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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 20/34 -
stomach; but the end of it is that a man may be wise, see and understand things as they are; be able to adjust himself to the universe in which he is placed, and judge and reason with the celerity of instinct, and that without any conscious exercise of his knowledge. When we feel the food we have eaten, something is wrong; so when a man is forever conscious of his learning, he has not digested it, and it is an encumbrance. . . .
The evolution of this author in his use of titles is interesting. Compare the crudity of "Vagaries vs. Spiritualism," and "Deep," for example, with those he selects when he begins to publish his books. "Wake-Robin," "Winter Sunshine," "Locusts and Wild Honey," "Leaf and Tendril,"--how much they connote! Then how felicitous are the titles of most of his essays! "Birch Browsings," "The Snow-Walkers," "Mellow England," "Our Rural Divinity" (the cow), "The Flight of the Eagle" (for one of his early essays on Whitman), "A Bunch of Herbs," "A Pinch of Salt," "The Divine Soil," "The Long Road" (on evolution)--these and many others will occur to the reader.
Following "A Thought on Culture" was a short essay on poetry, the drift of which is that poetry as contrasted with science must give us things, not as they are in themselves, but as they stand related to our experience. Our young writer is more at his ease now:--
Science, of course, is literal, as it ought to be, but science is not life; science takes no note of this finer self, this duplicate on a higher scale. Science never laughs or cries, or whistles or sings, or falls in love, or sees aught but the coherent reality. It says a soap bubble is a soap bubble--a drop of water impregnated with oleate of potash or soda, and inflated with common air; but life says it is a crystal sphere, dipped in the rainbow, buoyant as hope, sensitive as the eye, with a power to make children dance for joy, and to bring youth into the look of the old. . . .
Who in his youth ever saw the swallow of natural history to be the twittering, joyous bird that built mud nests beneath his father's shed, and in the empty odorous barn?--that snapped the insects that flew up in his way when returning at twilight from the upland farm; and that filled his memory with such visions of summer when he first caught its note on some bright May morning, flying up the southern valley? Describe water, or a tree, in the language of exact science, or as they really are in and of themselves, and what person, schooled only in nature, would recognize them? Things must be given as they seem, as they stand represented in the mind. Objects arrange themselves in our memory, not according to the will, or any real quality in themselves, but as they affect our lives and stand to us in our unconscious moments. The hills we have dwelt among, the rocks and trees we have looked upon in all moods and feelings, that stood to us as the shore to the sea, and received a thousand impresses of what we lived and suffered, have significance to us that is not accounted for by anything we can see or feel in them.
Here we see the youth of twenty-three setting forth a truth which he has sedulously followed in his own writing about nature, the following of which accounts so largely for the wide appeal his works have made.
Some time in 1860, Mr. Burroughs began to send essays to the New York "Leader," a weekly paper, the organ of Tammany Hall at that time. His first article was made up of three short essays--"World Growth," "New Ideas," and "Theory and Practice." Here beyond question is the writer we know:
The ideas that indicate the approach of a new era in history come like bluebirds in the spring, if you have ever noticed how that is. The bird at first seems a mere wandering voice in the air; you hear its carol on some bright morning in March, but are uncertain of its course or origin; it seems to come from some source you cannot divine; it falls like a drop of rain when no cloud is visible; you look and listen, but to no purpose. The weather changes, and it is not till a number of days that you hear the note again, or, maybe, see the bird darting from a stake in the fence, or flitting from one mullein-stalk to another. Its notes now become daily more frequent; the birds multiply; they sing less in the air and more when at rest; and their music is louder and more continuous, but less sweet and plaintive. Their boldness increases and soon you see them flitting with a saucy and inquiring air about barns and outbuildings, peeping into dove-cota and stable windows, and prospecting for a place to nest. They wage war against robins, pick quarrels with swallows, and would forcibly appropriate their mud houses, seeming to doubt the right of every other bird to exist but themselves. But soon, as the season advances, domestic instincts predominate; they subside quietly into their natural places, and become peaceful members of the family of birds.
So the thoughts that indicate the approach of a new era in history at first seem to be mere disembodied, impersonal voices somewhere in the air; sweet and plaintive, half-sung and half-cried by some obscure and unknown poet. We know not whence they come, nor whither they tend. It is not a matter of sight or experience. They do not attach themselves to any person or place, and their longitude and latitude cannot be computed. But presently they become individualized and centre in some Erasmus, or obscure thinker, and from a voice in the air, become a living force on the earth. They multiply and seem contagious, and assume a thousand new forms. They grow quarrelsome and demonstrative, impudent and conceited, crowd themselves in where they have no right, and would fain demolish or appropriate every institution and appointment of society. But after a time they settle into their proper relations, incorporate themselves in the world, and become new sources of power and progress in history.
This quotation is especially significant, as it shows the writer's already keen observation of the birds, and his cleverness in appropriating these facts of nature to his philosophical purpose. How neatly it is done! Readers of "Wake-Robin" will recognize a part of it in the matchless description of the bluebird which is found in the initial essay of that book.
In 1860, in the "Leader," there also appeared a long essay by Mr. Burroughs, "On Indirections." This has the most unity and flow of thought of any thus far. It is so good I should like to quote it all. Here are the opening paragraphs:--
The South American Indian who discovered the silver mines of Potosi by the turning up of a bush at the roots, which he had caught hold of to aid his ascent while pursuing a deer up a steep hill, represents very well how far intention and will are concerned in the grand results that flow from men's lives. Every schoolboy knows that many of the most valuable discoveries in science and art were accidental, or a kind of necessity, and sprang from causes that had no place in the forethought of the discoverer. The ostrich lays its eggs in the sand, and the sun hatches them; so man puts forth an effort and higher powers second him, and he finds himself the source of events that he had never conceived or meditated. Things are so intimately connected and so interdependent, the near and the remote are so closely related, and all parts of the universe are so mutually sympathetic, that it is impossible to tell what momentous secrets may lurk under the most trifling facts, or what grand and beautiful results may be attained through low and unimportant means. It seems that Nature delights in surprise, and in underlying our careless existences with plans that are evermore to disclose themselves to us and stimulate us to new enterprise and research. The simplest act of life may discover a chain of cause and effect that binds together the most remote parts of the system. We are often nearest to truth in some unexpected moment, and may stumble upon that while in a careless mood which has eluded our most vigilant and untiring efforts. Men have seen deepest and farthest when they opened their eyes without any special aim, and a word or two carelessly dropped by a companion has revealed to me a truth that weeks of study had failed to compass. . . .
Nature will not be come at directly, but indirectly; all her ways are retiring and elusive, and she is more apt to reveal herself to her quiet, unobtrusive lover, than to her formal, ceremonious suitor. A man who goes out to admire the sunset, or to catch the spirit of field and grove, will very likely come back disappointed. A bird seldom sings when watched, and Nature is no coquette, and will not ogle and attitudinize when stared at. The farmer and traveler drink deepest of this cup, because it is always a surprise and comes without forethought or preparation. No insulation or entanglement takes place, and the soothing, medicinal influence of the fields and the wood takes possession of us as quietly as a dream, and before we know it we are living the life of the grass and the trees.
How unconsciously here he describes his own intercourse with Nature! And what an unusual production for a youth of twenty-three of such meagre educational advantages!
In 1862, in an essay on "Some of the Ways of Power," which appeared in the "Leader," he celebrated the beauty and completeness of nature's inexorable laws:--
There is an evident earnestness and seriousness in the meaning of things, and the laws that traverse nature and our own being are as fixed and inexorable, though, maybe, less instantaneous and immediate in their operation, as the principle of gravitation, and are as little disposed to pardon the violator or adjourn the day of adjudication.
There seems to be this terrible alternative put to every man on entering the world, /conquer or be conquered/. It is what the waves say to the swimmer, "Use me or drown"; what gravity says to the babe, "Use me or fall"; what the winds say to the sailor, "Use me or be wrecked"; what the passions say to every one of us, "Drive or be driven." Time in its dealings with us says plainly enough, "Here I am, your master or your servant." If we fail to make a good use of time, time will not fail to make a bad use of us. The miser does not use his money, so his money uses him; men do not govern their ambition, and so are governed by it. . . .
These considerations are valuable chiefly for their analogical import. They indicate a larger truth. Man grows by conquering his limitations--by subduing new territory and occupying it. He commences life on a very small capital; his force yet lies outside of him, scattered up and down in the world like his wealth--in rocks, in trees, in storms and flood, in dangers, in difficulties, in hardships,--in short, in whatever opposes his progress and puts on a threatening front. The first difficulty overcome, the first victory gained, is so much added to his side of the scale--so much
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