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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 3/34 -
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: 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
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