Saturday, May 18, 2013

`An Exponent of Character'

I watched my boss looking up at something outside the office window. When I rapped on the glass and shrugged my shoulders in the “What gives?” gesture, she waved me outside. In the tree next to our building, twenty feet above the ground and almost level with the second-floor windows, is a large (at least eighteen inches in diameter), raggedy-looking nest of sticks, dry grass, leaves and scraps of plastic. No bird is visible, though the occupant must be sizeable, larger than a blue jay or Northern mockingbird; perhaps one of the great-horned owls on campus. This is speculation, and I thought of that passage in Finnegans Wake: “But enough of greenwood's gossip. Birdsnests is birdsnests.” In the first chapter alone, Joyce weaves a thousand avian allusions, including “a parody’s bird” (paradise bird, or bird of paradise). My knowledge of birds is a parody (parroty?) of an ornithologist’s. 

Regardless, I recommend that you read and savor America’s Other Audubon (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) by Joy M. Kiser, who tells the story of Genevieve “Gennie” Jones and her family who researched, wrote, painted and published Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. In 1876, at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Gennie saw hand-painted engravings from John James Audubon’s Birds of America. She resolved to complete Audubon’s project by painting the nests and eggs he left out. Back in Circleville, Ohio, her brother collected the nests and eggs, her father (a physician) paid the publishing costs, and Gennie and a friend learned the art of lithography. Gennie died of typhoid fever in 1879 at the age of thirty, before the project could be completed. Her family and friends labored another seven years to finish her dream. Go here to see Gennie’s painting of a wood thrush’s nest holding four blue eggs. Here is an excerpt from the accompanying test: 

“The nest was taken from a haw tree in a damp wood without much undergrowth. The light, fluffy leaves of the foundation, the mossy branches and emerald foliage, the boggy earth and rank grass beneath, together formed a picture beautiful and rustic, a fitting symbol of the quiet wood, the drear repose in which this brilliant songster so much delights.” 

About ninety copies of the lithographs were produced, most of which have vanished. Among the subscribers in 1886 were former President Rutherford B. Hayes and Teddy Roosevelt, who was still a student. One set was on display in 1995, when Kiser went to work as a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She spent fifteen years researching the project and interviewing descendants of the Jones family members. Her book is large format, eleven by thirteen inches, so the reader can study the reproductions and notice the details. You can note that the branches have been neatly separated from their trees, probably with a saw or large knife. In the painting of the “Quail-Bob-White” nest, built on the ground and holding eight white eggs, you can recognize four red clover flowers. For the volume’s epigraph, Kiser uses a passage from the introduction Howard Jones, Gennie’s brother, wrote for Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio: 

“In their eggs the birds center their whole existence. They work unceasingly and intelligently for a place where they can lay them, and guard them with their lives. Thus the nest, aside from its expression of ingenuity, skill, and patience, becomes an exponent of character.”

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