Review: ''Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698-1840''

John James Audubon, Brown Pelican, Pelicanus Fuscus from Birds of America, 1827-38. Single plate of a four-volume book series. Courtesy the E. A. McIlhenny Natural History Collection, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge.

Bob Thomas implored the symposium audience to pay attention to the motivations behind the pursuits about which we were going to hear. The day’s topic—presented by biologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum directors—was the dodgy zigzagging course by which Europeans in colonial Louisiana began to understand the organic mesh of flora and fauna into which they’d inserted themselves. Part of our knowledge of the natural world comes from those pursuing pure science, but just as much—if not more—is the result of entrepreneurship and empire. Clearly, not all who examine the natural world hold its well-being foremost in their hearts.

Thomas is a prominent local conservationist and educator. Wearing his own motivations plainly, he argued that natural history is inextricable from environmental reform. But if Thomas is right, it’s also inextricable from environmental perversion. If John J. Audubon’s Birds of America is a precursor to the BBC’s Planet Earth documentary—both of which environmentalists praise for raising awareness and appreciation of nature—then French colonial Jean Prat’s cultivation of the wax myrtle in 18th-century New Orleans helped pave the way for Monsanto’s forays into genetically modified food.

The symposium, held back in February, was a counterpart to an exhibition on view until June at the Historic New Orleans Collection, "Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698-1840." The documents, diagrams, specimens, renderings, and maps on display provide entry points into a world of unfamiliar woods and swamps into which white men fumble forth seeking to categorize or exploit what they find. Unlike the heavy-footed explorers it implies, it’s a visually subtle exhibition, comprised largely of books with warped and torn brownish pages covered in cursive writing or sketches of fish and bird skeletons. Only a few objects in the dark and serene galleries work against the sense of being in a library archive—most prominently, a dog-sized taxidermied snapping turtle collected in 1834 by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, a French naturalist. Another is an original double-elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America, open to the artist’s depiction of a brown pelican. The tremendous size, aesthetic brilliance, and historic weight of the book set it apart from the other featured publications. One longs to dissolve the glass case in which it’s trapped and explore it.

With few immediately striking visual components, the exhibition demands reflection and imagination from the viewer. Each exhibited tidbit only hints at the full picture of groundbreaking science, commerce, colonialism, and the natural world of which it played a part. A display case of plants pressed as if preserved in some daydreamer’s scrapbook—weeds plucked to commemorate a camping trip, perhaps—turns out to be a selection of local specimens sent to the national garden in Paris, where top scientists deliberated their taxonomies and commissars worked to determine their potentials for profit. It’s a long mental jog between the spindly tendrils of a 250-year-old slender dwarf morning glory delicately pinned to paper and the transatlantic enterprise the plant is meant to represent. One must continually keep the overarching point of the exhibition in mind to render meaning from its individual parts.

Sheer age gives many of the objects on display an aura of allure—how the world has changed since that slender dwarf morning glory was first pinned to its paper! How quaint and inventive were colonial botanists’ methods of transporting plants overseas! But several instances in the exhibition complicate the notion of what it is to look at an authentic natural-historical object. The first is a fish—or, more specifically, a spotted halfbeak—preserved in wide-eyed frozen animation beside a skink and a snake, both in their own glass tubes. At first glance, the viewer assumes these three specimens were taken during the wild early days of European settlement. But on inspection of their accompanying placards, we learn that, while the snake and the skink were collected in the 1830s, the spotted halfbeak dates back only to 1965. A bit more detective work reveals that the fish serves as the real-life counterpoint to a drawing in an adjacent case that masterfully details a much older specimen of the same species. No visual indicator—save the placard—betrays the 130-year gap in age between the animals. The youthful imposter relies on the suspension of disbelief inherent in our gaze at historical objects as much as the fact that our methods of preserving scaled or slithering animals has remained unchanged through the centuries.

The inclusion of the snapping turtle is courtesy of another, much more short-lived process of preserving animals for scientific study: taxidermy. While taxidermy was important to 19th-century naturalists as a way of determining species and defining order—it allowed scientists to examine physical subjects for similarities and differences—the practice fell out of favor as scientists found animals mounted in lifelike poses increasingly difficult to decipher. British naturalist William Swainson, in 1840, wrote that taxidermied animals were “unfavorable to a minute examination” and did not allow their defining characteristics, which are essential to scientific description, to be distinctly seen. Not long after Lesueur’s snapping turtle was mounted with an open mouth, dramatically poised as if confronting a foe, science banished taxidermy to the realm of aesthetic pleasure and began using simple stuffed animal skins for examination. This is why the HNOC acquired another (contemporary) taxidermy for the exhibition—an alligator gar meant to illustrate inaccuracies in one early naturalist’s renderings of the species—not from a museum, but from a sporting goods store.

Of course, to call "Seeking the Unknown" an exhibition about early naturalists in Louisiana, one privileges naturalists who began work shortly after the region was given that name. Much of what Europeans “discovered” about the region’s natural plenitudes was pioneering only because they neglected to consult the people who had been living here for centuries. Robbie Ethridge, an anthropology professor from the University of Mississippi who spoke at the symposium, outlined at length the ways in which Native Americans in the region manipulated nature through agriculture, animal domestication, and importation of exotic plant species. If we tend to think of the North American continent before Europeans as a pristine wilderness, Ethridge said, it’s in ignorance of the fact that sophisticated botanists had been shaping the landscape for 12,000 years. But again, natural history deals heavily in questions of motivation and commerce. French royal botanist Jean Prat received great renown for his cultivation in New Orleans of wax myrtle, which became a serious cash crop for the French empire. Less is made of the enslaved Carolina Indians from whom Prat learned to boil the myrtle berries to extract wax and then mix it with tallow to make long-burning candles—the product that made wax myrtle profitable. Of course, the logic of history written by victors makes it unsurprising that the French scientist-entrepreneur is remembered over the Indians who simply wanted to light their homes. Perhaps a cynical variation of the feminist bumper sticker applies to the extolling of profiteers and imperialists in this exhibition: Well-behaved botanists rarely make natural history.

Emysaurus temminckii (alligator snapping turtle), 1834. Reptile specimen collected in Louisiana by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. Courtesy the Laboratoire des Reptiles et Amphibiens, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris.

Editor's Note

"Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698-1840" on view through June 2 at The Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal Street) in New Orleans.