David Nightingale: John Burroughs (4/3/1837 - 3/29/1921)
My younger son suggested an essay on John Burroughs, but I told him that probably everyone in the N-E knew more about the famous naturalist than I ever did. Apart from seeing a plaque at the top of Slide Mountain and a long-ago visit to his cabin, Slabsides, I knew very little.
So, here we are:
John Burroughs was born and raised in Roxbury in the Catskills, where his father had a small farm. At 17 he decided to 'teach school' and began in a 1-room schoolhouse at Tongore, near Olive. Later in the year he had saved just enough money to enrol in a 3 month course of study at Cooperstown Seminary, where he studied algebra, geometry, grammar, logic and French.[Ref.1, p.36]. In the summer of 1855 (he would have been 18) he was back 'haying and milking' on his father's farm in Roxbury. At 20 he was teaching in High Falls, and had married another farmer's daughter, Ursula North, although they could not always afford to live together. While teaching in Rosendale and Olive he began writing pieces on farm life for the New York Leader [ref.1,p.42.] and began studying plants and birds more deeply.
Admiring Emerson, at age 23 he had his first essay -- "Expression" -- published, in the Atlantic Monthly, and some readers said it was so good it must have been written by Emerson.
After a stint of teaching in Marlboro, NY, Ursula told her young husband she was not going to spend the summer with him because of his (quote) 'unending physical demands', and that he should spend the summer by himself so he could learn chastity and self control [ref.2, p.55 -56] .
However, at 27 he and his young wife are in Washington DC, where he had presented himself for an interview at the United States Treasury, and where he was to be employed for the next eight years.
They were able to rent a small brick house where the Old Senate Office Building now stands. The work load was light, and afforded him quite a lot of idle time which he used for writing. His first collection of essays -- Wake Robin, for the trillium that blooms in the woods in spring and marks the arrival of birds -- was published when he was 34. While not making much money the book was well-received by critics.
Talking about the hermit thrush he wrote,
... A few nights ago I ascended a mountain to see the world by moonlight, and when near the summit the hermit commenced his evening hymn a few rods from me. Listening to this strain on the lone mountain with the full moon just rounded from the horizon, the pomp of cities and the pride of civilization seemed trivial and cheap ...
Of the grey squirrel he said:
There is something very human in the mirth and mockery of the squirrel... He seems to say 'how clumsy and awkward ... and what a poor show for a tail! Look at me -- look at me!' [Ref.1 p.52]
At 35 he resigned his post at the Treasury. Ursula, who did not care for his way of life and 'scribblings', remained in Washington, while he looked for a place to buy. Their marriage had not been happy and they were childless. He found 9 acres on the west bank of the Hudson, and, using local stones plus cherry and ash from his father's land, he built a house that he called 'Riverby'. He and Ursula lived there until her death 3 years before his.
In a journal entry one spring he wrote,
The Hudson multiplies and brightens the beauty of the day and season. A fair day it makes more fair, and a wild tempestuous day it makes more wild.
... standing in the road I saw a lively little shadow ... on the ground in front of me. Turning I saw the source of it -- the redstart performing its astonishing gymnastics in a leafless oak tree ... it is the quickest and prettiest of the flycatchers ...
In the references one finds a photograph of Amanda Henion, a housemaid at Riverby, who was the mother of his only child, Julian. When the child was about eight, with friends commenting on the boy's similarity to his father, the truth came out, and Ursula left her husband to live in Poughkeepsie. Urged to relent she returned, and Burroughs and his wife continued being the adoring parents of Julian. Miss Henion later married and raised a family in Highland, some miles south of Riverby.
Burroughs's essays gained him many admirers, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt. Later, a young doctor who loved his writings, Clara Barrus, 33 when he was 66, became his editor and indispensable friend, up to his death at the age of 84. He is buried on his father's farm in Roxbury.
1. "The World of John Burroughs" by Edward Kanze, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, (1999.) (Random House, NY.)
2. "John Burroughs, An American Naturalist" by Edward J Renehan Jr.; Chelsea Green Publishing Company, PO Box 130 Post Mills,Vermont, 05058 (1992).
3. "Sharp Eyes; John Burroughs and American Nature Writing", edited by Charlotte Zoe Walker, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 13244-5160 (2000).
Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.
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