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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/April 1877/Audubon's Lily Rediscovered

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 10‎ | April 1877

AUDUBON'S LILY REDISCOVERED.
By Professor SAMUEL LOCKWOOD.

DISCUSSING the varied exhibits made of the natural sciences in the late Exposition at Philadelphia, Forest and Stream pays a high compliment to a collection of water-color paintings of "The Birds of New Jersey." These paintings are the work of G. B. Hardenbergh, a youth in New Brunswick, who, having heard, in the Rutgers College Grammar-School, a course of lectures on birds, by the writer of this, became at once an enthusiast, and, with the spirit of a devotee, gave himself up to the study of birds in their native haunts. By wood and stream, in all seasons, the young artist naturalist watches his subject, learns its habits, gets its attitudes, then shoots it, and, in his study, with a knowledge of all its posituræ, produces a portrait that sparkles with active life. The figures are Audubon-like, of life-size, and every one is strikingly natural. And the trees and plants, too, are so accurate that any botanist can, at a glance, identify the species. Each picture has the Flemish peculiarity of scrupulous attention to details, being, in its own way, a bit of rigidly realistic art. All this commends the work especially to the naturalist, and is much in the spirit of the famous Audubon. And, joined to the youthfulness of the artist, it was just this realistic truthfulness which made these simple bird-pictures of New Jersey so attractive at the great Centennial show.

But, can we not see an intimate relation between this æsthetical outcome of the artist and his own ethical inwardness? All this tender care for the details, this high regard for the truthful narration of the pictorial story, comes of the scientific conscience. Its processes are directed by the religiosity of good, honest work; and thus form is given to what may be called, as its resultant, the conscientiousness of art.

And yet, strange to say, this charming naturalist and artist, this, so to speak, consecrated student of Nature in her own haunts, whom so long every one, both at home and abroad, lauded for his fidelity to Nature, has of late been under a cloud. Yes, the truthfulness of even Audubon stands under attaint of both ornithologists and botanists. Let us adduce the specifications.

Our boyish delight still lingers in memory over the reading of this wonderful man's account of his first sight of that bird whose celebrity, unhappily, has given place of late to an undesirable notoriety. In a burst of enthusiasm, in which the love of Nature and of country mingled, he called it "the bird of Washington," and that Science, to the end of time, should do the same, he named it Haliaëtus Washingtonii. Thus stands his behest to science in his "Ornithological Biography," vol. i., p. 58:

"He first saw it on the Upper Mississippi, in February, 1814. A few years after, he met with a pair near the Ohio River, in Kentucky, which had built their nest on a range of high cliffs. Two years after the discovery of the nest, he killed a male, which was the subject of his description. After this he saw two other pairs near the Ohio River. It seems not to have been seen by any other ornithologist. Though this bird is admitted as a species on the authority of Audubon, many ornithologists do not regard it as such; and, from Audubon's own testimony, there seems sufficient ground for doubting the validity of the species."—("American Cyclopædia," revised edition, article "Eagle.")

In one of those delightful "Letters on Ornithology," by Dr. Coues, now appearing in the Chicago Field (Letter IX., on the "Hawks"), occur these words:

"While we have gray eagles, and black eagles, and eagles without stint, my word for it, reader, this eagle business is about done to death. Let me beg you
not to publish the next eagle you kill. Eagle-stories are almost always 'fishy.' As to the number of different kinds of eagles in this country, believe me when I assure you that there never have been but two species discovered in all the length and breadth of this country. That famous 'bird of Washington' was a myth. Either Audubon was mistaken, or else, as some do not hesitate to affirm roundly, he lied about it. The two species are, the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaëtos), and the bald eagle (Haliaëtus leucocephalus).
 

This, surely, is somewhat terrific, and would indicate, in this instance, that truthfulness, the bright particular flower in a man's character, was badly wilted. As Patrick would say, "it doesn't become the loikes of us to talk back; and maybe it cowes us, just, to be found in disagramint with the great bird-doctor, who is possissed of the aridition of all the fowls that iver was, sure." So we will not openly differ with this accomplished man; and will even, like a devout Moslem, leave Audubon to those stern ladies known as the Fates, and thus will hasten to another instance in which, perhaps, even a lady may come to the rescue of the reputation of this remarkable naturalist.

If possible, Audubon has suffered worse at the hands of the botanists. From these gentlemen the famous student of the woods and fields has received a snub of the shabby-genteel sort, and of the most persistent character. In his "Birds of the South," and with his usual love of fidelity to particulars, as indicating the plant habitat, or surrounding, Audubon figured a yellow water-lily—not that very ordinary flower, the Nuphar advena, the spatter-dock, or yellow pond-lily, so common from Canada to Florida, but a real close cousin to Nymphæa odorata, our delightful, sweet-scented water-lily. Beholding it with his own eyes, the great painter put it into one of his glorious bird-pictures, and, having given the portrait of his floral beauty, he also named it Nymphæa lutea, or, in plain English, the yellow water-lily. But this pretty flower had never been seen by the botanists; and so, forsooth, the thing was absolutely ignored—treated as a pretty fable, a bit of art extravagance. Art, like history, may have its anachronisms, but the real artist, though he err, cannot lie. So thoroughly was that Nymphæa lutea snubbed, that it would have been as much as a poor mortal's reputation was worth to have mentioned credence in the thing in the hearing of sober Science. One might look in vain in any botany of the South for Audubon's yellow water-lily. Not a word can you find in Darbey's "Botany of the Southern States;" and the same ominous silence pervades that later and more pretentious work, Chapman's "Flora of the Southern States." This luckless lily of Audubon is scientifically tabooed. Luckless, was it said? Well, this abjured beauty of the good man has fallen into luck at last. When neither sought nor expected, a species of poetic justice has lately been reached; for, in the person of a lady, learned in such lore, we have "a Daniel come to judgment." Last summer, in Florida, Mrs. Mary Treat rediscovered the long-lost flower of Audubon. Yes, there it was blooming in those semi-tropical waters, and, from its golden chalice, this excellent lady drank the exquisite pleasure of a scientific discovery, and, sweeter still, the privilege that she could bid pass away that cloud of incredulity of over a generation of years. In fact, it was communicated to that Nestor of American botanists, Prof. Gray, and was duly acknowledged. It was truly the long-ignored Nymphæa lutea—Audubon's yellow water-lily. And, more than this, this deported beauty, through our modern Portia's zeal, is to be introduced to the best botanic circles of the world. Mrs. Treat has provided a liberal stock for the botanic garden at Harvard; and the curator, Prof. Sargent, is giving them careful and skilled culture, and is also supplying the gardens of Europe with specimens. Among the botanists, then, Audubon and his beautiful water-lily to-day stand quoted above par. Whether the "bird of Washington" is to reappear, and set this early ornithologist right with the modern bird-men, perhaps may hardly admit of a hope. That Audubon, like Wilson and the rest, did sometimes err in the diagnosis of his species, was easily possible; that he could lie, we think, was impossible. Much work of these earlier students has had to be done over again, and, as Dr. Coues has shown, this is emphatically true of the Falconidæ, or diurnal birds of prey. Very radical undoing has been needed of the work done on the eagles. Lately, we had at our very doors not less than three notable eagles—the black eagle, the gray eagle, and the bald eagle. But more thorough and skillful work has eliminated two out of these three species by showing that the black was the young, the gray the middle-aged, and the bald the mature, or adult stage, all of one and the same species, namely, the Haliaëtus leucocephalus—the bald eagle. We would like to see some condonement for the long ignoring of that Southern lily. If it were scientifically orthodox to rechristen that rediscovered flower, we would have its history crystallized in a new specific name, Nymphæa Audubonii, which, after so long incredulity, would be doing the bonny thing; and thus the yellow water-lily would dot, with golden memories of the gentle enthusiast, Audubon, the waters of the river of time.