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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 10/34 -

sugar-making, of cradling the oats in July; while the other--ah! the other, of what was he not thinking!--of the little world of the hives (his thoughts yielding the exquisite "Idyl of the Honey-Bee"), of boyhood days upon the farm, of the wild life around his cabin, of the universe, and of the soul of the poet Whitman, that then much misunderstood man, than whom no one so much as he has helped us to appreciate. Going out and in, attending to his homely tasks (for these brothers did their own housework), the younger brother was all the time thinking of that great soul, of all that association with him had meant to him, and of all that Whitman would mean to America, to the world, as poet, prophet, seer--thinking how out of his knowledge of Whitman as poet and person he could cull and sift and gather together an adequate and worthy estimate of one whom his soul loved as Jonathan loved David!

The mystery of personality--how shall one fathom it? I asked myself this one rainy afternoon, as I sat in the Burroughs homestead and looked from one brother to another, the two so alike and yet so unlike. The one a simple farmer whose interests are circumscribed by the hills which surround the farm on which as children they were reared; the other, whose interests in the early years were seemingly just as circumscribed, but who felt that nameless something--that push from within--which first found its outlet in a deeper interest in the life about him than his brothers ever knew; and who later felt the magic of the world of books; and, still later, the need of expression, an expression which finally showed itself in a masterly interpretation of country life and experiences. The same heredity here, the same environment, the same opportunities--yet how different the result! The farmer has tended and gathered many a crop from the old place since they were boys, but has been blind and deaf to all that has there yielded such a harvest to the other. That other, a plain, unassuming man, "standing at ease in nature," has become a household word because of all that he has contributed to our intellectual and emotional life.

A man who as a lad had roamed the Roxbury hills with John Burroughs and his brothers, and had known the boy John as something of a dreamer, and thought of him in later years as perhaps of less account than his brothers (since they had settled down, owned land, and were leading industrious lives), was traveling in Europe in the eighties. On the top of a stage-coach in the Scottish Highlands he sat next a scholarly-looking man whose garb, he thought, betokened a priest. From some question which the traveler put, the Englishman learned that the stranger was from America. Immediately he showed a lively interest. "From America! Do you, then, know John Burroughs?"

Imagine the surprise of the Delaware County farmer at being questioned about his schoolmate, the dreamer, who, to be sure, "took to books"; but what was he that this Englishman should inquire about him as the one man in America he was eager to learn about! Doubtless Mr. Burroughs was the one literary man the Delaware County farmer did know, though his knowledge was on the personal and not on the literary side. And imagine the surprise of the priest (if priest it was) to find that he had actually lighted upon a schoolmate of the author!--C. B.]


I seem to have been a healthy, active child, very impressionable, and with more interests and a keener enjoyment of things than most farm boys have. I was fond of the girls back as early as I can remember, and had my sweethearts at a very early age. . . .

I learned my letters at school, when I was five or six, in the old-fashioned way by being called up to the teacher several times a day and naming the letters as he pointed at them where they stood in a perpendicular column in Cobb's Spelling-Book. The vowels and consonants stood in separate columns, and had to be learned one by one, by continued repetition. It took me a long time, I remember, to distinguish /b/ from /d/, and /c/ from /e/. When and how I learned to read I do not remember. I recall Cobb's Second Reader, and later Olney's Geography, and then Dayballs Arithmetic.

I went to school summers till I was old enough to help on the farm, say at the age of eleven or twelve, when my schooling was confined to the winters.

[Illustration: The Old Schoolhouse, Roxbury, New York. From a photograph by M.H. Fanning]

As a boy, the only farm work that appealed to me was sugar-making in the maple woods in spring. This I thoroughly enjoyed. It brought me near to wild nature and was freer from routine than other farm work. Then I soon managed to gather a little harvest of my own from the sugar bush. I used to anticipate the general tapping by a few days or a week, and tap a few trees on my own account along the sunny border of the Woods, and boil the sap down on the kitchen stove (to the disgust of the womenfolks), selling the sugar in the village. I think the first money I ever earned came to me in this way. My first algebra and first grammar I bought with some of this precious money. When I appeared in the village with my basket of small cakes of early sugar, how my customers would hail me and call after me! No one else made such white sugar, or got it to market so early. One season, I remember, I got twelve silver quarters for sugar, and I carried them in my pockets for weeks, jingling them in the face of my envious schoolmates, and at intervals feasting my own eyes upon them. I fear if I could ever again get hold of such money as that was I should become a miser.

Hoeing corn, weeding the garden, and picking stone was drudgery, and haying and harvesting I liked best when they were a good way off; picking up potatoes worried me, but gathering apples suited my hands and my fancy better, and knocking "Juno's cushions" in the spring meadows with my long-handled knocker, about the time the first swallow was heard laughing overhead, was real fun. I always wanted some element of play in my work; buckling down to any sort of routine always galled me, and does yet. The work must be a kind of adventure, and permit of sallies into free fields. Hence the most acceptable work for me was to be sent strawberrying or raspberrying by Mother; but the real fun was to go fishing up Montgomery Hollow, or over on Rose's Brook, this necessitating a long tramp, and begetting a hunger in a few hours that made a piece of rye bread the most delectable thing in the world; yet a pure delight that never sated.

Mother used to bake her bread in the large old-fashioned brick oven, and once or twice a week we boys had to procure oven wood.

"You must get me oven wood this morning," she would say; "I am going to bake today." Then we would scurry around for dry, light, quick wood--pieces of old boxes and boards, and dry limbs. "One more armful," she would often say, when we were inclined to quit too soon. In a half-hour or so, the wood would be reduced to ashes, and the oven properly heated. I can see Mother yet as she would open the oven door and feel the air inside with her hand. "Run, quick, and get me a few more sticks--it is not quite hot enough." When it was ready, the coals and ashes were raked out, and in went the bread, six or seven big loaves of rye, with usually two of wheat. The wheat was for company.

When we would come in at dinner- or supper-time and see wheat bread on the table we would ask: "Who's in the other room?" Maybe the answer would be, "Your Uncle Martin and Aunt Virey." How glad I would be! I always liked to see company. Well, the living was better, and then, company brought a new element into the day; it gave a little tinge of romance to things. To wake up in the morning and think that Uncle Martin and Aunt Virey were there, or Uncle Edmund and Aunt Saliny, quickened the pulse a little. Or, when any of my cousins came,--boys near my own age,--what joy filled the days! And when they went, how lonesome I would be! how forlorn all things looked till the second or third day! I early developed a love of comrades, and was always fond of company--and am yet, as the records of Slabsides show.

I was quite a hunter in my youth, as most farm boys are, but I never brought home much game--a gray squirrel, a partridge, or a wild pigeon occasionally. I think with longing and delight of the myriads of wild pigeons that used to come every two or three years--covering the sky for a day or two, and making the naked spring woods gay and festive with their soft voices and fluttering blue wings. I have seen thousands of them go through a beech wood, like a blue wave, picking up the sprouting beechnuts. Those in the rear would be constantly flying over those in front, so that the effect was that of a vast billow of mingled white and blue and brown, rustling and murmuring as it went. One spring afternoon vast flocks of them were passing south over our farm for hours, when some of them began to pour down in the beech woods on the hill by the roadside. A part of nearly every flock that streamed by would split off and, with a downward wheel and rush, join those in the wood. Presently I seized the old musket and ran out in the road, and then crept up behind the wall, till only the width of the road separated me from the swarms of fluttering pigeons. The air and the woods were literally blue with them, and the ground seemed a yard deep with them. I pointed my gun across the wall at the surging masses, and then sat there spellbound. The sound of their wings and voices filled my ears, and their numbers more than filled my eyes. Why I did not shoot was never very clear to me. Maybe I thought the world was all turning to pigeons, as they still came pouring down from the heavens, and I did not want to break the spell. There I sat waiting, waiting, with my eye looking along the gun-barrel, till, suddenly, the mass rose like an explosion, and with a rush and a roar they were gone. Then I came to my senses and with keen mortification realized what an opportunity I had let slip. Such a chance never came again, though the last great flight of pigeons did not take place till 1875.

When I was about ten or twelve, a spell was put upon me by a red fox in a similar way. The baying of a hound upon the mountain had drawn me there, armed with the same old musket. It was a chilly day in early December. I took up my stand in the woods near what I thought might be the runway, and waited. After a while I stood the butt of my gun upon the ground, and held the barrel with my hand. Presently I heard a rustle in the leaves, and there came a superb fox loping along past me, not fifty feet away. He was evidently not aware of my presence, and, as for me, I was aware of his presence alone. I forgot that I had a gun, that here was the game I was in quest of, and that now was my chance to add to my store of silver quarters. As the unsuspecting fox disappeared over a knoll, again I came to my senses, and brought my gun to my shoulder; but it was too late, the game had gone. I returned home full of excitement at what I had seen, and gave as the excuse why I did not shoot, that I had my mitten on, and could not reach the trigger of my gun. It is true I had my mitten on, but there was a mitten, or something, on my wits also. It was years before I heard the last of that mitten; when I failed at anything they said, "John had his mitten on, I guess."

Our Friend John Burroughs - 10/34

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