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AUDUBON'S ORNITHOLOGICAL BIOGRAPHY.
(Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1831.)
The present age, which, after all, is a very pretty and pleasant one, is feelingly alive and widely awake to the manifold delights and advantages with which the study of natural science swarms, and especially that branch of it which unsolds the character and habits, physical, moral, and intellectual, of those most interesting and admirable creatures—birds. It is familiar not only with the shape and colour of beak, bill, claw, talon, and plume, but with the purposes for which they are designed, and with the instincts which guide their use in the beautiful economy of all-gracious nature. We remember the time when the very word ornithology would have required interpretation in mixed company; and when a naturalist was looked on as a sort of out-of-the-way but amiable monster. Now, one seldom meets with man, woman, or child, who does not know a hawk from a handsaw, or even, to adopt the more learned reading, from a heronshaw; a black swan is no longer erroneously considered a rara avis any more than a black sheep; while the Glasgow gander himself, no longer apocryphal, has taken his place in the national creed, belief in his existence being merely blended with wonder at his magnitude, and some surprise perhaps among the scientific, that he should be as yet the sole specimen of that enormous anser.
The chief cause of this advancement of knowledge in one of its most delightful departments, has been the gradual extension of its study from stale books, written by men, to that book ever fresh from the hand of God. And the second-another yet the same-has been the gradual change wrought by a philosophical spirit in the observa. tion, delineation, and arrangement of the facts and laws with which the science is conversant, and which it exhibits in the most perfect harmony and order. Students now range for themselves, according to their capacities and opportunities, fields, woods, rivers, lakes, and seas; and proficients, no longer confining themselves to mere nomenclature, enrich their works with anecdotes and traits of character, which, without departure from truth, have imbued bird.biography with the double charm of reality and romance.
How we come to love the birds of Bewick, and White, and the two Wilsons, and Montagu, and Mudie, and Knapp, and Selby, and Swainson, and Syme, and Audubon, and many others, so familiar with their haunts and habits, their affections and their passions, till we feel that they are indeed our fellow-creatures, and part of one wise and wonderful system! If there be sermons in stones, what think ye of the hymns and psalms, matin and vesper, of the lark, who at heaven's gate sings,-of the wren, who pipes her thanksgivings as the slant sunbeam shoots athwart the mossy portal of the cave, in whose fretted roof she builds her nest above the waterfall ?
Ay, these, and many other blameless idolaters of nature, haye worshipped her in a truly religious spirit, and have taught us their religion. Nor have our poets been blind or deaf to the sweet Minnesingers of the woods. Thom. son, and Cowper, and Wordsworth, have loved them as dearly as Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton. All those prevailing poets have been themselves “musical and me. lancholy" as nightingales, and often from the inarticulate language of the groves, have they breathed the enthusiasm that inspired the finest of their own immortal strains, “ Lonely wanderer of nature,” must every poet be-and though often self-wrapt his wanderings through a spiritual world of his own, yet as some fair flower silently asks his eye to look on it, sume glad bird his ear solicits with a song, how intense is then his perception, his emotion how profound, his spirit being thus appealed to, through all its
human sensibilities, by the beauty and the joy perpetual even in the most solitary wilderness !
Our moral being owes deep obligation to all who assist us to study nature aright; for believe us, it is high and rare knowledge, to know and to have the true and full use of our eyes. Millions go to the grave in old age without ever having learned it ; they were just beginning perhaps to acquire it when they sighed to think that “they who look out of the windows were darkened ;” and that, while they had been instructed how to look, sad shadows had fallen on the whole face of nature, and that the time for those intuitions was gone for ever. But the science of seeing has now found favour in our eyes; and “ blessings are with them and eternal praise” who can discover, dis. cern, and describe the least as the greatest of nature's works, who can see as distinctly the finger of God in the lustre of the little humming-bird murmuring round a rose. bush, as in that of “the star of Jove, so beautiful and large,” shining sole in heaven.
Take up now almost any book you may on any branch of natural history, and instead of the endless, dry details of imaginary systems and classifications, in which the ludicrous littlenesses of man's vain ingenuity used to be set up as a sort of symbolical scheme of revelation of the sublime varieties of the inferior—as we choose to call it -creation of God, you find high attempts in a humble spirit rather to illustrate tendencies, and uses, and harmonies, and order, and design. With some glorious exceptions, indeed, the naturalists of the day gone by, showed us a science that was but a skeleton-nothing but dry bones; with some inglorious exceptions, indeed, the naturalists of the day that is now, have been desirous to show us a living, breathing, and moving body, to explain, as far as they might, its mechanism and its spirit. Ere another century elapse, how familiar may men be with all the families of the flowers of the field, and the birds of the air, with all the interdependencies of their characters and their kindreds, perhaps even with the mystery of that instinct which now is seen working wonders, not only beyond the power of reason to comprehend, but of imagination to conceive!
Take up, we say, what book you will, and such is its spirit. There, for example, are these two unpretending, but enlightened volumes, “ The British Naturalist," by Mr. Mudie, which, we need not add, we recommend to all students, and how much more real knowledge do they contain than many ambitious works we could mention made up of words-words-words-and words, too, as fusionless as chips-chips-chips? This contribution to natural history, he tells us at once, is sanctioned by no name or authority, and pretends to no systematic arrangement. He does not fear to say that the dictum of authority, and the divisions of system, are the bane of study to the people at large; and is it not, we add, the people at large, whom the people in few should seek to instruct in the wisdom that framed the world? True it is, as Mr. Mudie says, that the dictum of authority represses the spirit of inquiry, and that in the divisions of system the parts are so many, and so scattered, that the whole cannot be understood. It were as easy to tell the hour from the disjointed movements of a number of watches jumbled together in a box, as to find “how nature goes,” from the mere dissection of her works.
“ I do not want to hear the harangue of the exhibiter ; I want to see the exhibition itself, and that he shall be quiet, and let me study and understand that in my own way. If I meet with any object that arrests my attention, I do not wish to run over the roll of all objects of a similar kind; I want to know something about the next one, and why they should be in juxtaposition. If, for instance, I meet with an eagle on a mountain cliff, I have no desire to be lectured about all the birds that have clutching talons and crooked beaks. That would take me from the book of nature, which is before me,-rob me of spectacle, and give me only the story of the exhibiter, which I have no wish either to hear or to remember. I want to know why the eagle is on that cliff, where there is not a thing for her to eat, rather than down in the plain, where prey is abundant ; I want also to know what good the mountain itself does, —that great lump of sterility and cold; and if I find out, that the cliff is the very place from which the eagle can sally forth with the greatest ease and success, and that the mountain is the parent of all those streams that gladden the valleys and plains,-I am informed. Nay, more, I see a purpose in it,—the working of a power mightier than that of man. My thoughts ascend from mountains to masses, wheeling freely in absolute space. I look for the boundary : I dare not even imagine it : I cannot resist the conclusion This is the building of God.'
“Wherever I go, or whatever I meet, I cannot be satisfied with the mere knowledge that it is there, or that its form, texture, and composition, are thus or thus ; I want to find out how it came there, and what purpose it serves ; because, as all the practical knowledge upon which the arts of civilization are founded has come in this way, I too may haply glean a little. Nor is that all: wonderful as man's inventions are, I connect myself with something more wonderful and more lasting: and thus I have a hope and stay, whether the world goes well or ill; and the very feeling of that, makes me better able to bear its ills. When I find that the barren mountain is a source of fertility, that the cold snow is a protecting mantle, and that the alldevouring sea is a fabricator of new lands, and an easy pathway round the globe, I cannot help thinking that that, which first, seems only an annoyance to myself, must ultimately involve a greater good.
« This was the application given to natural history in the good old days of the Derhams and the Rays; and they were the men that breathed the spirit of natural science over the country. But the science and the spirit have been separated ; and though the learned have gone on with perhaps more vigour than ever, the people have fallen back. They see the very entrance of knowledge guarded by a hostile language, which must be vanquished in single combat before they can enter; and they turn away in despair."
That accomplished and philosophic naturalist, Professor Rennie, in one of his dissertations prefixed to his edition of Montagu's Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds, has lately laid before the public a plan of study, according to the method he has pursued in his own researches, which beautifully embodies the spirit of these remarks. So sim.