by Clifton Johnson

From "In The Catskills" (1910)

The eight essays in this volume all deal with the home region of their author; for not only did Mr. Burroughs begin life in the Catskills, and dwell among them until early manhood, but, as he himself declares, he has never taken root anywhere else. Their delectable heights and valleys have engaged his deepest affections as far as locality is concerned, and however widely he journeys and whatever charms he discovers in nature elsewhere, still the loveliness of those pastoral boyhood uplands is unsurpassed.

The ancestral farm is in Roxbury among the Western Catskills, where the mountains are comparatively gentle in type and always graceful in contour. Cultivated fields and sunny pastures cling to their mighty slopes far up toward the summits, there are patches of woodland including frequent groves of sugar maples, and there are apple orchards and winding roadways, and endless lines of rude stone fences, and scattered dwellings. In every hollow runs a clear trout brook, with its pools and swift shallows and silvery falls. Birds and other wild creatures abound; for the stony earth and the ledges that crop out along the hillsides, the thickets and forest patches, the sheltered glens and windy heights offer great variety in domicile to animal life. The creatures of the outdoor world are much in evidence, and at no time do their numbers impress one more than when in winter one sees the hand-writing of their tracks on the snow.

The work on the farm and the workers are genuinely rustic, but not nearly so primitive as in the times that Mr. Burroughs most enjoys recalling. Oxen are of the past, the mowing-machine goes over the fields where formerly he labored with his scythe, stacks at which the cattle pull in the winter time are a rarity, and the gray old barns have given place to modern red ones. It is a dairy country, and on every farm is found a large herd of cows; but the milk goes to the creameries. The women, however, still share in the milking, and there is much of unaffected simplicity in the ways of the household. On days when work is not pushing, the men are likely to go hunting or fishing, and they are always alert to observe chances to take advantage of those little gratuities which nature in the remoter rural regions is constantly offering, both in the matter of game and in that of herbs and roots, berries and nuts.

A Distant View Of Slide Mountain

Mr. Burroughs's old home has continued in the family, and the house and its surroundings have in many ways continued essentially unaltered ever since he can remember. What is most important-the wide-reaching view down the vales and across to the ridges that rise height on height until they blend with the sky in the ethereal distance, is just what it always has been.

That the Catskills have proved an inspiration to Mr. Burroughs cannot be doubted. Possibly we should never have had him as a nature writer at all, had he spent his impressible youthful years in a less favored locality. It is, however, a curious fact that the town which produced this lover of nature also produced one other man of national fame, who was as different form him as could well be imagined. I refer to Jay Gould. He was born in the same town and in the same part of the town, went to the same school, saw the same scenes, was a farm boy like Burroughs, and had practically the same experiences. Indeed, the two were a good deal together. But how different their later lives! It seems easy to grant that environment helped make the one; but what effect, if any, did that beautiful Catskill country have on the other?

There are two seasons of the year when Mr. Burroughs is particularly fond of getting back to his old home. The first is in sap-time, when maple sugar is being made in the little shack on the borders of the rock-maple grove. The second is in midsummer, when haying is in progress. Both occasions have exceptional power for arousing pleasant memories of the past, though such memories have also their touch of sadness. In his early years he helped materially in the farm work while on these visits; but latterly he gives his time to rambling and contemplation. He once said to me, in speaking of a neighbor: "That man hasn't a lazy bone in his body. But I have lots of em-lots of em."

This affirmation is not to be interpreted too literally. He has made a business success in raising small fruits, and his literary output has been by no means meagre. I might also mention that in youth he was something of a champion at swinging the scythe, and few could mow as much in the course of a day. But certainly labor is no fetich of his, and he has a real genius for loafing. In another man his leisurely rambling with its pauses to rest on rock or grassy bank or fallen tree, his mind meanwhile absolutely free from the feeling that he ought to be up and doing, might be shiftlessness. But how else could he have acquired his delightful intimacy with the woods and fields and streams, and with wild life in all its moods? Surely most of our hustling, untiring workers would be better off if they had some of this same ability to cast aside care and responsibility and get back to Nature-the good mother of us all.

Clifton Johnson

Hadley, Mass., 1910.

Note. -The pictures in this volume were all made in the Catskills and are the results of several trips to the regions described in the essays


Back to the Index Next Chapter

Other John Burroughs Sites:

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery