Thursday, May 10, 2007

Notable Audubon Quote: What is the Source?

Inspired by an article on quotations that I found in the buzz log, I discovered the following quote attributed to John James Audubon by zaadz:
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.
That's a lovely sentiment, and we all want to believe that Audubon would have said something like that. But did he, really? Well, a Google search certainly leads one to believe that he did, yielding nearly 300 sources attributing this quote to Audubon. The trouble is, none of these online sources provide an exact citation to any of Audubon's writings in which the quote appears.

Turning to Audubon's two most recent biographers, we find that the word "conservation" is listed just twice in the index of William Souder's Under a wild sky and not at all in Richard Rhodes's John James Audubon: the making of an American. Souder's reference to Audubon and conservation is perhaps telling:
Audubon's zest for killing wild animals is jarring to modern sensibilities, especially to people who cannot reconcile hunting with the idea of conservation--the latter a cause now closely associated with the name Audubon. Today, most hunters consider themselves conservationists, and their sport has become an essential tool in the management of game and in raising money to preserve wildlife. But Audubon was a premodern man. He hunted, as everyone did then, to put meat on the table. He also hunted for sport. . . . He recognized and often speculated about the impact overhunting could have on wildlife populations. But he was never deterred. He sometimes said a day in which he killed fewer than a hundred birds was a day wasted.
If Audubon really did pen those words about "A true conservationst," as we are led to believe, then he was truly a man ahead of his time, and no doubt more attuned to reality than many of today’s political leaders who refuse to acknowledge the reality of imminent environmental threats such as global climate change.

My challenge to you, dear reader, is this: find a reference (title, page number, etc.) to one of Audubon's journals, letters, or other written works in which this exact quote is found. Let me know what you find.


  1. You could always ask the folks at Searches on their website for "Audubon" and "true conservationist" did not turn up anything. They might be able to ferret out a source.

    One thing I wonder about is the use of the term "conservationist." As I understand it, the American conservation movement dates to the last few decades of the nineteenth century - after Audubon's death. That does not necessarily mean he could not have used the word, since it could predate the movement. I wonder when that term was coined and when it came to have the meaning used in the quotation. I don't have ready access to an OED at the moment, but that might shed some light on the matter.

  2. All good points, John. I, too, was under the impression that the word "conservationist" was cointed in the late 19th century. The online traces the origin of "conserve" to the period 1325-1375, "conservation" to the period 1350-1400, and "conservationist" to the period 1865-1870 (all based on the 2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary). Audubon died in 1851. Until proof to the contrary is provided, I remainskeptical that Audubon is the author of the aforementioned quote.

  3. Following up on John's suggestion, I have written to the folks at to see if thy can ferret out the true source (Audubon or otherwise) of this quote.

  4. I do not know the answer to your query, Mr. Trapp. But Audubon was my great great great great grandfather.

    I definitely have some of his genes. I have the urge to shoot birds and skin'em. Which works out great with the house sparrows in my martin house.

    But my neighbors see this and want to call PETA on me. What should I do?