She thought a good deal of some verses I wrote—"My Brother's Farm"—and had them framed. (You have seen them in the parlor at the Old Home. I wrote them in Washington the fall that you were born. I was sick and forlorn at the time.)
I owe to Mother my temperament, my love of nature, my brooding, introspective habit of mind—all those things which in a literary man help to give atmosphere to his work. In her line were dreamers and fishermen and hunters. One of her uncles lived alone in a little house in the woods. His hut was doubtless the original Slabsides. Grandfather Kelly was a lover of solitude, as all dreamers are, and Mother's happiest days, I think, were those spent in the fields after berries. The Celtic element, which I get mostly from her side, has no doubt played an important part in my life. My idealism, my romantic tendencies, are largely her gift.
On my father's side I find no fishermen or hermits or dreamers. I find a marked religious strain, more active and outspoken than on Mother's. The religion of the Kellys was, for the most part, of the silent, meditative kind, but there are preachers and teachers and scholars on Father's side—one of them, Stephen Burroughs (b. 1765), a renegade preacher. Doubtless most of my own intellectual impetus comes from this side of the family. There are also cousins and second cousins on this side who became preachers, and some who became physicians, but I recall none on the Kelly side.
In size and physical make-up I am much like my father. I have my father's foot, and I detect many of his ways in my own. My loud and harmless barking, when I am angered, I get from him. The Kellys are more apt to bite. I see myself, too, in my brothers, in their looks and especially in their weaknesses. Take from me my special intellectual equipment, and I am in all else one of them.
(Speaking of their characteristics as a family, Mr. Burroughs says that they have absolute inability to harbor resentment (a Celtic trait); that they never have "cheek" to ask enough for what they have to sell, lack decision, and are easily turned from their purpose. Commenting on this, he has often said: "We are weak as men—do not make ourselves felt in the community. But this very weakness is a help to me as a writer upon Nature. I don't stand in my own light. I get very close to bird and beast. My thin skin lets the shy and delicate influences pass. I can surrender myself to Nature without effort. I am like her.... That which hinders me with men, makes me strong with impersonal Nature, and admits me to her influences.... I am lacking in moral fibre, but am tender and sympathetic.")
To see Mr. Burroughs stand and fondly gaze upon the fruitful, well-cultivated fields that his father had cared for so many years, to hear him say that the hills are like father and mother to him, was to realize how strong is the filial instinct in him—that and the home feeling. As he stood on the crest of the big hill by the pennyroyal rock, looking down on the peaceful homestead in the soft light of a midsummer afternoon, his eye roamed fondly over the scene:—
"How fertile and fruitful it is now, but how lonely and bleak the old place looked in that winter landscape the night I drove up from the station in the moonlight after hearing of Father's death! There was a light in the window, but I knew Father would not meet me at the door this time—beleaguering winter without, and Death within!
"Father and Mother! I think of them with inexpressible love and yearning, wrapped in their last eternal sleep. They had, for them, the true religion, the religion of serious, simple, hard-working. God-fearing lives. To believe as they did, to sit in their pews, is impossible to me—the Time-Spirit has decreed otherwise; but all I am or can be or achieve is to emulate their virtues—my soul can be saved only by a like truthfulness and sincerity."
The following data concerning his brothers and sisters were given me by Mr. Burroughs in conversation:—
Hiram, born in 1827, was an unpractical man and a dreamer; he was a bee-keeper. He showed great aptitude in the use of tools, could make axe-handles, neck-yokes, and the various things used about the farm, and was especially skilled in building stone walls. But he could not elbow his way in a crowd, could not make farming pay, and was always pushed to the wall. He cared nothing for books, and although he studied grammar when a boy, and could parse, he never could write a grammatical sentence. He died at the age of seventy-five.
Olly Ann was about two years younger than Hiram. Mr. Burroughs remembers her as a frail, pretty girl, with dark-brown eyes, a high forehead, and a wasp-like waist. She had a fair education for her time, married and had two children, and died in early womanhood of phthisis.
Wilson was a farmer, thrifty and economical. He married but had no children. He was evidently somewhat neurotic; as a child, even when well, he would groan and moan in his sleep, and he died, at the age of twenty-eight, after a short illness, of a delirious fever.
Curtis also was a farmer, but lacked judgment; could not look ahead; thought if he gave his note a debt was canceled, and went on piling up other indebtedness. He had a very meagre schooling, but was apt at witty remarks. He was temperate; was much given to reading "The Signs of the Times," like his father before him. He married and had five children. For many years previous to his death he lived at the homestead, dying there in his eightieth year, in the summer of 1912. Two of his unmarried children still live at the Old Home,—of all places on the earth the one toward which Mr. Burroughs turns with the most yearning fondness.
Edmund died in infancy.
Jane, a tender-hearted, old-fashioned woman, who cried and fretted easily, and worried over trifles, was a good housekeeper, and a fond mother—a fat, dumpy little woman with a doleful voice. She was always urging her brother not to puzzle his head about writing; writing and thinking, she said, were "bad for the head." When he would go away on a journey of only a hundred miles, she would worry incessantly lest something happen to him. She married and had five daughters. Her death occurred in May, 1912, at the age of seventy-seven. "Poor Jane!" said Mr. Burroughs one day, when referring to her protests against his writing; "I fear she never read a dozen printed words of mine—or shall I say 'lucky Jane'?"
John, born in 1837, was always "an odd one." (One is reminded of what William R. Thayer said of the Franklin family: "Among the seventeen Franklin children one was a Benjamin, and the rest nobodies.")
Eden was born in 1839. Frail most of his life, in later years he has become robust, and now (1913) is the only surviving member of the family besides Mr. Burroughs. He is cheery and loquacious, methodical and orderly, and very punctilious in dress. (One day, in the summer of 1912, when he was calling at "Woodchuck Lodge,"—the summer home where Mr. Burroughs has lived of late years, near the old place where he was born,—this brother recounted some of their youthful exploits, especially the one which yielded the material for the essay "A White Day and a Red Fox." "I shot the fox and got five dollars for it," said Mr. Eden Burroughs, "and John wrote a piece about it, and got seventy-five.")
Abigail, the favorite sister of our author, appreciated her brother's books and his ideals more than any other member of the family. She married and had two children. At the time of her death, in 1901, of typhoid fever (at the age of fifty-eight) the band of brothers and sisters had been unbroken by death for more than thirty-seven years. Her loss was a severe blow to her brother. He had always shared his windfalls with her; she had read some of his essays, and used to talk with him about his aspirations, encouraging him timidly, before he had gained recognition.
Eveline died at the age of five years.
The death of his brother Hiram, in 1904, made the past bleed afresh for Mr. Burroughs. "He was next to Father and Mother in my affections," he wrote. "Oh! if I had only done more for him—this is my constant thought. If I could only have another chance! How generous death makes us! Go, then, and make up by doing more for the living."
As I walked with him about the Old Home, he said, "I can see Hiram in everything here; in the trees he planted and grafted, in these stone walls he built, in this land he so industriously cultivated during the years he had the farm."
So large a place in his affections did this brother hold, and yet how wide apart were these two in their real lives! I know of no one who has pictured the pathos of lives so near and yet so far apart as has George Eliot when she says: "Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion, and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every moment. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah! so like our mother's—averted from us in cold alienation."
We cannot tell why one boy in a family turns out a genius, while the others stay in the ancestral ruts and lead humdrum, placid lives, any more than we can tell why one group of the hepaticas we gather in the April woods has the gift of fragrance, while those of a sister group in the same vicinity are scentless. A caprice of fate, surely, that "mate and mate beget such different issues."
"Hiram was with me at Slabsides," said Mr. Burroughs, "much of the time when I was writing the Whitman book, but never referred to it in any way. When it came from the press, I said to him, 'Hiram, here is the book you have heard me speak about as having cost me nearly four years' work, and which I rewrote four times.'"
"'That's the book, is it?' he replied, showing no curiosity about it, or desire to look into it, but kept drumming on the table—a habit of his that was very annoying to me at times, but of which he was not aware. When 'A Year in the Fields' came out, he looked at some of the pictures, but that was all."
There is something very pathetic in all this—these two brothers living in that isolated cabin in the woods, knit together by the ties of kinship, having in common a deep and yearning love for each other, and for the Old Home in the Catskills,—their daily down-sittings and up-risings outwardly the same, yet so alienated in what makes up one's real existence. The one, the elder, intent on his bees, his thoughts by day revolving about his hives, or concerned with the weather and the daily happenings; at night, as he idly drums with his fingers, dreaming of the old days on the farm—of how he used to dig out rocks to build the fences, of the sugar-making, of cradling the oats in July; while the other—ah! the other, of what was he not thinking!—of the little world of the hives (his thoughts yielding the exquisite "Idyl of the Honey-Bee"), of boyhood days upon the farm, of the wild life around his cabin, of the universe, and of the soul of the poet Whitman, that then much misunderstood man, than whom no one so much as he has helped us to appreciate. Going out and in, attending to his homely tasks (for these brothers did their own housework), the younger brother was all the time thinking of that great soul, of all that association with him had meant to him, and of all that Whitman would mean to America, to the world, as poet, prophet, seer—thinking how out of his knowledge of Whitman as poet and person he could cull and sift and gather together an adequate and worthy estimate of one whom his soul loved as Jonathan loved David!
The mystery of personality—how shall one fathom it? I asked myself this one rainy afternoon, as I sat in the Burroughs homestead and looked from one brother to another, the two so alike and yet so unlike. The one a simple farmer whose interests are circumscribed by the hills which surround the farm on which as children they were reared; the other, whose interests in the early years were seemingly just as circumscribed, but who felt that nameless something—that push from within—which first found its outlet in a deeper interest in the life about him than his brothers ever knew; and who later felt the magic of the world of books; and, still later, the need of expression, an expression which finally showed itself in a masterly interpretation of country life and experiences. The same heredity here, the same environment, the same opportunities—yet how different the result! The farmer has tended and gathered many a crop from the old place since they were boys, but has been blind and deaf to all that has there yielded such a harvest to the other. That other, a plain, unassuming man, "standing at ease in nature," has become a household word because of all that he has contributed to our intellectual and emotional life.
A man who as a lad had roamed the Roxbury hills with John Burroughs and his brothers, and had known the boy John as something of a dreamer, and thought of him in later years as perhaps of less account than his brothers (since they had settled down, owned land, and were leading industrious lives), was traveling in Europe in the eighties. On the top of a stage-coach in the Scottish Highlands he sat next a scholarly-looking man whose garb, he thought, betokened a priest. From some question which the traveler put, the Englishman learned that the stranger was from America. Immediately he showed a lively interest. "From America! Do you, then, know John Burroughs?"
Imagine the surprise of the Delaware County farmer at being questioned about his schoolmate, the dreamer, who, to be sure, "took to books"; but what was he that this Englishman should inquire about him as the one man in America he was eager to learn about! Doubtless Mr. Burroughs was the one literary man the Delaware County farmer did know, though his knowledge was on the personal and not on the literary side. And imagine the surprise of the priest (if priest it was) to find that he had actually lighted upon a schoolmate of the author!—C. B.)
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
I seem to have been a healthy, active child, very impressionable, and with more interests and a keener enjoyment of things than most farm boys have. I was fond of the girls back as early as I can remember, and had my sweethearts at a very early age....
I learned my letters at school, when I was five or six, in the old-fashioned way by being called up to the teacher several times a day and naming the letters as he pointed at them where they stood in a perpendicular column in Cobb's Spelling-Book. The vowels and consonants stood in separate columns, and had to be learned one by one, by continued repetition. It took me a long time, I remember, to distinguish b from d, and c from e. When and how I learned to read I do not remember. I recall Cobb's Second Reader, and later Olney's Geography, and then Dayballs Arithmetic.
I went to school summers till I was old enough to help on the farm, say at the age of eleven or twelve, when my schooling was confined to the winters.
(Illustration of The Old Schoolhouse, Roxbury, New York. From a photograph by M.H. Fanning)
As a boy, the only farm work that appealed to me was sugar-making in the maple woods in spring. This I thoroughly enjoyed. It brought me near to wild nature and was freer from routine than other farm work. Then I soon managed to gather a little harvest of my own from the sugar bush. I used to anticipate the general tapping by a few days or a week, and tap a few trees on my own account along the sunny border of the Woods, and boil the sap down on the kitchen stove (to the disgust of the womenfolks), selling the sugar in the village. I think the first money I ever earned came to me in this way. My first algebra and first grammar I bought with some of this precious money. When I appeared in the village with my basket of small cakes of early sugar, how my customers would hail me and call after me! No one else made such white sugar, or got it to market so early. One season, I remember, I got twelve silver quarters for sugar, and I carried them in my pockets for weeks, jingling them in the face of my envious schoolmates, and at intervals feasting my own eyes upon them. I fear if I could ever again get hold of such money as that was I should become a miser.
Hoeing corn, weeding the garden, and picking stone was drudgery, and haying and harvesting I liked best when they were a good way off; picking up potatoes worried me, but gathering apples suited my hands and my fancy better, and knocking "Juno's cushions" in the spring meadows with my long-handled knocker, about the time the first swallow was heard laughing overhead, was real fun. I always wanted some element of play in my work; buckling down to any sort of routine always galled me, and does yet. The work must be a kind of adventure, and permit of sallies into free fields. Hence the most acceptable work for me was to be sent strawberrying or raspberrying by Mother; but the real fun was to go fishing up Montgomery Hollow, or over on Rose's Brook, this necessitating a long tramp, and begetting a hunger in a few hours that made a piece of rye bread the most delectable thing in the world; yet a pure delight that never sated.
Mother used to bake her bread in the large old-fashioned brick oven, and once or twice a week we boys had to procure oven wood.
"You must get me oven wood this morning," she would say; "I am going to bake today." Then we would scurry around for dry, light, quick wood—pieces of old boxes and boards, and dry limbs. "One more armful," she would often say, when we were inclined to quit too soon. In a half-hour or so, the wood would be reduced to ashes, and the oven properly heated. I can see Mother yet as she would open the oven door and feel the air inside with her hand. "Run, quick, and get me a few more sticks—it is not quite hot enough." When it was ready, the coals and ashes were raked out, and in went the bread, six or seven big loaves of rye, with usually two of wheat. The wheat was for company.
When we would come in at dinner- or supper-time and see wheat bread on the table we would ask: "Who's in the other room?" Maybe the answer would be, "Your Uncle Martin and Aunt Virey." How glad I would be! I always liked to see company. Well, the living was better, and then, company brought a new element into the day; it gave a little tinge of romance to things. To wake up in the morning and think that Uncle Martin and Aunt Virey were there, or Uncle Edmund and Aunt Saliny, quickened the pulse a little. Or, when any of my cousins came,—boys near my own age,—what joy filled the days! And when they went, how lonesome I would be! how forlorn all things looked till the second or third day! I early developed a love of comrades, and was always fond of company—and am yet, as the records of Slabsides show.
I was quite a hunter in my youth, as most farm boys are, but I never brought home much game—a gray squirrel, a partridge, or a wild pigeon occasionally. I think with longing and delight of the myriads of wild pigeons that used to come every two or three years—covering the sky for a day or two, and making the naked spring woods gay and festive with their soft voices and fluttering blue wings. I have seen thousands of them go through a beech wood, like a blue wave, picking up the sprouting beechnuts. Those in the rear would be constantly flying over those in front, so that the effect was that of a vast billow of mingled white and blue and brown, rustling and murmuring as it went. One spring afternoon vast flocks of them were passing south over our farm for hours, when some of them began to pour down in the beech woods on the hill by the roadside. A part of nearly every flock that streamed by would split off and, with a downward wheel and rush, join those in the wood. Presently I seized the old musket and ran out in the road, and then crept up behind the wall, till only the width of the road separated me from the swarms of fluttering pigeons. The air and the woods were literally blue with them, and the ground seemed a yard deep with them. I pointed my gun across the wall at the surging masses, and then sat there spellbound. The sound of their wings and voices filled my ears, and their numbers more than filled my eyes. Why I did not shoot was never very clear to me. Maybe I thought the world was all turning to pigeons, as they still came pouring down from the heavens, and I did not want to break the spell. There I sat waiting, waiting, with my eye looking along the gun-barrel, till, suddenly, the mass rose like an explosion, and with a rush and a roar they were gone. Then I came to my senses and with keen mortification realized what an opportunity I had let slip. Such a chance never came again, though the last great flight of pigeons did not take place till 1875.
When I was about ten or twelve, a spell was put upon me by a red fox in a similar way. The baying of a hound upon the mountain had drawn me there, armed with the same old musket. It was a chilly day in early December. I took up my stand in the woods near what I thought might be the runway, and waited. After a while I stood the butt of my gun upon the ground, and held the barrel with my hand. Presently I heard a rustle in the leaves, and there came a superb fox loping along past me, not fifty feet away. He was evidently not aware of my presence, and, as for me, I was aware of his presence alone. I forgot that I had a gun, that here was the game I was in quest of, and that now was my chance to add to my store of silver quarters. As the unsuspecting fox disappeared over a knoll, again I came to my senses, and brought my gun to my shoulder; but it was too late, the game had gone. I returned home full of excitement at what I had seen, and gave as the excuse why I did not shoot, that I had my mitten on, and could not reach the trigger of my gun. It is true I had my mitten on, but there was a mitten, or something, on my wits also. It was years before I heard the last of that mitten; when I failed at anything they said, "John had his mitten on, I guess."
I remember that I had a sort of cosmogony of my own when I was a mere boy. I used to speculate as to what the world was made of. Partly closing my eyes, I could see what appeared to be little crooked chains of fine bubbles floating in the air, and I concluded that that was the stuff the world was made of. And the philosophers have not yet arrived at a much more satisfactory explanation.
In thinking of my childhood and youth I try to define to myself wherein I differed from my brothers and from other boys in the neighborhood, or wherein I showed any indication of the future bent of my mind. I see that I was more curious and alert than most boys, and had more interests outside my special duties as a farm boy. I knew pretty well the ways of the wild bees and hornets when I was only a small lad. I knew the different bumblebees, and had made a collection of their combs and honey before I had entered my teens. I had watched the little frogs, the hylas, and had captured them and held them till they piped sitting in my hand. I had watched the leaf-cutters and followed them to their nests in an old rail, or under a stone. I see that I early had an interest in the wild life about me that my brothers did not have. I was a natural observer from childhood, had a quick, sure eye and ear, and an eager curiosity. I loved to roam the hills and woods and prowl along the streams, just to come in contact with the wild and the adventurous. I was not sent to Sunday-school, but was allowed to spend the day as I saw fit, provided I did not carry a gun or a fishing-rod. Indeed, the foundation of my knowledge of the ways of the wild creatures was laid when I was a farm boy, quite unconscious of the natural-history value of my observations.
What, or who, as I grew up, gave my mind its final push in this direction would not be easy to name. It is quite certain that I got it through literature, and more especially through the works of Audubon, when I was twenty-five or twenty-six years of age.
The sentiment of nature is so full and winsome in the best modern literature that I was no doubt greatly influenced by it. I was early drawn to Wordsworth and to our own Emerson and Thoreau, and to the nature articles in the "Atlantic Monthly," and my natural-history tastes were stimulated by them.
I have a suspicion that "nature-study" as now followed in the schools—or shall I say in the colleges?—this classroom peeping and prying into the mechanism of life, dissecting, probing, tabulating, void of free observation, and shut away from the open air—would have cured me of my love of nature. For love is the main thing, the prime thing, and to train the eye and ear and acquaint one with the spirit of the great-out-of-doors, rather than a lot of minute facts about nature, is, or should be, the object of nature-study. Who cares about the anatomy of the frog? But to know the live frog—his place in the season and the landscape, and his life-history—is something. If I wanted to instill the love of nature into a child's heart, I should do it, in the first place, through country life, and, in the next place, through the best literature, rather than through classroom investigations, or through books of facts about the mere mechanics of nature. Biology is all right for the few who wish to specialize in that branch, but for the mass of pupils, it is a waste of time. Love of nature cannot be commanded or taught, but in some minds it can be stimulated.
Sweet were the days of my youth! How I love to recall them and dwell upon them!—a world apart, separated from the present by a gulf like that of sidereal space. The old farm bending over the hills and dipping down into the valleys, the woods, the streams, the springs, the mountains, and Father and Mother under whose wings I was so protected, and all my brothers and sisters-how precious the thought of them all! Can the old farm ever mean to future boys what it meant to me, and enter so deeply into their lives? No doubt it can, hard as it is to believe it. The "Bundle place," the "barn on the hill," the "Deacon woods," the clover meadow, the "turn in the road," the burying-ground, the sheep-lot, the bush-lot, the sumac-lot, the "new-barn meadow," the "old-barn meadow," and so on through the list—each field and section of the farm had to me an atmosphere and association of its own. The long, smooth, broad hill—a sort of thigh of the mountain (Old Clump) upon the lower edge of which the house is planted—shut off the west and southwest winds; its fields were all amenable to the plough, yielding good crops of oats, rye, buckwheat, potatoes, or, when in grass, yielding good pasture, divided east and west by parallel stone walls; this hill, or lower slope of the mountain, was one of the principal features of the farm. It was steep, but it was smooth; it was broad-backed and fertile; its soil was made up mainly of decomposed old red sandstone. How many times have I seen its different sections grow ruddy under the side-hill plough! One of my earliest recollections of my father is seeing him, when I was a child of three or four, striding across the middle side-hill lot with a bag slung across his breast, scattering the seed-grain.
How often at early nightfall, while the west was yet glowing, have I seen the grazing cattle silhouetted against the sky. In the winter the northwest winds would sweep the snow clean from the other side, and bring it over to our side and leave it in a long, huge drift that buried the fences and gave the hill an extra full-breasted appearance. The breast of the old hill would be padded with ten or fifteen feet of snow. This drift would often last till May. I have seen it stop the plough. I remember once carrying a jug of water up to Brother Curtis when his plough was within a few feet of the snow. Woodchucks would sometimes feel the spring through this thick coverlid of snow and bore up through it to the sunlight. I think the woodchuck's alarm clock always goes off before April is done, and he comes forth, apparently not to break his long fast, but to find his mate.
I remember working in oats in the middle side-hill lot one September during the early years of the Civil War, when Hiram was talking of enlisting as a drummer, and when Father and Mother were much worried about it. I carried together the sheaves, putting fifteen in a "shock."
I have heard my father tell of a curious incident that once befell his hired man and himself when they were drawing in oats on a sled from the first side-hill lot. They had on a load, and the hired man had thrust his fork into the upper sides of it and was bringing his weight to bear against its tendency to capsize. But gravity got the better of them and over went the load; the hired man (Rueb Dart) clung to his fork, and swung over the load through the air, alighting on his feet none the worse for the adventure.
The spring that supplies the house and the dairy with water comes from the middle side-hill lot, some forty or fifty rods from the house, and is now brought down in pipes; in my time, in pump-logs. It was always an event when the old logs had to be taken up and new ones put down. I saw the logs renewed twice in my time; once poplar logs were used, and once hemlock, both rather short-lived. A man from a neighboring town used to come with his long auger and bore the logs—a spectacle I was never tired of looking at.
Then the sap bush in the groin of the hill, and but a few minutes' walk from the house, what a feature that was! In winter and in summer, what delightful associations I have with it! I know each of its great sugar maples as I know my friends or the members of the family. Each has a character of its own, and in sap-producing capacity they differ greatly. A fringe of the great trees stood out in the open fields; these were the earliest to run.
In early March we used to begin to make ready for sugar-making by overhauling the sap "spiles," resharpening the old ones, and making new ones. The old-fashioned awkward sap-gouge was used in tapping in those days, and the "spiles" or spouts were split out of basswood blocks with this gouge, and then sharpened so as to fit the half-round gash which the gouge made in the tree. The dairy milk-pans were used to catch the sap, and huge iron kettles to boil it down in.
When the day came to tap the bush, the caldrons, the hogsheads, and the two hundred or more pans with the bundles of spiles were put upon the sled and drawn by the oxen up to the boiling-place in the sap bush. Father and Brother Hiram did the tapping, using an axe to cut the gash in the tree, and to drive in the gouge below it to make a place for the spile, while one of my younger brothers and I carried the pans and placed them in position.
It was always a glad time with me; the early birds were singing and calling, the snowbanks were melting, the fields were getting bare, the roads drying, and spring tokens were on every hand. We gathered the sap by hand in those days, two pails and a neck-yoke. It was sturdy work. We would usually begin about three or four o'clock, and by five have the one hundred and fifty pailfuls of sap in the hogsheads. When the sap ran all night, we would begin the gathering in the morning. The syruping-off usually took place at the end of the second day's boiling, when two or three hundred pailfuls of sap had been reduced to four or five of syrup. In the March or April twilight, or maybe after dark, we would carry those heavy pails of syrup down to the house, where the liquid was strained while still hot. The reduction of it to sugar was done upon the kitchen stove, from three hundred to five hundred pounds being about the average annual yield.
The bright warm days at the boiling-place I love best to remember; the robins running about over the bare ground or caroling from the treetops, the nuthatches calling, the crows walking about the brown fields, the bluebirds flitting here and there, the cows lowing or restless in the barnyard.
When I think of the storied lands across the Atlantic,—England, France, Germany, Italy, so rich in historical associations, steeped in legend and poetry, the very look of the fields redolent of the past,—and then turn to my own native hills, how poor and barren they seem!—not one touch anywhere of that which makes the charm of the Old World—no architecture, no great names; in fact, no past. They look naked and prosy, yet how I love them and cling to them! They are written over with the lives of the first settlers that cleared the fields and built the stone walls—simple, common-place lives, worthy and interesting, but without the appeal of heroism or adventure.
The land here is old, geologically, dating back to the Devonian Age, the soil in many places of decomposed old red sandstone; but it is new in human history, having been settled only about one hundred and fifty years.
Time has worn down the hills and mountains so that all the outlines of the country are gentle and flowing. The valleys are long, open, and wide; the hills broad and smooth, no angles or abruptness, or sharp contrasts anywhere. Hence it is not what is called a picturesque land—full of bits of scenery that make the artist's fingers itch. The landscape has great repose and gentleness, so far as long, sweeping lines and broad, smooth slopes can give this impression. It is a land which has never suffered violence at the hands of the interior terrestrial forces; nothing is broken or twisted or contorted or thrust out or up abruptly. The strata are all horizontal, and the steepest mountain-slopes clothed with soil that nourishes large forest growths.
I stayed at home, working on the farm in summer and going to school in winter, till I was seventeen. From the time I was fourteen I had had a desire to go away to school. I had a craving for knowledge which my brothers did not share. One fall when I was about fifteen I had the promise from Father that I might go to school at the Academy in the village that winter. But I did not go. Then the next fall I had the promise of going to the Academy at Harpersfield, where one of the neighbor's boys, Dick Van Dyke, went. How I dreamed of Harpersfield! That fall I did my first ploughing, stimulated to it by the promise of Harpersfield. It was in September, in the lot above the sugar bush—cross-ploughing, to prepare the ground for rye. How many days I ploughed, I do not remember; but Harpersfield was the lure at the end of each furrow, I remember that. To this day I cannot hear the name without seeing a momentary glow upon my mental horizon—a finger of enchantment is for an instant laid upon me.
But I did not go to Harpersfield. When the time drew near for me to go, Father found himself too poor, or the expense looked too big—none of the other boys had had such privileges, and why should I? So I swallowed my disappointment and attended the home district school for another winter. Yet I am not sure but I went to Harpersfield after all. The desire, the yearning to go, the effort to make myself worthy to go, the mental awakening, and the high dreams, were the main matter. I doubt if the reality would have given me anything more valuable than these things. The aspiration for knowledge opens the doors of the mind and makes ready for her coming.
These were my first and last days at the plough, and they made that field memorable to me. I never cross it now but I see myself there—a callow youth being jerked by the plough-handles but with my head in a cloud of alluring day-dreams. This, I think, was in the fall of 1853. I went to school that winter with a view to leaving home in the spring to try my luck at school-teaching in an adjoining county. Many Roxbury boys had made their first start in the world by going to Ulster County to teach a country school. I would do the same. So, late in March, 1854, about the end of the sugar season, I set out for Olive, Ulster County. An old neighbor, Dr. Hull, lived there, and I would seek him.
There was only a stage-line at that time connecting the two counties, and that passed twelve miles from my home. My plan was to cross the mountain into Red Kill to Uncle Martin Kelly's, pass the night there, and in the morning go to Clovesville, three miles distant, and take the stage. How well I remember that walk across the mountain in a snow-squall through which the sun shone dimly, a black oilcloth satchel in my hand, and in my heart vague yearnings and forebodings! I had but a few dollars in my pocket, probably six or seven, most of which I had earned by selling maple sugar. Father was willing I should go, though my help was needed on the farm.
Well, I traversed the eight miles to my uncle's in good time, and in the morning he drove me down to the turnpike to take the stage. I remember well my anxious and agitated state of mind while waiting at the hotel for the arrival of the stage. I had never ridden in one, I am not sure that I had even seen one, and I did not know just what was expected of me, or just how I should deport myself. An untraveled farm boy at seventeen is such a vague creature anyway, and I was, in addition, such a bundle of sensibilities, timidities, and embarrassments as few farm boys are. I paid my fare at the hotel at the rate of a sixpence a mile for about thirty-two miles, and when the stage came, saw my name entered upon the "waybill," and got aboard with a beating heart.
Of that first ride of my life in a public conveyance, I remember little. The stage was one of those old-fashioned rocking Concord coaches, drawn by four horses. We soon left the snow-clad hills of Delaware County behind, and dropped down into the milder climate of Ulster, where no snow was to be seen. About three in the afternoon the stage put me down at Terry's Tavern on the "plank-road" in Olive. I inquired the way to Dr. Hull's and found the walk of about a mile an agreeable change. The doctor and his wife welcomed me cordially. They were old friends of my family. I spent a day with them, riding about with the doctor on his visits to patients, and making inquiries for a school in want of a teacher. On the third day we heard of a vacancy in a district in the west end of the town, seven or eight miles distant, called Tongore. Hither I walked one day, saw the trustees, and made my application. I suspect my youth and general greenness caused them to hesitate; they would consider and let me know inside of a week. So, in a day or two, hearing of no other vacancies, I returned home the same way I had come. It was the first day of April when I made the return trip. I remember this because at one of the hotels where we changed horses I saw a copper cent lying upon the floor, and, stooping to pick it up, found it nailed fast. The bartender and two or three other spectators had a quiet chuckle at my expense. Before the week was out a letter came from the Tongore trustees saying I could have the school; wages, ten dollars the first month, and, if I proved satisfactory, eleven for the other five months, and "board around."
I remember the handwriting of that letter as if I had received it but yesterday. "Come at your earliest opportunity." How vividly I recall the round hand in which those words were written! I replied that I would be on hand the next week, ready to open school on Monday, the 11th.
Again I took the stage, my father driving me twelve miles to Dimmock's Corners to meet it, a trip which he made with me many times in after years. Mother always getting up and preparing our breakfast long before daylight. We were always in a more or less anxious frame of mind upon the road lest we be too late for the stage, but only once during the many trips did we miss it. On that occasion it had passed a few minutes before we arrived, but, knowing it stopped for breakfast at Griffin's Corners, four or five miles beyond, I hastened on afoot, running most of the way, and arrived in sight of it just as the driver had let off the first crack from his whip to start his reluctant horses. My shouting was quickly passed to him by the onlookers, he pulled up, and I won the race quite out of breath.
On the present occasion we were in ample time, and my journey ended at Shokan, from which place I walked the few miles to Tongore, in the late April afternoon. The little frogs were piping, and I remember how homesick the familiar spring sound made me. As I walked along the road near sundown with this sound in my ears, I saw coming toward me a man with a gait as familiar as was the piping of the frogs. He turned out to be our neighbor Warren Scudder, and how delighted I was to see him in that lonesome land! He had sold a yoke of oxen down there and had been down to deliver them. The home ties pulled very strongly at sight of him. Warren's three boys, Reub and Jack and Smith, were our nearest boy neighbors. His father, old Deacon Scudder, was one of the notable characters of the town. Warren himself had had some varied experiences. He was one of the leaders in the anti-rent war of ten years before. Indeed, he was chief of the band of "Indians" that shot Steel, the sheriff, at Andes, and it was charged that the bullet from his pistol was the one that did the fatal work. At any rate, he had had to flee the country, escaping concealed in a peddler's cart, while close pressed by the posse. He went South and was absent several years. After the excitement of the murder and the struggle between the two factions had died down, he returned and was not molested. And here he was in the April twilight, on my path to Tongore, and the sight of him cheered my heart.
I began my school Monday morning, April the 11th, 1854, and continued it for six months, teaching the common branches to twenty or thirty pupils from the ages of six to twelve or thirteen. I can distinctly recall the faces of many of those boys and girls to this day—Jane North, a slender, clean-cut girl of ten or eleven; Elizabeth McClelland, a fat, freckled girl of twelve; Alice Twilliger, a thin, talkative girl with a bulging forehead. Two or three of the boys became soldiers in the Civil War, and fell in the battle of Gettysburg.
(In April, 1912, Mr. Burroughs received the following: "Hearty congratulations upon your seventy-fifth birthday, from your old Tongore pupil of many years ago. R—B—.")
I "boarded round," going home with the children as they invited me. I was always put in the spare room, and usually treated to warm biscuit and pie for supper. A few families were very poor, and there I was lucky to get bread and potatoes. In one house I remember the bedstead was very shaky, and in the middle of the night, as I turned over, it began to sway and lurch, and presently all went down in a heap. But I clung to the wreck till morning, and said nothing about it then.
I remember that a notable eclipse of the sun occurred that spring on the 26th of May, when the farmers were planting their corn.
What books I read that summer I cannot recall. Yes, I recall one—"The Complete Letter-Writer," which I bought of a peddler, and upon which I modeled many of my letters to various persons, among others to a Roxbury girl for whom I had a mild fancy. My first letter to a girl I wrote to her, and a ridiculously stiff, formal, and awkward letter it was, I assure you. I am positive I addressed her as "Dear Madam," and started off with some sentence from "The Complete Letter-Writer," so impressed was I that there was a best way to do this thing, and that the book pointed it out. Mary's reply was, "To my absent, but not forgotten friend," and was simple and natural as girls' letters usually are. My Grandfather Kelly died that season, and I recall that I wrote a letter of condolence to my people, modeled upon one in the book. How absurd and stilted and unreal it must have sounded to them!
Oh, how crude and callow and obtuse I was at that time, full of vague and tremulous aspirations and awakenings, but undisciplined, uninformed, with many inherited incapacities and obstacles to weigh me down. I was extremely bashful, had no social aptitude, and was likely to stutter when anxious or embarrassed, yet I seem to have made a good impression. I was much liked in school and out, and was fairly happy. I seem to see sunshine over all when I look back there. But it was a long summer to me. I had never been from home more than a day or two at a time before, and I became very homesick. Oh, to walk in the orchard back of the house, or along the road, or to see the old hills again—what a Joy it would have been! But I stuck it out till my term ended in October, and then went home, taking a young fellow from the district (a brother of some girls I fancied) with me. I took back nearly all my wages, over fifty dollars, and with this I planned to pay my way at Hedding Literary Institute, in the adjoining county of Greene, during the coming winter term.
I left home for the school late in November, riding the thirty miles with Father, atop a load of butter. It was the time of year when the farmers took their butter to Catskill. Father usually made two trips. This was the first one of the season, and I accompanied him as far as Ashland, where the Institute was located.
I remained at school there three months, the length of the winter term, and studied fairly hard. I had a room by myself and enjoyed the life with the two hundred or more boys and girls of my own age. I studied algebra, geometry, chemistry, French, and logic, wrote compositions, and declaimed in the chapel, as the rules required. It was at this time that I first read Milton. We had to parse in "Paradise Lost," and I recall how I was shocked and astonished by that celestial warfare. I told one of my classmates that I did not believe a word of it. Among my teachers was a young, delicate, wide-eyed man who in later life became well known as Bishop Hurst, of the Methodist Church. He heard our small class in logic at seven o'clock in the morning, in a room that was never quite warmed by the newly kindled fire. I don't know how I came to study logic (Whately's). I had never heard of such a study before; maybe that is why I chose it. I got little out of it. What an absurd study, taught, as it was, as an aid to argumentation!—like teaching a man to walk by explaining to him the mechanism of walking. The analysis of one sound argument, or of one weak one, in terms of common sense, is worth any amount of such stuff. But it was of a piece with grammar and rhetoric as then taught—all preposterous studies viewed as helps toward correct writing and speaking. Think of our parsing Milton as an aid to mastering the English language!
I remember I stood fairly high in composition—only one boy in the school ahead of me, and that was Herman Coons, to whom I became much attached, and who became a Methodist minister. He went home with me during the holiday vacation. After leaving school we corresponded for several years, and then lost track of each other. I do not know that there is one of my school-mates of that time now living. I know of none that became eminent in any field. One of the boys was fatally injured that winter while coasting. I remember sitting up with him many nights and ministering to him. He died in a few weeks.
It was an event when Father and Mother came to visit me for a few hours, and Mother brought me some mince pies. What feasts two or three other boys and I had in my room over those home-made pies!
Toward spring we had a public debate in the chapel, and I was chosen as one of the disputants. We debated the question of the Crimean War, which was on then. I was on the side of England and France against Russia. Our side won. I think I spoke very well. I remember that I got much of my ammunition from a paper in "Harper's Magazine," probably by Dr. Osgood. It seems my fellow on the affirmative had got much of his ammunition from the same source, and, as I spoke first, there was not much powder left for him, and he was greatly embarrassed.
What insignificant things one remembers in a world of small events! I recall how one morning when we had all gathered in chapel for prayers, none of the professors appeared on the platform but our French teacher, and, as praying for us was not one of his duties, he hurried off to find some one to perform that function, while we all sat and giggled.
In the spring of 1855, with eight or ten dollars in my pocket which Father had advanced me, I made my first visit to New York by steamer from Catskill, on my way to New Jersey in quest of a position as school-teacher. Three of our neighborhood boys were then teaching in or near Plainfield, and I sought them out, having my first ride on the cars on that trip from Jersey City. As I sat there in my seat waiting for the train to start, I remember I actually wondered if the starting would be so sudden as to jerk my hat off!
I was too late to find a vacancy in any of the schools in the districts I visited. On one occasion I walked from Somerville twelve miles to a village where there was a vacancy, but the trustees, after looking me over, concluded I was too young and inexperienced for their large school. That night the occultation of Venus by the moon took place. I remember gazing at it long and long.
On my return in May I stopped in New York and spent a day prowling about the second-hand bookstalls, and spent so much of my money for books that I had only enough left to carry me to Griffin's Corners, twelve miles from home. I bought Locke's "Essay on the Human Understanding," Dr. Johnson's works, Saint-Pierre's "Studies of Nature," and Dick's works and others. Dick was a Scottish philosopher whose two big fat volumes held something that caught my mind as I dipped into them. But I got little from him and soon laid him aside. On this and other trips to New York I was always drawn by the second-hand bookstalls. How I hovered about them, how good the books looked, how I wanted them all! To this day, when I am passing them, the spirit of those days lays its hand upon me, and I have to pause a few moments and, half-dreaming, half-longing, run over the titles. Nearly all my copies of the English classics I have picked up at these curbstone stalls. How much more they mean to me than new books of later years! Here, for instance, are two volumes of Dr. Johnson's works in good leather binding, library style, which I have carried with me from one place to another for over fifty years, and which in my youth I read and reread, and the style of which I tried to imitate before I was twenty. When I dip into "The Rambler" and "The Idler" now how dry and stilted and artificial their balanced sentences seem! yet I treasure them for what they once were to me. In my first essay in the "Atlantic," forty-six years ago (in 1860), I said that Johnson's periods acted like a lever of the third kind, and that the power applied always exceeded the weight raised; and this comparison seems to hit the mark very well. I did not read Boswell's Life of him till much later. In his conversation Johnson got the fulcrum in the right place.
I reached home on the twentieth of May with an empty pocket and an empty stomach, but with a bagful of books. I remember the day because the grass was green, but the air was full of those great "goose-feather" flakes of snow which sometimes fall in late May.
I stayed home that summer of '55 and worked on the farm, and pored over my books when I had a chance. I must have found Locke's "Essay" pretty tough reading, but I remember buckling to it, getting right down on "all fours," as one has to, to follow Locke.
I think it was that summer that I read my first novel, "Charlotte Temple," and was fairly intoxicated with it. It let loose a flood of emotion in me. I remember finishing it one morning and then going out to work in the hay-field, and how the homely and familiar scenes fairly revolted me. I dare say the story took away my taste for Locke and Johnson for a while.
In early September I again turned my face Jerseyward in quest of a school, but stopped on my way in Olive to visit friends in Tongore. The school there, since I had left it, had fared badly. One of the teachers the boys had turned out of doors, and the others had "failed to give satisfaction"; so I was urged to take the school again. The trustees offered to double my wages—twenty-two dollars a month. After some hesitation I gave up the Jersey scheme and accepted the trustees' offer.
It was during that second term of teaching at Tongore that I first met Ursula North, who later became my wife. Her uncle was one of the trustees of the school, and I presume it was this connection that brought her to the place and led to our meeting.
If I had gone on to Jersey in that fall of '55, my life might have been very different in many ways. I might have married some other girl, might have had a large family of children, and the whole course of my life might have been greatly changed. It frightens me now to think that I might have missed the Washington life, and Whitman,... and much else that has counted for so much with me. What I might have gained is, in the scale, like imponderable air.
I read my Johnson and Locke that winter and tried to write a little in the Johnsonese buckram style. The young man to-day, under the same conditions, would probably spend his evenings reading novels or the magazines. I spent mine poring over "The Rambler."
In April I closed the school and went home, again taking a young fellow with me. I was then practically engaged to Ursula North, and I wrote her a poem on reaching home. About the middle of April I left home for Cooperstown Seminary. I rode to Moresville with Jim Bouton, and as the road between there and Stamford was so blocked with snowdrifts that the stage could not run, I was compelled to walk the eight miles, leaving my trunk behind. From Stamford I reached Cooperstown after an all-night ride by stage.
My summer at Cooperstown was an enjoyable and a profitable one. I studied Latin, French, English literature, algebra, and geometry. If I remember correctly, I stood first in composition over the whole school. I joined the Websterian Society and frequently debated, and was one of the three or four orators chosen by the school to "orate" in a grove on the shore of the lake, on the Fourth of July. I held forth in the true spread-eagle style.
I entered into the sports of the school, ball-playing and rowing on the lake, with the zest of youth.
One significant thing I remember: I was always on the lookout for books of essays. It was at this time that I took my first bite into Emerson, and it was like tasting a green apple—not that he was unripe, but I wasn't ripe for him. But a year later I tasted him again, and said, "Why, this tastes good"; and took a bigger bite; then soon devoured everything of his I could find.
I say I was early on the lockout for books of essays, and I wanted the essay to begin, not in a casual way by some remark in the first person, but by the annunciation of some general truth, as most of Dr. Johnson's did. I think I bought Dick's works on the strength of his opening sentence—"Man is a compound being."
As one's mind develops, how many changes in taste he passes through! About the time of which I am now writing, Pope was my favorite poet. His wit and common sense appealed to me. Young's "Night Thoughts" also struck me as very grand. Whipple seemed to me a much greater writer than Emerson. Shakespeare I did not come to appreciate till years later, and Chaucer and Spenser I have never learned to care for.
I am sure the growth of my literary taste has been along the right lines—from the formal and the complex, to the simple and direct. Now, the less the page seems written, that is, the more natural and instinctive it is, other things being equal, the more it pleases me. I would have the author take no thought of his style, as such; yet if his sentences are clothed like the lilies of the field, so much the better. Unconscious beauty that flows inevitably and spontaneously out of the subject, or out of the writer's mind, how it takes us!
My own first attempts at writing were, of course, crude enough. It took me a long time to put aside all affectation and make-believe, if I have ever quite succeeded in doing it, and get down to what I really saw and felt. But I think now I can tell dead wood in my writing when I see it—tell when I fumble in my mind, or when my sentences glance off and fail to reach the quick.
(In August, 1902, Mr. Burroughs wrote me of a visit to Cooperstown, after all these years: "I found Cooperstown not much changed. The lake and the hills were, of course, the same as I had known them forty-six years ago, and the main street seemed but little altered. Of the old seminary only the foundations were standing, and the trees had so grown about it that I hardly knew the place. I again dipped my oar in the lake, again stood beside Cooper's grave, and threaded some of the streets I had known so well. I wished I could have been alone there.... I wanted to muse and dream, and invoke the spirit of other days, but the spirits would not rise in the presence of strangers. I could not quite get a glimpse of the world as it appeared to me in those callow days. It was here that I saw my first live author (spoken of in my 'Egotistical Chapter') and first dipped into Emerson."
After leaving the Seminary at Cooperstown in July of 1856, the young student worked on the home farm in the Catskills until fall, when he began teaching school at Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where he taught until the following spring, returning East to marry, as he says, "the girl I left behind me."
He then taught in various schools in New York and New Jersey, until the fall of 1863. As a rule, in the summer he worked on the home farm.
During this period he was reading much, and trying his hand at writing. There was a short intermission in his teaching, when he invested his earnings in a patent buckle, and for a brief period he had dreams of wealth. But the buckle project failed, the dreams vanished, and he began to read medicine, and resumed his teaching.
From 1859 to 1862 he was writing much, on philosophical subjects mainly. It was in 1863 that he first became interested in the birds.—C. B.)
Ever since the time when in my boyhood I saw the strange bird in the woods of which I have told you, the thought had frequently occurred to me, "I shall know the birds some day." But nothing came of the thought and wish till the spring of '63, when I was teaching school near West Point. In the library of the Military Academy, which I frequently visited of a Saturday, I chanced upon the works of Audubon. I took fire at once. It was like bringing together fire and powder! I was ripe for the adventure; I had leisure, I was in a good bird country, and I had Audubon to stimulate me, as well as a collection of mounted birds belonging to the Academy for reference. How eagerly and joyously I took up the study! It fitted in so well with my country tastes and breeding; it turned my enthusiasm as a sportsman into a new channel; it gave to my walks a new delight; it made me look upon every grove and wood as a new storehouse of possible treasures. I could go fishing or camping or picknicking now with my resources for enjoyment doubled. That first hooded warbler that I discovered and identified in a near-by bushy field one Sunday morning—shall I ever forget the thrill of delight it gave me? And when in August I went with three friends into the Adirondacks, no day or place or detention came amiss to me; new birds were calling and flitting on every hand; a new world was opened to me in the midst of the old.
At once I was moved to write about the birds, and I began my first paper, "The Return of the Birds," that fall, and finished it in Washington, whither I went in October, and where I lived for ten years. Writing about the birds and always treating them in connection with the season and their environment, was, while I was a government clerk, a kind of vacation. It enabled me to live over again my days amid the sweet rural things and influences. The paper just referred to is, as you may see, mainly written out of my memories as a farm boy. The enthusiasm which Audubon had begotten in me quickened and gave value to all my youthful experiences and observations of the birds.
(This brings us to the time when our subject is fairly launched on early manhood. He has regular employment—a clerkship in the office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which, if not especially congenial in itself, affords him leisure to do the things he most wishes to do. He is even now growing in strength and efficiency as an essayist.—C. B.)
My Dear Friend,—
You once asked me how, considering my antecedents and youthful environment, I accounted for myself; what sent me to Nature, and to writing about her, and to literature generally. I wish I could answer you satisfactorily, but I fear I cannot. I do not know, myself; I can only guess at it.
I have always looked upon myself as a kind of sport; I came out of the air quite as much as out of my family. All my weaknesses and insufficiencies—and there are a lot of them—are inherited, but of my intellectual qualities, there is not much trace in my immediate forbears. No scholars or thinkers or lovers of books, or men of intellectual pursuits for several generations back of me—all obscure farmers or laborers in humble fields, rather grave, religiously inclined men, I gather, sober, industrious, good citizens, good neighbors, correct livers, but with no very shining qualities. My four brothers were of this stamp—home-bodies, rather timid, non-aggressive men, somewhat below the average in those qualities and powers that insure worldly success—the kind of men that are so often crowded to the wall. I can see myself in some of them, especially in Hiram, who had daydreams, who was always going West, but never went; who always wanted some plaything—fancy sheep or pigs or poultry; who was a great lover of bees and always kept them; who was curious about strange lands, but who lost heart and hope as soon as he got beyond the sight of his native hills; and who usually got cheated in every bargain he made. Perhaps it is because I see myself in him that Hiram always seemed nearer to me than any of the rest. I have at times his vagueness, his indefiniteness, his irresolution, and his want of spirit when imposed upon.
Poor Hiram! One fall in his simplicity he took his fancy Cotswold sheep to the State Fair at Syracuse, never dreaming but that a farmer entirely outside of all the rings and cliques, and quite unknown, could get the prize if his stock was the best. I can see him now, hanging about the sheep-pens, homesick, insignificant, unnoticed, living on cake and pie, and wondering why a prize label was not put upon his sheep. Poor Hiram! Well, he marched up the hill with his sheep, and then he marched down again, a sadder and, I hope, a wiser man.
Once he ordered a fancy rifle, costing upwards of a hundred dollars, of a gunsmith in Utica. When the rifle came, it did not suit him, was not according to specifications; so he sent it back. Not long after that the man failed and no rifle came, and the money was not returned. Then Hiram concluded to make a journey out there. I was at home at the time, and can see him yet as he started off along the road that June day, off for Utica on foot. Again he marched up the hill, and then marched down, and no rifle or money ever came.
For years he had the Western fever, and kept his valise under his bed packed ready for the trip. Once he actually started and got as far as White Pigeon, Michigan. There his courage gave out, and he came back. Still he kept his valise packed, but the end of his life's journey came before he was ready to go West again.
Hiram, as you know, came to live with me at Slabsides during the last years of his life. He had made a failure of it on the old farm, after I had helped him purchase it; nearly everything had gone wrong, indoors and out; and he was compelled to give it up. So he brought his forty or more skips of bees to West Park and lived with me, devoting himself, not very successfully, to bee-culture. He loved to "fuss" with bees. I think the money he got for his honey looked a little more precious to him than other money, just as the silver quarters I used to get when a boy for the maple sugar I made had a charm and a value no quarters have ever had in my eyes since.
That thing in Hiram that was so appealed to by his bee-culture, and by any fancy strain of sheep or poultry, is strong in me, too, and has played an important part in my life. If I had not taken it out in running after wild nature and writing about it I should probably have been a bee-man, or a fancy-stock farmer. As it is, I have always been a bee-lover, and have usually kept several swarms. Ordinary farming is prosy and tiresome compared with bee-farming. Combined with poultry-raising, it always had special attractions for me. When I was a farm boy of twelve or thirteen years, one of our neighbors had a breed of chickens with large topknots that filled my eye completely. My brother and I used to hang around the Chase henyard for hours, admiring and longing for those chickens. The impression those fowls made upon me seems as vivid to-day as it was when first made. The topknot was the extra touch—the touch of poetry that I have always looked for in things, and that Hiram, in his way, craved and sought for, too.
There was something, too, in my maternal grandfather that probably foreshadowed the nature-lover and nature-writer. In him it took the form of a love of angling, and a love for the Bible. He went from the Book to the stream, and from the stream to the Book, with great regularity. I do not remember that he ever read the newspapers, or any other books than the Bible and the hymn-book. When he was over eighty years, old he would woo the trout-streams with great success, and between times would pore over the Book till his eyes were dim. I do not think he ever joined the church, or ever made an open profession of religion, as was the wont in those days; but he had the religious nature which he nursed upon the Bible. When a mere boy, as I have before told you, he was a soldier under Washington, and when the War of 1812 broke out, and one of his sons was drafted, he was accepted and went in his stead. The half-wild, adventurous life of the soldier suited him better than the humdrum of the farm. From him, as I have said, I get the dash of Celtic blood in my veins—that almost feminine sensibility and tinge of melancholy that, I think, shows in all my books. That emotional Celt, ineffectual in some ways, full of longings and impossible dreams, of quick and noisy anger, temporizing, revolutionary, mystical, bold in words, timid in action—surely that man is in me, and surely he comes from my revolutionary ancestor, Grandfather Kelly.
I think of the Burroughs branch of my ancestry as rather retiring, peace-loving, solitude-loving men—men not strongly sketched in on the canvas of life, not self-assertive, never roistering or uproarious—law-abiding, and church-going. I gather this impression from many sources, and think it is a correct one.
Oh, the old farm days! how the fragrance of them still lingers in my heart! the spring with its farm, the returning birds, and the full, lucid trout-streams; the summer with its wild berries, its haying, its cool, fragrant woods; the fall with its nuts, its game, its apple-gathering, its holidays; the winter with its school, its sport on ice and snow, its apple-bins in the cellar, its long nights by the fireside, its voice of fox-bounds on the mountains, its sound of flails in the barn—how much I still dream about these things!
But I am slow in keeping my promise to try to account for myself. Yet all these things are a part of my antecedents; they entered into my very blood—father and mother and brothers and sisters, and the homely life of the farm, all entered into and became a part of that which I am.
I am certain, as I have told you before, that I derived more from my mother than from my father. I have more of her disposition—her yearning, breeding nature, her subdued and neutral tones, her curiosity, her love of animals, and of wild nature generally. Father was neither a hunter nor a fisherman, and, I think, was rarely conscious of the beauty of nature around him. The texture of his nature was much less fine than that of Mother's, and he was a much easier problem to read; he was as transparent as glass. Mother had more of the stuff of poetry in her soul, and a deeper, if more obscure, background to her nature. That which makes a man a hunter or a fisherman simply sent her forth in quest of wild berries. What a berry-picker she was! How she would work to get the churning out of the way so she could go out to the berry lot! It seemed to heal and refresh her to go forth in the hill meadows for strawberries, or in the old bushy bark-peelings for raspberries. The last work she did in the world was to gather a pail of blackberries as she returned one September afternoon from a visit to my sister's, less than a mile away.
I am as fond of going forth for berries as my mother was, even to this day. Every June I must still make one or two excursions to distant fields for wild strawberries, or along the borders of the woods for black raspberries, and I never go without thinking of Mother. You could not see all that I bring home with me in my pail on such occasions; if you could, you would see the traces of daisies and buttercups and bobolinks, and the blue skies, with thoughts of Mother and the Old Home, that date from my youth. I usually eat some of the berries in bread and milk, as I was wont to do in the old days, and am, for the moment, as near a boy again as it is possible for me to be.
(Illustration of One of Mr. Burroughs's Favorite Seats, Roxbury, New York. From a photograph by Clifton Johnson)
No doubt my life as a farm boy has had much to do with my subsequent love of nature, and my feeling of kinship with all rural things. I feel at home with them; they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It seems to me a man who was not born and reared in the country can hardly get Nature into his blood, and establish such intimate and affectionate relations with her, as can the born countryman. We are so susceptible and so plastic in youth; we take things so seriously; they enter into and color and feed the very currents of our being. As a child I think I must have been more than usually fluid and impressionable, and that my affiliations with open-air life and objects were very hearty and thorough. As I grow old I am experiencing what, I suppose, all men experience, more or less; my subsequent days slough off, or fade away, more and more, leaving only the days of my youth as a real and lasting possession.
When I began, in my twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth year, to write about the birds, I found that I had only to unpack the memories of the farm boy within me to get at the main things about the common ones. I had unconsciously absorbed the knowledge that gave the life and warmth to my page. Take that farm boy out of my books, out of all the pages in which he is latent as well as visibly active, and you have robbed them of something vital and fundamental, you have taken from the soil much of its fertility. At least, so it seems to me, though in this business of self-analysis I know one may easily go far astray. It is probably quite impossible correctly to weigh and appraise the many and complex influences and elements that have entered into one's life.
When I look back to that twilight of early youth, to that half-mythical borderland of the age of six or seven years, or even earlier, I can see but few things that, in the light of my subsequent life, have much significance. One is the impression made upon me by a redbird which the "hired girl" brought in from the woodpile, one day with a pail of chips. She had found the bird lying dead upon the ground. That vivid bit of color in the form of a bird has never faded from my mind, though I could not have been more than three or four years old.
Another bird incident, equally vivid, I have related in "Wake-Robin," in the chapter called "The Invitation,"—the vision of the small bluish bird with a white spot on its wing, one Sunday when I was six or seven years old, while roaming with my brothers in the "Deacon woods" near home. The memory of that bird stuck to me as a glimpse of a world of birds that I knew not of.
Still another bird incident that is stamped upon my memory must have occurred about the same time. Some of my brothers and an older boy neighbor and I were walking along a road in the woods when a brown bird flew down from a bush upon the ground in front of us. "A brown thrasher," the older boy said. It was doubtless either the veery, or the hermit thrush, and this was my first clear view of it. Thus it appears that birds stuck to me, impressed me from the first. Very early in my life the coming of the bluebird, the phoebe, the song sparrow, and the robin, in the spring, were events that stirred my emotions, and gave a new color to the day. When I had found a bluebird's nest in the cavity of a stump or a tree, I used to try to capture the mother bird by approaching silently and clapping my hand over the hole; in this I sometimes succeeded, though, of course, I never harmed the bird. I used to capture song sparrows in a similar way, by clapping my hat over the nest in the side of the bank along the road.
I can see that I was early drawn to other forms of wild life, for I distinctly remember when a small urchin prying into the private affairs of the "peepers" in the marshes in early spring, sitting still a long time on a log in their midst, trying to spy out and catch them in the act of peeping. And this I succeeded in doing, discovering one piping from the top of a bulrush, to which he clung like a sailor to a mast; I finally allayed the fears of one I had captured till he sat in the palm of my hand and piped—a feat I have never been able to repeat since.
I studied the ways of the bumblebees also, and had names of my own for all the different kinds. One summer I made it a point to collect bumblebee honey, and I must have gathered a couple of pounds. I found it very palatable, though the combs were often infested with parasites. The small red-banded bumblebees that lived in large colonies in holes in the ground afforded me the largest yields. A large bee, with a broad light-yellow band, was the ugliest customer to deal with. It was a fighter and would stick to its enemy like grim death, following me across the meadow and often getting in my hair, and a few times up my trousers leg, where I had it at as great a disadvantage as it had me. It could stab, and I could pinch, and one blow followed the other pretty rapidly.
As a child I was always looked upon and spoken of as an "odd one" in the family, even by my parents. Strangers, and relatives from a distance, visiting at the house, would say, after looking us all over, "That is not your boy," referring to me, "who is he?" And I am sure I used to look the embarrassment I felt at not being as the others were. I did not want to be set apart from them or regarded as an outsider. As this was before the days of photography, there are no pictures of us as children, so I can form no opinion of how I differed in my looks from the others. I remember hearing my parents say that I showed more of the Kelly—Mother's family.
I early "took to larnin'," as Father used to say, differing from my brothers and sisters in this respect. I quickly and easily distanced them all in the ordinary studies. I had gone through Dayball's Arithmetic while two of my older brothers were yet in addition. "Larnin'" came very hard to all of them except to Hiram and me, and Hiram did not have an easy time of it, though he got through his Dayball, and studied Greenleaf's Grammar.
There was a library of a couple of dozen of volumes in the district, and I used to take home books from it. They were usually books of travel or of adventure. I remember one, especially, a great favorite, "Murphy, the Indian Killer." I must have read this book several times. Novels, or nature books, or natural-history books, were unknown in that library. I remember the "Life of Washington," and I am quite certain that it was a passage in this book that made a lasting impression upon me when I was not more than six or seven years old. I remember the impression, though I do not recall the substance of the passage. The incident occurred one Sunday in summer when Hiram and a cousin of ours and I were playing through the house, I carrying this book in my hand. From time to time I would stop and read this passage aloud, and I can remember, as if it were but yesterday, that I was so moved by it, so swept away by its eloquence, that, for a moment, I was utterly oblivious to everything around me. I was lifted out of myself, caught up in a cloud of feeling, and wafted I know not whither. My companions, being much older than I was, regarded not my reading.
These exalted emotional states, similar to that just described, used occasionally to come to me under other conditions about this time, or later. I recall one such, one summer morning when I was walking on the top of a stone wall that ran across the summit of one of those broad-backed hills which you yourself know. I had in my hand a bit of a root of a tree that was shaped much like a pistol. As I walked along the toppling stones, I flourished this, and called and shouted and exulted and let my enthusiasm have free swing. It was a moment of supreme happiness. I was literally intoxicated; with what I do not know. I only remember that life seemed amazingly beautiful—I was on the crest of some curious wave of emotion, and my soul sparkled and flashed in the sunlight. I have haunted that old stone wall many times since that day, but I have never been able again to experience that thrill of joy and triumph. The cup of life does not spontaneously bead and sparkle in this way except in youth, and probably with many people it does not even then. But I know from what you have told me that you have had the experience. When one is trying to cipher out his past, and separate the factors that have played an important part in his life, such incidents, slight though they are, are significant.
The day-dreams I used to indulge in when twelve or thirteen, while at work about the farm, boiling sap in the spring woods, driving the cows to pasture, or hoeing corn,—dreams of great wealth and splendor, of dress and equipage,—were also significant, but not prophetic. Probably what started these golden dreams was an itinerant quack phrenologist who passed the night at our house when I was a lad of eight or nine. He examined the heads of all of us; when he struck mine, he grew enthusiastic. "This is the head for you," he said; "this boy is going to be rich, very rich"; and much more to that effect. Riches was the one thing that appealed to country people in those times; it was what all were after, and what few had. Hence the confident prophesy of the old quack made an impression, and when I began to indulge in day-dreams I was, no doubt, influenced by it. But, as you know, it did not come true, except in a very limited sense. Instead of returning to the Old Home in a fine equipage, and shining with gold,—the observed of all observers, and the envy of all enviers,—as I had dreamed, and as had been foretold, I came back heavy-hearted, not indeed poor, but far from rich, walked up from the station through the mud and snow unnoticed, and took upon myself the debts against the old farm, and so provided that it be kept in the family. It was not an impressive home-coming; it was to assume burdens rather than to receive congratulations; it was to bow my head rather than to lift it up. Out of the golden dreams of youth had come cares and responsibilities. But doubtless it was best so. The love that brought me back to the old home year after year, that made me willing to serve my family, and that invested my native hills with such a charm, was the best kind of riches after all.
As a youth I never went to Sunday-school, and I was not often seen inside the church. My Sundays were spent rather roaming in the woods and fields, or climbing to "Old Clump," or, in summer, following the streams and swimming in the pools. Occasionally I went fishing, though this was to incur parental displeasure—unless I brought home some fine trout, in which case the displeasure was much tempered. I think this Sunday-school in the woods and fields was, in my case, best. It has always seemed, and still seems, as if I could be a little more intimate with Nature on Sunday than on a week-day; our relations were and are more ideal, a different spirit is abroad, the spirit of holiday and not of work, and I could in youth, and can now, abandon myself to the wild life about me more fully and more joyously on that day than on any other.
The memory of my youthful Sundays is fragrant with wintergreens, black birch, and crinkle-root, to say nothing of the harvest apples that grew in our neighbor's orchard; and the memory of my Sundays in later years is fragrant with arbutus, and the showy orchid, and wild strawberries, and touched with the sanctity of woodland walks and hilltops. What day can compare with a Sunday to go to the waterfalls, or to "Piney Ridge," or to "Columbine Ledge," or to stroll along "Snake Lane"? What sweet peace and repose is over all! The snakes in Snake Lane are as free from venom as are grasshoppers, and the grasshoppers themselves fiddle and dance as at no other time. Cherish your Sundays. I think you will read a little deeper in "Nature's infinite book of secrecy" on Sunday than on Monday. I once began an essay the subject of which was Sunday, but never finished it. I must send you the fragment.
But I have not yet solved my equation—what sent me to nature? What made me take an intellectual interest in outdoor things? The precise value of the x is hard to find. My reading, no doubt, had much to do with it. This intellectual and emotional interest in nature is in the air in our time, and has been more or less for the past fifty years. I early read Wordsworth, and Emerson and Tennyson and Whitman, and Saint-Pierre's "Studies of Nature," as I have before told you. But the previous question is, why the nature poets and nature books appealed to me. One cannot corner this unknown quantity. I suppose I was simply made that way—the love of nature was born in me. I suppose Emerson influenced me most, beginning when I was about nineteen; I had read Pope and Thomson and Young and parts of Shakespeare before that, but they did not kindle this love of nature in me. Emerson did. Though he did not directly treat of outdoor themes, yet his spirit seemed to blend with Nature, and to reveal the ideal and spiritual values in her works. I think it was this, or something like it, that stimulated me and made bird and tree and sky and flower full of a new interest. It is not nature for its own sake that has mainly drawn me; had it been so, I should have turned out a strict man of science; but nature for the soul's sake—the inward world of ideals and emotions. It is this that allies me to the poets; while it is my interest in the mere fact that allies me to the men of science.
I do not read Emerson much now, except to try to get myself back into the atmosphere of that foreworld when a paradox, or a startling affirmation, dissolved or put to flight a vast array of commonplace facts. What a bold front he did put on in the presence of the tyrannies of life! He stimulated us by a kind of heavenly bragging and saintly flouting of humdrum that ceases to impress us as we grow old. Do we outgrow him?—or do we fall away from him? I cannot bear to hear Emerson spoken of as a back-number, and I should like to believe that the young men of to-day find in him what I found in him fifty years ago, when he seemed to whet my appetite for high ideals by referring to that hunger that could "eat the solar system like gingercake." But I suspect they do not. The world is too much with us. We are prone to hitch our wagon to a star in a way, or in a spirit, that does not sanctify the wagon, but debases the star. Emerson is perhaps too exceptional to take his place among the small band of the really first-class writers of the world. Shear him of his paradoxes, of his surprises, of his sudden inversions, of his taking sallies in the face of the common reason, and appraise him for his real mastery over the elements of life and of the mind, as we do Bacon, or Shakespeare, or Carlyle, and he will be found wanting. And yet, let me quickly add, there is something more precious and divine about him than about any or all the others. He prepares the way for a greater than he, prepares the mind to accept the new man, the new thought, as none other does.
But how slow I am in getting at my point! Emerson took me captive. For a time I lived and moved and had my intellectual being in him. I think I have always had a pretty soft shell, so to speak, hardly enough lime and grit in it, and at times I am aware that such is the fact to this day. Well, Emerson found my intellectual shell very plastic; I took the form of his mould at once, and could not get away from him; and, what is more, did not want to get away from him, did not see the need of getting away from him. Nature herself seemed to speak through him. An intense individuality that possesses the quality of lovableness is apt to impose itself upon us in this way. It was under this spell, as you know, that I wrote "Expression," of which I have told you. The "Atlantic," by the way, had from the first number been a sort of university to me. It had done much to stimulate and to shape my literary tastes and ambitions. I was so eager for it that when I expected it in the mail I used to run on my way to the post office for it. So, with fear and trembling, I sent that essay to its editor. Lowell told a Harvard student who was an old schoolmate of mine that when he read the paper he thought some young fellow was trying to palm off an early essay of Emerson's upon him as his own, and that he looked through the "Dial" and other publications in the expectation of finding it. Not succeeding in doing so, he concluded the young man had written it himself. It was published in November, 1860, and as the contributors' names were not given at that time, it was ascribed to Emerson by the newspaper reviewers of that number. It went into Poole's Index as by Emerson, and later. Professor Hill
(Some years ago I took it upon myself to let Professor Hill know the real author of "Expression." He appeared grateful, though some what chagrined, and said the error should be corrected in the next edition. Mr. Burroughs smiled indulgently when he learned of my zeal in the matter: "Emerson's back is broad; he could have afforded to continue to shoulder my early blunders," he said. C. B.)
of Harvard, quoted a line from it in a footnote in his "Rhetoric," and credited it to Emerson. So I had deceived the very elect. The essay had some merit, but it reeked with the Emersonian spirit and manner. When I came to view it through the perspective of print, I quickly saw that this kind of thing would not do for me. I must get on ground of my own. I must get this Emersonian musk out of my garments at all hazards. I concluded to bury my garments in the earth, as it were, and see what my native soil would do toward drawing it out. So I took to writing on all manner of rural themes—sugar-making, cows, haying, stone walls. These, no doubt, helped to draw out the rank suggestion of Emerson. I wrote about things of which I knew, and was, therefore, bound to be more sincere with myself than in writing upon the Emersonian themes. When a man tells what he knows, what he has seen or felt, he is pretty sure to be himself. When I wrote upon more purely intellectual themes, as I did about this time for the "Leader," the Emersonian influence was more potent, though less so than in the first "Atlantic" essay.
Any man progresses in the formation of a style of his own in proportion as he gets down to his own real thoughts and feelings, and ceases to echo the thoughts and moods of another. Only thus can he be sincere; and sincerity is the main secret of style. What I wrote from "the push of reading," as Whitman calls it, was largely an artificial product; I had not made it my own; but when I wrote of country scenes and experiences, I touched the quick of my mind, and it was more easy to be real and natural.
I also wrote in 1860 or 1861 a number of things for the "Saturday Press" which exhaled the Emersonian perfume. If you will look them over, you will see how my mind was working in the leading-strings of Analogy—often a forced and unreal Analogy.
My Dear Friend,—
You ask me to tell you more about myself, my life, how it has been with me, etc. It is an inviting subject. How an old man likes to run on about himself!
I see that my life has been more of a holiday than most persons', much more than was my father's or his father's. I have picnicked all along the way. I have on the whole been gay and satisfied. I have had no great crosses or burdens to bear; no great afflictions, except such as must come to all who live; neither poverty, nor riches. I have had uniform good health, true friends, and some congenial companions. I have done, for the most part, what I wanted to do. Some drudgery I have had, that is, in uncongenial work on the farm, in teaching, in clerking, and in bank-examining; but amid all these things I have kept an outlook, an open door, as it were, out into the free fields of nature, and a buoyant feeling that I would soon be there.
My farm life as a boy was at least a half-holiday. The fishing, the hunting, the berrying, the Sundays on the hills or in the woods, the sugar-making, the apple-gathering—all had a holiday character. But the hoeing corn, and picking up potatoes, and cleaning the cow stables, had little of this character. I have never been a cog in the wheel of any great concern. I have never had to sink or lose my individuality. I have been under no exacting master or tyrant.... I have never been a slave to any bad habit, as smoking, drinking, over-feeding. I have had no social or political ambitions; society has not curtailed my freedom or dictated my dress or habits. Neither has any religious order or any clique. I have had no axe to grind. I have gone with such men and women as I liked, irrespective of any badge of wealth or reputation or social prestige that they might wear. I have looked for simple pleasures everywhere, and have found them. I have not sought for costly pleasures, and do not want them—pleasures that cost money, or health, or time. The great things, the precious things of my life, have been without money and without price, as common as the air.
Life has laid no urgent mission upon me. My gait has been a leisurely one. I am not bragging of it; I am only stating a fact. I have never felt called upon to reform the world. I have doubtless been culpably indifferent to its troubles and perplexities, and sins and sufferings. I lend a hand occasionally here and there in my own neighborhood, but I trouble myself very little about my neighbors—their salvation or their damnation. I go my own way and do my own work.
I have loved nature, I have loved the animals, I have loved my fellow-men. I have made my own whatever was fair and of good report. I have loved the thoughts of the great thinkers and the poems of the great poets, and the devout lines of the great religious souls. I have not looked afar off for my joy and entertainment, but in things near at hand, that all may have on equal terms. I have been a loving and dutiful son, and a loving and dutiful father, and a good neighbor. I have got much satisfaction out of life; it has been worth while.
I have not been a burden-bearer; for shame be it said, perhaps, when there are so many burdens to be borne by some one. I have borne those that came in my way, or that circumstances put upon me, and have at least pulled my own weight. I have had my share of the holiday spirit; I have had a social holiday, a moral holiday, a business holiday. I have gone a-fishing while others were struggling and groaning and losing their souls in the great social or political or business maelstrom. I know, too, I have gone a-fishing while others have labored in the slums and given their lives to the betterment of their fellows. But I have been a good fisherman, and I should have made a poor missionary, or reformer, or leader of any crusade against sin and crime. I am not a fighter, I dislike any sort of contest, or squabble, or competition, or storm. My strength is in my calm, my serenity, my sunshine. In excitement I lose my head, and my heels, too. I cannot carry any citadel by storm. I lack the audacity and spirit of the stormer. I must reduce it slowly or steal it quietly. I lack moral courage, though I have plenty of physical and intellectual courage. I could champion Walt Whitman when nearly every contemporaneous critic and poet were crying him down, but I utterly lack the moral courage to put in print what he dared to. I have wielded the "big stick" against the nature-fakers, but I am very uncomfortable under any sort of blame or accusation. It is so much easier for me to say yes than no. My moral fibre is soft compared to my intellectual. I am a poor preacher, an awkward moralizer. A moral statement does not interest me unless it can be backed up by natural truth; it must have intellectual value. The religious dogmas interest me if I can find a scientific basis for them, otherwise not at all.
I shall shock you by telling you I am not much of a patriot. I have but little national pride. If we went to war with a foreign power to-morrow, my sympathies would be with the foreigner if I thought him in the right. I could gladly see our navy knocked to pieces by Japan, for instance, if we were in the wrong. I have absolutely no state pride, any more than I have county or town pride, or neighborhood pride. But I make it up in family or tribal affection.