No Time Like the Present

However quickly life seems to move, it’s worth slowing down and paying attention.
A display of natural materials, including leaves, bark, and seed pods.
New York City-based artist Jessica Maffia collected pieces of nature from her Washington Heights neighborhood—including London plane seed pods, maple samaras, Yoshino cherry petals, and beech leaves—to create a Wood Thrush for The Aviary, Audubon’s home for bird-inspired artworks. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

Jessica Maffia has spent a lot of time walking through parks in northern Manhattan, listening and looking. At first, early in the pandemic, the artist wasn’t seeking inspiration. Nor was she creating new works. “I was just coming and getting to know who the more-than-human neighbors are,” she says. But in those moments, inspiration found her. The birds and birdsong became her muse; the materials found along the path, her medium.

Several states away, Steve Jessmore was having a similar experience. With work dried up, he hopped into a kayak for the first time and paddled into a nearby marsh he never knew existed, watching ducks he had never before considered. He began venturing out to observe birds regularly, then channeled his decades of expertise as a community photojournalist into capturing the stories of his avian community. The pandemic, he says, “gave me time to figure out what I always wanted to do.”

The creative outcomes of Maffia’s and Jessmore’s lingerings bookend our summer issue—Maffia’s Wood Thrush sings out from The Aviary and Jessmore’s Northern Shoveler alights from the cover—and the concept and consequences of time also run through it.

A singular moment stands out for each person, including Jessmore, honored in the Audubon Photography Awards. Etched in their memories is the instant when, after a patient wait or a flash of good fortune, they captured an enthralling image of birdlife.

In Sarah Gilman’s feature story, wildfire turns back time on a state park to an era before campsites and other infrastructure proliferated beneath Marbled Murrelet nests—creating a rare opportunity to rethink recreation to help ensure the seabird’s future. For many Southern Californians, time moves excruciatingly slowly, each minute marked by the clomp or hoot of the peafowl who have moved in with them. Their challenge, also, is to find a way to coexist.

As Ariana Remmel explores, some 150 avian species are fixed in time—tethered to the legacies of people who walked the Earth long ago. Remmel describes a movement led by birders and ornithologists to bestow new names that instead honor the unique creatures birds are, a step that would also make the birding world more welcoming to everyone.

In that spirit we have broadened the concept for our back page, The Aviary. Rather than ask artists to reimagine the illustrations of John James Audubon, we are commissioning them to create artwork that views birds through a much broader lens—one that, more simply and powerfully, “inspires art, awe, and action.” We seized this time to make a positive change, and hope you will find inspiration in it, too.  

This piece originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.