Home  

Chapter XVI

Spring And Mr. Burroughs

From "The Catskills" (1918)
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:

    WAITING

    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.



Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter


Home
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