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One of the most popular American authors during the decades after the Civil War, John Burroughs enchanted readers for nearly sixty years with his books about living close to nature. First published in 1886, Signs and Seasons reveals why Burroughs is considered one of the first great nature writers. His trademark style, full of local color, has been enjoyed by everyone from schoolchildren to presidents. Written in a period that witnessed the rapid growth of cities and industry, Signs and Seasons reminds Americans about the virtues of a simple lifestyle and the spiritual value of nature, lessons as relevant in the twenty-first century as they were in Burroughs’ time.
John Burroughs (1837–1921) was born near Roxbury in New York’s Catskill Mountains. His first volume of nature essays, Wake-Robin, appeared in 1871, and he went on to write more than two dozen other books, most of them at his farm on the Hudson River. Signs and Seasons was the first book that Burroughs published after quitting his bank examiner’s job of the previous thirteen years to devote himself full-time to farming and writing. Almost age fifty at the time of the book’s publication, he was now truly practicing what he preached. The son and grandson of farmers, Burroughs had always managed to raise a few vegetables or livestock wherever he lived, even while working in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War years. On Capitol Hill, he and his wife Ursula had owned a house with enough land for chickens and a large garden plot. Burroughs in those years also spent off-hours with his friend Walt Whitman sitting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, watching the family cow grazing with other cattle that roamed the still rough-hewn city. In 1873, Burroughs purchased a small farm in the Hudson Valley about fifty miles from his birthplace. There he built the house that he called Riverby and later, the famous rustic retreat named Slabsides, where he did his writing. In 1897 Burroughs was appointed as the first vice president of the New York State Audubon Society, and in 1898 he was elected as one of the original members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He became a national celebrity after 1900 and counted Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison among his friends. His writings influenced the rise of the conservation movement, bird-watching as a hobby, and nature appreciation in general.
It is hard to say whether a midlife crisis or the Zeitgeist led Burroughs to quit his regular job for farming, but he was living out the fantasy of an increasing number of late-nineteenth-century Americans, who yearned to get back to nature and who formed a ready audience for his books. With their focus on both the natural and rural environments of New York State, Burroughs’ works fell into the popular nature-essay genre, but also shared qualities with local-color literature. Local colorists like Sarah Orne Jewett, although primarily fiction writers, described rural community life in intimate detail and expressed dismay over the impact of the cities. They along with Burroughs were part of a wider cultural front that included the so-called country-life movement, which peaked after the turn of the century with the election of the outdoorsy Theodore Roosevelt as president. This movement was a reaction to the explosive urbanization and industrialization that were seemingly taking America away from its roots as a rural, agrarian republic. Young people were abandoning small towns and farms in greater and greater numbers and casting their lots in the big cities. Cultural observers such as Liberty Hyde Bailey worried that the citizenry would become enervated by the urban rat-race and that the nation’s youth would fall prey to decadence and dissipation. Some way had to be found to improve and uplift everyday life in rural America, and to save the well being of city-dwellers cut off from close contact with farming and the natural world.
Signs and Seasons and other writings by Burroughs spoke to these concerns on a number of levels. “I had to be a farmer,” he once remarked. “I come of a family that has always lived on the soil.” He celebrated the challenges of farm work as the very best training for success in modern business, appealing to a generation that had experienced the move from farm to city. As he put it, “The human output of the farm is good hickory timber”a maxim that no doubt endeared him to Henry Ford and the other sentimental industrialists who later became his friends. In truth, Burroughs had chosen the location of Riverby to allow him to live in the country while remaining close to the publishers of New York City. Although he grew grapes, celery, and other labor-intensive crops, his own farm life depicted in his books was rather comfortable and genteel, leaving him with “plenty of leisure to poke around the woods and sit under trees” to find “mental and physical relaxation.”1 In this attitude Burroughs promoted and shared another way of interacting with nature besides toil, a view held by growing numbers of Americans who were taking up hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and other outdoor activities: nature as a place of leisure and recreation, a wholesome, rejuvenating refuge from the workaday routine. Even captains of industry like Ford and Edison were inspired to take Burroughs on camping trips.
As is clear from Signs and Seasons, Burroughs’ own preferred outdoor leisure activity was bird-watching. He had first discovered the pastime in 1863, when a copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America “opened a new world to me,” Burroughs recalled. “I went into the woods with new interest, new enthusiasm . . . and in the first flush of my pleasure studying birds, I wrote my first nature essay.”2 Burroughs’ observations about birds are thus fundamental to understanding his larger conception of nature, the nature that he was calling on Americans to embrace. What is surprising in his bird essays, however, is that the nature in which birds spend their existence is not sugarcoated or maudlin, as one might expect from an advocate of “nature appreciation.” Instead, in chapters such as “The Tragedies of the Nests” in Signs and Seasons, Burroughs describes a harsh, Darwinian nature that is no less fascinating for the conflict and cruelty that it sometimes displays.
Burroughs, in fact, had little tolerance for nature writers who did not ground their descriptions of birds and other animals on careful observation informed by science. In 1903, he fired the first salvo in the famous years-long “nature fakers” controversy with an essay critical of William J. Long and other writers for anthropomorphizing, or projecting human traits and abilities onto their animal subjects. Some of these writers, for example, claimed to have seen their animal heroes performing first-aid on themselves, or luring predators to their deaths by a well-timed passing train. As became clear while the controversy played itself out (eventually involving President Roosevelt as an ally), Burroughs himself believed strongly that animals behave primarily by instinct rather than reason. “The animal is a bundle of instincts, impulses, affinities, appetites, and race traits, without the extra gift of reason,” he concluded. “Animal behavior . . . is much more like the behavior of natural forces . . . .”3
This notion was part and parcel of Burroughs’ larger view of natural processes, which he saw as amoral, relentless, and oblivious to human needs, ethics, or ideals. In his book Time and Change, he wrote, “There is so much in Nature that is lovely and lovable, and so much that gives us pause. . . . Of the virtues and beatitudes of which the gospel of Christ makes so much . . . she knows nothing. Put yourself in her way, and she crushes you; she burns you, freezes you, stings you, bites you, devours you.” He called this realizationthat “we are no longer cozily housed in pretty little anthropomorphic views of things”the “cosmic chill.” How then could Burroughs find such a nature to be “lovable”? He was not conventionally religious. Indeed, he was quite vocal in his rejection of organized religion and any reference to the supernatural. Yet Burroughs retained something of a religious, if not mystical, sensibility throughout his life. Thus he found some consolation in the philosophy of Transcendentalism. In his younger years he had idolized Ralph Waldo Emerson, and what especially stayed with him from Emerson was the idea of universal oneness, or monism: all things in existence are interconnected within a greater whole. Whitman and his expansive poetry embodied this concept for Burroughs, and science, particularly Darwinism, further reinforced it in his thinking. Human beings, as a product of evolution, were fully a part of the natural world and its processes. If what governed these processes was not a benevolent god, in Burroughs’ view, it was no less something sublime and awe-inspiring, an all-pervasive creative force, or élan vital, as it was called by the philosopher Henri Bergson, whom he discovered late in life. As Burroughs wrote in Time and Change, “Nature works with reference to no measure of time, no bounds of space, and no limits of material. Her economies are not our economies. She is prodigal, she is careless, she is indifferent; yet nothing is lost. . . . She is blind, yet she hits the mark because she shoots in all directions.”4 Operating across geological time-spans and cosmic distances, eternal nature for a brief moment had produced the reasoning animal, humanity, which in time would pass away and return to the elements from which it had emerged.
This concept of the natural world, if taken to heart, could have personal and practical consequences for one’s way of life, according to Burroughs. “There can be little doubt, I think, that intercourse with Nature and a knowledge of her ways tends to simplicity of life,” he asserted. “We come more and more to see through the follies and vanities of the world and to appreciate the real values.” He himself had apparently reduced his existence to fundamentals, with his farming and forest retreats. “I love a small house, plain clothes . . . direct and immediate contact with things, life with the false trappings torn away,” he declared in his essay, “An Outlook Upon Life.”5 Simplifying also extended to matters of aesthetics, such as home construction and interior decoration. Living close to nature, in short, was for him not just a matter of a temporary trip to the wilderness. It involved one’s entire lifestylean idea with resonance down to the present day. Much like Henry David Thoreau, Burroughs became an icon of the broader impulse toward simplicity that was being heard increasingly throughout American culture by the turn of the century, as Americans began to clear away the bric-a-brac of Victorian households. Arts and Crafts furniture and the earthy architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright were just two manifestations of this cultural transformation, along with the celebrity of writers like Burroughs. His guestbook at Slabsides held almost 7,000 signatures, indicative of the pilgrimages of those seeking a wiser way of living.
It is small wonder then that Burroughs could write in the opening of Signs and Seasons that “he has only to stay at home and see the procession pass. The great globe swings around to him like a revolving showcase. . . .” Here Burroughs was referring mainly to the natural rather than the human procession, and this attitude, too, was rooted in his view of nature, especially his belief in the oneness of creation. Unlike his friend and rival John Muir, who preferred his nature remote and wild, Burroughs cherished the partly wild, partly humanized landscapes of his locality. His idyll was “a tract of wild land, barely a mile from home, that contained a secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land shut off from the vain and noisy world . . . by a wooded, precipitous mountain.” 6 The value of local landscapes, as opposed to distant spectacular wilderness areas, is an issue that has only lately been recognized by the mainstream environmental movement, with growing efforts to preserve farmland and other open spaces from the encroachments of urban sprawl. Burroughs still has lessons to teach about treasuring “one’s own landscape.
Some biographers have noted that Burroughs inscribed a copy of the newly published Signs and Seasons to one of New York’s state forest commissioners, an official charged with overseeing the vast Adirondack Forest Preserve. The gesture was typical of Burroughs, who left activism and politics largely to others. “I am not a fighter,” he once wrote. “I dislike any sort of contest, or squabble, or competition, or storm. My strength is in my calm, my serenity, my sunshine.” In contrast to Muir, who helped to found the Sierra Club, or Roosevelt, who protected millions of acres of wild lands as president, Burroughs saw his role as that of the literary naturalist, who would “enlist your sympathies and arouse your enthusiasm” for nature, as he put it in The Ways of Nature.7 One of his few public stances occurred in 1913, when he was roused to go to Washington to lobby for a federal bird protection law. Nevertheless, Burroughs’ contribution to the conservation movement should not be underestimated. He may have no equal in the period as an agent of cultural change, transforming attitudes toward nature on the individual level, including the thousands of schoolchildren who read his books and formed local chapters of the John Burroughs Society. Most recently, Burroughs has been hailed as a precursor to modern eco-criticism, as radical in his way as Edward Abbey or Gary Snyder.
It is often remarked upon that Burroughs, the ultimate homebody, died in 1921 while on a train in Ohio en route from a stay in California. With his last words he asked how far he was from home. Burroughs had done some traveling in his life, to England, Alaska, and Hawaii, among other places. He had also written poignantly and cryptically about a perpetual sense of homesickness that afflicted him, which “almost amounts to a disease, this homesickness which home cannot cure.” The passage has been much analyzed, and it seems to reflect both his feeling of loss that the rural world of his youth was vanishing and his sense of the “cosmic chill” that seemed to offer little consolation for the finality of death. But Burroughs in the end could be at peace wherever he might be, immortalized within nature, as he envisioned it in one of his last books, Accepting the Universe: “I shall be diffused in great Nature, in the soil, in the air, in the sunshine. . . . My elements and my forces go back into the original sources out of which they came, and these sources are perennial in this vast, wonderful, divine cosmos.”8
Robert L. Dorman, Ph.D., is monographs librarian and assistant professor of library science at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of A Word for Nature: Four Pioneering Environmental Advocates, 1845–1913.