By Jonathan Alderfer, National Geographic Birding Books Editor
Three hundred years ago, in 1712, an unheralded Englishman named Mark Catesby arrived in America. His trip began with a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, but the discovery and description of the little-unknown flora and fauna of the Colonies became his obsession and he stayed for seven years. On his second trip in 1722—ten years before the birth of George Washington—he returned with a plan and traveled under the auspices of London’s Royal Society, chaired at the time by Sir Isaac Newton. His plan: publish the first scientific description of the New World’s amazing plants and animals based on his firsthand observations and art. It was a natural history odyssey and an obsession that lasted the rest of his life.
Catesby’s 1722–1726 expedition started with a three-month sail from England to the Low Country of South Carolina. From there, he collected, studied, and painted the native flora and fauna, and made extended trips to the “wildlands” of Georgia and the Bahamas. With a trunkful of sketches, paintings, and journals, he returned to England and spent the next twenty years—the remainder of his life—writing and illustrating his self-published, two-volume masterpiece, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. He produced 160 copies for the first edition; about 80 copies still exist intact.
Catesby the Artist
The two folio volumes contain 220 hand-colored etchings, the first-ever illustrations of the “Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants” that inhabited the Colonies. The birds take center stage for Catesby, and he observed and painted some species that none of us will ever see alive—the now extinct Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The ever-observant Catesby was the first person to express concern for the loss of North American birds to habitat destruction and to discover that some birds migrate—at the time, it was the widely accepted that many “summer” birds spent the winter in the bottom of ponds or the trunks of dead trees.
Catesby’s stunning artworks were truly a labor of love and dedication. He was a formidable self-taught artist who undertook the etching of the copper plates, printing them on large sheets of paper, and finally hand coloring each individual print with watercolors. His compositions derive much of their power from his straightforward, no-nonsense, presentation of animals and plants together—an innovation he introduced and that influenced John James Audubon a hundred years later. His art fills page after page with patterns and colors that are curiously compelling and fresh to the modern viewer. An additional gallery of twelve of my favorite images—including those three extinct species—is here.
Connect with Catesby—You’re Invited!
This November, a once-in-300 years symposium of scholars, art lovers, botanists, and bird-watchers from across the globe will be gathering to celebrate the artist and natural historian Mark Catesby and the 300th anniversary of his arrival in America. The Catesby Commemorative Trust will be hosting numerous events in Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina from November 4–9. Lectures by world-renowned Catesby scholars, receptions, and viewings of his art are open to the public. Some events, such as the Tuesday, November 6 presentations at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum are free; others are fee-based. To learn more about the celebration, view the short video at the top of this post. To see a schedule of events and to make a reservation visit http://www.catesbytrust.org.
At National Geographic we are celebrating too. This October we will be publishing The Bird-watcher’s Bible, a natural history and cultural celebration of all things BIRD. Lavishly illustrated with photographs and art—including, of course, the work of Mark Catesby—the book is a visual treat and an essential collection of information.
Author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Weidensaul explains the mysteries of bird migration and ornithologist Kimball Garrett covers the essential science topics—from feathers and flight to courtship and nesting. Veteran natural history writer Catherine H. Howell offers a grand tour of birds and their meaning through history and around world cultures. Extending a welcome to beginning bird-watchers are chapters on how to get started birding and enjoying backyard birds. Sprinkled throughout are “bird brain” trivia snippets that offer a window into the lighter side of our world’s avian cast of characters.
Here are early reviews and a link to buy the book:
“[An] elegant study of all things avian…the book is worth the price of admission for purely visual reasons, though readers will find the text equally rewarding…A tome to be treasured at home and in the wild.” –Publisher’s Weekly starred review
“You know a new bird-watching book is a good one…when you mention it to a fellow bird-watcher co-worker, and he immediately drops what he’s doing, races over to your office, and the two of you spend some guilty-pleasure moments flipping through the book.” –Denver Post