L'Anna, by René-Primevère Lesson L Anna

Discovering Anna

From The Southern Review 51.1, Winter 2015. Listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016. Excerpt below.

As a child, I set out in search of hummingbirds. Probably this wasn’t ordinary for a boy, and I was fortunate, indeed, to have come into a large and varied country south of San Francisco, a dry sea of chaparral up against—and sometimes over—the deer fence, a landscape with plenty of perches to map and explore: yellow sticky monkey flower, poison oak, coyote brush, ceanothus, and the miscellaneous exotics of the garden.

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Anna’s hummingbird was the species. Calypte anna, an abundant resident of the Pacific Slope. Even in winter, they’re here, outside the rain-slithered window, hovering in the green, shifting from branch to branch to probe for insects, pillaging spiders and their stuck prey with hardly a quiver. A hardy bird. All but a few North American hummers migrate, and come spring, it’s true, the orangish Allen’s would arrive suddenly from Mexico to spar for territory. But he’s smaller, less frequent, and, for now, another story.

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Who is Anna? She was the Duchess of Rivoli, Anna Masséna. Her husband, François Victor Masséna, the duke, was an amateur ornithologist with a vast collection of exquisite bird skins that eventually included the “type specimen” of his wife’s namesake. One imagines her as striking: light on her feet, a fine dancer; draped in stones that caught and refracted the candlelight of nineteenth-century France; a touch spoiled, certainly. She became the official mistress of the household to Eugénie, the last empress of France and wife of Napoleon III. Earlier, in 1828, Audubon visited Anna and observed that she was “a beautiful young woman, not more than twenty, extremely graceful and polite.”

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Apparently, the duchess was admired also by René-Primevère Lesson, a surgeon and naturalist (surely related vocations). It was he who named the species. In 1822, he left France to serve on a four-year trip around the world, during which he saw and described many of South America’s most brilliant, pip-squeak birds. Rounding Tierra del Fuego, La Coquille (a fine ship name, The Shell) went as far north as Peru and then cut across the Pacific to Tahiti. Lesson gathered specimens of all kinds during his circumnavigation and brought them home to study, label, and slip away in drawers. For years, he labored to prepare the zoological chapters of the expedition’s official record, and afterward he produced the world’s first monograph on hummers, three volumes of luminous, hand-colored plates. It was in preparation for this work that he chanced upon an unrecognized skin in Duke Masséna’s collection.

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Hummingbirds, you should know, are found only in the New World. There are more than three hundred species, but only fourteen commonly breed in North America. Fittingly, Christopher Columbus was the first to write of them, in his diary: “Little birds . . . so different from ours it is a marvel.” Not long after, Pope Leo X was presented with a preserved skin that is thought to have arrived inside a chest of curios and treasures, a gift from the King of Portugal in 1514. Likely the bird’s chin was as ruby as the robes of Leo’s cardinals. Europeans were captivated. They thought it half insect. Oiseau-mouche, the French said, fly-bird.

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From the age of four or five, I kept little white jewelry boxes in a spare bureau in my room. Each full of findings: sand dollars, oak galls, feathers, owl pellets jutting with rodent bones. A cabinet of curiosities, its drawers squeaking with the weight of geodes and fossils. If you have a sharp eye, these enthusiasms start to build upon themselves, and soon others begin to notice as well. For Christmases: a rock tumbler, a seashell book, a chemistry kit (with beak-like forceps and pipettes), a microscope, binoculars, and many other useful tools I can no longer recall. Also for Christmas: more discarded gift boxes, each ready to be neatly packed and fitted into the display.

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