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'Mockingbirds,' John James Audubon

As Louisiana families gather for Thanksgiving this week, John James Audubon will, in many houses, be there above the mantel to welcome sons and daughters home.

The bird artist’s prints occupy a prominent place of honor in homes and offices across the state, a way to acknowledge a painter who often chose the wildlife of Louisiana as his subject.

When we hail Louisiana as a sportsman’s paradise, we’re evoking a distinction that Audubon helped to create. He painted more birds in Louisiana than any other place on earth, advancing the state’s international reputation as a natural wonder.

This Thanksgiving, we should be grateful for the beauty bequeathed by Mother Nature to Louisiana — and give thanks for Audubon, who reminded us what a lovely spot Louisiana was.

All of this comes to mind because the good folks at LSU Press have just released “Audubon on Louisiana,” a collection of the bird artist’s writings about the state. In addition to being a masterful artist, Audubon was a clever writer, too, and Louisiana was a frequent topic. Although he traveled widely, Audubon said Louisiana was his favorite state in the Union.

Audubon arrived in Louisiana in 1821, seeking portrait commissions from wealthy clients in New Orleans while he looked for birds to paint. Before long, he was in West Feliciana Parish, where he refined the skills that made him the most famous wildlife artist in history.

Workshop encourages volunteers to dress the part of Audubon's era

“It was in Louisiana that he gave himself up totally to the project that finally became ‘Birds of America,’” writes Ben Forkner, who edited the new collection of Audubon writings. “It was in Louisiana that he persuaded his wife Lucy to join him and make her home for almost 10 years. It was in Louisiana that he perfected his art, and in Louisiana that he painted the most and, many would argue, the best of his birds. In Louisiana, he became the Audubon we know today.”

When he left St. Francisville in the autumn of 1821, Audubon said that leaving the “sweet woods” was painful, “for in them we always enjoyed Peace and the sweetest pleasures of admiring the Creator in all his unrivaled Works.”

That legacy is still a vivid part of Louisiana’s landscape, though the state has changed much since Audubon’s time. Development has dwindled the wild places, and the coast is challenged by erosion.

But Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what we still have. The words of John James Audubon, given new voice in “Audubon on Louisiana” are a potent reminder of just how lucky we are.