Chapter I
A Grown-Up Boy

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

My Dear Young Readers:
The most precious things of life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.

Mark Twain said of Thomas Bailey Aldrich in his later years: "I am tired of waiting for that fellow to grow old." Some men are like that. They keep the heart of a boy and snap their fingers in the face of Father Time. John Burroughs is such a man. Although he has lived on this round earth for more than eighty-three years, he is still getting fun out of life, and is as interested about the earth itself and all the creatures on it as when he was a boy on his father's farm in the Catskills. Probably this is why he keeps so young.

Last spring, with a Boy Scout and his father, a Scout Master, he visited a beavers' colony in a wild wooded chasm in the Dutchess County hills, and was the most interested of that interested three in the work of those beavers-in the trees they had cut down and peeled, and the dam they had built. He brought away some of their chips, and a maple walking-stick -- a strong straight stick which they had cut and bevelled at either end in a thoroughly workmen-like way, and now he carries that beavermade cane on all his tramps afield.

"Sparrowhawk" and his father made a fire and then taught this experienced camper-out one thing he had never heard of-how to make a brigand steak: They selected, peeled, and sharpened a straight maple limb, six or eight feet long, which tapered to the size of a lead pencil, peeling about two feet of the tapering end. On this peeled end the Scout Master strung the pieces of steak, sliced very thin and cut in portions about one and one-half inches square, the folded slices of bacon, and the tender young onions, like beads on a string. Placing a big stone back of the fire on which to rest the tip of the long stick, they slowly turned the stick, thus roasting the meat and onions over the flame. And when all was done to a turn-several of them-in this picturesque rotisserie, and their appetites were whetted to distraction by the savoury smell, the salt added, the string unstrung, the three boys of varying age and size, but each with a brigand's appetite, fell to, and made way with the feast.

A brigand steak in the beechwoods

Only three days after that and the grown-up boy began to hanker after another brigand steak! " The very name makes me ravenous," he said -"the flavour of the smoke in it-and the smell of it! -- I've got to have some more!"

So he built a fire out by his Bark Study at Riverby and we had our picnic there in far tamer surroundings than that wild solitude of the beavers' haunts. Still his appetite was not appeased, and a few days later, with a party of friends, he climbed to Slabsides, his mountain cabin in the woods a mile or more from home, where, on the rock-girt plain in front of the cabin, we all turned brigands and made merry under the greenwood trees. And often after that, at his midsummer home in the Catskills, he served brigand steaks under the apple trees, or in the beechwoods, to friends who visited him at Woodchuck Lodge.

Last year in Life, in the Historic Boys Series by E. Foster Lincoln, there appeared a clever caricature of Mr. Burroughs. It represents Johnnie Burroughs as a small barefoot boy in short trousers and checked shirt, but with the white hair and flowing beard we all know. He is holding a rabbit in his hands, butterflies are resting on the crown of his head, a bird is perched on one shoulder, the tail of a grey squirrel is sticking out of one pocket, a red squirrel is running up one leg, and a chipmunk is peeking out of another pocket. A bird has built its nest in his hat, and birds and butterflies and many other wild creatures are hanging around as chummy as you please. It is pretty true to life, this caricature, except that the expression of the boy's face should be happier. He usually has a twinkle in his eye instead of the somewhat worried look the caricaturist has given. But it represents him having a good time out of doors with his wild friends, as he has had throughout his boyhood of more than four-score years.

Probably the most of my young readers learned to know John Burroughs in the Little Nature Series, Birds and Bees, and Squirrels and Other Fur Bearers. I wonder if you remember about the venturesome mouse which he found swimming vigorously in the middle of a mountain lake, its little legs looking like swiftly-revolving wheels; and how the mouse dived as he came near, but came up like a cork, and ran up the oar and shook hands with him. Perhaps you learned to know Lark, his little black and tan, the dog with the gentle heart, who joined him on so many excursions to the woods; and his cat, Nig, who kept warm on cold days by sitting on the back of Prince, the horse. Then there was Peggy Mel of such sweet memory, who dwelt in a hive; and Molly Cottontail who lived under his study, faring sumptuously on sweet apples, and thumping her thanks on the floor, or maybe asking for more.

Well, he is just as fond of pets as ever, as you will see if you read his latest book, Field and Study, where he talks about his fussy and quarrelsome wren neighbours, his wood waifs, his tame chipmunks, and his companion, the dog. He is as fond of a scrap, too, as other boys are, even if it is only a scrap between a wren and a bluebird.

As a rule boys don't hanker after " English " very much, but I imagine it is quite a relief when they come upon "The Apple" in their prescribed work-nothing dry and tasteless about that! Only the worst of that essay is, it makes you so hungry for an apple that you can never read it through without stopping to go down cellar after one-if you are lucky enough to have a cellar, and apples in it. And from that you are pretty sure to read on and on just for the pleasure of it, finding in whatever volume you take up descriptions of things you know and delight in, and discovering others of which you have never dreamed.

To a boy especially keen about birds there is a regular "bonanza" in "The Return of the Birds," "The Tragedies of the Nests," and "Birds' Eggs." In this last chapter "the Bird Man," as some children I knew affectionately named him, teaches you to collect eggs yet leave them in the nest. For the angler there is "Speckled Trout." For the boys who are good campers and trampers there are "Birch Browsings" and "A Bed of Boughs."

For those who like to hobnob with wild creatures there are "The Snow Walkers", "Hard Fare," and "Winter Neighbours"; and whatever your special bent, you will enjoy paddling with the author down the Pepacton on that summer voyage he took so long ago, mighty sorry you were not there on the spot when he launched his boat in Dry Brook at Arkville (which was not dry at all), and was wishing for a boy just about your age to go along.

Do you wonder why you so enjoy reading those essays -- even forget that you are reading? It is because he had such a good time writing them. We usually do well what we like to do. When anyone finds something he especially likes to do, and can do just a little better than anyone else, and in a way all his own, it is probably his particular work in the world. It is often nearer than he dreams.

Among the writings of John Burroughs the things we most enjoy are those which have grown out of the homely experiences of the farm. "Our Rural Divinity" (the cow) was raised on the dairy farm while its author was being "raised" there, too. The Apple essay grew in the orchard or volume at his old home. The "Strawberries" grew there. The Red Fox and the Snow Walkers roamed there-all these and many more grew on the farm and became a part of the boy himself, and behold! when he unpacked his boy hood treasures, there were his books already more than half written! Of course he had to add something of his own, just as the bee has to add a drop of itself to the nectar it gets from the flowers before it can make honey.

When that farm-boy was tending sheep, when the wayward creatures led him on many a ramble, and he had to be "dog, fence, and pasture" for them, he was (though he knew it not) doing some "wool-gathering" of another kind-he coralled bluebirds, swallows, bobolinks, hermit thrushes and goldfinches in an invisible enclosure, and although they still soared and sang at liberty over the mountain meadows, they will always sing and soar for us from the pages of the one-time boy-shepherd of those breezy hills.

His young correspondents always seem curious as to how he came to write about the birds and wild life, for it is one thing to have a good time out of doors, and quite another to tell about it on paper so that others can have a good time reading it. Some students of rhetoric a few years ago wrote him that they especially liked his Strawberry essay and wished he would tell them how to learn to write as he does. This is what he sent them in reply:

Ah! but I loved the strawberry; I loved the fields where it grew; I loved the birds that sang there, and the flowers that bloomed there; and I loved my mother who sent me forth to gather the berries. I loved all the rural sights and sounds. I felt near them, so that when, in after years, I came to write my essay, I had only to obey the old adage which sums up all the advice which can be given in these matters, "Look into thy heart and write."

The same when I wrote about the apple. I had apples in my blood and bones. I had not ripened them in the haymow and bitten them under the desk and behind my slate so many times in school for nothing. Every apple-tree I ever shinned up and dreamed under of a long summer day, while a boy, helped me to write that paper. The whole life of the farm, and love of home, and of father and mother, and of my brothers and sisters, helped me to write it.

He often says he can never think of his books as works because so much play went into the making of them. He has gone out of doors in a holiday spirit, had a good time, and never lost his relish for his outings. Life has been one long opportunity to learn and enjoy and, through his books. to share his enjoyment with others. He has not had to go away from home to have a good time. He has never lost his appetite for each new day; has kept the same sensitiveness to impressions that he had as a boy; has kept his keenness for adventure; and while most of his enjoyment has come from things and places near home, he has also kept his early curiosity about new things and new lands.

The two books I have oftenest seen in his hands this spring are Darwin's Naturalist's Voyage Round the World, which he is reading for the fourth time, and McMillan's Four Years in the White North. And to-day he is eager to go to Greece and Rome, and to Egypt, and hopes to do so as soon as the world gets steadied down from the great upheaval caused by the World War.

As for the War itself, there was no boy or man in America more interested than he was, and, since he could not fight with sword or gun, he fought valiantly with his pen. Still, fighting is not his forte. His paths have been, like the cowpaths on the home farm, paths of peace.

He still enjoys his farm-boy pastimes with some others that his boyhood never knew. He goes trout fishing every June, every summer hunts birds' nests, climbs trees and picks cherries; he shoots the woodchucks that pilfer in his garden, and hoes among his peas and beans. In the fall he gathers apples from the same trees where he gathered them as a boy. But he also drives his Ford car; and plays by the seashore with his grandson; camps and tramps with him; and sometimes goes on an auto-camping trip with Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, H. S. Firestone, and others. Through the winter months, unless he journeys to a warmer clime, though writing in the forenoon, he spends a certain part of each day sawing and splitting wood for his study fire. For recreation he walks through the snow-choked woods, or ambles along on the back of his little donkey-Sally in our Alley -- a cantankerous beast, so changeable and fickle, and so rebellious at having been transplanted from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson River Valley, that she finally forced him to part company with her. He even has an ambition to go up in an aeroplane, and declares he will the first good chance he gets. He confidently expects before long to see other friends than the birds flying over his head and alighting near. Alive to all the thrilling things that are happening in the world to-day, he is, in truth, a grown-up boy.

  1. Riverby: His home at West Park, N. Y. - (Return)


Back to the Index | Next Chapter


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