Wednesday, November 19, 2008

PHOEBE BIRDS AND ST. FRANCISVILLE


On Sunday, I spied an Eastern Phoebe, an olive green bird that is described as a bird that “wags its tail,” according to the National Audubon Society’s guide to birds. She was sitting atop a bird bath in the backyard which we had placed on its head because the bath, when filled with water, began to breed mosquitoes. I thought the Phoebe was acting rather dumb because she frequented a dry, upside down basin, but later read that this bird swoops down on prey from any type of perch. The Phoebe stood on the stone bath long enough for me to find information about her in my bird guide and to discover the fact that her ancestors were the first ever to be banded in America by John James Audubon, the great artist who authored and painted BIRDS OF AMERICA.

Audubon was working on the aforementioned book when he banded the Phoebe, but his major job at the time was as tutor to Eliza Pirrie at the Oakley plantation home in St. Francisville, Louisiana. I once made Spring pilgrimages to St. Francisville , and on one occasion took my godfather, Markham Peacock, then 95, to visit Oakley. The two-story frame house now stands on a 100-acre tract known as Audubon Memorial State Park, which has also become a wildlife sanctuary. The house was built by James Pirrie over a raised brick basement and has a curved stairway joining the two galleries. At the time I took my godfather, I tried to discourage him from climbing the staircase, but he shushed me with the information that he had climbed pyramids in Egypt and took the steps with more vigor than I could muster.

John James Audubon tutored Eliza Pirrie at Oakley and taught her to draw and paint; his wife taught Eliza to dance, using an abandoned cotton gin rather than a ballroom for the instruction. According to Lyle Saxon, Eliza eloped with a young aristocrat on a rainy day, and her lover carried her through steams that were breast deep, then succumbed to pneumonia and died three weeks after he captured his bride. However, Eliza married twice after her first tragic marriage.

St. Francisville is situated in the Tunica Hills of Louisiana where red sediment and tan loess lie beneath rolling hills. In wealthier times preceding the Civil War, it was a rich town that boasted many plantation homes: Propinquity, The Myrtles (which has ghosts!), Catalpa, Wakefield, and Rosedown, queen of St. Francisville plantation homes, with formal gardens landscaped after those at Versailles. The house is a blending of Georgian, Louisiana, and other classic architectural styles.

The Cottage, where we spent the night on the trip with Godfather, has a long front gallery to which coffee and biscuits are brought out on a silver tray for guests as they arise in the morning, and Godfather pronounced the place “quite European” despite its austere appearance. The Cottage isn’t as grand as Rosedown but it’s a hospitable place where week-end guests can relax and renew themselves after a week of work. It stands on a high bluff (shades of Sewanee) in a wooded area, and we had to cross a rickety bridge over a creek to reach the old home.

A motel in St. Francisville features many of John James Audubon’s bird paintings, but I don’t remember seeing the little Eastern Phoebe that piqued my interest. Natchez, Mississippi, just “down the road” from St. Francisville, is another example of a wealthy city of pre-Civil War times and has a plethora of planters’ plantation homes. I have a manuscript in my files (unpublished) entitled THE GOAT MAN MURDER that takes place in this historic city. Border Press plans to launch it in a few years.

P.S. The photo above is of Godfather at 95, and my friend Vickie Sullivan, resting near a tangle of white azaleas in the gardens at Oakley, just after climbing the curving staircase.
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