Review: Humans, Nature, and Birds

A virtual gallery of birds in art from cave walls to computer screens

Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens
Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy
Yale University Press, 2008

In the beginning there was art. The beginning of art was nature -- depictions of animals and birds on the walls of caves. Making art seems to be as fundamental to being human as myth-making and naming. As birders we live at the intersection of nature, art, science, and culture and have a greater awareness than other mortals of the role that art plays in understanding our dwelling place. We depend on art (and narrative) for honing our identification skills, for the development of a compound and more encompassing vision of our world, and for pleasure. As the development of bird-related art over the past two hundred years has mirrored the development of ornithology and bird watching, the vast majority of us would not be birders were it not for depictions of birds in art. Audubon set out to depict birds in poses and in settings that inspired us with their beauty and told us something about the habitats and lives of his subjects. Fuertes did the same but was intent on creating images which also provided an aid to field identification. Peterson’s illustrations spawned generations of passionate amateur watchers who substituted field observation for shotgun ornithology.

What is true for the relationship between ornithology and art is true for all the sciences. Imagine trying to learn about botany, engineering, anatomy, genetics, or cosmology without illustrations. Indeed, it seems at times as if human civilization isn’t feasible without art.

Although we birders delight in the ground we inhabit, we are occasionally blessed with experiences which shed new light on this most innately human activity – events which make us think differently about life, birds, and our place in the world. Several years ago I heard about a curator (Kevin Avery) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was also a birder. It was February, and I was looking for an activity which would get people out and thinking about birds on a cold winter day and wondered if a bird walk through the Museum’s collections would appeal to our members. It didn’t take too much convincing to get Kevin to agree to be our guide. We were surprised not only by the sell-out crowd but by the distance and time we covered as we spanned centuries and cultures looking at paintings, pottery, and sculpture which contained birds and bird-related themes. Our hike included the Asian collection, the American wing, classical European painting, and the Impressionist collection. Our guide stopped in front of perhaps 25 paintings for lengthy discussions about the birds therein. We identified them and talked about why they were there, the social implications, what they represented in the cultural context in which they were painted, what the artist was trying to communicate, and what an audience contemporary to the artist would have derived from the depiction. Our walk heightened my awareness of the place that birds have occupied in day-to-day life ever since we climbed out on the developmental limb which distinguished us from our primate relatives.

We are now fortunate to have a virtual gallery of images which further illuminates the intersection of these themes with the publication of Humans, Nature, and Birds by Darryl Whey and Donald Kennedy. The book is, to me, like a continuation of the Metropolitan Museum walk. The authors organize 69 plates which use art from across space and time to illuminate the relationship between humans, nature, and birds. The plates are organized into lower and upper galleries as if the book were a museum. Each plate is accompanied by an extensive caption which discusses the details of the art and its cultural, historic, and scientific relevance.

As with our museum walk, Humans, Nature, and Birds includes art and text which lovingly explores the places which birds have occupied in culture, mythology, conservation, symbolism, decoration, science, and commerce over the entire span of the artistic record.

The first stop in the gallery tour is at the Paleolithic owl inscribed on the wall of Chauvet Cave, in Vallon-Pont d’Arc in France. The tour skips through eras and cultures to emphasize the universality of the relationship. The presentation and the images are all meaningful, but there are a few with which I was particularly taken:

• An Egyptian statue of Chefren (2,500 BCE) who built the second pyramid at Giza and the Sphynx, shows the ruler with a falcon perched behind his head. The falcon represents Horus, the protector. The falcon is hidden to those who approached the statue from the front, indicating perhaps that Chefren was all-powerful, but its presence is obviously important.
• Andrew Wyeth’s Winter Fields (1942) depicts a dead crow in the foreground of an open field. I can feel the power that this image must have had when it was first displayed while the world was at war.
• Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine (1922) depicts a mechanistic view of birds and nature reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times
• Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton’s Parliament of Birds (1680) fancifully illustrates Chaucer’s poem of the same name which depicts 36 birds which meet each Valentines Day to select mates.
• Robert Bateman’s Mossy Branches—Spotted Owl (1980) which shows the bird at the center of the fight to save the ancient forests of the Northwest.

Fittingly, the authors have impressive credentials in art and science. Darryl Wheye is an artist and writer who specialize in birds and science art. Donald Kennedy is the Bing Professor of Environmental Science emeritus at Stanford University.

The images and captions in Humans, Nature, and Birds are all well-chosen, and the captions have the feel of an entertaining and informative gallery talk. Together they form a compelling exploration of one of the areas of life which is a source of great satisfaction for me and for so many fellow birders. This is one of my favorite books of 2008.

Wayne Mones
March6, 2009

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