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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 5/34 -
too neighborly. Would one be lonesome here? Aye, lonesome, but--
"Not melancholy,--no, for it is green And bright and fertile, furnished in itself With the few needful things that life requires; In rugged arms how soft it seems to lie, How tenderly protected!"
Mr. Burroughs has given to those who contemplate building a house some sound advice in his essay "Roof-Tree." There he has said that a man makes public proclamation of what are his tastes and his manners, or his want of them, when he builds his house; that if we can only keep our pride and vanity in abeyance and forget that all the world is looking on, we may be reasonably sure of having beautiful houses. Tried by his own test, he has no reason to be ashamed of his taste or his manners when Slabsides is critically examined. Blending with its surroundings, it is coarse, strong, and substantial without; within it is snug and comfortable; its wide door bespeaks hospitality; its low, broad roof, protection and shelter; its capacious hearth, cheer; all its appointments for the bodily needs express simplicity and frugality; and its books and magazines, and the conversation of the host--are they not there for the needs that bread alone will not supply?
"Mr. Burroughs, why don't you PAINT things?" asked a little boy of four, who had been spending a happy day at Slabsides, but who, at nightfall, while nestling in the author's arms, seemed suddenly to realize that this rustic house was very different from anything he had seen before. "I don't like things painted, my little man; that is just why I came up here--to get away from paint and polish--just as you liked to wear your overalls to-day and play on the grass, instead of keeping on that pretty dress your mother wanted you to keep clean." "Oh!" said the child in such a knowing tone that one felt he understood. But that is another story.
The time of which I am speaking--that gray September day--what a memorable day it was! How cheery the large, low room looked when the host replenished the smouldering fire! "I sometimes come up here even in winter, build a fire, and stay for an hour or more, with long, sad, sweet thoughts and musings," he said. He is justly proud of the huge stone fireplace and chimney which he himself helped to construct; he also helped to hew the trees and build the house. "What joy went into the building of this retreat! I never expect to be so well content again." Then, musing, he added: "It is a comfortable, indolent life I lead here; I read a little, write a little, and dream a good deal. Here the sun does not rise so early as it does down at Riverby. 'Tired nature's sweet restorer' is not put to rout so soon by the screaming whistles, the thundering trains, and the necessary rules and regulations of well-ordered domestic machinery. Here I really 'loaf and invite my soul.' Yes, I am often melancholy, and hungry for companionship--not in the summer months, no, but in the quiet evenings before the fire, with only Silly Sally to share my long, long thoughts; she is very attentive, but I doubt if she notices when I sigh. She doesn't even heed me when I tell her that ornithology is a first-rate pursuit for men, but a bad one for cats. I suspect that she studies the birds with greater care than I do; for now I can get all I want of a bird and let him remain in the bush, but Silly Sally is a thorough-going ornithologist; she must engage in all the feather-splittings that the ornithologists do, and she isn't satisfied until she has thoroughly dissected and digested her material, and has all the dry bones of the subject laid bare."
We sat before the fire while Mr. Burroughs talked of nature, of books, of men and women whose lives or books, or both, have closely touched his own. He talked chiefly of Emerson and Whitman, the men to whom he seems to owe the most, the two whom most his soul has loved.
"I remember the first time I saw Emerson," he said musingly; "it was at West Point during the June examinations of the cadets. Emerson had been appointed by President Lincoln as one of the board of visitors. I had been around there in the afternoon, and had been peculiarly interested in a man whose striking face and manner challenged my attention. I did not hear him speak, but watched him going about with a silk hat, much too large, pushed back on his head; his sharp eyes peering into everything, curious about everything. 'Here,' said I to myself, 'is a countryman who has got away from home, and intends to see all that is going on'--such an alert, interested air! That evening a friend came to me and in a voice full of awe and enthusiasm said, 'Emerson is in town!' Then I knew who the alert, sharp-eyed stranger was. We went to the meeting and met our hero, and the next day walked and talked with him. He seemed glad to get away from those old fogies and talk with us young men. I carried his valise to the boat-landing--I was in the seventh heaven of delight."
"I saw him several years later," he continued, "soon after 'Wake-Robin' was published; he mentioned it and said: 'Capital title, capital!' I don't suppose he had read much besides the title."
"The last time I saw him," he said with a sigh, "was at Holmes's seventieth-birthday breakfast, in Boston. But then his mind was like a splendid bridge with one span missing; he had--what is it you doctors call it?--/aphasia/, yes, that is it--he had to grope for his words. But what a serene, godlike air! He was like a plucked eagle tarrying in the midst of a group of lesser birds. He would sweep the assembly with that searching glance, as much as to say, 'What is all this buzzing and chirping about?' Holmes was as brilliant and scintillating as ever; sparks of wit would greet every newcomer, flying out as the sparks fly from that log. Whittier was there, too, looking nervous and uneasy and very much out of his element. But he stood next to Emerson, prompting his memory and supplying the words his voice refused to utter. When I was presented, Emerson said in a slow, questioning way, 'Burroughs--Burroughs?' 'Why, thee knows /him/,' said Whittier, jogging his memory with some further explanation; but I doubt if he then remembered anything about me."
It was not such a leap from the New England writers to Whitman as one might imagine. Mr. Burroughs spoke of Emerson's prompt and generous indorsement of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass": "I give you joy of your free, brave thought. I have great joy in it." This and much else Emerson had written in a letter to Whitman. "It is the charter of an emperor!" Dana had said when Whitman showed him the letter. The poet's head was undoubtedly a little turned by praise from such a source, and much to Emerson's annoyance, the letter was published in the next edition of the "Leaves." Still Emerson and Whitman remained friends to the last.
"Whitman was a child of the sea," said Mr. Burroughs; "nurtured by the sea, cradled by the sea; he gave one the same sense of invigoration and of illimitableness that we get from the sea. He never looked so much at home as when on the shore--his gray clothes, gray hair, and far-seeing blue-gray eyes blending with the surroundings. And his thoughts--the same broad sweep, the elemental force and grandeur and all-embracingness of the impartial sea!"
"Whitman never hurried," Mr. Burroughs continued; "he always seemed to have infinite time at his disposal." It brought Whitman very near to hear Mr. Burroughs say, "He used to take Sunday breakfasts with us in Washington. Mrs. Burroughs makes capital pancakes, and Walt was very fond of them; but he was always late to breakfast. The coffee would boil over, the griddle would smoke, car after car would go jingling by, and no Walt. Sometimes it got to be a little trying to have domestic arrangements so interfered with; but a car would stop at last, Walt would roll off it, and saunter up to the door--cheery, vigorous, serene, putting every one in good humor. And how he ate! He radiated health and hopefulness. This is what made his work among the sick soldiers in Washington of such inestimable value. Every one that came into personal relations with him felt his rare compelling charm."
It was all very well, this talk about the poets, but climbing "break-neck stairs" on our way thither had given the guest an appetite, and the host as well; and these appetites had to be appeased by something less transcendental than a feast of reason. Scarcely interrupting his engaging monologue, Mr. Burroughs went about his preparations for dinner, doing things deftly and quietly, all unconscious that there was anything peculiar in this sight to the spectator. Potatoes and onions were brought in with the earth still on them, their bed was made under the ashes, and we sat down to more talk. After a while he took a chicken from the market-basket, spread it on a toaster, and broiled it over the coals; he put the dishes on the hearth to warm, washed the celery, parched some grated corn over the coals while the chicken was broiling, talking the while of Tolstoy and of Maeterlinck, of orioles and vireos, of whatever we happened to touch upon. He avowed that he was envious of Maeterlinck on account of his poetic "Life of the Bee." "I ought to have written that," he said; "I know the bee well enough, but I could never do anything so exquisite."
Parts of Maeterlinck's "Treasures of the Humble," and "Wisdom and Destiny," he "couldn't stand." I timorously mentioned his chapter on "Silence."
"'Silence'? Oh, yes; silence is very well--some kinds of it; but /why make such a noise about silence/?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
When the chicken was nearly ready, I moved toward the dining-table, on which some dishes were piled. As though in answer to my thought, he said:
"Yes, if there's anything you can do there, you may." So I began arranging the table.
"Where are /my/ knife and fork?" "In the cupboard," he answered without ceremony.
We brought the good things from the hearth, hot and delicious, and sat down to a dinner that would have done credit to an Adirondack guide,--and when one has said this, what more need one say?
In helping myself to the celery I took an outside piece. Mine host reached over and, putting a big white centre of celery on my plate, said: "What's the use taking the outside of things when one can have the heart?" This is typical of John Burroughs's life as well as his art--he has let extraneous things, conventionalities, and non-essentials go; has gone to the heart of things. It is this that has made his work so vital.
As we arose from the table, I began picking up the dishes.
"You are going to help, are you?"
"Of course," I replied; "where is your dish-cloth? "--a natural question, as any woman will agree, but what a consternation it evoked! A just perceptible delay, a fumbling among pots and pans, and he came toward me with a most apologetic air, and with the
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