OUR FRIEND JOHN BURROUGHS
By Clara Barrus
(Illustration of John Burroughs. From a photograph by Theona Peck Harris)
OUR FRIEND JOHN BURROUGHS
THE RETREAT OF A POET-NATURALIST
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES ANCESTRY AND FAMILY LIFE CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH SELF-ANALYSIS
THE EARLY WRITINGS OF JOHN BURROUGHS
A WINTER DAY AT SLABSIDES
BACK TO PEPACTON
CAMPINGING WITH BURROUGHS AND MUIR
JOHN BURROUGHS: AN APPRECIATION
OUR FRIEND JOHN BURROUGHS
We all claim John Burroughs as our friend. He is inextricably blended with our love for the birds and the flowers, and for all out of doors; but he is much more to us than a charming writer of books about nature, and we welcome familiar glimpses of him as one welcomes anything which brings him in closer touch with a friend.
A clever essayist, in speaking of the "obituary method of appreciation," says that we feel a slight sense of impropriety and insecurity in contemporary plaudits. "Wait till he is well dead, and four or five decades of daisies have bloomed over him, says the world; then, if there is any virtue in his works, we will tag and label them and confer immortality upon him." But Mr. Burroughs has not had to wait till the daisies cover him to be appreciated. A multitude of his readers has sought him out and walked amid the daisies with him, listened with him to the birds, and gained countless delightful associations with all these things through this personal relation with the author; and these friends in particular will, I trust, welcome some "contemporary plaudits."
As a man, and as a writer, Mr. Burroughs has been in the public eye for many years. At the age of twenty-three he had an article printed in the "Atlantic Monthly," and in 1910 that journal celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his contributions to its columns. Early in his career he received marked recognition from able critics, and gratifying responses from readers. It is rare in the history of an author that his books after fifty years of writing have the freshness, lucidity, and charm that Mr. Burroughs's later books have. A critic in 1876 speaks of his "quiet, believing style, free from passion or the glitter of rhetoric, and giving one the sense of simple eyesight"; and now, concerning one of his later books, "Time and Change," Mr. Brander Matthews writes: "In these pellucid pages—so easy to read because they are the result of hard thinking—he brings home to us what is the real meaning of the discoveries and the theories of the scientists.... He brings to bear his searching scientific curiosity and his sympathetic interpreting imagination.... All of them models of the essay at its best—easy, unpedantic, and unfailingly interesting."
From school-children all over the United States, from nearly every civilized country on the globe, from homes of the humble and of the wealthy, from the scholar in his study, from the clergyman, the lawyer, the physician, the business man, the farmer, the raftsman, the sportsman, from the invalid shut in from the great outdoors (but, thanks to our friend, not shut out from outdoor blessings), have come for many years heartfelt letters attesting the wholesome and widespread influence of his works.
President Roosevelt a few years ago, in dedicating one of his books to "Dear Oom John," voiced the popular feeling: "It is a good thing for our people that you have lived, and surely no man can wish to have more said of him."
Some years ago, the New York "Globe," on announcing a new book by Mr. Burroughs, said, "It has been the lot of few writers of this country or of any country to gain such good will and personal esteem as for many years have been freely given to John Burroughs." If we ask why this is so, we find it answered by Whitman, who, in conversation with a friend, said, "John is one of the true hearts—one of the true hearts—warm, sure, firm."
Mr. Burroughs has been much visited, much "appreciated," much rhymed about, much painted, modeled, and photographed, and—much loved. Because he has been so much loved, and because his influence has been so far-reaching, it has seemed to me that a book which gives familiar and intimate glimpses of him will be welcomed by the legion who call him friend. The exceptional opportunities I have enjoyed for many years past of observing him encourage me in the undertaking.
The readers of Mr. Burroughs crave the personal relation with him. Just as they want to own his books, instead of merely taking them from the public libraries, so they want to meet the man, take him by the hand, look into his eyes, hear his voice, and learn, if possible, what it is that has given him his unfailing joy in life, his serenity, his comprehensive and loving insight into the life of the universe. They feel, too, a sense of deep gratitude to one who has shown them how divine is the soil under foot—veritable star-dust from the gardens of the Eternal. He has made us feel at one with the whole cosmos, not only with bird and tree, and rock and flower, but also with the elemental forces, the powers which are friendly or unfriendly according as we put ourselves in right or wrong relations with them. He has shown us the divine in the common and the near at hand; that heaven lies about us here in this world; that the glorious and the miraculous are not to be sought afar off, but are here and now; and that love of the earth-mother is, in the truest sense, love of the divine: "The babe in the womb is not nearer its mother than are we to the invisible, sustaining, mothering powers of the universe, and to its spiritual entities, every moment of our lives." One who speaks thus of the things of such import to every human soul is bound to win responses; he deals with things that come home to us all. We want to know him.
Although retiring in habit, naturally seeking seclusion, Mr. Burroughs is not allowed overindulgence in this tendency. One may with truth describe him as a contemporary described Edward FitzGerald—"an eccentric man of genius who took more pains to avoid fame than others do to seek it." And yet he is no recluse. When disciples seek out the hermit in hiding behind the vines at Slabsides, they find a genial welcome, a simple, homely hospitality; find that the author merits the Indian name given him by a clever friend—"Man-not-afraid-of-company."
The simplicity and gentleness of this author and his strong interest in people endear him to the reader; we feel these qualities in his writings long before meeting him—a certain urbanity, a tolerant insight and sympathy, and a quiet humor. These draw us to him. Perhaps after cherishing his writings for years, cherishing also a confident feeling that we shall know him some day, we obey a sudden impulse, write to him about a bird or a flower, ask help concerning a puzzling natural-history question, tell him what a solace "Waiting" is, what a joy his books have been; possibly we write some verses to him, or express appreciation for an essay that has enlarged our vision and opened up a new world of thought. Perhaps we go to see him at Slabsides, or in the Catskills, as the case may be; perhaps in some unexpected way he comes to us—stops in the same town where we live, visits the college where we are studying, or we encounter him in our travels. In whatever way the personal relation comes about, we, one and all, share this feeling: he is no longer merely the favorite author, he is our friend John Burroughs.
I question whether there is any other modern writer so approachable, or one we so desire to approach. He has so written himself into his books that we know him before meeting him; we are charmed with his directness and genuineness, and eager to claim the companionship his pages seem to offer. Because of his own unaffected self, our artificialities drop away when we are with him; we want to be and say and do the genuine, simple thing; to be our best selves; and one who brings out this in us is sure to win our love.
(Illustration of Slabsides. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
Mr. Burroughs seems to have much in common with Edward FitzGerald; we may say of him as has been said of the translator of the "Rubaiyat": "Perhaps some worship is given him... on account of his own refusal of worship for things unworthy, or even for things merely conventional." Like FitzGerald, too, our friend is a lover of solitude; like him he shuns cities, gets his exhilaration from the common life about him; is inactive, easy-going, a loiterer and saunterer through life; and could say of himself as FitzGerald said, on describing his own uneventful days in the country: "Such is life, and I believe I have got hold of a good end of it." Another point of resemblance: the American dreamer is like his English brother in his extreme sensitiveness—he cannot bear to inflict or experience pain. "I lack the heroic fibre," he is wont to say. FitzGerald acknowledged this also, and, commenting on his own over-sensitiveness and tendency to melancholy, said, "It is well if the sensibility that makes us fearful of ourselves is diverted to become a case of sympathy and interest with nature and mankind." That this sensibility in Mr. Burroughs has been so diverted, all who are familiar with his widespread influence on our national life and literature will agree.
In a bright descriptive article written a few years ago, Miss Isabel Moore dispels some preconceived and erroneous notions about Mr. Burroughs, and shows him as he is—a man keenly alive to the human nature and life around him. "The boys and girls buzzed about him," she says, "as bees about some peculiarly delectable blossom. He walked with them, talked with them, entranced them... the most absolutely human person I have ever met—a born comrade, if there ever was one; in daily life a delightful acquaintance as well as a philosopher and poet and naturalist, and a few other things." She describes him riding with a lot of young people on a billowy load of hay; going to a ball-game, at which no boy there enjoyed the contest more, or was better informed as to the points of the game. "Verily," she says, "he has what Bjornson called 'the child in the heart.'"
It is the "child in the heart," and, in a way, the "child" in his books, that accounts for his wide appeal. He often says he can never think of his books as works, because so much play went into the making of them. He has gone out of doors in a holiday spirit, has had a good time, has never lost the boy's relish for his outings, and has been so blessed with the gift of expression that his own delight is communicated to his reader.
And always it is the man behind the book that makes the widest appeal. In 1912, a Western architect, in correspondence with the writer concerning recent essays of Mr. Burroughs, said:—
I have had much pleasure and soul-help in reading and re-reading "The Summit of the Years." In this, and in "All's Well with the World," is mirrored the very soul of the gentlest, the most lovable man-character I have ever come across in literature or life....To me all his books, from "Wake-Robin" to "Time and Change," radiate the most joyous optimism.... During the past month I have devoted my evenings to re-reading (them).... He has always meant a great deal more to me than merely intellectual pleasure, and, next to Walt Whitman, has helped me to keep my life as nearly open to the influences of outdoors and the stars as may be in a dweller in a large town.
As I write, a letter comes from a Kansas youth, now a graduate student at Yale, expressing the hope that he can see Mr. Burroughs at Slabsides in April: "There is nothing I want to say—but for a while I would like to be near him. He is my great good teacher and friend.... As you know, he is more to me than Harvard or Yale. He is the biggest, simplest, and serenest man I have met in all the East."
I suppose there is no literary landmark in America that has had a more far-reaching influence than Slabsides. Flocks of youths and maidens from many schools and colleges have, for the past fifteen years, climbed the hill to the rustic cabin in all the gayety and enthusiasm of their young lives. But they have seen more than the picturesque retreat of a living author; they have received a salutary impression made by the unostentatious life of a man who has made a profound impression on his day who has made a profound impression on his day and age; they have gone their separate ways with an awakened sense of the comradeship it is possible to have with nature, and with an ennobling affection for the one who has made them aware of it. And this affection goes with them to whatever place on the globe their destinies carry them. It is transmitted to their children; it becomes a very real part of their lives.
"My dear John Burroughs—Everybody's dear John Burroughs," a friend writes him from London, recounting her amusing experiences in the study of English birds. And it is "Everybody's dear John Burroughs" who stands in the wide doorway at Slabsides and gives his callers a quiet, cordial welcome. And when the day is ended, and the visitor goes his way down the hill, he carries in his heart a new treasure—the surety that he has found a comrade.
Having had the privilege for the past twelve years of helping Mr. Burroughs with his correspondence, I have been particularly interested in the spontaneous responses which have come to him from his young readers, not only in America, but from Europe, New Zealand, Australia. Confident of his interest, they are boon companions from the start. They describe their own environment, give glimpses of the wild life about them, come to him with their natural-history difficulties; in short, write as to a friend of whose tolerant sympathy they feel assured. In fact, this is true of all his correspondents. They get on easy footing at once. They send him birds, flowers, and insects to identify; sometimes live animals and birds—skylarks have been sent from England, which he liberated on the Hudson, hoping to persuade them to become acclimated; "St. John's Bread," or locust pods, have come to him from the Holy. Land; pressed flowers and ferns from the Himalayas, from Africa, from Haleakala.
Many correspondents are considerate enough not to ask for an answer, realizing the countless demands of this nature made upon a man like Mr. Burroughs; others boldly ask, not only for a reply, but for a photograph, an autograph, his favorite poem written in his own hand, a list of favorite books, his views on capital punishment, on universal peace, on immortality; some naively ask for a sketch of his life, or a character sketch of his wife with details of their home life, and how they spend their time; a few modestly hope he will write a poem to them personally, all for their very own. A man of forty-five is tired of the hardware business, lives in the country, sees Mr. Burroughs's essays in the "Country Calendar," and asks him to "learn" him to "rite for the press."
Some readers take him to task for his opinions, some point out errors, or too sweeping statements (for he does sometimes make them); occasionally one suggests other topics for him to write about; others labor to bring him back into orthodox paths; hundreds write of what a comfort "Waiting" has been; and there are countless requests for permission to visit Slabsides, as well as invitations to the homes of his readers.
Many send him verses, a few the manuscripts of entire books, asking for criticism. (And when he does give criticism, he gives it "unsweetened," being too honest to praise a thing unless in his eyes it merits praise.) Numerous are the requests that he write introductions to books; that he address certain women's clubs; that he visit a school, or a nature-study club, or go from Dan to Beersheba to hold Burroughs Days—each writer, as a rule, urging his claim as something very special, to which a deaf ear should not be turned. Not all his correspondents are as considerate as the little girl who was especially eager to learn his attitude toward snakes, and who, after writing a pretty letter, ended thus: "Inclosed you will find a stamp, for I know it must be fearfully expensive and inconvenient to be a celebrity."
Occasionally he is a little severe with a correspondent, especially if one makes a preposterous statement, or draws absurd conclusions from faulty observations. But he is always fair. The following letter explains itself:—
Your first note concerning my cat and hog story made me as mad as a hornet, which my reply showed. Your second note has changed me into a lamb, as nearly as a fellow of seventy-five can become one....
I have read, I think, every book you ever wrote, and do not let any production of yours escape me; and I have a little pile of framed copies of your inimitable "My Own" to diffuse among people at Christmas; and all these your writings make me wonder and shed metaphorical tears to think that you are such a heretic about reason in animals. But even Homer nods; and it is said Roosevelt has moments of silence. S. C. B.
The questions his readers propound are sometimes very amusing. A physician of thirty years' practice asks in all seriousness how often the lions bring forth their young, and whether it is true that there is a relation between the years in which they breed and the increased productivity of human beings. One correspondent begs Mr. Burroughs to tell him how he and his wife and Theodore Roosevelt fold their hands (as though the last-named ever folded his), declaring he can read their characters with surprising accuracy if this information is forthcoming. In this instance, I think, Mr. Burroughs folded his hands serenely, leaving his correspondent waiting for the valued data.
The reader will doubtless be interested to see the kind of letter the children sometimes get from their friend. I am fortunate in having one written in 1887 to a rhetoric class in Fulton, New York, and one in 1911, written to children in the New York City schools, both of which I will quote:—
West Park, N. Y., February 21, 1887
My Dear Young Friends,—
Your teacher Miss Lawrence has presumed that I might have something to say to a class of boys and girls studying rhetoric, and, what is more, that I might be disposed to say it. What she tells me about your interest in my own writings certainly interests me and makes me wish I might speak a helpful word to you. But let me tell you that very little conscious rhetoric has gone into the composition of those same writings.
Valuable as the study of rhetoric undoubtedly is, it can go but a little way in making you successful writers. I think I have got more help as an author from going a-fishing than from any textbook or classbook I ever looked into. Miss Lawrence will not thank me for encouraging you to play truant, but if you take Bacon's or Emerson's or Arnold's or Cowley's essays with you and dip into them now and then while you are waiting for the fish to bite, she will detect some fresh gleam in your composition when next you hand one in.
There is no way to learn style so sure as by familiarity with nature, and by study of the great authors. Shakespeare can teach you all there is to be learned of the art of expression, and the rhetoric of a live trout leaping and darting with such ease and sureness cannot well be beaten.
What you really have in your heart, what you are in earnest about, how easy it is to say that!
Miss Lawrence says you admire my essay on the strawberry. Ah! but I loved the strawberry—I loved the fields where it grew, I loved the birds that sang there, and the flowers that bloomed there, and I loved my mother who sent me forth to gather the berries; I loved all the rural sights and sounds, I felt near them, so that when, in after years, I came to write my essay I had only to obey the old adage which sums up all of the advice which can be given in these matters, "Look in thy heart and write."
The same when I wrote about the apple. I had apples in my blood and bones. I had not ripened them in the haymow and bitten them under the seat and behind my slate so many times in school for nothing. Every apple tree I had ever shinned up and dreamed under of a long summer day, while a boy, helped me to write that paper. The whole life on the farm, and love of home and of father and mother, helped me to write it. In writing your compositions, put your rhetoric behind you and tell what you feel and know, and describe what you have seen.
All writers come sooner or later to see that the great thing is to be simple and direct; only thus can you give a vivid sense of reality, and without a sense of reality the finest writing is mere froth.
Strive to write sincerely, as you speak when mad, or when in love; not with the tips of the fingers of your mind, but with the whole hand.
A noted English historian (Freeman) while visiting Vassar College went in to hear the rhetoric class. After the exercises were over he said to the professor, "Why don't you teach your girls to spin a plain yarn?" I hope Miss Lawrence teaches you to spin a plain yarn. There is nothing like it. The figures of rhetoric are not paper flowers to be sewed upon the texture of your composition; they have no value unless they are real flowers which sprout naturally from your heart.
What force in the reply of that little Parisian girl I knew of! She offered some trinkets for sale to a lady on the street. "How much is this?" asked the lady, taking up some article from the little girl's basket. "Judge for yourself. Madam, I have tasted no food since yesterday morning." Under the pressure of any real feeling, even of hunger, our composition will not lack point.
I might run on in this way another sheet, but I will stop. I have been firing at you in the dark,—a boy or a girl at hand is worth several in the bush, off there in Fulton,—but if any of my words tingle in your ears and set you to thinking, why you have your teacher to thank for it.
Very truly yours, John Burroughs.
La Manda Park, Cal., February 24, 1911
My Dear Young Friends,—
A hint has come to me here in southern California, where I have been spending the winter, that you are planning to celebrate my birthday—my seventy-fourth this time, and would like a word from me. Let me begin by saying that I hope that each one of you will at least reach my age, and be able to spend a winter, or several of them, in southern California, and get as much pleasure out of it as I have. It is a beautiful land, with its leagues of orange groves, its stately plains, its park-like expanses, its bright, clean cities, its picturesque hamlets, and country homes, and all looked down upon by the high, deeply sculptured mountains and snow-capped peaks.
Let me hope also that when you have reached my age you will be as well and as young as I am. I am still a boy at heart, and enjoy almost everything that boys do, except making a racket.
Youth and age have not much to do with years. You are young so long as you keep your interest in things and relish your daily bread. The world is "full of a number of things," and they are all very interesting.
As the years pass I think my interest in this huge globe upon which we live, and in the life which it holds, deepens. An active interest in life keeps the currents going and keeps them clear. Mountain streams are young streams; they sing and sparkle as they go, and our lives may be the same. With me, the secret of my youth in age is the simple life—simple food, sound sleep, the open air, daily work, kind thoughts, love of nature, and joy and contentment in the world in which I live. No excesses, no alcoholic drinks, no tobacco, no tea or coffee, no stimulants stronger than water and food.
I have had a happy life. I have gathered my grapes with the bloom upon them. May you all do the same.
With all good wishes, John Burroughs
"I have no genius for making gifts," Mr. Burroughs once said to me, but how his works belie his words! In these letters, and in many others which his unknown friends have received from him, are gifts of rare worth, while his life itself has been a benefaction to us all.
One day in recounting some of the propitious things which have come to him all unsought, he said: "How fortunate I have always been! My name should have been 'Felix.'" But since "John" means "the gracious gift of God," we are content that he was named John Burroughs.
THE RETREAT OF A POET-NATURALIST
We are coming more and more to like the savor of the wild and the unconventional. Perhaps it is just this savor or suggestion of free fields and woods, both in his life and in his books, that causes so many persons to seek out John Burroughs in his retreat among the trees and rocks on the hills that skirt the western bank of the Hudson. To Mr. Burroughs more perhaps than to any other living American might be applied these words in Genesis: "See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed"—so redolent of the soil and of the hardiness and plenitude of rural things is the influence that emanates from him. His works are as the raiment of the man, and to them adheres something as racy and wholesome as is yielded by the fertile soil.
We are prone to associate the names of our three most prominent literary naturalists,—Gilbert White, of England, and Thoreau and John Burroughs, of America,—men who have been so en rapport with nature that, while ostensibly only disclosing the charms of their mistress, they have at the same time subtly communicated much of their own wide knowledge of nature, and permanently enriched our literature as well.
In thinking of Gilbert White one invariably thinks also of Selborne, his open-air parish; in thinking of Thoreau one as naturally recalls his humble shelter on the banks of Walden Pond; and it is coming to pass that in thinking of John Burroughs one thinks likewise of his hidden farm high on the wooded hills that overlook the Hudson, nearly opposite Poughkeepsie. It is there that he has built himself a picturesque retreat, a rustic house named Slabsides. I find that, to many, the word "Slabsides" gives the impression of a dilapidated, ramshackle kind of place. This impression is an incorrect one. The cabin is a well-built two-story structure, its uneuphonious but fitting name having been given it because its outer walls are formed of bark-covered slabs. "My friends frequently complain," said Mr. Burroughs, "because I have not given my house a prettier name, but this name just expresses the place, and the place just meets the want that I felt for something simple, homely, secluded—something with the bark on."
Both Gilbert White and Thoreau became identified with their respective environments almost to the exclusion of other fields. The minute observations of White, and his records of them, extending over forty years, were almost entirely confined to the district of Selborne. He says that he finds that "that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined." The thoroughness with which he examined his own locality is attested by his "Natural History of Selborne." Thoreau was such a stay-at-home that he refused to go to Paris lest he miss something of interest in Concord. "I have traveled a good deal in Concord," he says in his droll way. And one of the most delicious instances of provinciality that I ever came across is Thoreau's remark on returning Dr. Kane's "Arctic Explorations" to a friend who had lent him the book—"Most of the phenomena therein recorded are to be observed about Concord." In thinking of John Burroughs, however, the thought of the author's mountain home as the material and heart of his books does not come so readily to consciousness. For most of us who have felt the charm, of his lyrical prose, both in his outdoor books and in his "Indoor Studies," were familiar with him as an author long before we knew there was a Slabsides—long before there was one, in fact, since he has been leading his readers to nature for fifty years, while the picturesque refuge we are now coming to associate with him has been in existence only about fifteen years.
Our poet-naturalist seems to have appropriated all outdoors for his stamping-ground. He has given us in his limpid prose intimate glimpses of the hills and streams and pastoral farms of his native country; has taken us down the Pepacton, the stream of his boyhood; we have traversed with him the "Heart of the Southern Catskills," and the valleys of the Neversink and the Beaverkill; we have sat upon the banks of the Potomac, and sailed down the Saguenay; we have had a glimpse of the Blue Grass region, and "A Taste of Maine Birch" (true, Thoreau gave us this, also, and other "Excursions" as well); we have walked with him the lanes of "Mellow England"; journeyed "In the Carlyle Country"; marveled at the azure glaciers of Alaska; wandered in the perpetual summerland of Jamaica; camped with him and the Strenuous One in the Yellowstone; looked in awe and wonder at that "Divine Abyss," the Grand Canon of the Colorado; felt the "Spell of Yosemite," and idled with him under the sun-steeped skies of Hawaii and by her morning-glory seas.
Our essayist is thus seen not to be untraveled, yet he is no wanderer. No man ever had the home feeling stronger than has he; none is more completely under the spell of a dear and familiar locality. Somewhere he has said: "Let a man stick his staff into the ground anywhere and say, 'This is home,' and describe things from that point of view, or as they stand related to that spot,—the weather, the fauna, the flora,—and his account shall have an interest to us it could not have if not thus located and defined."
(Illustration of Riverby from the Orchard. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
Before hunting out Mr. Burroughs in his mountain hermitage, let us glance at his conventional abode, Riverby, at West Park, Ulster County, New York. This has been his home since 1874. Having chosen this place by the river, he built his house of stone quarried from the neighboring hills, and finished it with the native woods; he planted a vineyard on the sloping hillside, and there he has successfully combined the business of grape-culture with his pursuits and achievements as a literary naturalist. More than half his books have been written since he has dwelt at Riverby, the earlier ones having appeared when he was a clerk in the Treasury Department in Washington, an atmosphere supposedly unfriendly to literary work. It was not until he gave up his work in Washington, and his later position as bank examiner in the eastern part of New York State, that he seemed to come into his own. Business life, he had long known, could never be congenial to him; literary pursuits alone were insufficient; the long line of yeoman ancestry back of him cried out for recognition; he felt the need of closer contact with the soil; of having land to till and cultivate. This need, an ancestral one, was as imperative as his need of literary expression, an individual one. Hear what he says after having ploughed in his new vineyard for the first time: "How I soaked up the sunshine to-day! At night I glowed all over; my whole being had had an earth bath; such a feeling of freshly ploughed land in every cell of my brain. The furrow had struck in; the sunshine had photographed it upon my soul." Later he built him a little study somewhat apart from his dwelling, to which he could retire and muse and write whenever the mood impelled him. This little one-room study, covered with chestnut bark, is on the brow of a hill which slopes toward the river; it commands an extended view of the Hudson. But even this did not meet his requirements. The formality and routine of conventional life palled upon him; the expanse of the Hudson, the noise of railway and steamboat wearied him; he craved something more retired, more primitive, more homely. "You cannot have the same kind of attachment and sympathy for a great river; it does not flow through your affections like a lesser stream," he says, thinking, no doubt, of the trout-brooks that thread his father's farm, of Montgomery Hollow Stream, of the Red Kill, and of others that his boyhood knew. Accordingly he cast about for some sequestered spot in which to make himself a hermitage.
(Illustration of The Study, Riverby. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
During his excursions in the vicinity of West Park, Mr. Burroughs had lingered oftenest in the hills back of, and parallel with, the Hudson, and here he finally chose the site for his rustic cabin. He had fished and rowed in Black Pond, sat by its falls in the primitive forest, sometimes with a book, sometimes with his son, or with some other hunter or fisher of congenial tastes; and on one memorable day in April, years agone, he had tarried there with Walt Whitman. There, seated on a fallen tree, Whitman wrote this description of the place which was later printed in "Specimen Days":—
I jot this memorandum in a wild scene of woods and hills where we have come to visit a waterfall. I never saw finer or more copious hemlocks, many of them large, some old and hoary. Such a sentiment to them, secretive, shaggy, what I call weather-beaten, and let-alone—a rich underlay of ferns, yew sprouts and mosses, beginning to be spotted with the early summer wild flowers. Enveloping all, the monotone and liquid gurgle from the hoarse, impetuous, copious fall—the greenish-tawny, darkly transparent waters plunging with velocity down the rocks, with patches of milk-white foam—a stream of hurrying amber, thirty feet wide, risen far back in the hills and woods, now rushing with volume—every hundred rods a fall, and sometimes three or four in that distance. A primitive forest, druidical, solitary, and savage—not ten visitors a year—broken rocks everywhere, shade overhead, thick underfoot with leaves—a just palpable wild and delicate aroma.
"Not ten visitors a year" may have been true when Whitman described the place, but we know it is different now. Troops of Vassar girls come to visit the hermit of Slabsides, and are taken to these falls; nature-lovers, and those who only think themselves nature-lovers, come from far and near; Burroughs clubs, boys' schools, girls' schools, pedestrians, cyclists, artists, authors, reporters, poets,—young and old, renowned and obscure,—from April till November seek out this lover of nature, who is a lover of human nature as well, who gives himself and his time generously to those who find him. When the friends of Socrates asked him where they should bury him, he said: "You may bury me if you can find me." Not all who seek John Burroughs really find him; he does not mix well with every newcomer; one must either have something of Mr. Burroughs's own cast of mind, or else be of a temperament capable of genuine sympathy with him, in order to find the real man. He withdraws into his shell before persons of uncongenial temperament; to such he can never really speak—they see Slabsides, but they don't see Burroughs. He is, however, never curt or discourteous to any one. Unlike Thoreau, who "put the whole of nature between himself and his fellows," Mr. Burroughs leads his fellows to nature, although it is sometimes, doubtless, with the feeling that one can lead a horse to water, but can't make him drink; for of all the sightseers that journey to Slabsides there must of necessity be many that "Oh!" and "Ah!" a good deal, but never really get further in their study of nature than that. Still, it can scarcely fail to be salutary even to these to get away from the noise and the strife in city and town, and see how sane, simple, and wholesome life is when lived in a sane and simple and wholesome way. Somehow it helps one to get a clearer sense of the relative value of things, it makes one ashamed of his petty pottering over trifles, to witness this exemplification of the plain living and high thinking which so many preach about, and so few practice.
"The thing which a man's nature calls him to do—what else so well worth doing?" asks this writer. One's first impression after glancing about this well-built cabin, with the necessities of body and soul close at hand, is a vicarious satisfaction that here, at least, is one who has known what he wanted to do and has done it. We are glad that Gilbert White made pastoral calls on his outdoor parishioners,—the birds, the toads, the turtles, the snails, and the earthworms,—although we often wonder if he evinced a like conscientiousness toward his human parishioners; we are glad that Thoreau left the manufacture of lead pencils to become, as Emerson jocosely complained, "the leader of a huckleberry party",—glad because these were the things their natures called them to do, and in so doing they best enriched their fellows. They literally went away that they might come to us in a closer, truer way than had they tarried in our midst. It must have been in answer to a similar imperative need of his own that John Burroughs chose to hie himself to the secluded yet accessible spot where his mountain cabin is built.
"As the bird feathers her nest with down plucked from her own breast," says Mr. Burroughs in one of his early essays, "so one's spirit must shed itself upon its environment before it can brood and be at all content." Here at Slabsides one feels that its master does brood and is content. It is an ideal location for a man of his temperament; it affords him the peace and seclusion he desires, yet is not so remote that he is shut off from human fellowship. For he is no recluse; his sympathies are broad and deep. Unlike Thoreau, who asserts that "you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature," and that "those qualities that bring you near to the one estrange you from the other," Mr. Burroughs likes his kind; he is doubtless the most accessible of all notable American writers,—a fact which is perhaps a drawback to him in his literary work, his submission to being hunted out often being taken advantage of, no doubt, by persons who are in no real sense nature-lovers, but who go to his retreat merely to see the hermit in hiding there.
After twelve years' acquaintance with his books I yielded to the impulse, often felt before, to tell Mr. Burroughs what a joy his writings had been to me. In answering my letter he said: "The genuine responses that come to an author from his unknown readers, judging from my own experience, are always very welcome. It is no intrusion but rather an inspiration." A gracious invitation to make him a visit came later.
The visit was made in the "month of tall weeds," in September, 1901. Arriving at West Park, the little station on the West Shore Railway, I found Mr. Burroughs in waiting. The day was gray and somewhat forbidding; not so the author's greeting; his almost instant recognition and his quiet welcome made me feel that I had always known him. It was like going home to hear him say quietly, "So you are here—really here," as he took my hand. The feeling of comradeship that I had experienced in reading his books was realized in his presence. With market-basket on arm, he started off at a brisk pace along the country road, first looking to see if I was well shod, as he warned me that it was quite a climb to Slabsides.
His kindly face was framed with snowy hair. He was dressed in olive-brown clothes, and "his old experienced coat" blended in color with the tree-trunks and the soil with which one felt sure it had often been in close communion.
We soon left the country road and struck into a woodland path, going up through quiet, cathedral-like woods till we came to an abrupt rocky stairway which my companion climbed with ease and agility despite his five-and-sixty years.
I paused to examine some mushrooms, and, finding a species that I knew to be edible, began nibbling it. "Don't taste that," he said imperatively; but I laughed and nibbled away. With a mingling of anxiety and curiosity he inquired: "Are you sure it's all right? Do you really like them? I never could; they are so uncanny—the gnomes or evil genii or hobgoblins of the vegetable world—give them a wide berth."
He pointed to a rock in the distance where he said he sometimes sat and sulked. "You sulk, and own up to it, too?" I asked. "Yes, and own up to it, too. Why not? Don't you?"
"Are there any bee-trees around here?" I questioned, remembering that in one of his essays he has said: "If you would know the delight of bee-hunting, and how many sweets such a trip yields besides honey, come with me some bright, warm, late September or early October day. It is the golden season of the year, and any errand or pursuit that takes us abroad upon the hills, or by the painted woods and along the amber-colored streams at such a time is enough." Here was a September day if not a bright one, and here were the painted woods, and somehow I felt half aggrieved that he did not immediately propose going in quest of wild honey. Instead he only replied: "I don't know whether there are bee-trees around here now or not. I used to find a good deal of wild honey over at a place that I spoke of casually as Mount Hymettus, and was much surprised later to find they had so put it down on the maps of this region. Wild honey is delectable, but I pursued that subject till I sucked it dry. I haven't done much about it these later years." So we are not to gather wild honey, I find; but what of that?—am I not actually walking in the woods with John Burroughs?
Up, up we climb, an ascent of about a mile and a quarter from the railway station. Emerging from the woods, we come rather suddenly upon a reclaimed rock-girt swamp, the most of which is marked off in long green lines of celery. This swamp was formerly a lake-bottom; its rich black soil and three perennial springs near by decided Mr. Burroughs to drain and reclaim the soil and compel it to yield celery and other garden produce.
Nestling under gray rocks, on the edge of the celery garden, embowered in forest trees, is the vine-covered cabin, Slabsides. What a feeling of peace and aloofness comes over one in looking up at the encircling hills! The few houses scattered about on other rocks are at a just comfortable distance to be neighborly, but not too neighborly. Would one be lonesome here? Aye, lonesome, but—
"Not melancholy,—no, for it is green And bright and fertile, furnished in itself With the few needful things that life requires; In rugged arms how soft it seems to lie, How tenderly protected!"
Mr. Burroughs has given to those who contemplate building a house some sound advice in his essay "Roof-Tree." There he has said that a man makes public proclamation of what are his tastes and his manners, or his want of them, when he builds his house; that if we can only keep our pride and vanity in abeyance and forget that all the world is looking on, we may be reasonably sure of having beautiful houses. Tried by his own test, he has no reason to be ashamed of his taste or his manners when Slabsides is critically examined. Blending with its surroundings, it is coarse, strong, and substantial without; within it is snug and comfortable; its wide door bespeaks hospitality; its low, broad roof, protection and shelter; its capacious hearth, cheer; all its appointments for the bodily needs express simplicity and frugality; and its books and magazines, and the conversation of the host—are they not there for the needs that bread alone will not supply?
"Mr. Burroughs, why don't you PAINT things?" asked a little boy of four, who had been spending a happy day at Slabsides, but who, at nightfall, while nestling in the author's arms, seemed suddenly to realize that this rustic house was very different from anything he had seen before. "I don't like things painted, my little man; that is just why I came up here—to get away from paint and polish—just as you liked to wear your overalls to-day and play on the grass, instead of keeping on that pretty dress your mother wanted you to keep clean." "Oh!" said the child in such a knowing tone that one felt he understood. But that is another story.
The time of which I am speaking—that gray September day—what a memorable day it was! How cheery the large, low room looked when the host replenished the smouldering fire! "I sometimes come up here even in winter, build a fire, and stay for an hour or more, with long, sad, sweet thoughts and musings," he said. He is justly proud of the huge stone fireplace and chimney which he himself helped to construct; he also helped to hew the trees and build the house. "What joy went into the building of this retreat! I never expect to be so well content again." Then, musing, he added: "It is a comfortable, indolent life I lead here; I read a little, write a little, and dream a good deal. Here the sun does not rise so early as it does down at Riverby. 'Tired nature's sweet restorer' is not put to rout so soon by the screaming whistles, the thundering trains, and the necessary rules and regulations of well-ordered domestic machinery. Here I really 'loaf and invite my soul.' Yes, I am often melancholy, and hungry for companionship—not in the summer months, no, but in the quiet evenings before the fire, with only Silly Sally to share my long, long thoughts; she is very attentive, but I doubt if she notices when I sigh. She doesn't even heed me when I tell her that ornithology is a first-rate pursuit for men, but a bad one for cats. I suspect that she studies the birds with greater care than I do; for now I can get all I want of a bird and let him remain in the bush, but Silly Sally is a thorough-going ornithologist; she must engage in all the feather-splittings that the ornithologists do, and she isn't satisfied until she has thoroughly dissected and digested her material, and has all the dry bones of the subject laid bare."
We sat before the fire while Mr. Burroughs talked of nature, of books, of men and women whose lives or books, or both, have closely touched his own. He talked chiefly of Emerson and Whitman, the men to whom he seems to owe the most, the two whom most his soul has loved.
"I remember the first time I saw Emerson," he said musingly; "it was at West Point during the June examinations of the cadets. Emerson had been appointed by President Lincoln as one of the board of visitors. I had been around there in the afternoon, and had been peculiarly interested in a man whose striking face and manner challenged my attention. I did not hear him speak, but watched him going about with a silk hat, much too large, pushed back on his head; his sharp eyes peering into everything, curious about everything. 'Here,' said I to myself, 'is a countryman who has got away from home, and intends to see all that is going on'—such an alert, interested air! That evening a friend came to me and in a voice full of awe and enthusiasm said, 'Emerson is in town!' Then I knew who the alert, sharp-eyed stranger was. We went to the meeting and met our hero, and the next day walked and talked with him. He seemed glad to get away from those old fogies and talk with us young men. I carried his valise to the boat-landing—I was in the seventh heaven of delight."
"I saw him several years later," he continued, "soon after 'Wake-Robin' was published; he mentioned it and said: 'Capital title, capital!' I don't suppose he had read much besides the title."
"The last time I saw him," he said with a sigh, "was at Holmes's seventieth-birthday breakfast, in Boston. But then his mind was like a splendid bridge with one span missing; he had—what is it you doctors call it?—aphasia, yes, that is it—he had to grope for his words. But what a serene, godlike air! He was like a plucked eagle tarrying in the midst of a group of lesser birds. He would sweep the assembly with that searching glance, as much as to say, 'What is all this buzzing and chirping about?' Holmes was as brilliant and scintillating as ever; sparks of wit would greet every newcomer, flying out as the sparks fly from that log. Whittier was there, too, looking nervous and uneasy and very much out of his element. But he stood next to Emerson, prompting his memory and supplying the words his voice refused to utter. When I was presented, Emerson said in a slow, questioning way, 'Burroughs—Burroughs?' 'Why, thee knows him,' said Whittier, jogging his memory with some further explanation; but I doubt if he then remembered anything about me."
It was not such a leap from the New England writers to Whitman as one might imagine. Mr. Burroughs spoke of Emerson's prompt and generous indorsement of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass": "I give you joy of your free, brave thought. I have great joy in it." This and much else Emerson had written in a letter to Whitman. "It is the charter of an emperor!" Dana had said when Whitman showed him the letter. The poet's head was undoubtedly a little turned by praise from such a source, and much to Emerson's annoyance, the letter was published in the next edition of the "Leaves." Still Emerson and Whitman remained friends to the last.
"Whitman was a child of the sea," said Mr. Burroughs; "nurtured by the sea, cradled by the sea; he gave one the same sense of invigoration and of illimitableness that we get from the sea. He never looked so much at home as when on the shore—his gray clothes, gray hair, and far-seeing blue-gray eyes blending with the surroundings. And his thoughts—the same broad sweep, the elemental force and grandeur and all-embracingness of the impartial sea!"
"Whitman never hurried," Mr. Burroughs continued; "he always seemed to have infinite time at his disposal." It brought Whitman very near to hear Mr. Burroughs say, "He used to take Sunday breakfasts with us in Washington. Mrs. Burroughs makes capital pancakes, and Walt was very fond of them; but he was always late to breakfast. The coffee would boil over, the griddle would smoke, car after car would go jingling by, and no Walt. Sometimes it got to be a little trying to have domestic arrangements so interfered with; but a car would stop at last, Walt would roll off it, and saunter up to the door—cheery, vigorous, serene, putting every one in good humor. And how he ate! He radiated health and hopefulness. This is what made his work among the sick soldiers in Washington of such inestimable value. Every one that came into personal relations with him felt his rare compelling charm."
It was all very well, this talk about the poets, but climbing "break-neck stairs" on our way thither had given the guest an appetite, and the host as well; and these appetites had to be appeased by something less transcendental than a feast of reason. Scarcely interrupting his engaging monologue, Mr. Burroughs went about his preparations for dinner, doing things deftly and quietly, all unconscious that there was anything peculiar in this sight to the spectator. Potatoes and onions were brought in with the earth still on them, their bed was made under the ashes, and we sat down to more talk. After a while he took a chicken from the market-basket, spread it on a toaster, and broiled it over the coals; he put the dishes on the hearth to warm, washed the celery, parched some grated corn over the coals while the chicken was broiling, talking the while of Tolstoy and of Maeterlinck, of orioles and vireos, of whatever we happened to touch upon. He avowed that he was envious of Maeterlinck on account of his poetic "Life of the Bee." "I ought to have written that," he said; "I know the bee well enough, but I could never do anything so exquisite."
Parts of Maeterlinck's "Treasures of the Humble," and "Wisdom and Destiny," he "couldn't stand." I timorously mentioned his chapter on "Silence."
"'Silence'? Oh, yes; silence is very well—some kinds of it; but why make such a noise about silence?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
When the chicken was nearly ready, I moved toward the dining-table, on which some dishes were piled. As though in answer to my thought, he said:
"Yes, if there's anything you can do there, you may." So I began arranging the table.
"Where are my knife and fork?" "In the cupboard," he answered without ceremony.
We brought the good things from the hearth, hot and delicious, and sat down to a dinner that would have done credit to an Adirondack guide,—and when one has said this, what more need one say?
In helping myself to the celery I took an outside piece. Mine host reached over and, putting a big white centre of celery on my plate, said: "What's the use taking the outside of things when one can have the heart?" This is typical of John Burroughs's life as well as his art—he has let extraneous things, conventionalities, and non-essentials go; has gone to the heart of things. It is this that has made his work so vital.
As we arose from the table, I began picking up the dishes.
"You are going to help, are you?"
"Of course," I replied; "where is your dish-cloth? "—a natural question, as any woman will agree, but what a consternation it evoked! A just perceptible delay, a fumbling among pots and pans, and he came toward me with a most apologetic air, and with the sorriest-looking rag I had ever seen—its narrow circumference encircling a very big hole.
"Is that the best dish-cloth you have?" I asked.
For answer he held it up in front of his face, but the most of it being hole, it did not hide the eyes that twinkled so merrily that my housewifely reproof was effectually silenced. I took the sorry remnant and began washing the dishes, mentally resolving, and carrying out my resolution the next day, to send him a respectable dish-cloth. Prosaic, if you will, but does not his own Emerson say something about giving—
"to barrows, trays, and pans, Grace and glimmer of romance"?
And what graces a dish-pan better than a clean, whole, self-respecting dish-cloth?
So there we stood, John Burroughs and his humble reader, washing and wiping dishes, and weighing Amiel and Schopenhauer in the balance at the same time; and a very novel and amusing experience it was. Yet it did not seem so strange after all, but almost as though it had happened before. Silly Sally purred beseechingly as she followed her master about the room and out to the wood-pile, reminding him that she liked chicken bones.
While putting the bread in the large tin box that stood on the stair-landing, I had some difficulty with the clasp. "Never mind that," said Mr. Burroughs, as he scraped the potato skins into the fire; "a Vassar girl sat down on that box last summer, and it's never been the same since."
The work finished, there was more talk before the fire. It was here that the author told his guest about Anne Gilchrist, the talented, noble-hearted Englishwoman, whose ready acceptance of Whitman's message bore fruit in her penetrating criticism of Whitman, a criticism which stands to-day unrivaled by anything that has been written concerning the Good Gray Poet.
Like most of Mr. Burroughs' readers, I cherish his poem "Waiting," and, like most of them, I told him so on seeing him seated before the fire with folded hands and face serene, a living embodiment of the faith and trust expressed in those familiar lines. It would seem natural that he should write such a poem after the heat of the day, after his ripe experience, after success had come to him; it is the lesson we expect one to learn on reaching his age, and learning how futile is the fret and urge of life, how infinitely better is the attitude of trust that what is our own will gravitate to us in obedience to eternal laws. But I there learned that he had written the poem when a young man, life all before him, his prospects in a dubious and chaotic condition, his aspirations seeming likely to come to naught.
"I have lived to prove it true," he said,—"that which I but vaguely divined when I wrote the lines. Our lives are all so fearfully and wonderfully shot through with the very warp and woof of the universe, past, present, and to come! No doubt at all that our own—that which our souls crave and need—does gravitate toward us, or we toward it. 'Waiting' has been successful," he added, "not on account of its poetic merit, but for some other merit or quality. It puts in simple and happy form some common religious aspirations, without using the religious jargon. People write me from all parts of the country that they treasure it in their hearts; that it steadies their hand at the helm; that it is full of consolation for them. It is because it is poetry allied with religion that it has this effect; poetry alone would not do this; neither would a prose expression of the same religious aspirations do it, for we often outgrow the religious views and feelings of the past. The religious thrill, the sense of the Infinite, the awe and majesty of the universe, are no doubt permanent in the race, but the expression of these feelings in creeds and forms addressed to the understanding, or exposed to the analysis of the understanding, is as transient and flitting as the leaves of the trees. My little poem is vague enough to escape the reason, sincere enough to go to the heart, and poetic enough to stir the imagination."
The power of accurate observation, of dispassionate analysis, of keen discrimination and insight that we his readers are familiar with in his writings about nature, books, men, and life in general, is here seen to extend to self-analysis as well,—a rare gift; a power that makes his opinions carry conviction. We feel he is not intent on upholding any theory, but only on seeing things as they are, and reporting them as they are.
A steady rain had set in early in the afternoon, effectually drowning my hopes of a longer wood-land walk that day, but I was then, and many a time since then have been, well content that it was so. I learned less of woodland lore, but more of the woodland philosopher.
In quiet converse passed the hours of that memorable day in the humble retreat on the wooded hills,—
"Far from the clank of the world,"—
and in the company of the poet-naturalist. So cordial had my host been, so gracious the admission to his home and hospitality, that I left the little refuge with a feeling of enrichment I shall cherish while life lasts. I had sought out a favorite author; I had gained a friend.
(In response to my request, Mr. Burroughs began in 1903 to write for me a series of letters, autobiographical in character. It is from them, for the most part, helped out by interviews to fill in the gaps, that I have compiled this part of the book. The letters were not written continuously; begun in 1903, they suffered a long interruption, were resumed in 1906, again in 1907, and lastly in 1912. The reader will, I trust, pardon any repetition noted, an occasional return to a subject previously touched upon being unavoidable because of the long intervals between some of the letters.
It seems to me that these letters picture our author more faithfully than could any portrait drawn by another. Thomas Bailey Aldrich has said that no man has ever yet succeeded in painting an honest portrait of himself in an autobiography, however sedulously he may have set about it; that in spite of his candid purpose he omits necessary touches and adds superfluous ones; that at times he cannot help draping his thought, and that, of course, the least shred of drapery is a disguise. But, Aldrich to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe Mr. Burroughs has pictured himself and his environment in these pages with the same fidelity with which he has interpreted nature. He is so used to "straight seeing and straight thinking" that these gifts do not desert him when his observation is turned upon himself. He seems to be a shining example of the exception that proves the rule. Besides, when Aldrich pronounced that dictum, Mr. Burroughs had not produced these sketches.
This record was not written with the intention of its being published as it stood, but merely to acquaint me with the facts and with the author's feelings concerning them, in case I should some day undertake his biography. But it seems to me that just because it was so written, it has a value which would be considerably lessened were it to be worked over into a more finished form. I have been willing to sacrifice the more purely literary value which would undoubtedly grace the record, were the author to revise it, that I may retain its homely, unstudied human value.
I have arranged the autobiographical material under three headings: Ancestry and Family Life, Childhood and Youth, and Self-Analysis.—C. B.)
ANCESTRY AND FAMILY LIFE
I am, as you know, the son of a farmer. My father was the son of a farmer, as was his father, and his. There is no break, so far as I know, in the line of farmers back into the seventeenth century. There was a Rev. George Burroughs who was hanged (in 1692) for a witch in Salem. He was a Harvard graduate. I know of no other Harvard graduate by our name until Julian (Mr. Burroughs's son) graduated in 1901 from Harvard. My father's cousin, the Rev. John C. Burroughs, the first president of Chicago University, was graduated from Yale sometime in the early forties.
The first John Burroughs of whom I have any trace came from the West Indies, and settled in Stratford, Connecticut, where he married in 1694. He had ten children, of whom the seventh was John, born in August, 1705. My descent does not come from this John, but from his eldest brother, Stephen, who was born at Stratford in February, 1695. Stephen had eight children, and here another John turns up—his last child, born in 1745. His third child, Stephen Burroughs (born in 1729), was a shipbuilder and became a noted mathematician and astronomer, and lived at Bridgeport, Connecticut. My descent is through Stephen's seventh child, Ephraim, born in 1740.
Ephraim, my great-grandfather, also had a large family, six sons and several daughters, of which my grandfather Eden was one. He was born in Stratford, about 1770. My great-grandfather Ephraim left Stratford near the beginning of the Revolution and came into New York State, first into Dutchess County, when Grandfather was a small boy, and finally settled in what is now the town of Stamford, Delaware County, where he died in 1818. He is buried in a field between Hobart and Stamford.
My grandfather Eden married Rachael Avery, and shortly afterward moved over the mountain to the town of Roxbury, cutting a road through the woods and bringing his wife and all their goods and chattels on a sled drawn by a yoke of oxen. This must have been not far from the year 1795. He cleared the land and built a log house with a black-ash bark roof, and a great stone chimney, and a floor of hewn logs. Grandmother said it was the happiest day of her life when she found herself the mistress of this little house in the woods. Great-grandmother Avery lived with them later. She had a petulant disposition. One day when reproved for something, she went off and hid herself in the bushes and sulked—a family trait; I'm a little that way, I guess.
Grandfather Burroughs was religious,—an Old-School Baptist,—a thoughtful, quiet, exemplary man who read his Bible much. He was of spare build, serious, thrifty after the manner of pioneers, and a kind husband and father. He died, probably of apoplexy, when I was four years old. I can dimly remember him. He was about seventy-two.
Grandmother Burroughs had sandy hair and a freckled face, and from her my father and his sister Abby got their red hair. From this source I doubtless get some of my Celtic blood. Grand-mother Burroughs had nine children; the earliest ones died in infancy; their graves are on the hill in the old burying-ground. Two boys and five girls survived—Phoebe, Betsy, Mary, Abby, Olly, Chauncey (my father), and Hiram.
I do not remember Grandmother at all. She died, I think, in 1838, of consumption; she was in the seventies. Father said her last words were, "Chauncey, I have but a little while to live." Her daughter Oily and also my sister Oily died of consumption. Grandmother used to work with Grandfather in the fields, and help make sugar. I have heard them tell how in 1812 they raised wheat which sold for $2.50 a bushel—a great thing.
Father told me of his uncle, Chauncey Avery, brother of Grandmother Burroughs, who, with his wife and seven children, was drowned near Shandaken, by a flood in the Esopus Creek, in April, 1814, or 1816. The creek rose rapidly in the night; retreat was cut off in the morning. They got on the roof and held family prayers. Uncle Chauncey tried to fell a tree and make a bridge, but the water drove him away. The house was finally carried away with most of the family in it. The father swam to a stump with one boy on his back and stood there till the water carried away the stump, then tried to swim with the boy for shore, but the driftwood soon engulfed him and all was over. Two of the bodies were never found. Their bones doubtless rest somewhere in the still waters of the lower Esopus.
(Here follow details concerning one paternal and one maternal aunt, which, though picturesque, would better be omitted. It is to be noted, however, that in this simple homely narrative of his ancestors (which, by the way, gives a vivid picture of the early pioneer days) and later in his own personal history, there is no attempt to conceal or gloss over weaknesses or shortcomings; all is set down with engaging candor.—C. B.)
Father's sister Abby married a maternal cousin, John Kelly. He was of a scholarly turn. He worked for Father the year I was born, and I was named after him. I visited him in Pennsylvania in 1873, and while there, when he was talking with me about the men of our family named John Burroughs, he said, "One was a minister in the West, one was Uncle Hiram's son, you are the third, and there is still another I have heard of,—a writer." And I was silly enough not to tell him that I was that one. After I reached home, some of my people sent him "Winter Sunshine," and when he found that I was its author, he wrote that he "set great store by it." I don't know why I should have been so reticent about my books—they were a foreign thing, I suppose; it was not natural to speak of them among my kinsfolk.
(In this connection let me quote from an early letter of Mr. Burroughs to me. It was written in 1901 after the death of his favorite sister: "She was very dear to me, and I had no better friend. More than the rest of my people she aspired to understand and appreciate me, and with a measure of success. My family are plain, unlettered farmer folk, and the world in which you and I live iss a sealed book to them. The have never read my books. What they value in me is what I have in common with them, which is, no doubt, the larger part of me. But I love them all just the same. They are a part of father and mother, of the old home, and of my youthful days."—C. B.)
Mother's father. Grandfather Kelly, was a soldier of 1776, of Irish descent, born in Connecticut, I think. His name was Edmund Kelly. He went into the war as a boy and saw Washington and La Fayette. He was at Valley Forge during that terrible winter the army spent there. One day Washington gave the order to the soldiers to dress-parade for inspection; some had good clothes, some scarcely any, and no shoes. He made all the well-dressed men go and cut wood for the rest, and excused the others.
Grandfather was a small man with a big head and quite pronounced Irish features. He was a dreamer. He was not a good provider; Grandmother did most of the providing. He wore a military coat with brass buttons, and red-top boots. He believed in spooks and witches, and used to tell us spook stories till our hair would stand on end.
He was an expert trout fisherman. Early in the morning I would dig worms for bait, and we would go fishing over in West Settlement, or in Montgomery Hollow. I went fishing with him when he was past eighty. He would steal along the streams and "snake" out the trout, walking as briskly as I do now. From him I get my dreamy, lazy, shirking ways.
In 1848 he and Grandmother came to live near us. He had a severe fit of illness that year. I remember we caught a fat coon for him. He was fond of game. I was there one morning when they entertained a colored minister overnight, probably a fugitive slave. He prayed—how lustily he prayed!
I have heard Grandfather tell how, when he was a boy in Connecticut, he once put his hand in a bluebird's nest and felt, as he said, "something comical"; he drew out his hand, which was followed by the head and neck of a black snake; he took to his heels, and the black snake after him. (I rather think that's a myth.) He said his uncle, who was ploughing, came after the black snake with a whip, and the snake slunk away. He thought he remembered that. It may be a black snake might pursue one, but I doubt it.
(Mr. Burroughs's ingrained tendency to question reports of improbable things in nature shows even in these reminiscences of his grandfather. His instinct for the truth is always on the qui vive.—C. B.)
Grandmother Kelly lived to be past eighty. She was a big woman—thrifty and domestic—big enough to take "Granther" up in her arms and walk off with him. She did more to bring up her family than he did; was a practical housewife, and prolific. She had ten children and made every one of them toe the mark. I don't know whether she ever took "Granther" across her knee or not, but he probably deserved it. She was quite uneducated. Her maiden name was Lavinia Minot. I don't know where her people came from, or whether she had any brothers and sisters. They lived in Red Kill mostly, in the eastern part of the town of Roxbury, and also over on the edge of Greene County. I remember, when Grandfather used to tell stories of cruelty in the army, and of the hardships of the soldiers, she would wriggle and get very angry. All her children were large. They were as follows: Sukie, Ezekiel, Charles, Martin, Edmund, William, Thomas, Hannah, Abby, and Amy (my mother). Aunt Sukie was a short, chubby woman, always laughing. Uncle Charles was a man of strong Irish features, like Grandfather. He was a farmer who lived in Genesee County. Uncle Martin was a farmer of fair intelligence; Ezekiel was lower in the scale than the others; was intemperate, and after losing his farm became a day-laborer. He would carry a gin-bottle into the fields, and would mow the stones as readily as he would the grass—and I had to turn the grindstone to sharpen his scythe. Uncle Edmund was a farmer and a pettifogger. Uncle William died comparatively young; he had nurseries near Rochester. Uncle Thomas was a farmer, slow and canny, with a quiet, dry humor. Aunt Hannah married Robert Avery, who drank a good deal; I can't remember anything about her. Aunt Abby was large and thrifty; she married John Jenkins, and had a large family.... Amy, my mother, was her mother's tenth child.
Mother was born in Rensselaer County near Albany, in 1808. Her father moved to Delaware County when she was a child, driving there with an ox-team. Mother "worked out" in her early teens. She was seventeen or eighteen when she married, February, 1827.
Father and Mother first went to keeping house on Grandfather Burroughs's old place—not in the log house, but in the frame house of which you saw the foundations. Brother Hiram was born there.
(Mr. Burroughs's last walk with his father was to the crumbling foundations of this house. I have heard him tell how his father stood and pointed out the location of the various rooms—the room where they slept the first night they went there; the one where the eldest child was born; that in which his mother died. I stood (one August day in 1902) with Mr. Burroughs on the still remaining joists of his grandfather's house—grass-grown, and with the debris of stones and beams mingling with weeds and bushes. He pointed out to me, as his father had done for him, the location of the various rooms, and mused upon the scenes enacted there; he showed where the paths led to the barn and to the spring, and seemed to take a melancholy interest in picturing the lives of his parents and grandparents. A sudden burst of gladness from a song sparrow, and his musings gave way to attentive pleasure, and the sunlit Present claimed him instead of the shadowy Past. He was soon rejoicing in the discovery of a junco's nest near the foundations of the old house.—C.B.)
My father, Chauncey Burroughs, was born December 20, 1803. He received a fair schooling for those times—the three R's—and taught school one or two winters. His reading was the Bible and hymn-book, his weekly secular paper, and a monthly religious paper.
He used to say that as a boy he was a very mean one, saucy, quarrelsome, and wicked, liked horse-racing and card-playing—both alike disreputable in those times. In early manhood he "experienced religion" and joined the Old-School Baptist Church, of which his parents were members, and then all his bad habits seem to have been discarded. He stopped swearing and Sabbath-breaking, and other forms of wickedness, and became an exemplary member of the community. He was a man of unimpeachable veracity; bigoted and intolerant in his religious and political views, but a good neighbor, a kind father, a worthy citizen, a fond husband, and a consistent member of his church. He improved his farm, paid his debts, and kept his faith. He had no sentiment about things and was quite unconscious of the beauties of nature over which we make such an ado. "The primrose by the river's brim" would not have been seen by him at all. This is true of most farmers; the plough and the hoe and the scythe do not develop their aesthetic sensibilities; then, too, in the old religious view the beauties of this world were vain and foolish.
I have said that my father had strong religious feeling. He took "The Signs of the Times" for over forty years, reading all those experiences with the deepest emotion. I remember when a mere lad hearing him pray in the hog-pen. It was a time of unusual religious excitement with him, no doubt; I heard, and ran away, knowing it was not for me to hear.
Father had red hair, and a ruddy, freckled face. He was tender-hearted and tearful, but with blustering ways and a harsh, strident voice. Easily moved to emotion, he was as transparent as a child, with a child's lack of self-consciousness. Unsophisticated, he had no art to conceal anything, no guile, and, as Mother used to say, no manners. "All I ever had," Father would rejoin, "for I've never used any of them." I doubt if he ever said "Thank you" in his life; I certainly never heard him. He had nothing to conceal, and could not understand that others might have. I have heard him ask people what certain things cost, men their politics, women their ages, with the utmost ingenuousness. One day when he and I were in Poughkeepsie, we met a strange lad on the street with very red hair, and Father said to him, "I can remember when my hair was as red as yours." The boy stared at him and passed on.
Although Father lacked delicacy, he did not lack candor or directness. He would tell a joke on himself with the same glee that he would on any one else.... I have heard him tell how, in 1844, at the time of the "anti-renters," when he saw the posse coming, he ran over the hill to Uncle Daniel's and crawled under the bed, but left his feet sticking out, and there they found him. He had not offended, or dressed as an Indian, but had sympathized with the offenders.
He made a great deal of noise about the farm, sending his voice over the hills (we could hear him calling us to dinner when we were working on the "Rundle Place," half a mile away), shouting at the cows, the pigs, the sheep, or calling the dog, with needless expenditure of vocal power at all times and seasons. The neighbors knew when Father was at home; so did the cattle in the remotest field. His bark was always to be dreaded more than his bite. His threats of punishment were loud and severe, but the punishment rarely came. Never but once did he take a gad to me, and then the sound was more than the substance. I deserved more than I got: I had let a cow run through the tall grass in the meadow when I might easily have "headed her off," as I was told to do. Father used to say "No," to our requests for favors (such as a day off to go fishing or hunting) with strong emphasis, and then yield to our persistent coaxing.
One day I was going to town and asked him for money to buy an algebra. "What is an algebra?" He had never heard of an algebra, and couldn't see why I needed one; he refused the money, though I coaxed and Mother pleaded with him. I had left the house and had got as far as the big hill up there by the pennyroyal rock, when he halloed to me that I might get the algebra—Mother had evidently been instrumental in bringing him to terms. But my blood was up by this time, and as I trudged along to the village I determined to wait until I could earn the money myself for the algebra, and some other books I coveted. I boiled sap and made maple-sugar, and the books were all the sweeter by reason of the maple-sugar money.
When I wanted help, as I did two or three times later, on a pinch. Father refused me; and, as it turned out, I was the only one of his children that could or would help him when the pinch came—a curious retribution, but one that gave me pleasure and him no pain. I was better unhelped, as it proved, and better for all I could help him. But he was a loving father all the same. He couldn't understand my needs, but love outweighs understanding.
He did not like my tendency to books; he was afraid, as I learned later, that I would become a Methodist minister—his pet aversion. He never had much faith in me—less than in any of his children; he doubted if I would ever amount to anything. He saw that I was an odd one, and had tendencies and tastes that he did not sympathize with. He never alluded to my literary work; apparently left it out of his estimate of me. My aims and aspirations were a sealed book to him, as his peculiar religious experiences were to me, yet I reckon it was the same leaven working in us both.
I remember, on my return from Dr. Holmes's seventieth birthday breakfast, in 1879, a remark of father's. He had overheard me telling sister Abigail about the breakfast, and he declared: "I had rather go to hear old Elder Jim Mead preach two hours, if he was living, than attend all the fancy parties in the world." He said he had heard him preach when he did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body. The elder undoubtedly had a strong natural eloquence.
Although Father never spoke to me of my writings, Abigail once told me that when she showed him a magazine with some article of mine in, and accompanied by a photograph of me, he looked at it a long time; he said nothing, but his eyes filled with tears.
He went to school to the father of Jay Gould, John Gould—the first child born in the town of Roxbury (about 1780 or 1790).
He married Amy Kelly, my mother, in 1827. He was six years her senior. She lived over in Red Kill where he had taught school, and was one of his pupils. I have often heard him say: "I rode your Uncle Martin's old sorrel mare over to her folks' when I went courting her." When he would be affectionate toward her before others, Mother would say, "Now, Chauncey, don't be foolish."
Father bought the farm of 'Riah Bartram's mother, and moved on it in 1827. In a house that stood where the Old Home does now, I was born, April 3, 1837. It was a frame house with three or four rooms below and one room "done off" above, and a big chamber. I was the fifth son and the seventh child of my parents.
(Illustration of Birthplace of John Burroughs, Roxbury, New York. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
Mother was in her twenty-ninth year when she was carrying me. She had already borne four boys and two girls; her health was good and her life, like that of all farmers' wives in that section, was a laborious one. I can see her going about her work—milking, butter-making, washing, cooking, berry-picking, sugar-making, sewing, knitting, mending, and the thousand duties that fell to her lot and filled her days. Both she and Father were up at daylight in summer, and before daylight in winter. Sometimes she had help in the kitchen, but oftener she did not. The work that housewives did in those times seems incredible. They made their own soap, sugar, cheese, dipped or moulded their candles, spun the flax and wool and wove it into cloth, made carpets, knit the socks and mittens and "comforts" for the family, dried apples, pumpkins, and berries, and made the preserves and pickles for home use.
Mother went about all these duties with cheerfulness and alacrity. She more than kept up her end of the farm work. She was more strenuous than father. How many hours she sat up mending and patching our clothes, while we were sleeping! Rainy days meant no let-up in her work, as they did in Father's.
The first suit of clothes I remember having, she cut and made. Then the quilts and coverlids she pieced and quilted! We used, too, in my boyhood to make over two tons of butter annually, the care of which devolved mainly upon her, from the skimming of the pans to the packing of the butter in the tubs and firkins, though the churning was commonly done by a sheep or a dog. We made our own cheese, also. As a boy I used to help do the wheying, and I took toll out of the sweet curd. One morning I ate so much of the curd that I was completely cloyed, and could eat none after that.
I can remember Mother's loom pounding away hour after hour in the chamber of an outbuilding where she was weaving a carpet, or cloth. I used to help do some of the quilling—running the yarn or linen thread upon spools to be used in the shuttles. The distaff, the quill-wheel, the spinning-wheel, the reel, were very familiar to me as a boy; so was the crackle, the swingle, the hetchel, for Father grew flax which Mother spun into thread and wove into cloth for our shirts and summer trousers, and for towels and sheets. Wearing those shirts, when new, made a boy's skin pretty red. I dare say they were quite equal to a hair shirt to do penance in; and wiping on a new home-made linen towel suggested wiping on a brier bush. Dear me! how long it has been since I have seen any tow, or heard a loom or a spinning-wheel, or seen a boy breaking in his new flax-made shirt! No one sees these things any more.
Mother had but little schooling; she learned to read, but not to write or cipher; hence, books and such interests took none of her time. She was one of those uneducated countrywomen of strong natural traits and wholesome instincts, devoted to her children; she bore ten, and nursed them all—an heroic worker, a helpful neighbor, and a provident housewife, with the virtues that belonged to so many farmers' wives in those days, and which we are all glad to be able to enumerate in our mothers.
She had not a large frame, but was stout; had brown hair and blue eyes, a fine strong brow, and a straight nose with a strong bridge to it. She was a woman of great emotional capacity, who felt more than she thought. She scolded a good deal, but was not especially quick-tempered. She was an Old-School Baptist, as was Father.
She was not of a vivacious or sunny disposition—always a little in shadow, as it seems to me now, given to brooding and to dwelling upon the more serious aspects of life. How little she knew of all that has been done and thought in the world! and yet the burden of it all was, in a way, laid upon her. The seriousness of Revolutionary times, out of which came her father and mother, was no doubt reflected in her own serious disposition. As I have said, her happiness was always shaded, never in a strong light; and the sadness which motherhood, and the care of a large family, and a yearning heart beget was upon her. I see myself in her perpetually. A longing which nothing can satisfy I share with her. Whatever is most valuable in my books comes from her—the background of feeling, of pity, of love comes from her.
She was of a very different temperament from Father—much more self-conscious, of a more breeding, inarticulate nature. She was richly endowed with all the womanly instincts and affections. She had a decided preference for Abigail and me among her children, wanted me to go to school, and was always interceding with Father to get me books. She never read one of my books. She died in 1880, at the age of seventy-three. I had published four of my books then.
She had had a stroke of apoplexy in the fall of 1879, but lived till December of the following year, dying on father's seventy-seventh birthday. (He lived four years more.) We could understand but little of what she said after she was taken ill. She used to repeat a line from an old hymn—"Only a veil between."