John Burroughs and the Hudson

An essay by Edward J. Renehan Jr., author of JOHN BURROUGHS: AN AMERICAN NATURALIST (Black Dome Press, 1998)


The hermit of Slabsides, West Park on the Hudson

The Hermit of Slabsides, West Park on the Hudson


John Burroughs in Woodchuck coat

John Burroughs in woodchuck coat

John Burroughs providing for the chipmunks

John Burroughs providing for the chipmunks Roxbury, NY

Henry Ford and John Burroughs at Woodchuck Lodge

Henry Ford and John Burroughs at Woodchuck Lodge


Memorial tablet

Memorial tablet to John Burroughs on Boyhood Rock, Roxbury, NY

(Note: Earlier versions of this essay first saw print in March/April 1982 edition of THE CONSERVATIONIST March/April and in the Summer 2001 edition of the Mountain Top Historical Society's HEMLOCK.)

Early in 1873, John Burroughs purchased a nine-acre farm on the banks of the Hudson River at West Park (Esopus), NY, ninety miles above Manhattan. At the time he was thirty-six years old and had barely begun to write nature essays. The farm, which he named Riverby ("by-the-river," but pronounced "riverbee") was more expensive than he would have liked, but the setting of the place was one that appealed. In addition, the farm lay within a day's ride of his family home - the dairy farm on which he'd been raised - at Roxbury, in the Catskills.

Life at Riverby proved ideal for Burroughs. For nine years he had worked a desk-job at the Federal Treasury in Washington, DC. Now he wanted a way to make a living that would leave him leisure in which to also make books. Tending to his fields, Burroughs could at the same time contemplate the wide river spread out before him. A short walk brought him to a hemlock woods a mile or two inland. Black Creek, a small stream he would come to love, ran through the trees.

Unlike his first writings, Burroughs's subsequent work of over twenty volumes would need not be written at a desk facing the iron wall of a vault in the Treasury Department. Also unlike his first essays, all his best outdoor writing would henceforth be infused with images of nature as found on familiar terrain - the Hudson River Valley and Burroughs's adjacent natal region of the Catskills. Like Thoreau, who said he had "travelled widely in Concord," Burroughs would in future always seem content to travel widely in Ulster and Delaware Counties.

"Nature comes home to one most when he is at home," he wrote in 1886, "the stranger and traveler finds her a stranger and traveler also. One's own landscape comes in time to be a sort of outlying part of himself; he has sowed himself broadcast upon it, and it reflects his own moods and feelings; he is sensitive to the verge of the horizon: cut those trees, he bleeds; mar those hills, he suffers."

Interestingly, although the Hudson Valley and the Catskills provided the main fodder for Burroughs's nature notes, the Hudson River itself - which flows through one, by the other, and does so much to define both - never dominated his pen. In fact, of all the essays Burroughs ever wrote, only one - "A River View" in the 1886 volume SIGNS AND SEASONS - dealt with the Hudson at any length. More often Burroughs based his essays in the world of the hemlock woods inland from the river, on the banks of Black Creek, or in the Catskills forests of his youth, to which he always returned.

Why did Burroughs, in his published writings, shun the beautiful river on which he had chosen, at the age of thirty-six, to build his home?

In the book SPECIMEN DAYS, parts of which were written while visiting at Riverby, Burroughs's friend Walt Whitman described the scene of the Hudson as glimpsed from the Burroughs farm. Whitman's pen especially captured the magic of the calm river in evening: "The river at night has its special character-beauties. The shad-fishermen go forth in their boats and pay out their nets - one sitting forward, rowing, and one standing up aft dropping it properly - marking the line with little floats bearing candles, conveying, as they glide over the water, an indescribable sentiment and doubled brightness ... the sloops' and schooners' shadowy forms, like phantoms, white, silent, indefinite, out there." Whitman describes an eminently attractive scene: one that beckoned hourly to Burroughs as he worked in his fields. Nevertheless, throughout the journals of John Burroughs, one finds nary a trace of the river.

In one rare moment of homage to Father Hudson - this dated 10 October 1883 - Burroughs wrote to chronicle: " ... our matchless October day -- the ripest best fruit of the weather system of our clime ... The early frosts are over, and the fall heats are passed, and the days is like a full-orbed mellow apple just clinging to the bough. The great moist shadows of the opposite shore I see through the tender medium of sunlit haze ... A sloop goes drifting by, part of her sail a blue shadow. I can hear the ripples of the water about her bow. The day is retrospective, and seems full of tender memories."

The image, observed "through the tender medium of sunlit haze," sounds almost like a scene from a work of the Hudson River School. As described by Carl Carmer, the chief aim of such Hudson River artists as Asher Durrand and Thomas Cole was to depict, as near to reality as possible, the Creator's greatest natural handiworks. The selection of sublime subjects made these paintings appear romantic in sentiment and majestic in scope despite the rule of most Hudson River artists that natural beauty be recreated exactly as it was, with no attempt by mortal hands to improve upon the artistry of God. The point was to make whoever viewed the work of art feel, as Carmer has written, "awed and humble in the presence of divine sublimity."

Offering some of the most sweeping and awe-inspiring vistas in the world, the Hudson was well suited to be the home of such a school of painting. What attracted the Hudson River painters, however, in turn repelled John Burroughs.

Unlike the Hudson River painters, John Burroughs's artistic aim was not to make his readers feel diminished by, or in anyway set apart from, the whole of nature. Quite the contrary. As he wrote in the 1877 volume BIRDS AND POETS, "... when I go to the woods or fields, or ascend to the hilltop, I do not seem to be gazing upon beauty at all, but to be breathing it like the air. I am not dazzled or astonished; I am in no hurry lest it be gone. I would not have ... the banks trimmed, or the ground painted. What I enjoy is commensurate with the earth and sky itself. It clings to the rocks and trees; it is kindred to the roughness and savagery; it rises from every tangle and chasm; it perches on the dry oak stubs with the hawks and buzzards ... I am not a spectator of, but a participator in it. It is not an adornment; its roots strike to the centre of the earth."

Burroughs sought, and found, the universal in the local; he likewise wished to discover the cosmic as revealed by the most simple and understated aspects of the natural world. In the final analysis, the Hudson as natural phenomena impressed him no more than did the miracle of a hummingbird's nest. In other words, what Burroughs wanted from nature was something more complex and interesting than the mere picturesque. Nature's grandest demonstrations - the panoramas of the Hudson or the Grand Canyon, the geysers of the American West, and the glaciers of Alaska - never impressed him more favorably than did the Catskills trout streams he had frequented so earnestly in both his youth and maturity. Indeed, he much preferred the latter.

Thus, when Burroughs eventually came to write about the Hudson in "A River View," he used the opening paragraphs to explain exactly why the river did not attract him. "A small river or stream flowing by one's door," he wrote, "has many attractions over a large body of water like the Hudson. One can make a companion of it, he can walk with it and sit with it, or lounge on its banks, and feel that it is all his own. It becomes something private and special to him. You cannot have the same kind of attachment and sympathy with a big river; it does not flow through the affections like a lesser stream. The Hudson is a long arm of the sea and has something of the sea's austerity and grandeur. I think one might spend a lifetime on its banks without feeling any sense of ownership in it, or become at all intimate with it; it keeps one at arm's length."

Burroughs returned to this theme in 1895 when explaining why he'd built a small cabin retreat - Slabsides - a few miles to the west of Riverby. "Friends have asked me," he wrote, "why I turned my back upon the Hudson and retreated to the wilderness ... To a countryman like myself, not born to a great river or an extensive water-view, these things, I think, grow wearisome after a time. He becomes surfeited with a beauty that is alien to him. He longs for something more homely, private, and secluded. Scenery may be too fine or too grand and imposing for one's daily or hourly view. It tires after a while. It demands a mood that comes to you only at intervals. Hence it is never wise to build your house on the most ambitious spot in the landscape. Rather seek out a more humble and secluded nook or corner, which you can warm with your domestic and home instincts and affections. In some things the half is often more satisfying than the whole. A glimpse of the Hudson River between hills or through openings in the trees wears better with me than a long expanse of it constantly spread out before me."

Burroughs retreated even further from the Hudson when, as of 1910, he took to spending his summers in a cottage - Woodchuck Lodge - on his boyhood farm in Roxbury. Here he came full circle, returning to the countryside of his youth for what would prove to be the last ten summers of his life. He relished the landscape here, and did not seem to miss the Hudson at all. Writing in an essay entitled "The Circuit of the Summer Hills," he told his readers that at Roxbury: "The peace of the hills is about me and upon me; the leisure of the summer clouds, whose shadows I see slowly drifting across the face of the landscape, is mine. The dissonance and the turbulence and the stench of cities - how far off they seem! The noise and dust, and the acrimony of politics - how completely the hum of the honey-bee, and the twitter of the swallows blot them out! In the circuit of the hills the days take form and character ... The deep, cradle-like valleys, and the long flowing mountain-lines, make a fit receptacle for the day's beauty ... The valleys are vast blue urns that hold a generous portion of lucid hours."

The view of his old age was the view of his childhood. It stopped at the brow of his hill. And that was far enough: the half always more satisfying than the whole.





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