Danny Heitman: Louisiana, Land of Audubon … and Now?





[Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."]

The oil spill disaster off the coast of my home state of Louisiana is stark evidence that humans have an awesome power to change the natural landscape, often for the worse.

But landscapes also have the power to change us, as John James Audubon was reminded when he arrived in Louisiana in 1821.

In Louisiana, Audubon encountered a biblical abundance of wildlife that transformed him and his bird art, enlarging his sense of possibility and refining his genius as an observer of the natural world. Audubon did more pictures for his "Birds of America" project in Louisiana than in any other single place, and he said that of all the states he had visited in his pursuit of wonders, Louisiana was his favorite. The natural beauty he saw was sustained by an ecosystem that, in the wake of the oil spill, is now threatened with ruin.

It's a possibility that Audubon seemed to anticipate nearly two centuries ago. His bird pictures, for all of their vitality, also sound a strong note of elegy, like hieroglyphs marking the memory of an already vanished world....

Longfellow wrote powerfully of a Louisiana wilderness he apparently never saw, implying that the connections between geography and imagination are perhaps more tenuous than we commonly assume. Yet the recent news images from the Louisiana wetlands, in which oil-soaked creatures look rather sadly like Audubon prints sullied by vandals, have hit an international nerve, presumably because the natural landscape still lingers in the public imagination as a powerful force. Can the wetlands of Louisiana continue to inspire the creative spirit, even if the coast is ruined?

As thousands of gallons of oil work their way inland, perhaps we're about to find out.

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