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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 4/34 -


alone were insufficient; the long line of yeoman ancestry back of him cried out for recognition; he felt the need of closer contact with the soil; of having land to till and cultivate. This need, an ancestral one, was as imperative as his need of literary expression, an individual one. Hear what he says after having ploughed in his new vineyard for the first time: "How I soaked up the sunshine to-day! At night I glowed all over; my whole being had had an earth bath; such a feeling of freshly ploughed land in every cell of my brain. The furrow had struck in; the sunshine had photographed it upon my soul." Later he built him a little study somewhat apart from his dwelling, to which he could retire and muse and write whenever the mood impelled him. This little one-room study, covered with chestnut bark, is on the brow of a hill which slopes toward the river; it commands an extended view of the Hudson. But even this did not meet his requirements. The formality and routine of conventional life palled upon him; the expanse of the Hudson, the noise of railway and steamboat wearied him; he craved something more retired, more primitive, more homely. "You cannot have the same kind of attachment and sympathy for a great river; it does not flow through your affections like a lesser stream," he says, thinking, no doubt, of the trout-brooks that thread his father's farm, of Montgomery Hollow Stream, of the Red Kill, and of others that his boyhood knew. Accordingly he cast about for some sequestered spot in which to make himself a hermitage.

[Illustration: The Study, Riverby. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott]

During his excursions in the vicinity of West Park, Mr. Burroughs had lingered oftenest in the hills back of, and parallel with, the Hudson, and here he finally chose the site for his rustic cabin. He had fished and rowed in Black Pond, sat by its falls in the primitive forest, sometimes with a book, sometimes with his son, or with some other hunter or fisher of congenial tastes; and on one memorable day in April, years agone, he had tarried there with Walt Whitman. There, seated on a fallen tree, Whitman wrote this description of the place which was later printed in "Specimen Days":--

I jot this memorandum in a wild scene of woods and hills where we have come to visit a waterfall. I never saw finer or more copious hemlocks, many of them large, some old and hoary. Such a sentiment to them, secretive, shaggy, what I call weather-beaten, and let-alone--a rich underlay of ferns, yew sprouts and mosses, beginning to be spotted with the early summer wild flowers. Enveloping all, the monotone and liquid gurgle from the hoarse, impetuous, copious fall--the greenish-tawny, darkly transparent waters plunging with velocity down the rocks, with patches of milk-white foam--a stream of hurrying amber, thirty feet wide, risen far back in the hills and woods, now rushing with volume--every hundred rods a fall, and sometimes three or four in that distance. A primitive forest, druidical, solitary, and savage--not ten visitors a year--broken rocks everywhere, shade overhead, thick underfoot with leaves--a just palpable wild and delicate aroma.

"Not ten visitors a year" may have been true when Whitman described the place, but we know it is different now. Troops of Vassar girls come to visit the hermit of Slabsides, and are taken to these falls; nature-lovers, and those who only think themselves nature-lovers, come from far and near; Burroughs clubs, boys' schools, girls' schools, pedestrians, cyclists, artists, authors, reporters, poets,--young and old, renowned and obscure,--from April till November seek out this lover of nature, who is a lover of human nature as well, who gives himself and his time generously to those who find him. When the friends of Socrates asked him where they should bury him, he said: "You may bury me if you can /find/ me." Not all who seek John Burroughs really find him; he does not mix well with every newcomer; one must either have something of Mr. Burroughs's own cast of mind, or else be of a temperament capable of genuine sympathy with him, in order to find the real man. He withdraws into his shell before persons of uncongenial temperament; to such he can never really speak--they see Slabsides, but they don't see Burroughs. He is, however, never curt or discourteous to any one. Unlike Thoreau, who "put the whole of nature between himself and his fellows," Mr. Burroughs leads his fellows to nature, although it is sometimes, doubtless, with the feeling that one can lead a horse to water, but can't make him drink; for of all the sightseers that journey to Slabsides there must of necessity be many that "Oh!" and "Ah!" a good deal, but never really get further in their study of nature than that. Still, it can scarcely fail to be salutary even to these to get away from the noise and the strife in city and town, and see how sane, simple, and wholesome life is when lived in a sane and simple and wholesome way. Somehow it helps one to get a clearer sense of the relative value of things, it makes one ashamed of his petty pottering over trifles, to witness this exemplification of the plain living and high thinking which so many preach about, and so few practice.

"The thing which a man's nature calls him to do--what else so well worth doing?" asks this writer. One's first impression after glancing about this well-built cabin, with the necessities of body and soul close at hand, is a vicarious satisfaction that here, at least, is one who has known what he wanted to do and has done it. We are glad that Gilbert White made pastoral calls on his outdoor parishioners,--the birds, the toads, the turtles, the snails, and the earthworms,--although we often wonder if he evinced a like conscientiousness toward his human parishioners; we are glad that Thoreau left the manufacture of lead pencils to become, as Emerson jocosely complained, "the leader of a huckleberry party",--glad because these were the things their natures called them to do, and in so doing they best enriched their fellows. They literally went away that they might come to us in a closer, truer way than had they tarried in our midst. It must have been in answer to a similar imperative need of his own that John Burroughs chose to hie himself to the secluded yet accessible spot where his mountain cabin is built.

"As the bird feathers her nest with down plucked from her own breast," says Mr. Burroughs in one of his early essays, "so one's spirit must shed itself upon its environment before it can brood and be at all content." Here at Slabsides one feels that its master does brood and is content. It is an ideal location for a man of his temperament; it affords him the peace and seclusion he desires, yet is not so remote that he is shut off from human fellowship. For he is no recluse; his sympathies are broad and deep. Unlike Thoreau, who asserts that "you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature," and that "those qualities that bring you near to the one estrange you from the other," Mr. Burroughs likes his kind; he is doubtless the most accessible of all notable American writers,--a fact which is perhaps a drawback to him in his literary work, his submission to being hunted out often being taken advantage of, no doubt, by persons who are in no real sense nature-lovers, but who go to his retreat merely to see the hermit in hiding there.

After twelve years' acquaintance with his books I yielded to the impulse, often felt before, to tell Mr. Burroughs what a joy his writings had been to me. In answering my letter he said: "The genuine responses that come to an author from his unknown readers, judging from my own experience, are always very welcome. It is no intrusion but rather an inspiration." A gracious invitation to make him a visit came later.

The visit was made in the "month of tall weeds," in September, 1901. Arriving at West Park, the little station on the West Shore Railway, I found Mr. Burroughs in waiting. The day was gray and somewhat forbidding; not so the author's greeting; his almost instant recognition and his quiet welcome made me feel that I had always known him. It was like going home to hear him say quietly, "So you are here--really here," as he took my hand. The feeling of comradeship that I had experienced in reading his books was realized in his presence. With market-basket on arm, he started off at a brisk pace along the country road, first looking to see if I was well shod, as he warned me that it was quite a climb to Slabsides.

His kindly face was framed with snowy hair. He was dressed in olive-brown clothes, and "his old experienced coat" blended in color with the tree-trunks and the soil with which one felt sure it had often been in close communion.

We soon left the country road and struck into a woodland path, going up through quiet, cathedral-like woods till we came to an abrupt rocky stairway which my companion climbed with ease and agility despite his five-and-sixty years.

I paused to examine some mushrooms, and, finding a species that I knew to be edible, began nibbling it. "Don't taste that," he said imperatively; but I laughed and nibbled away. With a mingling of anxiety and curiosity he inquired: "Are you sure it's all right? Do you really like them? I never could; they are so uncanny--the gnomes or evil genii or hobgoblins of the vegetable world--give them a wide berth."

He pointed to a rock in the distance where he said he sometimes sat and sulked. "/You/ sulk, and own up to it, too?" I asked. "Yes, and own up to it, too. Why not? Don't you?"

"Are there any bee-trees around here?" I questioned, remembering that in one of his essays he has said: "If you would know the delight of bee-hunting, and how many sweets such a trip yields besides honey, come with me some bright, warm, late September or early October day. It is the golden season of the year, and any errand or pursuit that takes us abroad upon the hills, or by the painted woods and along the amber-colored streams at such a time is enough." Here was a September day if not a bright one, and here were the painted woods, and somehow I felt half aggrieved that he did not immediately propose going in quest of wild honey. Instead he only replied: "I don't know whether there are bee-trees around here now or not. I used to find a good deal of wild honey over at a place that I spoke of casually as Mount Hymettus, and was much surprised later to find they had so put it down on the maps of this region. Wild honey is delectable, but I pursued that subject till I sucked it dry. I haven't done much about it these later years." So we are not to gather wild honey, I find; but what of that?--am I not actually walking in the woods with John Burroughs?

Up, up we climb, an ascent of about a mile and a quarter from the railway station. Emerging from the woods, we come rather suddenly upon a reclaimed rock-girt swamp, the most of which is marked off in long green lines of celery. This swamp was formerly a lake-bottom; its rich black soil and three perennial springs near by decided Mr. Burroughs to drain and reclaim the soil and compel it to yield celery and other garden produce.

Nestling under gray rocks, on the edge of the celery garden, embowered in forest trees, is the vine-covered cabin, Slabsides. What a feeling of peace and aloofness comes over one in looking up at the encircling hills! The few houses scattered about on other rocks are at a just comfortable distance to be neighborly, but not


Our Friend John Burroughs - 4/34

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