1 DOLLOP OF COMB HONEY. Strained and Beaten Smooth in Enough Whisky to Make You Sing. Fill up the rest of a Tall Glass with CREAM. Beat it all to a froth again and clink the glasses to the old toast —
Here’s tae us!
Wha’s like us?
-From So Red the Nose
What was it with people in the 1930’s treating cream like a legit beverage? Weren’t they supposed to be skinny back then? An entire glass of cream is just nauseating, no matter how much whisky you cut it with.
In much smaller doses, however, Singing in the Wilderness is a really tasty, rich, sugary drink, similar to the Alexandre cocktail. I’m not a huge fan of whisky, but mixing it with honey is simply genius, and creates this really pretty golden color, before you drown it in dairy, that is. I sing everyday, but never in Scots, so two shots seemed like a good compromise.
To me art and science are the dearest pursuits of life, but note that they are both in pursuit of Nature. And Audubon, who was an imperfect artist and scientist, is one of the few men who ever caught her.
- – From Singing in the Wilderness
If you’ve ever paid a visit to your local Audubon Society, then you may have surmised that John James Audubon reached the heights of 1830’s fame and fortune through a singular obsession with our fine feathered friends. One hundred years later, Donald Culross Peattie, a successful naturalist in his own right, paid tribute to Mr. Audubon in the slavering fanboy tome that is Singing in the Wilderness.
Singing in the Wilderness is a bizarre little book. Maybe because it is the only biography I have ever read written in the first person present. No, not from the point of view of the subject, John Audubon, but from the point of view of the author, Donald Peattie. Peattie will start by telling us about Audubon’s childhood or marriage or early artistic attempts, and then suddenly step away from the narrative to talk directly to the audience about his own musings on nature, America, American nature, manifest destiny, art, relationships, or whatever else he seems to think is relevant. These little asides are told completely haphazardly and also actually aren’t so little, taking up about as much of the book as the Audubon parts do.
But to be fair, Singing in the Wilderness is subtitled “a salute to John James Audubon.” Although the reader will eventually be able piece together Audubon’s entire life story from birth to death, Singing in the Wilderness is really more of a personal tribute, not a biography. Peattie tells us right up front he’s not interested in doing the kind of retelling that’s already been done before.
But the biography part is still there, and is pretty straightforward, with only a few fictionalized details. Based my Wikipedia research, Singing in the Wilderness seems to be a scrupulously accurate depiction of Audubon’s life, in spite of being romanticized all to hell. Audubon’s wife Lucy, in particular, is a nauseating picture of perfect devotion and self-sacrifice, even during those difficult years of poverty and obscurity before her bird-brained husband’s drawings of the American backwoods began to take off in Europe.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
If you are at all drawn to the fine art of orthinology, Singing in the Wilderness is both a serviceable introduction to one of its patron saints and an interesting collection of musings on the topic, even if you do have to carefully overlook Peattie’s backward views about race and women (although apparently his actual naturalist texts were way worse).
I tend to think the best nonfiction, though, can offer insight, enlightenment, and entertainment to a broad audience, not just those already familiar with the subject matter. And my only real takeaway from Singing in the Wilderness was that Audubon was an extremely talented man with an extremely boring life story. But at least I got to see a few pretty reprints.
Next Time: From portraits of birds to portraits of the Great Rebellion. Topical!