Arguably the most important American ornithologist, Elliott Coues (pronounced like cows), does not have the name recognition of Audubon or Ridgway, since his aim was purely scientific, rather than making attempts at popularizing ornithology through pictures, as Audubon did, or through occasional writings in popular natural history journals, as Ridgway did (although, most of what he did was scientific, too). However, this is for another post.
Recently, I’ve been reading Coues’s letters, and in doing so, I noticed that his writing is heavily based on figurative language, more so than the naturalists who did not stick strictly to scientific writing. Coues’s scientific writing can be dry. However, his commentary is often as sharp and curmudgeonly as President John Adams’s, and his private letters are often filled with a poetic quality.
Here is a letter to the naturalist Daniel Elliott on the death of ornithologist John Cassin of arsenic poisoning in 1869:
The all-worthy, time-honored quartette has been rudely broken. Now only a triangle, Lawrence, Brewer and Baird, remains of the last generation of American ornithologists. . . .A higher trust than we perhaps appreciate, is laud upon the few of us this later day who pay devotion to the beautiful study of ornithology. It is no less than the keeping bright and untarnished, and transmitting to our successors, the name and fame of the science that has absorbed such minds as those of Wilson, Nuttall, Audubon, Bonaparte, and Cassin. May we prove worthy servitors, guarding with jealous care our trust, watchful that the vestal fires shall ever burn at the shrine where we worship with a clear and steady flame.
Cassin is relatively unknown today, but he was America’s first taxonomist and the first to describe nearly 200 birds before his death at 55. The Bonaparte in the letter is Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor.
What is nice about this letter is the window we get of an ornithologist’s world. We make or make a mental fashioning of our gods based on our interests.These gods shape our measurements of what actions or thoughts are worthy of worship and what are not. Our poets light their vestal fires for Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, and Stevens and praise the living monuments of Ashbery and Rankine. Likewise, football fans do the same with Unitas, Brown, Rice, Montana, Manning, Rodgers and Watt. The ornithologists listed in Coues’s letters are the ornithological analogies of these poets and athletes. Those uninterested in these fields will never understand the personal importance placed on these people.
Anyway, I’m glad some scholar sought it fit to save Coues’s letter.