A Thank You to Audubon

When I was in Grade Four, surgery confined my friend Martha to a body cast for many weeks. While she was bedridden, I sometimes gave up a precious Saturday afternoon to visit this little girl, whose sheltered palatial home with its marble-floored entranceway and grand, sweeping staircase was worlds different from my own. Despite her temporary imprisonment, grave, uncomplaining little Martha, had many advantages that were new to me.

However, glimpsing some of the misery Martha bore so bravely, I coveted only one. In an attempt to amuse and educate her, her parents bought a series of Audubon nature books for children. My but these seemed fine to me. Housed in maroon leatherette-covered cases were gilt boxes with knobs which slid out to reveal fascinating booklets celebrating many aspects of nature. Our pleasant job was to stick the many illustrative pictures into each booklet. Each time I searched for the places for my colorful images in the booklets Martha shared with me, I was learning. Already I had begun to study and collect butterflies. Later I would read Henri Fabre. For now, reading about “Insect Allies”, which included parasitic wasps, dragonflies, and caterpillar hunters, captivated me. Already I lived intimately with such creatures. Now I also could appreciate ways to observe and study them in depth.

Most of all, with my friend I found that my sense of being at home in nature, and relishing its diversity was affirmed in these booklets. At the same time, they also were wonderful gateways to exotic places that then were beyond my scope—the seashore, the desert.

Recently, I was surprised to discover a similar set of Audubon guides from the fifties, tossed in a bookseller’s refuse pile. “You can have them,” he told me contemptuously. “They’re worth nothing to me. They’re too old-fashioned for anyone to want.”

And so, many years later, I have what I never expected to own. When I pull out the drawers, I can enter anything from “Life in Shallow Sea Water” to “Life in Flowing Waters” to “Nature’s Architects” to “Life Along the Amazon”. I still find that the tone is respectful, informative and enthusiastic. I read about micro-habitats of the forest, symbiosis of lichens and am appreciative of a series which opened many doors for me.

About Peri McQuay

Peri Phillips McQuay is the author of Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home, The View From Foley Mountain, a book of nature meditations on her experiences living for 30 years at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area and A Wing in the Door: Life With a Red-tailed Hawk is the story of her adventures with Merak, a human-imprinted hawk, who lived free but saw McQuay and her family as her special people. Also Peri has written numerous essays, articles, book reviews and a weekly column, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard Magazine. Her credits include Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Snowy Egret, Seasons, The Fiddlehead, Herizons and Brick.
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