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Chapter XVI
Days Off

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

As we have followed the farm boy, teacher and student, writer, treasury clerk, bank examiner, and fruit farmer in his several pursuits, we have found him combining work and play as few of us learn to do. When we see all that he has written about his pastimes, we wonder how he has made such a success of his work. How did he manage to keep his nose to the grindstone so much of the time, yet get so many days off? How make fruit-farming pay, as he assuredly did, yet learn so much about birds and other wild creatures?

Knowing how to use eyes and ears and keeping on his thinking-cap, is the explanation of much that at first seems puzzling. Besides, living in the country, he could kill two birds with one stone -- -attend to bank examining and the vineyard, yet see things, as it were, out of the corners of his eyes, and hear with the tips of his ears; could examine the banks in the cities with care, and the banks by the roadside, where the juncos build, with equal care, and tenfold interest.

Sitting with his back to the study window one winter day, he caught a glimpse of a bird reflected in his eyeglasses, thus discovering a rare visitant, a pine grosbeak from the North, and going outside saw four others, plump and active, greedily eating the buds of his Norway spruces. It is, then, his love of animals, curiosity about natural objects, and his alertness of the senses, that account for the wealth of nature lore he has accumulated while pursuing his avocation as fruit farmer and his vocation as writer. Somewhere he has told us we have to bear on with the eyes if we would discover Nature's secrets; that the tree frog, at first glance, looks like a piece of bark or a lichen; the creature called a walking-stick, like a bent twig; that the wood frog is the colour of the dry leaves over which it hops, though as dark as the pools themselves when spawning in them.

One April day on the way to Slabsides, stopping at a little pool in the woods, into which he had peered hundreds of times before, he discovered scores of creatures entirely new to him, suspending themselves in the water. They were fish-shaped, a trifle more than an inch long, semitransparent, with a dark line showing through. As they moved about by means of pappus-like appendages, their large heads and protruding eyes gave them a gnome-like look. What could they be? They were so transparent he could almost tell what they had had for dinner. Collecting some of them, he sent them to an authority on aquatic animals and learned that their name is longer than they are -Eubranchipus vernalis. The common name is fairy shrimp.

When he roams the woods, even in familiar places, Mr. Burroughs always feels a little "peeved" if Dame Nature doesn't show him something new. One April day he had about made up his mind she was not going to reward him that time, and had sat on a rock to rest, perhaps to sulk a bit, when looking up he saw a newly-made crow's nest in a hemlock. Soon he heard what he thought were the voices of young birds, but it was only Jim Crow feeding Mrs. Crow. Apparently she was about to lay her eggs; and if the Crows didn't actually count their chicks before they were hatched, they were certainly having a dressrehearsal of feeding them long before the young were ready to come upon the stage. Mrs. Crow, assuming the character of a young bird, was acting timid and babyish and mimicking the voice of the young, while Jim Crow brought her food and showed a lively concern as he fed her.

In the yard at Riverby is an old gill-flower apple tree which Mr. Burroughs points out to callers, telling of the good crop of apples it has borne for fifty years, but of its better crop of birds. Of late there has been a falling off in the yield of apples, and the old tree is now a mere shell, but there's no falling off in its yield of robins, woodpeckers, and bluebirds.

Long has it been the stage-setting for many a comedy and tragedy in bird life. Many a fight has Downy and Blue Coat had over their right to the limelight on that stage. Many a tussle have the feathered tenants had over the priority of their leases. The English Sparrow would eject Blue Coat whenever he would try to take possession, then the Fruit Farmer would eject Johnny Sparrow and invite Blue Coat to come back and make himself at home, rent free. Downy and Hairy Woodpecker live peaceably enough in the old tree, excavating their retreats in the fall. In going up to the house from his Bark Study John o' Birds often stops and raps good night to Downy who puts out his head for a hurried answer and hastily withdraws.

The boys at West Park, knowing that Mr. Burroughs is interested in everything out of doors, often "put him wise" to things they discover in the vicinity. Sometimes they get the start of him and report arbutus out before he has heard her calling; or they tell him the woodcocks are bleating in the marshes at nightfall in early spring; or take him to a " queer nest" in the bank by a wood-road where, cunningly woven, with its canopy of dry leaves, is the nest of the oven bird.

One day a boy brought him a dead bird he had picked up on the railroad track, which, though like a sparrow, was different from any sparrow he had seen-mottled grey and brown, its round wings edged with yellow, bits of yellow on its shoulders, and a yellowish line over the eyes. Mr. Burroughs said it looked as though it had rubbed against a dandelion, and some of the colour had "crocked off." It is one of the birds to be searched for, and will tax a boy's powers of observation not a little. It suggests a miniature meadow lark with its long and strong legs and feet. If any boy finds whether this bird walks or hops, John o' Birds will be glad to know, as he has not yet positively found out himself. Its song is fine like that of a grasshopper, a peculiar buzzing sound. It is called the grasshoppersparrow. Other rare "finds" in Sparrowdom are the swamp sparrow and the Henslow sparrow.

In the years when, working for Uncle Sam, Mr. Burroughs went back to his father's farm for his vacations, he had a chum, Channy, a dearly loved nephew, who rambled with him in the old Bark-peeling and up on Old Clump. Channy was the youth who, in the hemlocks helped him get the material which went into the essay by that name; the youth so often mentioned in his books who followed the streams casting for trout; who once caught a swarm of bees in his hat; who, on seeing frogspawn in the creek thought it good enough to eat; the one who found a certain chickadee's nest on Old Clump when even John o' Birds would have given it up; the one who helped him discover the rare nest of the mourning ground-warbler, which, until then, had not been described. (After the young had flown, they sent the nest to the Smithsonian Institute, and in his description of it, Mr. Burroughs gave Channy credit for its discovery.)

One April day when Uncle John and Channy were driving along a country road, a slim, ashen-grey bird with white markings, smaller than a robin, flew heavily from a nearby fence to a tree, a smaller bird in its beak. It was a shrike. Channy, who saw him thrust his victim into a fork of the tree, and wipe his bloody beak on the bark, was almost beside himself with rage. Jumping from the wagon, and pulling off his mitten, he seized a stone and let drive. The shrike escaped by a hair's breadth, the stone grazing the branch where he sat. The butcher bird had brained his little victim.

 

Slabsides

John Burroughs with Theodore Roosevelt in the Yellowstone

Slabsides

In Yosemite with John Muir

 
To one with a keen interest in every phase of Nature, all is fish that comes to net or hook. Once in a trout stream, when Mr. Burroughs was dismayed at losing a specially fine trout, he found, on disentangling his hook from the overhead branches, that he had caught something finer still -- a humming bird's tiny nest firmly saddled there and looking at first like a mere wart on the limb.

I remember the first time Mr. Burroughs came to visit me. A roamer in the woods, knowing he was there, brought to my door several trophies, among them the exquisite cup-shaped nest of the wood pewee with its coating of grey-green lichens, and the grey hanging nest of the oriole. No sooner had my guest taken the two nests in his hands than he said, " Why, here are three nests instead of two!" and, poking in the oriole's nest, showed us some loosely-woven brown twigs, arranged criss-cross. "A log cabin in a palace," he addedthrifty Jenny Wren had appropriated the oriole's elegant gourd-like structure.

Though having gone a-birding for so many years, John o' Birds never loses interest in nests of a kind often found before; but is pretty sure each season to add new ones to his store. One recent "find" was the nest of the blackbilled cuckoo, found in the red thorns near Woodchuck Lodge-the most forbidding nest imaginable! "A crown of thorns made into a cradle," he would say on showing it to callers. Woven loosely of the dried thorn twigs, the sharp spines left in place, it rested on a limb in the dense, threatening tree -- a savage-looking nest, yet with a soft, shredded lining of some reddish-brown material of which our Bird Lover would like much to find the source.

 Mr. Burroughs shows scant mercy for the "bird high waymen" or "human weasels," as he calls men or boys who commit atrocities on the birds, and in the name of science! If one is bent on making a collection, he says, let him content himself with one or two eggs of a kind; but, so far as he is concerned, he says that to look at the birds' eggs and leave them in the nest is the best a advice he can give a collector. To see the birds building; to watch for the fragile eggs; to safeguard, if one can, them and the young; to watch the nestlings grow; to be present, if possible, when the tiny crafts are launched in the air this, after all, is the best way to go bird-nesting. As his readers know, many of the Fruit Farmer's days off were spent in wild honey quests. Here is one he made in his eighty-third year: It was a clear, warm September afternoon when five of us, with Socrates, the hound, started to hunt a bee-tree in the woods high above Woodchuck Lodge -- Uncle John, John C., an adult nephew, Howard, a youth of twenty, Ivan, a boy of seven, and the writer.

It had been about thirty years since the veteran Bee Hunter had trailed the little free-booters to their hidden hoards on "Mt. Hymettus" in the Slabsides country, and now, as in his boyhood, he was to seek a bee-tree on his native heath.

Armed with a small tin pail, and a bottle containing sweetened vinegar, John C. leads the way. We clamber over a stone wall, and climbing a stony pasture, reach an open sunny clearing in the woods. Here, finding a bee at work on some asters, John C. sweeps it into his pail, which already contains a cluster of aster blooms besmeared with the sweetened lure. Quickly covering the pail, he sets it on a boulder, and after giving the captive time to gorge himself, removes the lid.

We sit on the ground so as to bring the pail against the sky as a background, and watch sharply. When the bee emerges from the pail it rises slowly and heavily; it circles around till, getting its bearings, starts across the brush heap, past some basswood stumps, and enters the woods about seventy yards away.

In less than five minutes the asters in the pail, and others upon the rock, are alive with bees. The news has travelled fast. The bees hum angrily about, as though scenting foul play as well as honey. And it is a betrayal of the little workers who are, in the main, honest citizens; for it is only in the fall when their legitimate sources of supply are beginning to fail that they can be tempted to steal our stores. And we, the tempters, following them with the booty, turn about and steal theirs!

What guileless thieves they are! If they suspected our Sherlock Holmes methods, they might baffle us by taking a circuitous route, but no! settling on the asters and gorging themselves, when they get all they can carry, they go straight home. How quickly their fellows smell out the secret! Our asters are soon alive with bees. Now, no longer pausing for that spiral flight, they go directly back and forth, taking the fastest Bee Express on the line.

In less than twenty minutes our line is well established, and, judging by the short time it takes the bees to come and go, the tree is not far in the woods.

Following the line into the woods, Uncle John and John C. enter, scanning the trees closely, searching for sight and sound of the bees; while Howard, Ivan, and I move about five hundred yards to the right, "down in Jesse's Chopping," and there set up another lure on a stump, to cross-line them. Shortly after we remove the lid, other bees approach and nose around the asters, then rise and fly back toward the woods. Soon our flowers are covered with a brown and buzzing mass. A few minutes more and the cross-line is established. This line makes a sharp angle with the old one, and shows us, as already suspected, that the bee-tree is not far in the woods.

Going to the point where the lines cross we seek the tree. While all axe moving about, scanning the likely trees, Howard, shouting, "There they are!" points to the top of a tall sycamore where we see the bees going in and out of a small hole. Our quest is ended. The bee hunters carve their initials and date on the tree, to hold the claim. The next day we go armed for the fray with axe and saw, a large tin pail, a case knife, and a long-handled spoon. On arriving at the tree, the men bind tightly their trousers at the ankles, and their coat sleeves at the wrists, put large squares of mosquito netting over head and neck, clap down hats, turn up collars, put on gloves, and set about to fell the tree.

As it crashes to the ground, we, the uninitiated, less well protected, run away, but are soon edging near. The bees show no signs of molesting us. They are too busy seizing as much honey as they can hold. Howard screws his courage up and boldly hacks the fallen trunk near the hole exposing a long card of amber-coloured comb alive with a buzzing angry mass. Driving the bees away as well as he can, and loosening the comb, he lifts it out, the bees fiercely contesting the prize with him. They find the weak spots around his wrists, they buzz about his ears, they sting through his gloves; but, though dancing about in pain, he persists heroically.

"Are you stung, Howard?" cries the Bee Hunter from a safe distance. "Rub some of the honey on your wrist, it will stop the hurt."

" I'll have to find some first," said Howard, ruefully examining the comb, which, on coming near, we saw was dry and brown and holding scarcely a vestige of the sweet we sought.

"It must be further down in the tree," said John C.

You will have to lay open more of it. There's surely some good comb below."

Again the youth set to work, but with a like result. What little more he found was empty-the damp, cold season had been a hard one for bees; they bad evidently eaten all their own store-no wonder they were so eager for our sweetened asters!

We looked upon the disconsolate, bewildered bees with pity and were sorry at the ruin we had wrought, still they could not have lived much longer on their scanty store. Carrying our empty pails and our implements of war, we marched down the hill, a little crest-fallen at so sorry a termination of our honey quest; but the veteran Bee Hunter reminded us that "the sweet is not alone in the honey, but in the pursuit over the hills and through the woods these charming days."

The stone house at Riverby

The Laird of Woodchuck Lodge

 
Once in a summer long ago the Fruit Farmer took several days off and made his Pepacton voyage, of which he has written so engagingly in his book by that name. He would do what no white man had done, descend that branch of the Delaware in a boat. The lumbermen shot rafts of pine and hemlock down on the spring and fall freshets, and Indians had doubtless made the trip in canoes, but he wanted to paddle his own canoe adown that winding stream; only his was not a trim birch bark affair, but a flat-bottomed scow of pine. He had made it himself at Riverby, a simple affair, twelve feet long, the sides of three-quarter inch stuff, the bottom of light, halfinch stuff. It took him about a week, and after her brown coat of paint, she was ready for the plunge.

With boat, and old blue army blankets, rubber coat and boots, fishing-tackle and revolver, cooking utensils and provisions, going by rail to Arkville, this modern Noah embarked on his voyage.

 
He had tried, but in vain, to get Myron Benton to snub his farm and join him; so having no boy chum, not even a dog, he set out alone, launching his boat in Dry Brook one sunny August day. In dragging his boat over an elm which disputed his progress, he found the water of Dry Brook wet enough for all practical purposes; and also found on reaching the Pepacton, where he had hoped for clearer sailing, that he had to "keep his eye peeled" continually.

He made only eight miles that first day, and ardour and clothing were considerably dampened. The little river, narrow and shallow as it was, seemed to shut him off from his kind, and the milk of human kindness on the shore (judging from the cow's milk he had bought at a farm house) was not to his liking. The monotonous voice of the stream, and the crouching rocks along the shore, got on his nerves; his rubber boots were like clods of lead-he was a miserable, forlorn voyager.

But on taking to the woods and spreading his blanket under the friendly birches, he made a quick trip to Dreamland; and in the morning a more genial look shone on Mother Nature's face, and a more buoyant feeling cheered the voyager's heart.

The encounter he most enjoyed was with two boys of ten and twelve racing on rafts, who left their floats and rode a ways with him. Examining his craft critically, they asked pointed questions as to her history and destination; praised his steermanship; praised his rod and his trappings, even his despised rubber boots; they were, in fact, a godsend to the lone man, and when they left him, just below Bark-a-boom, he was bereft indeed.

Two other boys, encountered two days later, were just as welcome, although they did tell him fearful tales of the whirlpools and eddies and binocles down below. After their solemn warnings he told them he had better go ashore and post some letters to his friends before risking all that, so they proudly marched him up the street, calling patronizingly to the fellows they met, a few explanations as to the stranger they had in tow:

"Come from the head of the river-made his own boat -may go way to where the river goes into the sea-doing it just for fun "-and the procession marched on, gathering reinforcements along the way.

Once when wrapped in rubber coat and crouching under a rock for shelter, having protected his provisions as best he could with his blanket, a catbird mockingly called: "There! there! What did I tell you? Pretty pickle, pretty pickle to be in!" But he had been in worse pickles and managed to get from one to another, and out again, and to snap his fingers at the saucy catbird.

A wild duck and her brood challenged him to a race, kicking the water into foam as they sped before him, their pink feet looking like swiftly revolving wheels. So astonished was he, when they actually outdistanced him, that he dropped his paddle and cheered them heartily.

The voyage ended at 'Hancock, after fifty miles of mishap, fun, and adventure.

There is nothing that J. B., as he calls himself, likes better than camping out. He is an incurable camper, and prides himself on his camper's skill, as well he may. Many of his days off have been thus spent in the wilds. But he learned his wood-craft by degrees, and Experience was a sterner teacher than a friendly Scout Master is. He was twenty-three years old when he made his first camping-trip, accompanied by young Allen, of whom we have learned. Equipped with what they supposed was the proper outfit, they set out to trace the Beaverkill to its source and fish for trout on Balsam Lake.

They took along a gun, an axe, their hammocks made of two blankets tied with ropes, fishing-tackle, a knapsack with a lot of books, some bread, salt pork, sugar, and coffee.

Dressed in rough togs, they started off early in July, Farmer Burroughs driving them to the mouth of Mill Brook, a famous trout stream. From there a man with a buckboard carried them over the mountain into the Beaverkill, setting them down at nightfall in the primitive forest, no sign of civilization near. As the sound of his wagon died away, they felt as solemn as owls, and twice lonely.

Through the night they took turns in keeping up the fire, J. B. taking the first watch. Sitting there and peering into the darkness, he felt creepy enough, and fired shots in several directions lest the creatures which seemed to be lurking out there in the darkness should close in on them. He confesses that he was afraid:

 

    I was actually seared all night long. I sat with gun close at hand. You see I had never camped out before, and the woods at night, and strange woods, at that, are far different than by day. We were apparently in the depths of a primitive forest, and the stillness and blackness were awful!

    As the fire died down, I could see an army of foes beleaguering us. I seemed to have reverted to my childhood fears of night and the dark, or, more likely, to the fear of the childhood of the race, when primitive man knew he had to guard against his ambushed foes.

    When it came Allen's turn to watch, I was afraid to sleep for fear he would let the fire go down, so slept with one eye open, if I slept at all. In the morning, when we saw smoke from a chimney not far away, how absurd our fears seemed!

    The next day, shouldering our duds we started up the Beaverkill and encamped on Balsam Lake. We strung up our blankets, but how we suffered from the cold, until, in the night, when our stakes slipped, or a rope broke, and we fell to the ground! There we lay huddled together, hoping to get some warmth from each other, but soon found, to our surprise, that we were riot nearly so cold on the ground-Mother Nature's blanket under ours was a great addition.

    The next day we tried to fish for trout, but were such greenhorns we didn't know how to manage our flies, till some men who came along showed us how, and then we took a lot.

    As we followed the dim trail back to the head of Mill Brook in the rain, encumbered by the books we had not looked into, we halted, and tried to cook some trout and make coffee. But it was a sorry failure; and when we came to a rude little log cabin in a clearing, domesticity had never looked so good to us before.

    In the morning we hired our host, Close by name, to take us across the mountain. He had no wagon, but Allen and I rode his horses, and he trudged along beside us in the rain. It must have been at least eight miles from there to Margaretville. When we asked him what our bill was (for lodging, food, the use of his horses and his day's trarnpand he had to tramp all the way back!), he said he guessed he would have to charge us a dollar! and that man's name was Close!

In the years that followed there were many other camping-trips, of which he has written in detail. There was the one to Thomas's Lake (now Beecher Lake) on which eventful march, following the vague direction to bear well to the left, they got lost, and found, and lost again, times innumerable; where, at last, finding the elusive lake, and taking trout for supper, the exhausted and famished cook (J. B.) capsized the trout, in the ashes just as he was about to serve them. It was on that trip that on coming out of the woods, after long wanderings, and thinking themselves in a far distant region, they found they had come out a few yards from where they had gone in just forty-eight hours before!

There was the camping-trip on the Neversink when Uncle John and Channy and four others had some delectable, and some quite other, experiences; where the midges made Aaron, the old soldier, indulge in most inflammatory remarks; where visits from a porcupine, and other sleepchasing events, transpired; where they beheld a wondrous aurora borealis; and where the exceptional fine trouting all made up an experience fraught with fragrant memories, barring one night in an odoriferous stable-shelter on the rain-swollen Neversink.

There was the attack on Peekamose with their march through the wild and desolate region of the Rondout; their ideal camping-sites; their debauches of poetry and coffee; and their never-to-be-forgotten camp-fire talks.

There was the brief camping-venture when the wives went along, too; the venture which started out so menily, by Furlow Lake, a trout lake high in the Catskills, their only tents the birches and maples, their only beds the hemlock boughs.

Scarcely had the sylvan supper of brown trout on the mossy tables, and wild strawberries on fronds of fern been cleared away, when a low rumbling put a different face upon the scene. The lake grew black as ink. Bombshells were soon bursting overhead; and the torrents fell. Drenched to the skin, the terrified women and their solemn lords hovered over the struggling fire, or cowered in the darkness as though to escape the searching shafts of Jove. Long after-midnight, when the bombardment and downpour ceased, waterlogged in body and mind, they threw themselves upon the saturated ground under the dripping trees, in utter misery. With the dawn, the wives lifted their weary voices in unison and begged eloquently for home, sweet home.

When Aaron and J. B. went camping in Canada, while being whirled through New Hampshire and Vermont, J. B. seemed to be reviewing the geography of his boyhood. He looked upon the dusky streams with delight, the names of which he had learned in the West Settlement schoolthe Merrimac, the Connecticut, and the Passumpsic, while Lake Memphramagog, which he saw at sunset, was like molten gold.

At their first glimpse of the St. Lawrence Aaron cried, "Iliad of rivers! Your Hudson must take a back seat now!" and, indeed, its sublimities were Homeric from beginning to end. Other schoolboy lessons came to mind as the West Settlement pupil looked up the steep vertical sides of the Plains of Abraham where Wolfe and his army had clambered and stood in the enemy's rear, long, long ago.

For the camping experience to Lake St. John, for the account of the monstrous trout Aaron caught, and J. B. helped to land; for the scales Joe, the guide, improvised, by balancing a strip of board and using their provisions as weights; for the sail down the Saguenay, and the stupendous scenery of Cape Trinity and Cape Eternity, one must read our camper's account in " The Halcyon in Canada."

When in 1876 J. B. took some days off and got his "Taste of Maine Birch," the best part of the whole experience was Uncle Nathan, the guide, a hunter and trapper for forty years. An Indian had taught him to make birchbark canoes, and he made the one they used on the trip. What wood-craft it showed; what a wild free time it promised!

To Uncle Nathan the birch tree was the god of his idolatry. Nearly his entire equipment came from it-canoe, tent, waterproof, buckets, plates, cups, spoons, torches,

 

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