He was born on his family’s farm near the small town of Roxbury in New York’s Catskills, those low, green mountains where, in Washington Irving’s story, “Rip Van Winkle,” the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s men bowled to make the thunder.
But Burroughs was more interested in the non-fiction writing of Henry David Thoreau, who had gone out into the wilderness to live a simple life among nature, and of Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote about the importance of strong character.
He also liked the poetry of William Wordsworth, whose ideas were fancy but who used everyday words so that people could understand his poems.
When Burroughs began to write about nature, he used everyday words, too. His essays in magazines were loved by readers who enjoyed sharing his warm feelings about the birds, the flowers and the small animals he came across on his walks in the fields and forests.
Burroughs said he wasn’t trying to be a scientist, and he wasn’t using his essays to tell people how to live. “I paint the bird, or the trout, or the scene for its own sake,” he explained.
He did more than simply paint pictures with words, however. He also described a way of life that he had learned as a young boy growing up in the country.
For instance, he wrote about being patient and about paying attention to the things around you: “In the fields and woods more than anything else all things come to those who wait, because all things are on the move, and are sure sooner or later to come your way,” he said.
Often, he simply wrote about the joy of making nature part of his daily life:
“Trout streams coursed through every valley my boyhood knew,” he remembered as an old man. “I crossed them, and was often lured and detained by them, on my way to and from school. We bathed in them during the long summer noons, and felt for the trout under their banks. A holiday was a holiday indeed that brought permission to go fishing over on Rose's Brook, or up Hardscrabble, or in Meeker's Hollow; all-day trips, from morning till night, through meadows and pastures and beechen woods, wherever the shy, limpid stream led.”
For his readers, that style of writing was just right: In their world, before television or movies, reading the essays of John Burroughs was a way that they, too, could see beautiful things, even though they lived far from the countryside.
As a young writer, Burroughs also lived far from his home in the Catskills. He first had to leave to get more than the plain country education of a farm boy. Then, after teaching school for several years, he moved to Washington, DC, and took a job at the United States Treasury. Like most writers, it would be years before he could make a living just from his writing.
But Washington in the 1860s was not the huge city it is today. Even there, Burroughs found nature.
“The Capitol grounds, with their fine large trees of many varieties, draw many kinds of birds,” he wrote in 1868. “Here in early spring I go to hear the robins, cat-birds, blackbirds, wrens, etc. In March the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows may be seen, hopping about on the flower-beds or peering slyly from the evergreens. The robin hops about freely upon the grass, notwithstanding the keeper’s large-lettered warning, and at intervals, and especially at sunset, carols from the tree-tops his loud hearty strain.”
Once he could afford it, however, Burroughs returned to New York and built a country home above the Hudson River, where he grew grapes to make extra money while he wrote essays and collected them into books.
Later, he built a small cabin in the woods nearby, that he called “Slabsides” because it was made of the bark-covered slabs the sawmill sliced off logs before sawing them into lumber. He often stayed at Slabsides for days to enjoy the quiet forest and to write without distractions.
Although he often traveled, John Burroughs was always happy to come home again. He wrote about that as well, reminding readers that it wasn’t necessary to tour the world to find the things that matter in life.
“The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive,” he wrote. “The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”
Besides, what need is there to travel when the President of the United States is willing to come to your home for a visit? Not only did Theodore and Edith Roosevelt come for an overnight visit, but Burroughs had visits from other famous friends, including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Henry Ford even gave him an automobile. Burroughs used it to bring visitors from the railroad station up the hill to his home. It was one of the first automobiles in the community.
But when his friend the President offered him the chance to go out West and see elk, bison, cougars and mountain sheep, he quickly agreed, he wrote. “I knew nothing about big game, but I knew there was no man in the country with whom I should so like to see it as Roosevelt.”
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson – illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin