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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 34/34 -

praise to deserving ones.

It has surprised some of his readers, who know how kindly he is by nature, and how he shrinks from witnessing pain, in beast or man, much less inflicting it, to see his severity when nature is traduced--for he shows all the fight and fury and all the defense of the mother bird when her young are attacked. He won't suffer even a porcupine to be misrepresented without bristling up in its defense.

I have said that he never preaches, never seeks to give a moral twist to his observations of nature, but I recall a few instances where he does do a bit of moralizing; for example, when he speaks of the calmness and dignity of the hawk when attacked by crows or kingbirds: "He seldom deigns to notice his noisy and furious antagonist, but deliberately wheels about in that aerial spiral, and mounts and mounts till his pursuers grow dizzy and return to earth again. It is quite original, this mode of getting rid of an unworthy opponent--rising to heights where the braggart is dazed and bewildered and loses his reckoning! I'm not sure but it is worthy of imitation." Or, in writing of work on the farm, especially stone-fence making, he speaks of clearing the fields of the stones that are built into boundaries: "If there are ever sermons in stones, it is when they are built into a stone wall--turning your hindrances into helps, shielding your crops behind the obstacles to your husbandry, making the enemies of the plough stand guard over its products." But do we find such sermonizing irksome?

Just as "all architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it," so is all nature. Lovers of Nature muse and dream and invite their own souls. They interpret themselves, not Nature. She reflects their thoughts and minds, gives them, after all, only what they bring to her. And the writer who brings much--much of insight, of devotion, of sympathy--is sure to bring much away for his reader's delectation. Does not this account for the sense of intimacy which his reader has with the man, even before meeting him?--the feeling that if he ever does meet him, it will be as a friend, not as a stranger? And when one does meet him, and hears him speak, one almost invariably thinks: "He talks just as he writes." To read him after that is to hear the very tones of his voice.

We sometimes hear the expression, "English in shirt-sleeves," applied to objectionable English; but the phrase might be applied in a commendatory way to good English,--to the English of such a writer as Mr. Burroughs,--simple, forceful language, with homely, everyday expressions; English that shows the man to have been country-bred, albeit he has wandered from the home pastures to distant woods and pastures new, browsing in the fields of literature and philosophy, or wherever he has found pasturage to his taste. Or, to use a figure perhaps more in keeping with his main pursuits, he is one who has flocked with birds not of a like feather with those that shared with him the parent nest. Although his kin knew and cared little for the world's great books, he early learned to love them when he was roaming his native fields and absorbing unconsciously that from which he later reaped his harvest. It is to writers of /this/ kind of "English in shirt-sleeves" that we return again and again. In them we see shirt-sleeves opposed to evening dress; naturalness, sturdiness, sun-tan, and open sky, opposed to the artificial, to tameness, constriction, and characterless conformity to prescribed customs.

Do we not turn to writers of the first class with eagerness, slaking our thirst, refreshing our minds at perennial springs? How are we glad that they lead us into green pastures and beside still waters, away from the crowded haunts of the conventional, and the respectably commonplace society garb of speech! What matter if occasionally one even gives a wholesome shock by daring to come into the drawing-room of our minds in his shirt-sleeves, his hands showing the grime of the soil, and his frame the strength that comes from battling with wind and weather? It is the same craving which makes us say with Richard Hovey:--

"I am sick of four walls and a ceiling; I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass."

But it will not do to carry this analogy too far in writing of Mr. Burroughs lest it be inferred that I regard the author's work as having in it something of the uncouth, or the ill-timed, or the uncultured. His writing is of the earth, but not of the earth earthy. He sees divine things underfoot as well as overhead. His page has the fertility of a well-cultivated pastoral region, the limpidness of a mountain brook, the music of our unstudied songsters, the elusive charm of the blue beyond the summer clouds; it has, at times, the ruggedness of a shelving rock, combined with the grace of its nodding columbines.

Mr. Burroughs has told us, in that June idyl of his, "Strawberries," that he was a famous berry-picker when a boy. It was with a peculiar pleasure that I wandered with him one midsummer day over the same meadows where he used to gather strawberries. My first introduction to him as a writer, many years before, had been in hearing this essay read. And since then never a year passes that I do not read it at least three times--once in winter just to bring June and summer near; once in spring when all outdoors gives promise of the fullness yet to be; and once in the radiant summer weather when daisies and clover and bobolinks and strawberries riot in one's blood, making one fairly mad to bury one's self in the June meadows and breathe the clover-scented air. And it always stands the test--the test of being read out in the daisy-flecked meadows with rollicking bobolinks overhead.

What quality is it, though, that so moves and stirs us when Mr. Burroughs recounts some of the simple happenings of his youth? What is it in his recitals that quickens our senses and perceptions and makes our own youth alive and real? It is paradise regained--the paradise of one's lost youth. Let this author describe his boyhood pastures, going 'cross lots to school, or to his favorite spring, whatsoever it is--is it the path that he took to the little red schoolhouse in the Catskills? Is it the spring near his father's sugar bush that we see? No. One is a child again, and in a different part of the State, with tamer scenery, but scenery endeared by early associations. The meadow you see is the one that lies before the house where you were born; you read of the boy John Burroughs jumping trout streams on his way to school, but see yourself and your playmates scrambling up a canal bank, running along the towpath, careful to keep on the land side of the towline that stretches from mules to boat, lest you be swept into the green, uninviting waters of the Erie. On you run with slate and books; you smell the fresh wood as you go through the lumber yard. Or, read another of his boyish excursions, and you find yourself on that first spring outing to a distant, low-lying meadow after "cowslips"; another, and you are trudging along with your brother after the cows, stopping to nibble spearmint, or pick buttercups by the way. Prosaic recollections, compared to spring paths and trout brooks in the Catskill valleys, yet this is what our author's writings do--re-create for each of us our own youth, with our own childhood scenes and experiences, invested with a glamour for us, however prosy they seem to others; and why? Because, though nature's aspects vary, the human heart is much the same the world over, and the writer who faithfully adds to his descriptions of nature his own emotional experiences arouses answering responses in the soul of his reader.

Perhaps the poet in Mr. Burroughs is nowhere more plainly seen than in his descriptions of bird life, yet how accurately he gives their salient points; he represents the bird as an object in natural history, but ah! how much more he gives! Imagine our bird-lover describing a bird as Ellery Channing described one, as something with "a few feathers, a hole at one end and a point at the other, and a pair of wings"! We see the bird Mr. Burroughs sees; we hear the one he hears. Long before I had the memorable experience of standing with him on the banks of the Willowemoc and listening at twilight to the slow, divine chant of the hermit thrush, I had heard it in my dreams, because of that inimitable description of its song in "Wake-Robin." It does, indeed, seem to be "the voice of that calm, sweet solemnity one attains to in his best moments." As one listens to its strain in the hush of twilight, the pomp of cities and the pride of civilization of a truth seem trivial and cheap.

What a near, human interest our author makes us feel in the birds, how we watch their courtships, how we peer into their nests, and how lively is our solicitude for their helpless young swung in their "procreant cradles," beset on all sides by foes that fly and creep and glide! And not only does he make the bird a visible living creature; he makes it sing joyously to the ear, while all nature sings blithely to the eye. We see the bird, not as a mass of feathers with "upper parts bright blue, belly white, breast ruddy brown, mandibles and legs black," as the textbooks have it, but as a thing of life and beauty: "Yonder bluebird with the earth tinge on his breast and the sky tinge on his back,--did he come down out of heaven on that bright March morning when he told us so softly and plaintively that, if we pleased, spring had come?" Who is there in reading this matchless description of the bluebird that does not feel the retreat of winter, that does not feel his pulse quicken with the promise of approaching spring, that does not feel that the bird did, indeed, come down out of heaven, the heaven of hope and promise, even though the skies are still bleak, and the winds still cold? Who, indeed, except those prosaic beings who are blind and deaf to the most precious things in life?

"I heard a bluebird this morning!" one exclaimed exultantly, so stirred as to forget momentarily her hearer's incapacity for enthusiasm. "Well, and did it sound any different from what it did last year, and the year before, and the year before that?" inquired in measured, world-wearied tones the dampener of ardors. No, my poor friend, it did not. And just because it sounded the same as it has in all the succeeding springs since life was young, it touched a chord in one's heart that must be long since mute in your own, making you poor, indeed, if this dear familiar bird voice cannot set it vibrating once more.


Our Friend John Burroughs - 34/34

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