By Lou Mancinelli
Last July, long-time Chestnut Hill resident Robert McCracken Peck, 58, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, announced that he had resolved a more than five-decade quest by scholars to locate world-renowned artist, naturalist and ornithologist John Audubon’s first published illustration. The finding has been heralded by Audubon scholars as a “eureka moment”
“He found the needle in the haystack,” said Nancy Powell, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pa. “People had tried everything, literally, for more than 50 years. The discovery adds another piece to the puzzle of Audubon.”
For a decade, Peck, who still lives in the Chestnut Hill home where he grew up, and a numismatic historian — an expert in currency and coins — from St. Louis searched for the drawing of a running grouse, supposedly created by Audubon for a New Jersey bank note. Audubon mentioned the drawing in his journal twice, according to Peck, but scholars were uncertain whether it still existed.
There were two possible scenarios as to the fate of the bank note that contributed to the complicated task of finding the image, Peck explained during a recent interview at his office above the library at the Academy.
The first is that only a sample bank note was made and had since been lost. The second, and “more intriguing” scenario, is that the note was issued but the bank that issued the note experienced financial difficulties and failed. It’s possible, Peck speculated, that someone, perhaps a counterfeiter, bought the notes in large numbers in order to alter them and change the bank name for counterfeit purposes.
In those days, according to Peck, money was issued by individual banks. The bank’s name was listed on each note. A bank could lose its reputation and value if other banks received checks in its name that were counterfeit, because the second bank was responsible for honoring the first bank’s claim. It’s possible that a bank noticed a large number of counterfeit notes burdening its accounts, bought them up by offering a low rate (for the bills would soon be worthless) and burned them.
Peck and his partner found the drawing by tracing the graphic offerings of bank note engraver Gideon Fairman, to whom Audubon had given his drawing of a heath hen (a subspecies of a greater prairie chicken). The image turned up in a private collection on a sheet with sample images for the Bank of Norwalk in Connecticut and Ohio.
“For Audubon scholars it was kind of a quest for the Holy Grail,” said Peck. The findings were published last fall in an article in “Journal of the Early Republic,” published by Penn Press.
In his office piles of books are set three or four per pile across a dining room-sized table. They contain research materials for a book Peck is working on — a 200-year history of the Academy of Natural Sciences in the form of a series of biographies about the people associated with the institution and their exhibitions.
James Bond is one of the people featured in Peck’s upcoming chronicle. Bond was an ornithologist and author who worked for the Academy from the 1920s though the ‘70s and lived in Chestnut Hill. According to Peck, when James Bond author Ian Fleming was looking for a name for the main character in his British spy novels, Fleming, a bird-watcher with a home in Jamaica, while rolling over in bed one night saw the name James Bond on the spine of an ornithological book he was reading. Fleming liked the name and used it for his hero, starting with the 1953 novel, “Casino Royale.”
Peck’s 1987 book, “Headhunters and Humming Birds: An Expedition in Ecuador,” tells the tale of his 1984 ornithological (bird-watching) expedition along the Ecuadorian and Peruvian border where Peck and others escaped from members of the Shuar tribe who were trying to kill them. The Shuar, as they call themselves, better known to the outside world as the Jivaro, or “the savage ones,” are known for their practice of shrinking human heads.
Though Peck and his group had a guide, they paid and made arrangements with the tribe to be able to pass, but the Shuar grew suspicious and began to suspect Peck and his “gringo” comrades of searching for gold and other valuables.
“I thought all would be well, but they thought differently,” said Peck. “They thought, ‘Why would these gringos stay here for weeks? It’s cold. It’s rainy. It’s uncomfortable.’ They thought there was no way we were looking for birds.”
Peck learned a “hit” had been ordered and that his life and the lives of three additional Academy members and their Peace Corps translator were in danger. “We lived in a state of siege moving from campsite to campsite,” said Peck. They traveled at night because the Shaur feared snakes, other animals and spirits of the night.
The group traveled higher in the hills where they thought the Shuar would not go. It was the life threat and trek into the hills that led to Peck’s discovery of three new species of frogs, one of which is named after him, the “Eleutherodactylus pecki.” (Peck has also documented the lives of nomads on the steppes of Mongolia.)
When their supplies dwindled and they had to leave, Peck’s group and the Peace Corps volunteer encountered three Indians carrying machetes walking along a path. The Indians asked if they were the gringos looking for gold. Peck said, “Yes, we are white, but we are looking for birds, not gold.” The Indians became hostile because Peck could not speak their language and addressed his translator, as opposed to them, which the Indians perceived to be disrespectful.
As tensions rose, the Indians began to push Peck in the chest with their machetes. Peck asked the translator to explain that he (Peck) was sick, and his condition was dangerous and contagious. He looked weak because they had eaten so little and stayed awake so long. The Indians’ natural fear of outsiders’ diseases caused them to allow Peck and the Peace Corps volunteer to continue.
“Living in Chestnut Hill helped get me interested in natural history at a young age,” said Peck, who has accompanied expeditions in Asia, Africa, North and South America and Europe and now lives with his wife and three children. “I would catch crawfish and frogs in the creek at Wissahickon. It was natural that my interests would grow from that.”
Peck is the author of numerous books. His 1990 book, “Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America,” was the companion volume to an eight-part BBC/PBS television series of the same title and was on the U.K. best-seller list for nine weeks.
“There’s something very reassuring about the natural cycle and the seasons of life, when the birds leave in the fall and come back in the spring,” he said. “It’s life-affirming to see these cycles continue, despite the challenges of environmental degradation. I’ve really dedicated my life to trying to understand these cycles and protect them.”
For more information about the Academy of Natural Sciences, call 215-299-1000 or visit www.ansp.org.