Thursday, May 19, 2005

In praise of the useless

posted by Chet at 12:43 PM UTC

Baltimore orioles are back along the path, which slowed my walk to work this morning by half-an-hour or so. Birdwatching is a wonderful activity, not because it has any practical value, but precisely because it is so totally "useless." In a world that sometimes seems preoccupied with greed, birds range blessedly beyond the laws of economics.

As far as I know, there is only one place on earth where birds are used as money. On Santa Cruz Island in the South Pacific, the tiny scarlet-colored honeyeater is hunted for its feathers, which are woven into a rolled wampum-like currency.

John James Audubon was himself -- until his fame was established -- the economic victim of his passion for birds. In 1807 he opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Wrote Audubon later: "[The store] went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight." Rather than attending to business, Audubon ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

In the end, in spite of himself, Audubon became reasonably prosperous. He lived out his last years comfortably in a fine big house on the Hudson River in what is now the Washington Heights section of New York City, still minding, no doubt, the orioles.