During his lifetime the American nature writer John Burroughs achieved a fame which seemed somehow incongruent with the simplicity of his life and the quiet nature of his work. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, “the son of a farmer who was the son of a farmer who was the son of a farmer,” as he put it in his autobiography My Boyhood (1922), he lived simply all his life, and in his middle years returned to making part of his living from fruit and vegetable crops. He walked in nature with unceasing pleasure and perceptiveness, and wrote about it in informal, inviting, yet scientifically responsible essays. His work struck a chord with the public, and his lifetime work of some two dozen books went through many printings. He became the sought-out friend of famous men of the world, such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt. More significantly, his writings on nature were placed in schools throughout the United States, and became the model through which children learned to observe and appreciate nature; some schools were even named after him.
Because of the tremendous popularity of Burroughs in his own time, and especially his friendships with leading figures of his day, his work was later either forgotten in the shadow of his celebrity, or its literary value underestimated. Either way, Burroughs the public figure seemed to shoulder aside Burroughs the writer. This is not what Burroughs himself would have wanted; his lifelong commitment to his writing for its own sake, and to the active engagement with nature which his writing urges, far outweighed his honest but sometimes ambivalent enjoyment of his fame. For Burroughs, his life was indeed inextricably mingled with his writing: “My books are, in a way, a record of my life—that part of it that came to flower and fruit in my mind. You could reconstruct my days pretty well from these volumes. A writer who gleans his literary harvest in the fields and woods reaps mainly where he has sown himself. He is a husbandman whose crop springs from the seed of his own heart” (My Boyhood).
The accomplishment of his writing, and its great contribution to American nature writing, is in the sunlit work itself, and in the wooded, bird-attended path it helped create for other writers. (Burroughs, sometimes known as “JohnO’Birds,” was more likely to lavish his sentences and paragraphs on a bird’s song or its nest than on a “scenic view.”)
Fortunately, recent reassessments of Burroughs have accompanied a general revival of interest in nature writing, and his work is receiving new attention and appreciation. As a writer Burroughs was greatly influenced by the American transcendentalists, Emerson in particular. As Burroughs wrote of his first reading of Emerson: “I read him in a sort of ecstasy. I got him in my blood, and he colored my whole intellectual outlook. He appealed to my spiritual side; his boldness and unconventionality took a deep hold upon me.” Throughout his writing, Burroughs continually returns to the “gospel of nature,” finding spirituality there rather than in conventional religion. In his late work, Accepting the Universe (1920), Burroughs explores epistemological questions in a way that reflects both his transcendentalist roots and his interest in Darwin and science. He writes, “I have never tried to clothe myself in the delusive garments of a superstitious age. I have ever pinned my faith to a man-made God, however venerable. I have opened my mind to the open air of the universe, to things as they are…”
Burroughs’ work also reveals strong ties to the American Romanticism of Walt Whitman, the close friend of his years in Washington, D.C.Burroughs wrote his first book about Whitman’s work, and it was Whitman who helped him decide on the title of his first book of essays, Wake-Robin (1871). It is likely that the many hours and days spent with Whitman helped to nourish the generous, openhearted, and often lyrical spirit of Burroughs’ own writing style.
Burroughs’ approach to the nature essay was uniquely his own, and yet far more influential than is commonly realized. The writers who extolled the great vistas of the American West and the drama of wilderness explorations and adventures became the more celebrated examples of American nature writing as the 20th century developed. Yet Burroughs’ more quiet and close-to-home approach to experiencing, enjoying, and writing about nature has gained renewed appreciation toward the end of the century. His essays are always close to human life, as well as to nature. They are artfully composed, though casual in style. The sensibility in his essays is a reliable one, which the reader can trust for the “science” of its observations, and for the friendliness of its invitations to participate, appreciate, respect, and enjoy. True essayist that he is, Burroughs builds his observations and interpretations at a comfortable pace, as if taking the reader on one of his countless walks. An observation is followed by interpretation, by further illustration and observation, until a new light of understanding seems to come over writer and reader at the same time. Burroughs trusts the reader to have reached that enlarged understanding with him, and typically does not belabor it in his conclusion. The essay will simply end— often with a graceful echo of the main topic, rather than a methodical reiteration. In “The Spring Bird Procession” (1919), for instance, Burroughs expresses his pleasure at the spring migration of birds, but dwells particularly on the lost pleasure of the great migrations of the now extinct passenger pigeon: “In my boyhood the vast armies of the passenger pigeons were one of the most notable spring tokens. Often late in March, or early in April, the naked beechwoods would suddenly become blue with them, and vocal with their soft, childlike calls.” He describes the last great migration of pigeons he witnessed, concluding, “The pigeons never came back. Death and destruction, in the shape of the greed and cupidity of man, were on their trail.” With typical forthrightness, he confesses to having killed the last passenger pigeon that he himself ever saw, “little dreaming that, so far as I was concerned, I was killing the last pigeon.” He follows this with the rueful statement, “What man now in his old age who witnessed in youth that spring or fall festival and migration of the passenger pigeons would not hail it as one of the gladdest hours of his life if he could be permitted to witness it once more? It was such a spectacle of bounty, of joyous, copious animal life, of fertility in the air and in the wilderness, as to make the heart glad.”
The essay might have ended here, but instead it goes on to describe the migrations of other bird species, and to speculate about their lives, closing many pages later with the description of purple finches stealing cherry blossoms from his orchard. After his alarm that they might ruin his crop, he discovered that “they had only done a little of the much- needed thinning. Out of a cluster of six or eight blossoms they seldom took more than two or three, as if they knew precisely what they were about, and were intent on rendering me a service.” He does not spell out the contrast between the finches’ considerate thinning of his cherry blossoms and the human “greed and cupidity” that drove the passenger pigeon to extinction, but leaves it to the reader to make the connection.
Burroughs is probably best known for his close observation of particular birds, plants, or animals. Yet, as his biographer Edward Renehan (1992.) notes, “As an artist interpreting nature, Burroughs was never to become what he called ‘a strict man of science.’ He evolved not into a naturalist, per se, but into a new hybrid: a literary naturalist with a duty to record his own unique perceptions of the natural world. While remaining loyal to the truth of natural facts, he also remained true to his personal vision of these facts.” His clearsightedness and free use of his own voice, expressing his delight in nature, are the elements of Burroughs’ writing that have been most influential on later nature writers. In his essay “Sharp Eyes” (1879), Burroughs speculates:
Noting how one eye seconds and reinforces the other, I have often amused myself by wondering what the effect would be if one could go on opening eye after eye to the number say of a dozen or more. What would he see? Perhaps not the invisible—not the odor of flowers or the fever germs in the air—not the infinitely small of the microscope nor the infinitely distant of the telescope …
We open another eye whenever we see beyond the first general features or outlines of things—whenever we grasp the special details and characteristic markings that this mask covers. Whenever you have learned to discriminate the birds, or the plants, or the geological features of a country, it is as if new and keener eyes were added.
CHARLOTTE ZOË WALKER
Born 3 April 1837 near Roxbury, New York. Grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains, New York. Taught in schools in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, 1854– 63; studied briefly at Hedding Literary Institute, Ashland, New York, and Cooperstown Seminary, 1856. Married Ursula North (died, 1917), 1857: one son. Contributor to various journals and newspapers, from 1860, including the Atlantic Monthly. Studied medicine privately, Tongore, New York, 1862. Moved to Washington, D.C., 1863, where he met and became lifelong friends with Walt Whitman. Clerk, 1864–72; special bank examiner, from 1873, Currency Bureau, Treasury Department. Traveled to England, 1871 and 1882. Bought a fruit farm on the Hudson River, West Park, New York, 1873, and built on it the house Riverby, living there from 1874, where he soon gave up office work to make his living through writing and farming; later built the cabin Slabsides, near Riverby, 1894, and renovated the farmhouse Woodchuck Lodge, near Roxbury, 1920.
Became good friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and fellow naturalist John Muir; accompanied Muir on a trip to Yosemite, and Roosevelt to Yellowstone National Park.
Awards: American Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, 1916; honorary degrees from three universities.
Died on a train in Ohio (returning from California to New York State), 29 March 1921.
Essays and Related Prose
Winter Sunshine, 1875; revised, enlarged edition, 1877
Birds and Poets, with Other Papers, 1877
Locusts and Wild Honey, 1879
Fresh Fields, 1884
Signs and Seasons, 1886
Sharp Eyes, and Other Papers, 1886
Birds and Bees, 1887
Indoor Studies, 1889
Riverby: Essays on Birds, Trees, and Prairies, 1894
A Bunch of Herbs, and Other Papers, 1896
The Light of Day, 1900
Literary Values, and Other Papers, 1902
Far and Near, 1904
The Complete Nature Writings, 9 vols., 1904–21
Ways of Nature, 1905
Leaf and Tendril, 1908
Time and Change, 1912
The Summit of the Years, 1913
The Wit of a Duck, and Other Papers, 1913
The Breath of Life, 1915
Under the Apple-Trees, 1916
Field and Study, 1919
Nature near Home and Other Papers, 1919
Accepting the Universe, 1920
Under the Maples, 1921
The Last Harvest, 1922
The Heart of John Burroughs’s Journals, edited by Clara Barrus, 1928
John Burroughs’s America (selections), edited by Julian Burroughs, 1951
The Birds of John Burroughs, edited by Jack Kligerman, 1976
A River View and Other Hudson Valley Essays, edited by Edward Renehan, 1981
A Sharp Lookout: Selected Nature Essays, edited by Frank Bergon, 1987
Birch Browsings: A John Burroughs Reader, edited by Bill McKibben, 1992
Other writings: the collection of poetry Bird and Bough (1906), a book about mammals (Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, 1900), Camping with President Roosevelt (1906; enlarged edition, as Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt, 1907), studies of Whitman (Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, 1867; Walt Whitman, 1896) and John James Audubon (1902), the autobiography My Boyhood (1922), and correspondence. Also
edited Songs of Nature (1901), an anthology of nature poetry.
Collected works editions: The Writings (Riverside Edition), 23 vols., 1895–1922; Riverby Edition, 23 vols., 1904–23, reissued as the Wake-Robin Edition, 1924, 1968.
Blanck, Jacob, “John Burroughs,” in Bibliography of American Literature, vol. 1, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1955:433–48
Garrison, Joseph M., Jr., “John Burroughs,” Bulletin of Bibliography 24 (May-August 1964):95–96
Kanze, Edward, The World of John Burroughs, New York: Abrams, 1993
Kelly, Elizabeth Burroughs, John Burroughs, Naturalist: The Story of His Work and Family by His Granddaughter, West Park, New York: Riverby Books, 1959
Renehan, Edward J., Jr., John Burroughs, an American Naturalist, Post Mills, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 1992
Walker, Charlotte Zoë, editor, Sharp Eyes: John Burroughs and American Nature Writing: A Collection of Essays, New York: Lang, 1997
Westbrook, Perry D., John Burroughs, New York: Twayne, 1974
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