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words and images from the past

April, Cardinals, and Birthdays

April 29, 2018


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via Flickr by Swallowtail Garden Seeds

The late spring this year reminds me of childhood Aprils in Iowa, apple trees clothed in white blooms, warm grass beneath my feet, and the promise of warm days to come. Here in the Ozarks, spring often comes much earlier, woods coming alive in a parade of colour: redbuds, magnolias, and dogwoods (although not early this year).

April and Elizabeth von Arnim

References to April in literature abound. Elizabeth von Arnim refers to her oldest daughter as the April baby. This precocious five-year-old, born in the month of April, changes the story of Adam and Eve so that it ends happily, asks lots of questions about God, and wants to know what angels wear and if they are girls (Elizabeth and Her German Garden 66).

Elizabeth von Arnim also gave us one of the most iconic English holiday stories in The Enchanted April. The characters gain new perspective at the Italian seaside bursting with beauty in the month of April:

 “…the wisteria was tumbling over itself in the excess of life…[and] scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig trees, and peach trees, and cherry trees…in blossom…” (109).

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Vintage image of a Marigold c. 1887 via The Graphics Fairy

The Song of the Cardinal

The writer who gave us A Girl of the Limberlost seemed to have some sort of secret handshake with nature that allowed her to be a party to its mysteries. In truth, Gene Stratton-Porter had a keen gift of observation and immersed herself in woods, streams, and fields.

In her novelette The Song of the Cardinal (dedicated to her father), this naturalist and storyteller paints a picture of April in the northeastern United States:

“Thrusting aside the mold and leaves above them, spring beauties, hepaticas, and violets lifted tender golden-green heads. The sap was flowing, and leafless trees were covered with swelling buds…The catkins bloomed first; and then, in an incredibly short time, flags, rushes, and vines were like a sea of waving green…There was intoxication in the air” (published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1913).

April provides the backdrop as the Cardinal woos his mate.

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Illustration by Frederick William Frohawk 1887 via Flickr

Frederick William Frohawk, a British naturalist of the 19th century, shared Gene Stratton-Porter’s love for moths, birds, and butterflies. Like Audubon, Frohawk first observed and then sketched, painted, and colored everything from eggs and cocoons to feathers and shells.

In the above sketch, Frohawk captures the expressions of the lovebirds, including the pride of the male bird as described in The Song of the Cardinal.

Here, another pair of British birds, Redstarts, construct their nest in the month of April. Soft leaves serve as a frame to the gray female and the more colorful male:

Redstart

Illustration by Henrik Grönvold (d. 1940) from The Birds of Great Britain and Ireland

Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, and Birthdays

Illustrators and writers alike from past centuries seemed to view April as the true coming of spring, not as a month of pure rain and umbrellas. Charlotte Bronte, born in April of 1816, compared herself to her birth month, noting that like April, she was girl of many moods. Here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to her aunt while she was in Brussels:

Believe me, though I was born in the month of April, the month of cloud and sunshine…My spirits are unequal, and sometimes I speak vehemently, and sometimes I say nothing at all; but I have a steady regard for you, and if you will let the cloud and shower pass by, be sure the sun is behind, obscured, but still existing” (The Life of Charlotte Bronte: Volume I).

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A young Jane Eyre in an early 1897 edition via The British Library (Flickr)

I love the illustration above, by Edmund Henry Garrett, as it captures the heart of a writer, one who feels deeply, is a bit of a loner, and gets lost in her own world. Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre both claimed to be emotional (in a controlled way) and unable to move on from things easily, and it is easy to see that Bronte put some of herself in this character.

Shakespeare, another April baby, refers to his birth month as “lovely” in Sonnet 3 and personifies April in Sonnet 98:

“From you have I been absent in the spring,/When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,/Hath put on a spirit of youth in everything.”

Shakespeare describes April as colorful and youthful. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, proud-pied means “gorgeously variegated.” Whatever he may have meant by this, it seems that Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte both observed the many dimensions of April.

Like the writers above, Kate Greenaway described life, but in her own way, through pictures. In the Birthday Book for Children, this pictorial view of April is found at the end of the month. The daughter’s arms are flung with the freedom and light of springtime. All three are dressed in white gowns proclaiming that warmth is here to stay, and mother kisses baby while seeming to float as she strolls.

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Via Wiki Commons

April is nearly over, but it will leave its mark on us, with its unfurled leaves, days of drops and splats, dogwood blossoms, and many shades of greens, perhaps the very reason Elizabeth von Arnim chose to center an entire vacation around this month. April looks forward and brings inspiration to women from all seasons of life.

 

Birds, Naturalists, and Writers

May 26, 2017


While working outside the other evening, I heard the unmistakable sound of a Bob White. Bob-Bob-White he called over and over. The sound transported me to my childhood in Iowa, where I would answer the bird-call and exult in his calling back to me again and again.

Americans have had an obsession with birds since Audubon first determined to find, in person, all North American birds and draw or paint them. The copper-plated engraving process, both expensive and time-consuming, created a soft, rich, nostalgic effect, as did lithography, which took the place of the copper technique.

Here, we see not only the beauty of Audubon’s hand-painted work, but also of the engraving, identifying the birds, done by his printer Havell. Note the plate number at the top, right-hand corner.

 

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Painted Finch:  1,2, Old Males, 3 M of 1st. Year, 4,  2nd. Year, 5, Female.

[An up-close, high-resolution download and more information can be found at Audubon.org.]

My first introduction to naturalists (as in those who study animals and plants in their natural habitats) came subconsciously through writers such as Louisa May Alcott. After years of teaching and reading about Alcott, I now better understand that Alcott was influenced by her father’s background and involvement in the transcendentalist movement.

Jo’s parenting methods in her home for boys (Little Men) allows for each boy to explore and grow in his own unique gifts and talents as an “individual”.  As a teacher at a home for boys, I relate to all the types of “treasures” boys might bring home, including the following from my own experiences:  sticks, strings, weeds, seeds, feathers, stones, fossils, lizards, snakes, and even a freshly-shot turkey (he had a license and it was in-season, but still!). In Little Men, several of the boys create a naturalist museum brimming with all sorts of specimens, including:

“A snake’s skin, a big wasp’s nest, a birch-bark canoe, a string of birds’ eggs, wreaths of gray moss from the South, and a bunch of cotton-pods” (Louisa May Alcott, Little Men).

Birds Nest

Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States:  Illustrated by Thomas G. Gentry, c 1906

Audubon stuffed his home at Mill Grove, Kentucky, with similar collections, according to his own journals published by his daughter in 1897. As a way to become better known, he visited naturalist museums all over the country and tried to contribute his work to them if they allowed him to. In the process, he learned from others how to improve his methods and market himself.

He painstakingly drew and re-drew birds and found a way to color them by hand:

“February [1822] was spent in drawing birds strenuously, and I thought I had improved much by applying coats of water-color under the pastels” (Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals,Volume I).

Here is a drawing/painting which he completed that same year:

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Black Bellied Darter or Snake Bird. Painting by John James Audubon, New Orleans, 1822.

Like Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter shared a passion for birds, as well as other creatures of the forest, but described them, rather than drew them, in her fictional works such as Girl of the Limberlost and non-fiction articles for magazines such as McCall’s. Rich with imagery, her writing shows us her beloved home in The Song of the Cardinal:

“Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the bushes. The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their wake as they cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the logs. Frogs take graceful leaps from pool to pool.”

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Illustration Pond and Stream:  Nature Books for Children, c 1906

Books, magazines, journals, calendars, and illustrations from this period of literature were ripe with nature and depicted it in its most realistic forms, perhaps due most to the efforts of naturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to be a calling for Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter, and others such as Chester A. Reed.

BobWhite

I quite love this illustration of bob whites from The Bird Book, by Reed and published in 1915 by Doubleday. Unfortunately, this talented artist and naturalist passed away of pneumonia in 1912.

He claims that the bob whites “frequent open fields” and build their nests “along roadsides.” That explains why I heard their call so often growing up. Open fields surrounded our house, and grass-covered ditches provided the habitat these plump birds need to propagate.

Reed also had a passion for photography, filling the pages of this beautiful book with photos of eggs, as well as appealing graphics and sketches on every page.

It is apparent that this was meant to be a resource for those who came across eggs, nests, or the birds themselves and wanted to identify them. But, had he lived in the 21st century, he might have been a graphic artist!

I try to remind myself when I watch old movies or read books with black-and-white photos that people viewed the world in color, just as we do now. They noticed the varying shades of green of the soft grasses, the yellow reeds, and the deep-emerald swallows. They, too, knew the white-blue of a summer sky and the cold-purple blue of a lake in the fall.

Perhaps this is the very reason Audubon’s works were so popular. For the bird world is a world of color. He knew this and wanted others to see what he noticed and not just in the grays of a sketch, however well done it might have been.

Thanks to the naturalists who left us records in photos, sketches, paintings, writings, and journals, we have a picture of the world as it was and in their eyes.

 

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