Spring And Mr. Burroughs
By T. Morris Longstreth
Fame lags behind the heels of greatness, because fame depends upon
the insight of the masses, and the masses are mainly concerned with
getting bread and butter. But John Burroughs has lived in his
leisurely way long enough for fame to catch up, or at least part way
up. He is famous now for what he accomplished a decade ago. A decade
hence he will be still more famous for what he is doing now. There is
no catching up with Oom John. He possesses a progressing
intelligence. His eighty years haven't hurt his hearing, his
eyesight, or his brain. Burroughs grows. The people who would dismiss
him as a bird-fiend should read his book on Whitman. Those who
believe that his poems are only verse might well study his
contributions to philosophy. And those who would experience the inner
charm of the Catskill country must know their Burroughs well. God
made the Catskills; Irving put them on the map; but it is John
Burroughs who has brought them home to us.
I first met him in the volume, "Locusts and Wild Honey." I
very well remember that boarding-school episode. We surreptitiously
stole into forbidden fields, and at a forbidden hour, to practise the
sweet magic that the idyl preached. We found no honey, but I gained a friend.
Then came college days, and answers to my letters to him, and finally
an invitation. I was to visit Slabsides. And when he walked me up the
hill, and talked, not as some authors with his wits in winter
quarters, but with the full strength and aroma of "A Bed of
Boughs" or "Pepacton," how unreasonably natural it all
seemed! The Burroughs that had existed for me on the living page was
identical with the Burroughs before me in coat and beard. There was
no change in him. I only was bigger. For, when one walks with
Burroughs, one roots in the soil and flowers in the sky. My lungs had
taken in a cosmic puff. It took me weeks to forget the feeling.
So, when Dr. Clara Barrus telephoned on a spring morning that he
would meet me in the automobile at Kingston, I was glad, of course,
but a little sorry, too. I supposed there would be a chauffeur, and
that we'd do sixty or seventy miles along smooth roads, and talk
about the war.
But the Young Fellow himself was at the wheel. That characterization
is not my impertinence, but my impression. His white beard shone in
the sun, but he reached over to shake hands with me as energetically
as the youth I had just seen off for France. There was a May-Day
twinkle in his eye; his weather-tried cheeks showed firm. When he
spoke, there was an Indian summer quality in his voice, a softness
and strength, that made me glad. Dr. Barrus chose to guard the lunch
baskets in the rear. It was to be an outand-out Burroughs day.
We were to circle the lake of Ashokan. Spring shone through the
opalescent softness of the morning. A haze brooded in the distant
valleys, yet did not obscure the sun nor more than thinly veil the
farther mountains. Our first view of the lake spread before us
strange sheets of ice-filled water, willow-green, and ever before us
rose the inviting mountains topped by Slide, looking, as our
poet-driver said, "like the long back and shoulders of a grazing horse."
I told him how Brute and I had slid down the neck of that horse, and
he talked about a bunt through the baffling mountains far beyond,
when his quarry was an elusive lake; and all the while we sped along
a perfect road. The air was fresh in our faces, and to me there was
enjoyment intangible as a sailor's relish of salt spray in sitting
there beside the master fieldsman. That day I took no notes.
I was indeed a lucky man, but luckier only by a degree than any who
may read his books. For that is the last felicity of a writer, the
ability to convey the whole of his personality in his written word.
And that John Burroughs has. He sees, he penetrates, he makes his
own, then makes his ours.
Sometimes we pass by the loveliest sights of this world simply
because there has been nobody at our side to point them out. For it
is hard to see that which has not been foreseen. We must first
cherish what we would embrace. And most of us are still so blind
that, though the ground lies open to our eyes, yet there are few to
read. Study Burroughs I "The Divine Soil" and see what news
lies in the dust. To the expert there are more secrets still than a
Cassandra could surmise.
The ability to show is Burroughs' first right to popularity: he has
shared the long road with any man who cares to be his comrade. Give
him a true lover of berrying, of fishing, of trailing, of taking the
seasons as they come, and because his sight is keen, his f ancy warm,
he will show that man the unguessed soul of many a familiar thing.
And because the unguessed is so comforting the true lover of
out-doors will bless him all his days. He does bless him, from Maine
to California and back to Florida. Nor is his popularity bounded by
the breadth of our land. It is as if he had made every migrant bird
an ally for the spread of his fame. His bees are heard around the
world. But Burroughs is not only popular: he is great, if greatness
is, as I believe, triumphant personality. Some day you may drive up
the long hill out of Roxbury and see the old homestead where the boy
Burroughs grew up. A small weatherbeaten house, a barn, an orchard
wizened by the winds, some stony fields, a vast expanse of skythat is
the environment from which he turned to trade thought f or thought
with Emerson and Whitman, with Muir and Roosevelt, with Harriman,
Edison, and the other great men of our time. Can you explain it? The
genius in him not only bade him climb f rom the estate of barefoot
boy to the confusing brightness of private car and executive mansion,
but it kept his soul barefoot all the while. That is a triumph, too,
for the American idea of true liberty-the liberty to find one's
equals. But the greatest triumph lies with the man. He turned from
his raspberry bushes and his grapes, plunged into the strongest
currents of personality his contemporaries could afford, and yet
emerged himself, ready to return to his simple-hearted farmerhood.
Loyal to himself, to his conception of the universe, he refused to
lose his identity for any pottage. The result is a man whose friends
are legion, a writer whose work still flows with the original
fountain freshness, a philosopher whose devotion to his vision of the
truth has had its certain effect upon our nation.
While I was thinking these things, and while Mr. Burroughs was
pointing out some beauties of Nature, the car nearly went over the
bank. I think the Doctor sighed. "So, so, Doctor," said the
chauffeur; "you will not die before your time." I resolved
to perish inaudibly if it must be. Just then we drew up before a
spectacle so beautiful, so ethereal, that all who see it are
strangely moved, although it is but a group of fountains.
It is in this lonely basin, miles from any city, that the water which
has been collecting from the shining mountains goes through a certain
rite of purification before it flows on to fulfil its mission. From a
hundred hidden sources, columns of water rise into the air, mingle in
flashings of light, and fall again. Not only does the sun light them,
but they seem animated with an innate splendor. Constant as faith
these waters rise, changeful as a dream they waver and fall. We sat
entranced as if we were witnessing some exquisite and secret rite of
Eastern festival. From sunrise till sunset, and perchance beneath the
changing moon, the perpetual play of these white waters goes on, a
prayer for purity.
I don't know which was the more forceful aspect of this surprise, the
sheer beauty of it or the meaning of the thing. For this scene,
contrived for nobody's spectacle, nor yet for mere utility, seemed to
typify the vision of the coming time when use and beauty should at
last be married for the common weal. Already the Empire State has
verified the dream of such a marriage in this Catskill Park. Here we
were motoring on a marvelous highway beside a magic lake made for a
city's use, viewing a water-garden of such beauty as Scheherazade had
never dreamed, and making toward a mountain park of sacred forest and
protected stream created to be a people's pleasureland. Little of all
this could John Burroughs have foreseen as he jolted over these
lonely mountains sixty years ago, hunting for a job.
As we approached Tongore he told me a little of the past. It was in
1837 that he was born at Roxbury on the western slopes of the
Catskills. When he was seventeen he quit the farm, bundled his
sensibilities together, and made off to seek, not his fortune, but a
position as school-teacher. It may soften the lot of present-day
school-teachers to be told that his salary was "eleven dollars a
month and board around."
We visited the village, a tawdry group of dwellings with a populous
burying-ground, but scant ten living families, I should judge. The
sun fell softly on the graves where so many that he knew and the one
that he loved lie. By reason of strength, he had reached his
fourscore, but almost alone. How inscrutable is this impulse to live
on! If living were a whim to be laid aside at will. I wonder how many
would see thirty. In days as sweet as the one we were enjoying, yet
years before the guns of Sumter, he had gone sweethearting and
honeymooning over these mountains. He leaned against one of the great
boulders, thinking silently and long of things brought back by that
same light upon the mountains and the breath of the same sweet
returning spring. At last, caressing the rock, he said:
"Ah! That is granite. Granite will stand the racket."
Our road, ever curving about the lake, now began to invade the
mountains. Valleys cut deep, and from them came cool breezes damp
with the melting snowdrifts that still lay in the deeper gorges.
"We used to call those late drifts the heel of winter,"
said Mr. Burroughs. "As soon as the heel is lifted the flowers
invade the land."
It is forty miles around the Reservoir, and there is a special beauty
in each mile. Every cape rounded meant for us new vistas of green
vales, new inlets of blue water; and all the time, in addition to the
beauty of the landscape, I felt the stimulus of the presence beside
me, the genius who came out of the air quite as much as out of the
family. For, though you search the record and find the Burroughs
branch of his ancestry "retiring, peace-loving,
solitude-loving," and the Kelly branch full of
"revolutionary blood, longings, temporizing, mystical," yet
there were other boys in the family of whom the world has never heard.
At just the right moment Burroughs found Emerson, and at another
Audubon. They fired his brain and his heart, and ever since that fire
has never failed him, though his vicissitudes have been many. For a
genius, like other people, has to feel his way. He taught school in
half a dozen places, dreamed of wealth over a patent shoebuckle,
studied medicine, married, went to Washington to be a clerk, wrote
essays after the day's work, breakfasted with Walt Whitman on
Sundays, found the longing for the soil too severe to be withstood,
moved to the Hudson, once more in sight of the Catskills, raised his
ton of grapes and his pound of literature each year, and lived.
We had curved round to the little town of Shokan, near the site of
Olive, where he had found his wife, and all unknowing I was coming to
the water-shed of my day.
Such things happen and are over, often without our knowing it. I was
realizing that the hours were precious, inimitable, that the
experience could not be repeated; but I was not prepared for the
dramatic moment preparing. We had gone down by a by-road to the site
of Dr. Hull's house, where Burroughs had studied medicine, when, in
the quandary of youth, poor, dissatisfied with teaching, trying to
support a wife, depressed by the Rebellion, he was casting around for
his place in the veiled scheme of things. One day he closed his book
on anatomy and wrote a poem, simple, elemental, accessible. It was
his confession of faith. There, on the very spot, we found ourselves
at the exact anniversary of his first visit, sixty-four years ago.
How beautifully the inspiration had taken words unto itself! So, as
you read these words, conceive you this picture: an erect prophet
with a prophet's beard standing in the noontide beauty of spring
fields, thinking back to those days dark with their future
unexplored. Hear his voice, sweet, low, unshaking, repeat this
confession of faith -- faith in the unalterable fact that character
and destiny are one -- composed at the darkest moment of his life:
Serene I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
I rave no more 'gainst time or fate,
For lo! my own shall come to me.
I stay my haste, I make delays,
For what avails this eager pace?
I stand amid th' eternal ways,
And what is mine shall know my face.
Asleep, awake, by night or day,
The friends I seek are seeking me.
No wind can drive my bark astray,
Nor change the tide of destiny.
What matter if I stand alone?
I wait with joy the coming years;
My heart shall reap where it hath sown,
And garner up its fruit of tears.
The waters know their own, and draw
The brook that springs in yonder heights;
So flows the good with equal law
Unto the soul of pure delights.
The stars come nightly to the sky,
The tidal wave comes to the sea:
Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high,
Can keep my own away from me.
There was suitable silence for a moment, and then a strange bird shot
by a couple of yards above us. Its bullet-round head and sharp wings
seemed the very emblems of savagery. Instantly our host became the
Burroughs of the essays, the Burroughs whose major interest is in birds.
"See the pigeon-hawk!" he exclaimed, as eagerly as anybody
else would have said. "Do look at Vesuvius!" Out under the
genial sun and on the new grass, we sat down to lunch.
As long as the mesh of memory wears, there will always be strength
and inspiration for me in the retrospect of that nooning. It was an
epic lunch, dimensional and qualitative. We discussed the nature of
God and of deviled eggs. We sealed the fate of fake naturalists and
many a round of cake at the same time. Olives, art, more coffee, the
stream of consciousness, all lit by the caressing sun, occupied time
and space for us. In the midst of a cheese sandwich, he said: "I
have lived long, but I am convinced that the heart of Nature is sound
at bottom. The divine consciousness cares little for the human frame.
Nature is cruel. She does not exist solely for the sake of man. Man
happens to be the bloom of her present endeavor, perhaps the end of
life on our cooling sphere. And humanity is itself the justification
of this consciousness of being, this latest bloom of Nature. The
fruit may come some other where and in some other form."
That is, of course, but the intuitive thought of a man whose
sensitiveness to the truth observable about him is marked. It is
intuition, but I would hang more on the intuition of this man than on
the logic of the ablest indoor debater.
I am not writing a life of Burroughs. Dr. Clara Barrus's "Our
Friend John Burroughs" is a biography of charm and detail. I am
writing of the spirit of the Catskill country; and, as I conceive
him, John Burroughs is the living embodiment of his native uplands.
While, unfortunately, the theory of environment accounting for the
individual does not hold water, there are certain eminent persons who
seem to sum up an environment, to express the soul of a landscape.
Wordsworth becomes by nature and association the genius of his Lake
Country. Muir seems to have gathered up the grandeur and lonely
distances of his West. Muir would have stifled in Massachusetts.
Burroughs is the spiritualization of the view from Woodchuck Lodge,
itself typical of the Catskill best.
The Catskills are a well watered mountainland compounded of Cooper's
tales and the Psalms of David, deep forests and green pastures,
living heights and still waters. There are no jagged peaks, no lava
flows, no vast sterilities of sand or ice. The holy of holies,
however, has always been a quiet place. Let sublimity stun. The heart
warms easier to serenely sloping ranges and the sweet-scented
pastures of man's oldest pursuit. And Burroughs is like that. He
never wrestles with the angels; he accepts their invitation.
That quality of repose eliminates him from the topmost circle of
great souls as we now rate them. Burroughs is happy, the master of
his own inner harmony. I doubt whether the greatest have been happy,
or even longed to be. They have chosen struggle, rivalry, the clash
of conquest, up-strivings. Burroughs has not avoided the fight so
much as that his nature has not known the necessity of it. But this
attitude in which I paint him is very different from complaisance.
Still active, he stands on the bluff of eternity, hand to brow,
peering into the dim perspective of the spirit. His f eet have never
left fact. There is no page of his not lettered with truth. He makes
his way among the dusty verities, but his outlook is free. He has
busied himself with the things at his hand -the pebble, the feather,
and the flower. But he has not stopped there. He has followed out the
clue, and with his leisurely tirelessness has got pretty far along on
the endless road into the obdurate dark. There is only one thing more
tenacious than his will to search. It is his faith.
Some one gave John Burroughs the Indian name meaning
Man-Not-Afraid-of-Company. And he is wonderfully generous with
himself. At West Park, where his vineyards are, he is visited. At
Slabsides, the retreat he built himself, where he might write and eat
the bread of privacy, he is besieged. Squadrons of schoolteachers,
clergymen in multiple, students, capitalists, artists, climb the
hill; and he is at home to all.
But high in the western Catskills, at the old home whence came the
first impulse toward his calling, is his best-loved dwelling-place,
Woodchuck Lodge. There, in the old barn-study, he has written his
enchanting pastorals. There he will be buried when he is ready to
pass on. The record of his life is a large, aromatic volume. Literary
values change, and some of his criticisms may lose their force.
Philosophies change, and his views may fade in the growing light. But
the loveliness that he has caught between his covers from the larger
loveliness about him is a genuine contribution to the world's
delight. And, first and last, he is a Catskills' child. His youth
bounded those mountains on the west, his maturity on the east, and
his finest essays deal with their structure and their soul.