“All the birds in Haiti, have gone to the Domincan Republic” Clauden
Each morning, throughout the fall and early winter, Clauden and I spend the early hours of the day working in the clinic garden. It is cool then and the world is still quiet except for the women waiting outside the wall who talk and laugh together.
We have planted a patch of sunflowers to greet people as they come into the clinic and on that morning, the stalks are knee high with leaves and buds. With this observation, I feel hopeful about so many things. I comment to Caluden that the birds will also like the sunflowers but her interrupts my enthusiasm to explains that “ all the birds in Haiti had gone to the Dominican Republic.”
I am shocked by this relevation and its significance. There are already millions of Hatien immigrants in the Domincan Republic as well as a significant amount of the manufacturing. Many a mother reports that her baby’s father is in the DR as it is commonly called. How can the birds be there too?
I look up at the blue morning sky and I realize that there is not a bird in the sky and none in the nearby bushes or trees. Why hadn’t I noticed before?
Clauden explains that many people hunted even the smallest birds and that when they cut down so much of the forest, the birds like many people migrated to places where it was easier to find food, safety and the ability to earn a living.
I dig deeper, determined to make the grounds around the clinic a safe haven for birds with places to hide and get water; a place of seeds and soil rich with insects and worms.
I also look up “Birds in Haiti” and am surprised to find out that James- John Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Haiti which was then known as the French Colony of Saint-Dominique. His father came to Haiti as a Lieutenant in the French army and then stayed to make his fortune on a sugar plantation. James Audubon was the son of a Creole mother who died shortly after he was born. His childhood was marked by the cruelty of slavery and the slave rebellion. He had three known siblings in Haiti; all of African heritage.
When his father left for France, he took his two fairest skin children, James and Rose, and left the darker skinned children in Haiti. They were adopted and raised by his father’s French wife. At 18, restless and lacking ambition, he left for America, where he made his mark as a great naturalist and illustrator of birds.
I wonder that I was never told that James Audubon was Hatien. I have gone to the Audubon Center hundreds of times but have no memory of that being shared. I say to everyone, for many days after, “ Did you know Audubon was Hatien but mostly they do not know who he is. I say, with excitement that he was the most famous American bird illustrator and he was Hatien! I am so excited.
I discover that Haiti always stayed with him and that the early deaths and violence of both the Hatien and French revolutions were strong influencing factors on his view of life and death. Perhaps it bred in him that sense of the wild that only can only be calmed, for some, in nature.
In an article in the New York Times at the time of the earthquake, the author reflects on Audubon’s bird illustrations and Haiti.
The same sleight of hand informs Audubon’s bird pictures, which are vividly lifelike although they usually used dead birds as their models. But for all their vitality, Audubon’s paintings resonate with loss as well as life—touched, in Audubon scholar Christoph Irmscher’s words, “by the experience of death, or at least impending death.”
Audubon seemed infinitely fascinated by the precarious line that separates life from death, and how that line can vanish in a matter of seconds. That dark recognition started for Audubon in what is now Haiti, and it gives his bird pictures an especially unsettling resonance as the people of his birthplace continue to mourn their dead.
I learned, in Haiti, to look for birds as a sign of life, hope and recovery. I watched the skies and in time, I began to find them, though more often in the mountains and by the sea. I saw hummingbirds in the bright pink flower by the side of the road and stopped to watch a hawk drifting over head. In this, I found reassurance and hope.
One day, at the fishing village, I saw a group of young boys with a bird they have captured. It is small and surely would not offer much food. I offer to buy it from them so it can go off and make more birds but they want more money than I have and I am forced to give up and keep walking.
I remember Audubon’s painting of birds and I realize how so many of them have both dead and live birds in them; capturing that place of inevitable transition. I think of the many mothers, fathers and children who I knew and held and died in my short months in Haiti. I too must make peace with this inevitable edge.
I trapse through the forest and climb into the mountains, looking for answers in the tiniest flower and the song of the bird hidden in the underbrush. I think about his siblings who were left behind because there skin was too dark and what may have become of them. I think of how Audubon was presented to me as a French aristocrat who painted but never a young boy, orphaned and raised in Haiti.
Once I was told that African- American children don’t like nature and I think, “Ah but you were wrong. One of the most famous naturalists of all time was of African roots.” I think of how my understanding of the world and its history would have been different if someone had told me the true story of a little boy, born of a French soldier and a descendent of an African slave; in Haiti, a place I did not know.
In my life, I look for those places where the natural world and history come together; that place where they influence each other and culture takes root and grows. I know that the birds left Haiti because so many rich and powerful countries took the hardwoods and because of hunger and the loss of farmable fields. But I also know that life regenerates itsel,f when given a chance. I know that there is time to tell the story of Audubon’s Haiti and to replant trees and welcome the birds back to Haiti.