19 December 2007

Foreigner's Travel Provides Distinct Prose on Birdlife in 1800

By James Ed. Ducey

The notes for birds are from the day-book of a 22-year-old traveling via sloop, stage-coach, horse and otherwise to an overseas adventure. It cost seven guineas for passage on a small brig at Bristol, set to sailing to reach Nantucket and onward to Sandy Hook.

Among the first of the local birdlife recorded in the book, were the Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Bald Eagle, Loggerhead Shrike, and Osprey. Many of the observations were made during the sojourn at Coosohatchie, the plantation of Mr. Drayton and a local village, near Pocotaligo.

Passages in the day-book, kept from 1798-1802 depicts some close encounters with wild birds. There were odes and elligies and poetic endeavours specially scribed.

The first notes are from the plantation.

"... The feathered choir began to warble their strains, and from every tree was heard the song of the red-bird, of which the pauses were filled by the mocking-bird, who either imitated the note with exquisite precision, of poured forth a ravishing melody of its own.

"Of the feathered race, the mocking-bird first claims my notice. It is perfectly domestic, and sings frequently for hours on the roof of a log-house. It is held sacred by the natives. Even children respect the bird whose imitative powers are so delightful.

"I heard the mocking-bird for the first time on the first day of March. It was warbling, close to my window, from a tree called by some the Pride of India, and by others the Poison-berry Tree. Its song was faint, resembling that of birds hailing the rising sun; but it became stronger as the spring advanced. The premices of this mocking songster could not but delight me; and I adressed the bird in an irregular Ode, which Mrs. Drayton did me the honour to approve.

"Ode to the Mocking-Bird.
SWEET bird, whose imitative strain,
Of all thy race can counterfeit the note,
And with a burthen'd heart complain,
Or to the song of joy attune the throat;
To thee I touch the string,
While at my casement, from the neighb'ring tree,
Thou hail'st the coming spring,
And plaintive pour'st thy voice, or mock'st with merry glee.
Thou bringest to my mind
The characters we find
Amid the motley scenes of human life;
How very few appear
The garb of truth to wear,
But with a borrow'd voice, conceal a heart of strife.
Sure then, with wisdom fraught,
Thou art by nature taught
Dissembled joy in others to describe;
And when the mournful heart
Assumes a sprightly part,
To note the cheat, and with thy mocking chide.
But when, with midnight song,
Thou sing'st the woods among,
And softer feelings in the heart awake;
Sure then thy rolling note
Does sympathy denote,
And shows thou can'st of others' grief partake.
Pour out thy lengthen'd strain
With woe and grief complain,
And blend thy sorrows in the mournful lay;
Thy moving tale reveal, Make me soft pity feel,
I love in silent woe to pass the day.

"The humming bird was often caught in the bells of flowers. It is remarkable for its variegated plumage of scarlet, green, and gold. The whip-poor-will is heard after the last frost, when, towards night, it fills the woods with its melancholy cry of Whip poor Will! Whip poor Will! I remember to have seen mention made of this bird in a Latin poem, written by an early Colonist.

Hic Avis repetens, Whip! Whip! Will, voce jocosa, Quae tota verno tempore nocte canit.

"The note of the red-bird is imitated with nice precision by the mocking-bird; but there is a bird called the loggerhead that will not bear passively its taunts. His cry resembles Clink, clink, clank; which, should the mocking-bird presume to imitate it, he flies and attacks the mimic for his insolence. But this only incurs a repetition of the offence; so true is it that among birds as well as men, anger serves only to sharpen the edge of ridicule. It is observable, that the loggerhead is known to suck the eggs of the mocking-bird and devour the young ones in the nest.

"Eagles were often seen on the plantation. The encounter between one of them and a fish-hawk is curious. When the fish-hawk has seized his prey, his object is to get above the eagle; but when unable to succeed, the king of birds darts on him fiercely, at whose approach the hawk, with a horrid cry, lets fall the fish, which the eagle catches in his beak before it descends to the ground."

The Davis sojourn continued, usually less effusive. There were some soft sonnets. Oft the outing was with William Henry, a student that liked to gallop through the woods.

"I generally accompanied my pupil into the woods in his shooting excursions, determined both to make havoc among birds and beasts of every description. Sometimes we fired in vollies at the flocks of doves that frequent the corn fields; sometimes we discharged our pieces at the wild geese, whose empty cackling betrayed them; and once we brought down some paroquets that were directing their course over our heads to Georgia."

In May 1799, the whole family bunch at the plantation went to summer quarters on the Ashley River. Henry and Davis went after wild turkeys during part of the trip. They dispatched a snake while the breeding bird "chattered and fluttered from above."

The new locale meant another ode, focused on the Ashley River. Some sonnets were park of his book of poems. Travel always ensued and a woodpecker was noted along the trace to Charleston.

At one night-fall, a stop was made at Mr. MacGregor's tavern, on the River Santee. People were gathered for a Christmas festival. "They had formed a dance!" Davis scribed.

"Not being for any of their ambling, and finding that amidst such riot no sleep was to be had, I summoned a negro, and was paddled in a canoe, through Push-and-go Creek, to the opposite bank of Santee River. The Whip-poor-will, on my landing, was heard from the woods; and in prosecuting my walk, I meditated a sonnet to the bird.

Sonnet to the Whip-poor-will.
POOR, plaintive bird! whose melancholy lay
Suits the despondence of my troubled breast,
I hail thy coming at the close of day,
When all thy tribe are hush'd in balmy rest.
Wisely thou shunn'st the gay, tumultuous throng,
Whose mingled voices empty joys denote,
And for the sober night reservist thy song,
When echo from the woods repeats thy note
Pensive, at silent night, I love to roam,
Where elves and fairies tread the dewy green,
While the clear moon, beneath the azure dome,
Sheds a soft lustre o'er the sylvan scene,
And hear thee tell thy moving tale of woe,
To the bright Empress of the Silver Bow."

Davis then walked on his way. A bit later: "from the woods was heard the cry of the Whip-poor-will" at a place also filled with rattlesnakes.

Further stops along the route were New York, Washington, D.C., New York another time, and Philadelphia. Then to Occoquan, along the river.

Davis mingled seldom with the people, "shut up in my profound habitation, sought an oblivion of care in writing, reading, tobacco." There was gazing out at the moon-lit night. During one night of solitude, while hearing the "saddened strain" of the mockingbird, the elements became:

"Evening at Occoquan.
An Ode.
SLOW the solemn sun descends,
Ev'ning's eye comes rolling on;
Glad the weary stranger bends
To the Banks of Occoquan!
Now the cricket on the hearth,
Chirping, tells his merry tale;
Now the owlet ventures forth
Moping to the silent gale.
Still the busy mill goes round,
While the miller plies his care;
And the rocks send back the sound,
Wafted by the midnight air.
Lo! the moon with lustre bright,
In the stream beholds her face;
Shedding glory o'er the night,
As she runs her lofty race.
See! the bark along the shore,
Larger to the prospect grow;
While the sea-boy bending o'er
Chides the talking waves below.
Now the mocking-songster's strain
Fills the pauses of her brood;
And her plaints the ear detain,
Echoing from the distant wood.
Hanging o'er the mountain's brow,
Lo! the cattle herbage find;
While in slumber sweet below,
Peaceful rests the village hind.
Now the student seeks his cell,
Nor regrets the day is gone;
But with silence loves to dwell,
On the Banks of Occoquon."

During his stay of three month, Davis wrote another verse of distinct style to convey the day. Following an apparently restful night of sleep at the tavern, he sallied forth to journey leisurely through a beautiful morning. The walk produced:

Morning at Occoquan.
An Ode
IN the barn the cock proclaims
That the East is streaked with gold;
Strutting round the feather'd dames,
Who the light with joy behold.
Sweet! oh ! sweet the breath of morn!
Sweet the mocking-songster's strain;
Where the waving stalks of corn
Bend beneath the ripen'd grain.
Lo! the martins now forsake,
For a while their tender brood;
And the swallow skims the lake,
Each in search of winged food.
See the cottage chimneys smoke,
See the distant turrets gleam;
Lo! the farmer to the yoke,
Pairs his meek submissive team.
Here no negro tills the ground,
Trembling, weeping, woeful-wan;
Liberty is ever found,
On the banks of Occoquan!

"But not the muses, nor walks, nor the melody of birds, could divert my mind from the publication of my Novel, which had been so long in the press at Philadelphia," he wrote for posterity.

"Demanding life, impatient for the skies."

Onward to Philadelphia. Then Delaware. Along the road towards Washington, one day, since he the time, he refreshed himself at Spurrier's, went "carousing at Dent's," and then "sleeping at Drummond's." These were three public-houses along the variable road.

After some political speeches, he went to the Little Falls of the Potomac River, and ended up a cabin in the woods. Upon his departure, with Mary ...

"... I gave the little wood-nymph my arm, and we walked forward together. The mocking-bird was singing; his song never appeared to me so sweet before." They gazed at each other intently, with a background chorus of the woods, and after some minutes of not speaking, said farewell. There were further roads to travel for the young man.

The woods of Virginia was the final muse of the travels. Davis opened an Academy for local school-age children. Natural history was part of one field trip.

"Dick. - ... Master, shall I take it to the school-house? - If you are fond of birds, I know now for a mocking-bird's nest; I am only afeard these young rogues, the school-boys, will find out the tree. The play the mischief with every thing, they be full of devilment. I saw Jack Lockhart throw a stone at the old bird, as she was returning to feed her young; and if I had not coaxed him away to look at my young puppies, he would have found out the nest."

Davis mentioned a poetic variety of species during his tenure in America. Much was said so uniquely in those odes, or sonnets or some variety of verse. There are bird sightings from the traveler's trusty day-book for South Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia. The list of bird species has a brief tally:

  • Bald Eagle: "eagles were often seen on the plantation" at Coosohatchie.
  • Carolina Parakeet: "once we brought down some paroquets that were directing their course over our heads to Georgia" Davis wrote.
  • Goose
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Osprey
  • Owl: "the woods, whose solitude was rendered more melancholy from the cry of the owl," Davis wrote at Strangeways Farm.
  • Purple Martin; remember them in "Morning at Occoquan, An Ode"
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  • Swallow
  • Unidentified birds; the words were on different occasions, "birds again renewed their harmony" then "feather choir began to warble their strain" are written in the precious day-book.
  • Whip-poor-will: near the Santee river, "from the woods was heard the cry of the whip-poor-will."
  • Woodpecker

Mr. John Davis returned to Salisbury, England, to forge a career as a journalist and book-maker.

John Davis. London: 1803. Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by Permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States.

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