In the steps of John James Audubon

The ornithologist's equipment may have been primitive but his powers of concentration were legendary.

  • Audubon painting courtesy of E.A. McIlhenny Collection/Louisiana State University
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As part of my work on a film about John James Audubon, I recently rose before dawn, dressed by moonlight, then hiked into the woods of St. Francisville, a small Louisiana community where Audubon once found many of the birds for his famous nature paintings.

Our film crew started the day early for the same reason Audubon did when he trekked through the forests of St. Francisville in the summer of 1821.

Like our bleary-eyed production team, Audubon was trying to escape the seasonal heat and humidity of days that, by midmorning, can seem to wilt body and brain into a tropical funk. Audubon also thrived on early morning walks because many birds are most active at dawn and dusk.

Threading my way through centuries-old stands of beech and magnolia, I often felt that not much had changed since Audubon scoured the area for warblers and wrens, yellowthroats and redstarts, summer tanagers and indigo buntings, vireos and kites, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and the occasional ibis.

Frequent trills from the dense canopy of limbs that shadowed our footsteps promised that we'd see at least some of the species Audubon had spotted nearly two centuries before.

That's why I'd brought along my binoculars and Peterson Field Guide, hoping in particular to glimpse a few bluebirds between our historical reenactments of Audubon's hunt for specimens.

I couldn't help thinking, as we doused our arms and legs with insect repellent and walked single file along a narrow trail that snaked into the forest, how much better equipped we seemed than Audubon to glean art from the wild.

Audubon would surely have marveled at my binoculars, an optical gadget absent from his period traveling bag. The slender pages of my Peterson guide, a volume now sold at any bookstore, contained more technical truth about birds than Audubon was able to gather in a lifetime. Scratching at my first chigger bite of the morning, I also wondered how the world's most famous bird artist did so much field work without bug spray.

But beyond his artistic genius, Audubon had at least one other tool that trumped our modern gear: an attention span that could stretch for hours, in spite of the most insistent distractions.

I thought about this during a break in filming as Dan, our Audubon actor, adjusted the waist of his 19th-century britches and spoke with relish of the new cellphone he'd hope to get soon.

We'd shut off our portable phones while the camera rolled, and even though my job was to help keep each scene historically accurate, my head often floated elsewhere as I made mental lists of phone calls I might be missing, calls I might need to make, and other worries of the hurried world beyond the woods.

Audubon, on the other hand, once famously continued scouting for birds even as two woodpeckers he'd captured and secured in a hat atop his head protested their confinement.

As the morning slowly brightened and the air warmed around us, I tried harder to live moment by moment, and with a sharper eye to the details of the landscape: the homely architecture of a rotting stump, the telegraphic urgency of a chickadee's chirp, the moist magnolia leaves filtering sunlight as sublimely as a length of stained glass.

In momentarily muffling the drumbeat of my daily routine, I connected more deeply with the terrain that inspired Audubon's brush strokes. And I even managed to spot some bluebirds along the way.

I'd never be able to tune out two woodpeckers perched on my scalp. But I'll treasure my morning in Audubon's footsteps, when I ignored the chatter of my cellphone for a while, and in doing so, saw more of the beauty falling across a forest path.

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