, commemorates the “father of American ornithology” and continues to promote the scientific study of birdlife. Five species continue to bear his name: a warbler, plover, phalarope, snipe, storm-petrel. The Genus Wilsonia includes the Hooded, Canada, and Wilson’s Warblers.

Wilson died of dysentery and/or tuberculosis in 1813 at the age of 47. Volume 8 was published after his death. Volume 9 was written by his friend George Ord. Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I and an accomplished naturalist, spent eight years in America. Bonparte admired the work of Wilson. He added notes and commentaries to Wilson’s work and had “American Ornithology” republished three times after Wilson’s death.

In the preface to the second volume, Wilson provided the viewers of “American Ornithology” a brief insight into why he undertook such a project. Wilson wrote of himself: “ ransacking our fields and forests, our sea shores, lakes, marshes and rivers; and in searching out and conversing with experienced and intelligent sportsmen and others on whose information he can venture to rely, he pledges himself, that no difficulty, fatigue or danger, shall deter him from endeavouring to collect information from every authentic source.”

Today, Alexander Wilson is nearly forgotten, while his contemporary and rival, John James Audubon, is synonymous with birds and birdwatching. There is more story to be told, as you can well imagine.

If Alexander Wilson had to be remembered only for the “Airy Castles and brain Windmills” which he crafted in verse, he would be just a blip in the passing of time. The color and variety of the birds in his new home took hold of his imagination. He joined with thousands of pioneers who were opening new frontiers. Wilson’s frontier was the study and description of birds, the science now known as ornithology.

Early on, Wilson sent President Thomas Jefferson some of his drawings. Jefferson, in turn, asked for Wilson’s help in identifying a bird. It was a Wood Thrush. Today many of us take for granted our ability to identify this woodland songster, by sight and by voice. We should thank Alexander Wilson. Wilson got us started in birdwatching.

Good birding!


Susan Ellis said...

I for one am very happy that Wilson introduced us to modern interesting essay -thank you!

Folkways Note Book said...

Chris -- what a wonderful write up about Mr. Wilson -- he followed his passion. You provided a nice history of his life. I love his early vagabond life style -- in our era he would have been undoubtedly labeled a hippy. -- thanks -- barbara


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