Tag Archive 'John Burroughs'

Feb 07 2017

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Burroughs Book Finally in Print

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At long last, the Burroughs book is in print. I’ve been reading his essays for decades, and toying with the idea of selecting and publishing excerpts from his work for nearly that long. He wrote over 30 books on nature. I’ve been crazy enough to read most of them.

The full title of this book is Universal Nature: Philosophical Fragments from the Writings of John Burroughs. As the title suggests, the excerpts I have selected tend towards the abstract. While Burroughs was the master of the quaint nature essay – quite often writing about songbirds – he delved deeply into philosophical matters as well.  In his later years he became interested in the tension between science and religion. His was an utterly naturalistic worldview, of course, so he leaned as heavily towards pantheism as I do. Hence my obsession with him.

While Burroughs comes off as a simple, white-bearded countryman observing birds and the like, he was a surprisingly complex character in real life. My biographical introduction puts his work in context, showing how his thoughts emerged from friendships, travels and fruit farming in addition to extensive reading. The excerpts are organized chronologically, making it clear how his perception of wild nature evolved over time from the particular to the universal.

You can get a copy by going to my website WoodThrushBooks.com. It is also available at Amazon. I hope you find the natural philosophy of John Burroughs as intriguing as I have.



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Nov 16 2012

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Still Reading John Burroughs

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For over a year now, I have been reading and rereading the works of John Burroughs, along with critical and biographical essays. He continues to fascinate me because he was a curious mix of contradictions: literary man and dirt farmer, naturalist and abstract thinker, recluse and socialite. His work is a sea of mediocrity seasoned with flashes of brilliance. He was deeply religious yet wholeheartedly embraced Darwinism. Few nature writers have ever been as popular as he was at the peak of his career, yet his work is largely unknown today. He chummed around with both Walt Whitman and Henry Ford. That alone makes my head spin.

“There is no light more mysterious than the light of common day,” Burroughs wrote in his journals. That sums up both his approach to understanding the world, and the man himself. In many ways he was a common man with many commonplace beliefs. Yet there is no mistaking the rarity of his vision. I have read a lot of naturalists and philosophers over the years. Few have been as scientific in their thinking as he was without discarding the concept of God altogether. Even fewer have speculated about the nature of the universe at large while growing grapes. He was a rare bird, indeed.

It is no mistake that I have been drawn to Burroughs and his work. His spiritual father was Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my latter years, I too have gravitated to Emerson’s way of seeing the world. All three of us have one thing in common: a deep and abiding pantheism. And while that word does none of us justice, it comes as close as any word can to explaining how they felt and I still feel while beholding the divine in nature

The danger in reading the likes of Emerson and Burroughs is that one loses touch with the spirit of these modern times. It’s hard to imagine either man yapping on a cell phone, watching television, or surfing the net. Burroughs drove a car in his old age but had a hard time keeping it out of ditches. That said, I think either one would make a good trail companion if they were alive today. Some things never change. Our relationship to the wild is one of them.


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May 18 2012

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At long last, I made the pilgrimage to Slabsides that so many nature lovers make. I drove five hours south, walked a hundred-yard path through the woods, and there it was: a statement of rustic simplicity erected during the height of America’s industrial expansion. I could hardly believe I was there. Just me, my dog Matika, and the ghost of John Burroughs.

The old nature writer built this cabin in the summer of 1895 with the help of his son Julian. He spent a good portion of his latter years here writing, reflecting, and entertaining visitors. Peering through the window, I could see the table near the fireplace where he did his work. Books and papers have been carefully arranged on top of it.

The John Burroughs Association opens Slabsides to the public twice a year, but I wanted to be alone with my thoughts when I first saw the place.  Good thing I was. The place took me somewhat by surprise.  An imposing structure, the cabin is something of a contradiction – like the man himself. Rustic in appearance, yes, but a little oversized for a backwoods retreat if you ask me. And it sits on the edge of a two-acre wetland. What’s that all about? One easily imagines Burroughs communing with nature here, yet he built the place to escape “domestic tyranny.” His wife Ursula, that is. Hmm…

I hung out at the cabin for a short while, walked around the little swamp that Burroughs once drained, then drove an hour northwest to a trailhead in the nearby Catskill Mountains. There I shouldered my old army surplus rucksack and hiked up the Kanape Brook. Once I was back far enough, I traced a feeder stream away from the trail, effectively disappearing into the woods.

I spent the night camped near an old cellar hole where some poor soul tried to scratch a living from this rugged, rock-strewn land. There I conferred with the ghost of Burroughs about all matters literary, commercial and philosophical. We disagreed on more points than we agreed. No surprise there. We are two strong-willed men living at different times, in different places. The only thing we share is a deep and abiding pantheism. That and a love for all things wild. Perhaps that’s enough.


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Feb 19 2012

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Reading John Burroughs

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Once again I am reading John Burroughs – a turn-of-the-century writer who practically reinvented the nature essay. Heavily influenced by Emerson and second only to Thoreau in his passion for the natural world, Burroughs has intrigued me for years. Yet I have shied away from him time and again, fearing that the yawning chasm between his work and modern sensibilities might prove infectious.

More than one literary critic has called Burroughs “quaint” – a damning term to be sure. I cringe whenever I hear it. That’s like being accused of being both frivolous and irrelevant. Granted, the word might apply well to the many bird watching essays that made Burroughs so popular in his day, but it completely ignores the man’s more philosophical side. In the last few years of his life, that part of him really flourished.

John Muir and John Burroughs are the “two Johns” of late 19th, early 20th century nature writing. Most self-proclaimed nature lovers relate more to the former than they do to the latter. That’s because Muir was an activist in his day, a promoter of national parks and a founder of the Sierra Club. All that is much in keeping with the spirit of modern environmentalism. And Burroughs? Well, when he wasn’t writing pieces for mainstream magazines or hanging out with industrialists like Henry Ford, we was thinking too much. A quick perusal of Accepting the Universe, published shortly before his death, is proof positive of that.

Yeah, those of you who have read my heavier work know which side of Burroughs I prefer. In one essay he writes: “We cannot put our finger on this or that and say, Here is the end of Nature,” and I’m all over it. “The Infinite cannot be measured,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.  Yeah, Nature with a capital “N,” going well beyond politics. Am I the only nature lover alive today who cares about the things that JB pondered in his old age? One of the few, certainly.

The essays of John Burroughs are good for the soul. I find his ruminating, rambling style a welcome change from the superficial, sensational nonsense so prevalent in the media today. So I will continue reading his work and thoroughly enjoying it despite the musty smell that emanates from the hundred-year-old books that I hold in my hands. Sometimes nothing will do but the classics.


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