Stonington residents M.J. Brush, an artist, and her husband, Alan H. Brush, retired professor of physiology and neurobiology at the University of Connecticut, went south with both their passions and their 33-foot Cape Dory cutter to produce a decidedly handsome and insightful book about one of the earliest naturalists to explore and record wildlife and vegetation the Carolinas and Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas, and the state of that environment today.
The larger-sized, 190-page paperback, “Mark Catesby’s Legacy: Natural History Then and Now,” with 33 exquisite illustrations of birds, fish, shore and plant life by M.J. and informed history and narrative by Alan, was nearly two decades in the making. It is published with the promotional support of the Catesby Commemorative Trust, lately affiliated with the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Mark Catesby, born in England in 1683 and died in 1749, is credited, reads the introduction, during expeditions to the West Indies and America with “creating one of the first realistic pictorial records of the plants and animals along the East Coast of North America … The images remained in relative obscurity until the late 1990s when a selection of the originals were exhibited in the United States.”
Catesby’s watercolors and plates, it is noted, were executed in this country a century before John James Audubon’s.
It was at the University of Connecticut, where M.J., then studying for a bachelor’s of fine arts, discovered her facility with scientific illustration, and, after graduating, worked as an science illustrator for books and scholarly journals. In the year 2000, while doing illustrations and researching early prints of plants at UConn, she came across Catesby’s drawings.
That was also the year that M.J. and her husband, an ornithologist by avocation, each retired and decided to sail their Cape Dory cutter, “Mokito,” the length of the Eastern Seaboard, all the while working on a book which would replicate some of Catesby’s watercolors and describe, as M.J. says, “the ecology of the coast and changes to the habitat over the past 300 years.”
The book, available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and at Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic, was finally published last year. Some half-dozen of M.J.’s plates from the book are available at Adore, a boutique also in downtown Mystic, where M.J. will speak at a book signing on May 25. Prints also are available from the artist.
M.J. had to find models for her subject matter where she could. The 20-inch ivory-billed woodpecker that graces the book’s cover was “drawn from a specimen made available by … the Lamont Center of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History. Below the drawer where this specimen is lying beside twelve or so other males, is a drawer with twelve females, all shot by a collector on the same day in 1911.”
The red-crested, black-bodied woodpecker, according to the text, was also known as the “great god bird and the holy grail bird, both supposedly exclamations uttered when the bird was first seen.”
Deemed extinct, recent claims of sighting have cast doubt on its fate.
The next plate, depicting the Bachman’s warbler, or swamp warbler, shows a 4-inch-long, olive-greenish bird with yellow forehead that is, alas, extinct. The specimens M.J. found for her renderings came from the Yale Peabody collection in New Haven.
Another of M.J.’s models, the fish crow, with its 15-inch length and 35-inch wingspan, was provided by Dr. Robert Askins, a professor emeritus of biology at Connecticut College.
Catesby, according to the authors, did not paint any crows but mentioned them in writing about the value of “purple martins” in the landscape:
“The whole Bird is of a dark shining Purple; the Wings and Tails being most dusky and inclining to Brown,” Catesby is quoted. “They breed like Pigeons in Lockers prepared for them against House, and in Gourds hung on Poles for them to build in, they being of great Use about Houses and Yards, for pursuing and chasing away Crows, Hawks and other Vermin from the Poultry.”
M.J. added: “As I have no chickens, I do not think them vermin.”
To complete the book, as M.J. says, “We went by boat, by plane, by car,” to the extensive region Catesby surveyed, and spent much time in the laboratory facilities at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., where the Brushes, UConn loyalists, also “engaged in some serious conversations on women’s basketball.”
Despite the beauty they found and, in the book’s illustrations, spotlight and memorialize, Alan Brush casts a knowing and unblinking eye on Catesby’s world today:
“The intended and unintended consequences of human activity subsequent to Catesby’s ‘Natural History’ were as unpredictable as they were monumental and widespread and concern us. It is highly unlikely that the accumulated damage can be repaired, or pristine conditions restored; nor would we necessarily want to return to the living conditions of 300 years ago.”
But they are not bereft of advocacy: “Our challenge was to explore the way plants and animals make their living in a continually shifting, changing and often hostile world … Our hope is that by focusing on biological organization and process we might encourage stewardship of our natural world that so impressed Catesby.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.