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ALEXANDER WILSON, 1766–1813.
If one's nationality is to be determined by the country where he was chiefly educated, by the soil which proved kindred to his genius, by the scenes which called forth his powers, and by the field where he won his fame, then is Alexander Wilson, though of foreign origin, truly an American. He was born in Paisley, Scotland, on the 6th of July, 1766, of humble parents, and at the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to a weaver, with whom he worked till he was eighteen. He early evinced a taste for literature, spending all his leisure time in reading and study, and, from his youth to the day of his death, presents an eminent instance of the successful pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. The genius of Burns, who was but six years older, had just burst upon his countrymen, and the spirit of emulation so fired the breast of Wilson, that he soon put forth a volume entitled Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious. But it was not received with much favor, and certainly “put no money in his purse;” so that he returned to his trade as a surer means of gaining a livelihood. In a few years he became disgusted with it, and resolved to try to better his fortune in the United States. Taking passage in a vessel from Belfast, he arrived at New Castle, Delaware, on the 14th of July, 1794, without a shilling in his pocket. Shouldering his fowling-piece, he set forward on foot towards Philadelphia, and on his way shot a woodpecker. This little incident was doubtless the germ of his future fame, for the peculiar habits and rich plumage of this native of our forests made a deep impression upon his mind, and led him by degrees to that train of thought and those plans of action which resulted in placing him at the head of American ornithologists. At Philadelphia, he at first worked at his old trade; but as soon as he had made a little money, he resolved to devote himself to the pursuits of literature. To this end he taught a school at Milestown, about six miles from Philadelphia, where he remained several years, studying diligently, and adding a little to the income from his school by surveying land for the farmers in the neighborhood. He then travelled into the Genesee country, New York, to visit some friends, and on his return accepted an invitation to become the head teacher of Union School, in the township of Kingsessing, a short distance from Gray's Ferry, on the Schuylkill, on the banks of which river Audubon likewise caught his inspiration. Here he contracted an affectionate intimacy with the venerable naturalist, William Bartram, whose extensive botanic garden was in the vicinity of the school-house. From this time (about 1803) must be dated the beginning of his history as an ornithologist. Seeing the imperfections of books on the subject of the birds of our country, how imperfectly and often falsely they were represented in drawings, he determined to devote his life to Ornithology. He therefore applied himself to the study of drawing and engraving, and soon made very commendable progress in those arts. In October, 1804, he set out on foot for the Falls of Niagara, making every thing on his journey subsidiary to his favorite pursuit. On his return, he published an account of his journey in the Portfolio, in a poem called “The Foresters,” and continued in his vocation as a teacher, giving all his spare time, as before, to his favorite science. By the spring of 1805 he had completed the drawings of twenty-eight birds, mostly inhabitants of Pennsylvania, and at the close
of the next year entered into an engagement with Mr. Samuel F. Bradford, a publisher in Philadelphia, to publish his American Ornithology, the first volume of which was given to the world in September, 1808. Immediately he set off on a tour to the Eastern States to exhibit his work, procure subscribers, and at the same time add to his stock of ornithological science. But the price of the work completed (one hundred and twenty dollars) was so far beyond any thing the public had been accustomed to, that he did not meet with the encouragement he had hoped. Still, he was not disheartened. He returned home, and then made an extensive tour through the Southern States, of which he gives us a very amusing though in some . respects a somewhat sad picture. Again returning the next year, he published, in January, 1810, the second volume of the Ornithology. He then set out on a Western tour, going to Pittsburg, and thence down the Ohio, and through Kentucky, Tennessee, &c., to New Orleans, whence he embarked for New York, arriving at Philadelphia on the 2d of August, 1811. He afterwards took another tour through the Northern and Eastern States, and on his return made unceasing efforts to complete his great work. As soon as the seventh volume had left the press, he went to Great Egg Harbor, to collect materials for the eighth. He took cold, from exposure; dysentery ensued, and he died on the 23d of August, 1813.
In his personal appearance, Wilson was tall and handsome; rather slender than athletic in form. His countenance was expressive and thoughtful, his eye powerful and intelligent, and his conversation remarkable for quickness and originality. He was warm-hearted and generous in his affections, and through life displayed a constant attachment to his friends, even after many years of separation.
Few examples can be found in literary history equal to that of Wilson. Though fully aware of the difficulty of the enterprise in which he engaged, his heart never for a moment failed him. His success was complete, for his work has secured him immortal honor."
PLEASURES IN CONTEMPLATING NATURE.”
That lovely season is now approaching when the garden, woods, and fields will again display their foliage and flowers. Every da we may expect strangers, flocking from the South, to fill our woods with harmony. The pencil of nature is now at work, and outlines, tints, and gradations of lights and shades that baffle all description will soon be spread before us by that great Master, our most benevolent Friend and Father. Let us cheerfully partake of the feast he is preparing for all our senses. Let us survey those millions of green strangers just peeping into day, as so many happy messengers come to proclaim the power and the munificence of the Creator. I confess that I was always an enthu
'Read Sketch of his Life, by George Ord; Life, by Wm. B. O. Peabody, in Sparks's “American Biography;” and an article in the 8th vol. of the “American Quarterly Review.”
* Letter to a friend, written 1804. 13
siast in my admiration of the rural scenery of nature; but, since your example and encouragement have set me to attempt to imitate her productions, I see new beauties in every bird, plant, and flower I contemplate; and find my ideas of the incomprehensible First Cause still more exalted the more minutely I examine His works. I sometimes smile to think that, while others are immersed in deep schemes of speculation and aggrandizement, in building towns and purchasing plantations, I am entranced in contemplation over the plumage of a lark, or gazing, like a despairing lover, on the lineaments of an owl. While others are hoarding up their bags of money, without the power of enjoying it, I am collecting, without injuring my conscience, or wounding my peace of mind, those beautiful specimens of nature's works that are forever pleasing. I have had live crows, hawks, and owls, opossums, squirrels, snakes, lizards, &c., so that my room has sometimes reminded me of Noah's ark; but Noah had a wife in one corner of it, and in this particular it does not altogether tally. I receive every subject of natural history that is brought to me, and although they do not march into my ark from all quarters, as they did into that of our great ancestor, yet I find means, by the distribution of a few five-penny-bits, to make them find the way fast enough. A boy, not long ago, brought me a large basket full of crows. I expect his next load will be bull-frogs, if I don't soon issue orders to the contrary. One of my boys caught a mouse in school a few days ago, and directly marched up to me with his prisoner. I set about drawing it that same evening, and all the while the pantings of its little heart showed it to be in the most extreme agonies of fear. I had intended to kill it, in order to fix it in the claws of a stuffed owl; but happening to spill a few drops of water near where it was tied, it lapped it up with such eagerness, and looked in my face with such an eye of supplicating terror, as perfectly overcame me. I immediately untied it, and restored it to life and liberty. The agonies of a prisoner at the stake, while the fire and instruments of torment are preparing, could not be more severe than the sufferings of that poor mouse; and, insignificant as the object was, I felt at that moment the sweet sensations that mercy leaves on the mind when she triumphs over cruelty.
THE BALD EAGLE.
This distinguished bird, as he is the most beautiful of his tribe in this part of the world, and the adopted emblem of our country, is entitled to particular notice. He has been long known to naturalists, being common to both continents, and occasionally met with from a very high northern latitude to the borders of the torrid zone, but chiefly in the vicinity of the sea and along the shores and cliffs of our lakes and large rivers. Formed by nature for braving the severest cold; feeding equally on the produce of the sea and of the land; possessing powers of flight capable of outstripping even the tempests themselves; unawed by any thing but man; and, from the ethereal heights to which he soars, looking abroad, at one glance, on an immeasurable expanse of forests, fields, lakes, and ocean, deep below him, he appears indifferent to local changes of season, as, in a few minutes, he can pass from summer to winter, from the lower to the higher regions of the atmosphere, the abode of eternal cold, and thence descend at will to the torrid or the arctic regions of the earth. He is therefore found at all seasons in the countries which he inhabits, but prefers such places as have been mentioned above, from the great partiality he has for fish. In procuring these, he displays, in a very singular manner, the genius and energy of his character, which is fierce, contemplative, daring, and tyrannical,—attributes not exerted but on particular occasions, but, when put forth, overwhelming all opposition. Elevated upon a high, dead limb of some gigantic tree, that commands a wide view of the neighboring shore and ocean, he seems calmly to contemplate the motions of the various feathered tribes that pursue their busy avocations below, the snow-white gulls, slowly winnowing the air; the busy sand-pipers, coursing along the beach; trains of ducks, streaming over the surface; silent and watchful cranes, intent and wading; clamorous crows, and all the winged multitudes that subsist by the bounty of this vast liquid magazine of nature. High over all these hovers one whose action instantly arrests his attention. By his wide curvature of wing and sudden suspension in air, he knows him to be the fish-hawk, settling over some devoted victim of the deep. His eye kindles at the sight, and, balancing himself with half-opened wings on the branch, he watches the result. Down, rapid as an arrow from heaven, descends the distant object of his attention, the roar of its wings reaching the ear as it disappears in the deep, making the surges foam around. At this moment the looks of the eagle are all ardor, and, levelling his neck for flight, he sees the fish-hawk emerge, struggling with his prey, and mounting into the air with screams of exultation. These are the signal for our hero, who, launching into the air, instantly gives chase, and soon gains on the fish-hawk. Each exerts his utmost to mount above the other, displaying, in these rencounters, the most elegant and sublime aerial evolutions. The unencumbered eagle rapidly advances, and is just on the point of reaching his opponent, when, with a sudden scream, probably of despair and honest execration, the latter drops his fish; the eagle, poising himself for a moment as if to take a more certain aim, descends like a whirlwind, snatches it in his grasp ere it reaches the water, and bears his ill-gotten booty silently away to the woods.
The plumage of the mocking-bird, though none of the homeliest, has nothing gaudy or brilliant in it, and, had he nothing else to recommend him, would scarcely entitle him to notice; but his figure is well proportioned and even handsome. The ease, elegance, and o of his movements, the animation of his eye, and the intelligence he displays in listening, and laying up lessons from almost every species of the feathered creation within his hearing, are really surprising, and mark the peculiarity of his genius. To these qualities we may add that of a voice full, strong, and musical, and capable of almost every modulation, from the clear, mellow tones of the wood-thrush to the savage screams of the bald eagle. In measure and accent, he faithfully follows his originals; in force and sweetness of expression, he greatly inproves upon them. In his native groves, mounted upon the top of a tall bush or half-grown tree, in the dawn of dewy morning, while the woods are already vocal with a multitude of warblers, his admirable song rises pre-eminent over every competitor. The ear can listen to his music alone, to which that of all the others seems a mere accompaniment. Neither is this strain altogether imitative. His own native notes, which are easily distinguishable by such as are well acquainted with those of our various birds of song, are bold and full, and varied seemingly beyond all limits. They consist of short expressions of two, three, or, at the most, five or six syllables, generally interspersed with imitations, and all of them uttered with great emphasis and rapidity, and continued, with undiminished ardor, for half an hour or an hour at a time. His expanded wings and tail, glistening with white, and the buoyant gayety of his action, arrest the eye, as his song most irresistibly does the ear. He sweeps round with enthusiastic ecstasy, he mounts and descends, as his song swells or dies away, and, as Mr. Bartram has beautifully expressed it, “he bounds aloft with the celerity of an arrow, as if to recall his very soul, which expired in the last elevated strain.” While thus exerting himself, a bystander destitute of sight would suppose that the whole feathered tribes had assembled together on a trial of skill, each striving to produce his utmost effect, so perfect are his imitations. He many times deceives the sportsman, and sends him in search of birds that, perhaps, are not within miles of him, but whose notes he exactly imitates. Even birds themselves are frequently imposed on by this admirable mimic, and are decoyed by