"The Other Audubon" by Joy Kiser

Still life of the book "The Other Audubon" by Joy Kiser (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / April 26, 2012)

The lithographs in Joy M. Kiser's "America's Other Audubon" are works of great beauty and scientific accuracy. But behind them is a tragedy — the story of a hugely ambitious undertaking begun in heartbreak and completed in grief.

The art book reprints, in nearly full size, "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio," a massive project undertaken by a young woman and her family in a small Ohio town in the 19th century. The 68 hand-colored lithographs became an important scientific resource.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

"The level of observation and the accuracy of representation is unparalleled," said Leslie Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. "You can actually trace every single stick that wove its way in and out of the others, with bits of yarn and odd bits of reed grasses pulled in to support the side of nest."

Ornithologists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History have been consulting it to identify specimens for more than 100 years, she said. The Cornell University Library, known for its ornithology collection, calls it "perhaps the loveliest and most accurate portrayal of birds' nests ever published."

But the book is almost unknown. Only about 90 copies were made. One of them is owned by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where 15 years ago Kiser became the librarian and saw it on display.

"Over a period time I just became fascinated with the people in the pictures in the exhibit," she said. "I always loved nests when I was a little girl. I used to climb trees to watch what the birds were doing. It never occurred to me than any other little girl would be interested in that."

That little girl was Genevieve Estelle Jones, of Circleville, Ohio.

Gennie, as she was known, grew up around birds' nests, Kiser writes. Her father, a physician, was an accomplished amateur ornithologist who often took Gennie and her younger brother with him to look at birds and collect nests and eggs to study.

"Collecting nests and eggs was a very popular pastime in the second half of the 19th century," Overstreet said. "It was an entree for people into the study of natural history and simply engaging with the natural world around them."

Gennie's father knew the top scientists and ornithologists in the field. Members of both sides of the family drew and painted together, illustrating their own scientific papers.

She excelled in school and after high school was tutored in French, Greek and German. When her brother went to Hobart College, he sent her copies of his textbooks to study at home. She mastered chemistry, algebra, calculus and the Greek and Latin poets so well that she surpassed him. But her accomplishments and intellectual capabilities left her lonely.

"She just couldn't find anyone to connect with on her own level," Kiser said. "She was probably intimidating to most of the other young men in her town."

She was also extremely tall: 5 feet 10 inches, unusual for a woman then.

When she was nearly 30, she met a talented musician and literary critic who was not intimidated in the slightest. Their affection was mutual, and a match seemed imminent. However, the man was also an alcoholic, Kiser wrote. Gennie's father gave him several chances to stay sober, but when the suitor failed them, he reluctantly forbade his daughter to marry him.

"She was heartbroken," Kiser said. "She finally found a person she felt she could really make a connection to, and yet she couldn't proceed."

Enter the nests.

Worried when Gennie became withdrawn, the family urged her to take up a project she had conceived.

She had seen hand-colored engravings from John James Audubon's "Birds of America" at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. They made her wonder why there was no similar comprehensive collection of illustrations of American birds' nests and eggs.