Our writer's overmastering attachment to his birthplace seems due largely to the fact that the springs, the hills, and the wooded mountains are inextricably blended with his parents and his youth. As he has somewhere said, "One's own landscape comes in time to be a sort of outlying part of him; he has sown himself broadcast upon it... planted himself in the fields, builded himself in the stone walls, and evoked the sympathy of the hills in his struggle."
From a hilltop he pointed off to the west and said, "Yonder is the direction that my grandparents came, in the 1790's, from Stamford, cutting a road through the woods, and there, over Batavia Hill, Father rode when he went courting Mother."
Then we went up the tansy-bordered road, past the little graveyard, and over to the site where his grandfather's first house stood. As we wandered about the old stone foundations, his reminiscences were interrupted by the discovery of a junco's nest. On the way back he pointed across the wide valley to the West Settlement schoolhouse where he and his brothers used to go, although his first school was in a little stone building which is still standing on the outskirts of Roxbury, and known thereabouts as "the old stone jug." Mr. Burroughs remembers his first day in this school, and the little suit he wore, of bluish striped cotton, with epaulets on the shoulders which flopped when he ran. He fell asleep one day and tumbled off the seat, cutting his head; he was carried to a neighboring farmhouse, and he still vividly recalls the smell of camphor which pervaded the room when he regained consciousness. He was about four years of age. He remembers learning his "A-b ab's," as they were called, and just how the column of letters looked in the old spelling-book; remembers sitting on the floor under the desks and being called out once in a while to say his letters: "Hen Meeker, a boy bigger than I was, stuck on e. I can remember the teacher saying to him; 'And you can't tell that? Why, little Johnny Burroughs can tell you what it is. Come, Johnny.' And I crawled out and went up and said it was e, like a little man."
Up the hill a short distance from the old homestead he indicated the "turn 'n the road," as it passes by the "Deacon Woods"; this, he said, was his first journey into the world. He was about four years old when, running away, he got as far as this turn; then, looking back and seeing how far he was from the house, he became frightened and ran back crying. "I have seen a young robin," he added, "do the very same thing on its first journey from the nest."
"One of my earliest recollections," he said, "is that of lying on the hearth one evening to catch crickets that Mother said ate holes in our stockings—big, light-colored, long-legged house crickets, with long horns; one would jump a long way.
"Another early recollection comes to me: one summer day, when I was three or four years old, on looking skyward, I saw a great hawk sailing round in big circles. I was suddenly seized with a panic of fear and hid behind the stone wall.
"The very earliest recollection of my life is that of the 'hired girl' throwing my cap down the steps, and as I stood there crying, I looked up on the sidehill and saw Father with a bag slung across his shoulders, striding across the furrows sowing grain. It was a warm spring day, and as I looked hillward wistfully, I wished Father would come down and punish the girl for throwing my cap down the stairs—little insignificant things, but how they stick in the memory!"
"I see myself as a little boy rocking this cradle," said Mr. Burroughs, as he indicated the quaint blue wooden cradle (which I had found in rummaging through the attic at the old home, and had installed in Woodchuck Lodge), "or minding the baby while Mother bakes or mends or spins. I hear her singing; I see Father pushing on the work of the farm."
Most of the soil in Delaware County is decomposed old red sandstone. Speaking of this soil Mr. Burroughs said, "In the spring when the plough has turned the turf, I have seen the breasts of these broad hills glow like the breasts of robins." He is fond of studying the geology of the region now. I have seen him dig away the earth the better to expose the old glacier tracings, and then explain to his grandchildren how the glaciers ages ago made the marks on the rocks. To me one of the finest passages in his recent book "Time and Change" is one wherein he describes the look of repose and serenity of his native hills, "as if the fret and fever of life were long since passed with them." It is a passage in which he looks at his home hills through the eye of the geologist, but with the vision of the poet—the inner eye which assuredly yields him "the bliss of solitude."
One evening as we sat in the kitchen at the old home, he described the corn-shelling of the olden days: "I see the great splint basket with the long frying-pan handle thrust through its ears across the top, held down by two chairs on either end, and two of my brothers sitting in the chairs and scraping the ears of corn against the iron. I hear the kernels rattle, a shower of them falling in the basket, with now and then one flying out in the room. With the cobs that lie in a pile beside the basket I build houses, carrying them up till they topple, or till one of the shelters knocks them over. Mother is sitting by, sewing, her tallow dip hung on the back of a chair. Winter reigns without. How it all comes up before me!"
He remembers when four or five years old crying over a thing which had caused him deep chagrin: A larger boy—"the meanest boy I ever knew, and he became the meanest man," he said with spirit—"found me sulking under a tree in the corner of the school-yard; he bribed me with a slate pencil into confessing what I was crying about, but as soon as I had told him, he ran away with the pencil, shouting my secret to the other boys."
One day we went 'cross lots after spearmint for jelly for the table at Woodchuck Lodge, and an abandoned house near the mint-patches recalled to Mr. Burroughs the first time he had heard the word "taste" used, except in reference to food. The woman who had lived in this house, while calling at his home and seeing his attempt at drawing something, had said, "What taste that boy has!" "It made me open my eyes—'taste'!—then there was another kind of taste than the one I knew about—the taste of things I ate!"
At a place in the road near the old stone schoolhouse, he showed me where, as a lad of thirteen, perhaps, he had stopped to watch some men working the road, and had first heard the word "antiquities" used. "They had uncovered and removed a large flat stone, and under it were other stones, probably arranged by the hands of earlier roadmakers. David Corbin, a man who had had some schooling, said, as they exposed the earlier layers, 'Ah! here are antiquities!' The word made a lasting impression on me."
(Illustration of View of the Catskills from Woodchuck Lodge. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
One of our favorite walks at sunset was up the hill beyond the old home where the road winds around a neglected graveyard. From this high vantage-ground one can see two of the Catskill giants—Double Top and Mount Graham. It was not a favorite walk of the boy John Burroughs. He told how, even in his early teens, at dusk, he would tiptoe around the corner past the graveyard, afraid to run for fear a gang of ghosts would be at his heels. "When I got down the road a ways, though, how I would run!" He was always "scairy" if he had to come along the edge of the woods alone at nightfall, and was even afraid of the big black hole under the barn in the daytime: "I was tortured with the thought of what might lurk there in that great black abyss, and would hustle through my work of cleaning the stable, working like Hercules, and often sending in 'Cuff,' the dog, to scare 'em out."
Fed on stories of ghosts and hobgoblins in childhood, his active, sensitive imagination became an easy prey to these fears. But we do outgrow some things. In the summer of 1911 this grown-up boy waxed so bold that he sat in the barn with its black hole underneath and wrote of "The Phantoms Behind Us." There was still something Herculean in his task; he looked boldly down into the black abysms of Time, not without some shrinking, it is true, saw the "huge first Nothing," faced the spectres as they rose before him, wrestled with them, and triumphantly conquered by acknowledging each phantom as a friendly power—a creature on whose shoulders he had raised himself to higher and higher levels; he saw that though the blackness was peopled with uncouth and gigantic forms, out of all these there at last arose the being Man, who could put all creatures under his feet.
Along the road between the old home and Woodchuck Lodge are some rocks which were the "giant stairs" of his childhood. On these he played, and he is fond now of pausing and resting there as he recalls events of those days.
"Are these rocks very old?" some one asked him one day.
"Oh, yes; they've been here since Adam was a kitten."
Whichever way he turns, memories of early days awaken; as he himself has somewhere said in print, "there is a deposit of him all over the landscape where he has lived."
As we have learned, Mr. Burroughs seems to have been more alive than his brothers and playmates, to have had wider interests and activities. When, a lad, he saw his first warbler in the "Deacon Woods," the black-throated blue-back, he was excited and curious as to what the strange bird could be (so like a visitant from another clime it seemed); the other boys met his queries with indifference, but for him it was the event of the day; it was far more, it was the keynote to all his days; it opened his eyes to the life about him—here, right in the "Deacon Woods," were such exquisite creatures! It fired him with a desire to find out about them. That tiny flitting warbler! How far its little wings have carried it! What an influence it has had on American literature, and on the lives of readers for the past fifty years, sending them to nature, opening their eyes to the beauty that is common and near at hand! One feels like thanking the Giver of all good that a little barefoot boy noted the warbler that spring day as it flitted about in the beeches wood. Life has been sweeter and richer because of it.
Down the road a piece is the place where this boy made a miniature sawmill, sawing cucumbers for logs. On this very rock where we sit he used to catch the flying grasshoppers early of an August morning—"the big brown fellows that fly like birds"; they would congregate here during the night to avail themselves of the warmth of the rocks, and here he would stop on his way from driving the cows to pasture, and catch them napping.
Yonder in the field by a stone wall, under a maple which is no longer standing, in his early twenties he read Schlemiel's "Philosophy of History," one of the volumes which, when a youth, he had found in an old bookstall in New York, on the occasion of his first trip there.
"Off there through what we used to call the 'Long Woods' lies the road along which Father used to travel in the autumn when he took his butter to Catskill, fifty miles away. Each boy went in turn. When it came my turn to go, I was in a great state of excitement for a week beforehand, for fear my clothes would not be ready, or else it would be too cold, or that the world would come to an end before the time of starting. Perched high on a spring-seat, I made the journey and saw more sights and wonders than I have ever seen on a journey since."
On the drive up from the village he showed me the place, a mile or more from their haunts on the breezy mountain lands, where the sheep were driven annually to be washed. It was a deep pool then, and a gristmill stood near by. He said he could see now the huddled sheep, and the overhanging rocks with the phoebes' nests in the crevices.
"Down in the Hollow," as they call the village of Robbery, he drew my attention to the building which was once the old academy, and where he had his dream of going to school. He remembers as a lad of thirteen going down to the village one evening to hear a man, McLaurie, talk up the academy before there was one in Roxbury. "I remember it as if it were yesterday; a few of the leading men of the village were there. I was the only boy. I've wondered since what possessed me to go. In his talk the man spoke of what a blessing it would be to boys of that vicinity, pointing me out and saying, 'Now, like that boy, there.' I recall how I dropped my head and blushed. He was a small man, very much in earnest. When I heard of his death a few years ago, it gave me long, long thoughts. He finally got the academy going, taught it, and had a successful school there for several years, but I never got there. The school in the West Settlement, Father thought, was good enough for me. But my desire to go, and dreaming of it, impressed it and him upon me more, perhaps, than the boys who really went were impressed. How outside of it all I felt when I used to go down there to the school exhibitions! It was after that that I had my dream of going to Harpersfield Seminary—the very name had a romantic sound. Though Father had promised me I might go, when the time came he couldn't afford it; he didn't mean to go back on his word, but there was very little money—I wonder how they got along so well as they did with so little."
"As a boy it had been instilled into my mind that God would strike one dead for mocking him. One day Ras Jenkins and I were crossing this field when it began to thunder. Ras turned up his lips to the clouds contemptuously. 'Oh, don't, you'll be struck,' I cried, cringing in expectation of the avenging thunderbolt. What a revelation it was when he was not struck! I immediately began to think, 'Now, maybe God isn't so easily offended as I thought'; but it seemed to me any God with dignity ought to have been offended by such an act."
Mr. Burroughs showed me the old rosebush in the pasture, all that was left to mark the site where a house had once stood; even before his boyhood days this house had become a thing of the past. The roses, though, had always been a joy to him, and had played such a part in his early days that he had transplanted some of the old bush to a spot near his doorsteps at Slabsides. Once when he sent me some of the roses he wrote of them thus: "The roses of my boyhood! Take the first barefooted country lad you see with homemade linen trousers and shirt, and ragged straw hat, and put some of these roses in his hand, and you see me as I was fifty-five years ago. They are the identical roses, mind you. Sometime I will show you the bush in the old pasture where they grew."
One day we followed the course he and his brothers and sisters used to take on their way to school. Leaving the highway near the old graveyard, we went down across a meadow, then through a beech wood, and on through the pastures in the valley along which a trout brook used to flow, on across more meadows and past where a neglected orchard was, till we came to where the little old schoolhouse itself stood.
How these trout streams used to lure him to play hookey! All the summer noonings, too, were spent there. He spoke feelingly of the one that coursed through the hemlocks—"loitering, log-impeded, losing itself in the dusky, fragrant depths of the hemlocks." They used to play hookey down at Stratton Falls, too, and get the green streaks in the old red sandstone rocks to make slate pencils of, trying them on their teeth to make sure they were soft enough not to scratch their slates. The woods have been greatly mutilated in which they used to loiter on the way to school and gather crinkle-root to eat with their lunches,—though they usually ate it all up before lunch-time came, he said. In one of his books Mr. Burroughs speaks of a schoolmate who, when dying, said, "I must hurry, I have a long way to go over a hill and through a wood, and it is getting dark." This was his brother Wilson, and he doubtless had in mind this very course they used to take in going to school.
This school (where Jay Gould was his playmate) he attended only until he was twelve years of age. A rather curious reciprocal help these two lads gave each other—especially curious in the light of their subsequent careers as writer and financier. The boy John Burroughs was one day feeling very uncomfortable because he could not furnish a composition required of him. Eight lines only were sufficient if the task was completed on time, but the time was up and no line was written. This meant being kept after school to write twelve lines. In this extremity. Jay Gould came to his rescue with the following doggerel:—
"Time is flying past, Night is coming fast, I, minus two, as you all know, But what is more I must hand o'er Twelve lines by night, Or stay and write. Just eight I've got But you know that's not Enough lacking four, But to have twelve It wants no more."
"I have never been able to make out what the third line meant," said Mr. Burroughs. A few years later, when Jay Gould was hard up (he had left school and was making a map of Delaware County), John Burroughs helped him out by buying two old books of him, paying him eighty cents. The books were a German grammar and Gray's "Elements of Geology." The embryo financier was glad to get the cash, and the embryo writer unquestionably felt the richer in possessing the books.
Mr. Burroughs loves to look off toward Montgomery Hollow and talk of the old haunt. "I've taken many a fine string of trout from that stream," he would say. One day he and his brother Curtis and I drove over there and fished the stream, and he could hardly stay in the wagon the last half-mile. "Isn't it time to get out now, Curtis?" he fidgeted every little while. "Not yet, John,—not yet," said the more phlegmatic brother. But it was August, and although the rapid mountain brook seemed just the place for trout, the trout were not in their places. I shall long remember the enticing stream, the pretty cascades, the high shelving rocks sheltering the mossy nest of the phoebe, and the glowing masses of bee-balm blooming beside the stream; yes, and the eagerness of one of the fishermen as he slipped along ahead of me, dropping his hook into the pools. Occasionally he would relinquish the rod, putting it into my hands with a rare self-denial as we came to a promising pool; but I was more deft at gathering bee-balm than taking trout, and willingly spared the rod to the eager angler. And even he secured only two troutling to carry back in his mint-lined creel.
"Trout streams gurgled about the roots of my family tree," he was wont to say as he told of his grandfather Kelly's ardor for the pastime. One day, in crossing the fields near the old home, he showed me the stone wall where he and his grandfather tarried the last time they went fishing together, he a boy of ten and his grandfather past eighty. As they rested on the wall, the old man, without noticing it, sat on the lad's hand as it lay on the wall. "It hurt," Mr. Burroughs said, "but I didn't move till he got ready to get up."
It was a great pleasure to go through the old sap bush with Mr. Burroughs, for there he always lives over again the days in early spring when sugar-making was in progress. He showed where some of the old trees once stood,—the grandmother trees,—and mourned that they were no more; but some of the mighty maples of his boyhood are still standing, and each recalls youthful experiences. He sometimes goes back there now in early spring to re-create the idyllic days. Their ways of boiling sap are different now, and he finds less poetry in the process. But the look of the old trees, the laugh of the robins, and the soft nasal calls of the nuthatch, he says, are the same as in the old times. "How these sounds ignore the years!" he exclaimed as a nuthatch piped in the near-by trees.
Sometimes he would bring over to Woodchuck Lodge from the homestead a cake of maple sugar from the veteran trees, and some of the maple-sugar cookies such as his mother used to make; though he eats sparingly of sweets nowadays. Yet, when he and a small boy would clear the table and take the food down cellar, it was no uncommon thing to see them emerge from the stairway, each munching one of those fat cookies, their eyes twinkling at the thought that they had found the forbidden sweets we had hidden so carefully.
He and this lad of eleven were great chums; they chased wild bees together, putting honey on the stone wall, getting a line on the bees; shelled beechnuts and cracked butternuts for the chipmunks; caught skunks in a trap, just to demonstrate that a skunk can be carried by the tail with impunity, if you only do it right (and, though succeeding one day, got the worst of the bargain the next); and waged war early and late on the flabby woodchucks which one could see almost any hour in the day undulating across the fields. We called these boys "John of Woods," and "John of Woodchucks"; and it was sometimes difficult to say which was the veriest boy, the one of eleven or the one of seventy-four.
One morning I heard them laughing gleefully together as they were doing up the breakfast work. Calling out to learn the cause of their merriment, I found the elder John had forgotten to eat his egg—he had just found it in his coat-pocket, having put it in there to carry from the kitchen to the living-room.
He often amused us by his recital of Thackeray's absurd "Little Billee," and by the application of some of the lines to events in the life at Woodchuck Lodge.
(Illustration of Living-Room, Woodchuck Lodge, with Rustic Furniture made by Mr. Burroughs. From a photograph by M. H. Fanning)
As the evenings grew longer and cooler, we would gather about the table and Mr. Burroughs would read aloud, sometimes from Bergson's "Creative Evolution," under the spell of which he was the entire summer of 1911, sometimes from Wordsworth, sometimes from Whitman. "No other English poet has touched me quite so closely," he said, "as Wordsworth.... But his poetry has more the character of a message, and a message special and personal, to a comparatively small circle of readers." As he read "The Poet's Epitaph" one evening, I was impressed with the strong likeness the portrait there drawn has to Mr. Burroughs:—
"The outward shows of sky and earth, Of hill and valley, he has viewed; And impulses of deeper birth Have come to him in solitude.
In common things that round us lie Some random truths he can impart,— The harvest of a quiet eye That broods and sleeps on his own heart."
What are the books, and notably the later philosophical essays, of Mr. Burroughs but the "harvest of a quiet eye"? His "Summit of the Years," his "Gospel of Nature" (which one of his friends calls "The Gospel according to Saint John"), his "Noon of Science," his "Long Road"? And most of this rich harvest he has gathered in his journeys back to Pepacton, inspired by the scenes amid which he first felt the desire to write.
Seeing him daily in these scenes, one feels that it may, indeed, be said of him as Matthew Arnold said of Sophocles, that he sees life steadily, and sees it whole. What a masterly handling is his of the facts of the universe, giving his reader the truths of the scientist touched with an idealism such as is only known to the poet's soul! A friend, writing me of "The Summit of the Years," spoke of "its splendid ascent by a rapid crescendo from the personal to the cosmic," and of how gratifying it is to see our author putting forth such fine work in his advancing years. Another friend called it "a beautiful record of a beautiful life." I recall the September morning on which he began that essay. He had written the first sentence—"The longer I live, the more I am impressed with the beauty and the wonder of the world"—when he was interrupted for a time. He spoke of what he had written, and said he hardly knew what he was going to make of it. Later in the day he brought me a large part of the essay to copy, and I remember how moved I was at its beauty, how grateful that I had been present at its inception and birth.
One afternoon he called us from our separate work, the artist from her canvas and me from my typewriter, to look at a wonderful rainbow spanning the wide valley below us. The next day he brought me a short manuscript saying, "If that seems worth while to you, you may copy it—I don't know whether there is anything in it or not." It was "The Rainbow," which appeared some months later in a popular magazine—a little gem, and a good illustration of his ability to throw the witchery of the ideal around the facts of nature. The lad with us had been learning Wordsworth's "Rainbow," a favorite of Mr. Burroughs, and it was no unusual thing of a morning to hear the rustic philosopher while frying the bacon for breakfast, singing contentedly in a sort of tune of his own making:—
"And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety."
One afternoon a neighbor came and took him in her automobile a ride of fifty miles or more, the objective point of which was Ashland, the place where he had attended a seminary in 1854 and 1855. On his return he said it seemed like wizard's work that he could be whisked there and back in one afternoon, to that place which had been the goal of his youthful dreams! They had also called on a schoolmate whom he had not seen for forty years. He told us how a possession of that boy's had been a thing he had coveted for many months—a slate pencil with a shining copper gun-cap! "How I longed for that pencil! I tried to trade for buttons (all I had to offer in exchange), but it was too precious for my small barter, and I coveted it in vain." The wistful Celt began early to sigh for the unattainable.
We picked wild strawberries in June from the "clover lot" where the boy John Burroughs and his mother used to pick them. "I can see her now," he said reminiscently, "her bent figure moving slowly in the summer fields toward home with her basket filled. She would also go berrying on Old Clump, in early haying, long after the berries were gone in the lowlands."
During this summer of which I speak, the fields were a gorgeous mass of color—buttercups and daisies, and the orange hawkweed—a display that rivaled the carpet of gold and purple we had seen in the San Joaquin Valley, in company with John Muir three summers before. Mr. Muir was done before starting for South America. He had promised to come to the Catskills, but had to keep putting it off to get copy ready, and the Laird of Woodchuck Lodge was exasperated that the mountaineer would stay in that hot Babylon,—he, the lover of the wild,—when we in the Delectable Mountains were calling him hither. As we looked upon the riot of color one day, Mr. Burroughs said, "John Muir, confound him! I wish he was here to see this at its height!"
Returning to the little gray farmhouse in the gathering dusk one late September day, Mr. Burroughs paused and turned, looking back at the old home, and up at the cattle silhouetted against the horizon. He gazed upon the landscape long and long. How fondly his eye dwells upon these scenes! So I have seen him look when about to part from a friend—as if he were trying to fix the features and expression in his mind forever.
"The older one grows, the more the later years erode away, as do the secondary rocks, and one gets down to bed-rock,—youth,—and there he wants to rest. These scenes make youth and all the early life real to me, the rest is more like a dream. How incredible it is!—all that is gone; but here it lives again."
(Illustration of On the Porch at Woodchuck Lodge. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
And yet, though he is face to face with the past at his old home, his days there are not so sad as some of his reminiscent talk would seem to indicate. In truth, he is serenely content, so much so that he sometimes almost chides himself for living so much in the present. "Oh, the power of a living reality to veil or blot out the Past!" he sighed. "And yet, is it not best so? Does not the grass grow above graves? Why should these lovely scenes always be a cemetery to me? There seems to have been a spell put upon them that has laid the ghosts, and I am glad." And to see him bird-nesting with his grandchildren, hunting in the woods for crooked sticks for his rustic furniture, waking the echo in the "new barn" (a barn that was new in 1844), routing out a woodchuck from a stone wall, blackberrying on the steep hillsides, or going a half-mile across the fields just to smell the fragrance of the buckwheat bloom, is to know that, wistful Celt that he is, and dominated by the spell of the Past, he is yet very much alive to the Present, out of which he is probably getting as full a measure of content as any man living to-day.
He looked about him at the close of his first stay at Woodchuck Lodge after the completion of the repairs which had made the house so homelike and comfortable, and said contentedly: "A beautiful dream come true! And to think I've stayed down there on the Hudson all these years with never the home feeling, when here were my native hills waiting to cradle me as they did in my youth, and I so slow to return to them! I've been homesick for over forty years: I was an alien there; I couldn't take root there. It was a lucky day when I decided to spend the rest of my summers here"
CAMPING WITH BURROUGHS AND MUIR
In February, 1909, I was one of a small party which set out with Mr. Burroughs for the Pacific Coast and the Hawaiian Islands. The lure held out to him by the friend who arranged his trip was that John Muir would start from his home at Martinez, California, and await him at the Petrified Forests in Arizona; conduct him through, that weirdly picturesque region, and in and around the Grand Canon of the Colorado; camp and tramp with him in the Mojave Desert; tarry awhile in Southern California; then visit Yosemite before embarking on the Pacific preparatory to lotus-eating in Hawaii. The lure held out to the more obscure members of the party was all that has been enumerated, plus that of having these two great, simple men for traveling companions. To see the wonders of the Southwest is in itself great good fortune, but to see them in company with these two students of nature, and to study the students while the students were studying the wonders, was an incalculable privilege.
It frightens me now when I think on what a slight chance hung our opportunity for this unique Journey; for Mr. Burroughs, though at first deciding to go, had later given it up, declaring himself to be too much of a tenderfoot to go so far from home alone at his age.
"Why should I go gadding about to see the strange and the extraordinary?" he wrote me, when trying to argue himself into abandoning the trip. "The whole gospel of my books (if they have any gospel) is 'Stay at home; see the wonderful and the beautiful in the simple things all about you; make the most of the common and the near at hand.' When I have gone abroad, I have carried this spirit with me, and have tested what I have seen by the nature revealed to me at my own doorstep. Well, I am glad I have triumphed at last; I feel much better and like writing again, now that this incubus is off my shoulders." But the incubus soon rested on him again, for the next mail carried a letter begging him to reconsider and let two of his women friends accompany him. So it all came about in a few days, and we were off.
We wondered how Mr. Muir would relish two women being in the party, but assured Mr. Burroughs we should not hamper them, and should be ready to do whatever they were.
"Have no fears on that score," he said; "Muir will be friendly if you are good listeners; and he is well worth listening to. He is very entertaining, but he sometimes talks when I want to be let alone; at least he did up in Alaska."
"But you won't be crusty to him, will you?"
"Oh, no, I shan't dare to be—he is too likely to get the best of one; he is a born tease."
The long journey across the Western States (by the Santa Fe route) was full of interest at every point. Even the monotony of the Middle West was not wearisome, while the scenery and scenes in New Mexico and Arizona were fascinating in the extreme.
Mr. Burroughs had been to the Far West by a northern route, but this was all fresh territory to him, and he brought to it his usual keen appetite for new phases of nature, made still keener by a recently awakened interest in geological subjects. It enhanced the pleasure and profit of the trip a hundredfold to get his first impressions of the moving panorama, as I did when he dictated notes to me from his diary, or descriptive letters to his wife and son. The impression one gets out there of earth sculpture in process is one of the chief attractions of the region, and Mr. Burroughs never tired of studying the physiognomy of the land, and the overwhelming evidences of time and change, and of contrasting these with our still older, maturer landscapes in the East.
In passing through Kansas he commented on the monotonous level expanse of country as being unbearable from any point of view except as good farm land. Used to hills and mountains, inviting brooks and winding roads, he turned away from this unpicturesque land, saying if it was a good place to make money, it was also a place to lose one's own soul—he was already homesick for the beauty and diversity of our more winsome country.
Two days' journey from Chicago and we reached the desert town of Adamana. As the train stopped near the little inn, a voice called out in the darkness, "Hello, Johnnie, is that you?"
"Yes, John Muir"; and there under the big dipper, on the great Arizona desert, the two friends met after a lapse of ten years.
"Muir, aren't you surprised to find me with two women in my wake?" asked Mr. Burroughs, introducing us.
"Yes; surprised that there are only two, Johnnie." Then to us, "Up in Alaska there were a dozen or two following him around, tucking him up in steamer rugs, putting pillows to his head, running to him with a flower, or a description of a bird—Oh, two is a very moderate number, Johnnie, but we'll manage to worry through with them, somehow." And picking up part of our luggage, the tall, grizzly Scot led the way to the inn.
The next day we drove nine miles over the rolling desert to visit one of the petrified forests, of which there are five in that vicinity. Blended with the unwonted scenes—the gray sands dotted with sagebrush and greasewood, the leaping jack rabbits, the frightened bands of half-wild horses, the distant buttes and mesas, and the brilliant blue of the Arizona sky—is the memory of that talk of Mr. Muir's during the long drive, a talk which for range and raciness I have never heard equaled. He often uses the broad dialect of the Scot, translating as he goes along. His forte is in monologue. He is a most engaging talker,—discursive, grave and gay,—mingling thrilling adventures, side-splitting anecdotes, choice quotations, apt characterizations, scientific data, enthusiastic descriptions, sarcastic comments, scornful denunciations, inimitable mimicry.
Mr. Burroughs, on the contrary, is not a ready talker; he gives of his best in his books. He establishes intimate relations with his reader, Mr. Muir with his listener. He is more fond of an interchange of ideas than is Mr. Muir; is not the least inclined to banter or to get the better of one; is so averse to witnessing discomfiture that even when forced into an argument, he is loath to push it to the bitter end. Yet when he does engage in argument, he drives things home with very telling force, especially when writing on debatable points.
As we drove along the desert, Mr. Muir pointed to a lofty plateau toward which we were tending,—"Robbers' Roost,"—where sheep-stealers hie themselves, commanding the view for hundreds of miles in every direction. I wish I could make vivid the panorama we saw from this vantage-ground—the desert in the foreground, and far away against the sky the curiously carved pink and purple and lilac mountains, while immediately below us lay the dry river-bed over which a gaunt raven flew and croaked ominously, and a little beyond rose the various buttes, mauve and terra-cotta colored, from whose sides and at whose bases projected the petrified trees. There lay the giant trees, straight and tapering—no branching as in our trees of to-day. The trunks are often flattened, as though they had been under great pressure, often the very bark seemed to be on them (though it was petrified bark), and on some we saw marks of insect tracery like those made by the borers of to-day. Some of the trunks were more than one hundred and fifty feet long, and five to seven feet in diameter, prostrate but intact, looking as though uprooted where they lay. Others were broken at regular intervals, as though sawed into stove lengths. In places the ground looks like a chip-yard, the chips dry and white as though bleached by the sun. The eye is deceived; chips these surely are, you think, but the ear corrects this impression, for as your feet strike the fragments, the clinking sound proves that they are stone. In some of the other forests, visited later, the chips and larger fragments, and the interior of the trunks, are gorgeously colored, so that we walked on a natural mosaic of jasper, chalcedony, onyx, and agate. In many fragments the cell-structure of the wood is still visible, but in others nature has carried the process further, and crystallization has transformed the wood of these old, old trees into the brilliant fragments we can have for the carrying—"beautiful wood replaced by beautiful stone," as Mr. Muir was fond of saying.
With what wonder and incredulity we roamed about witnessing the strange spectacle!—the prostrate monarchs with hearts of jasper and chalcedony, now silent and rigid in this desolate region where they basked in the sunlight and swayed in the winds millions of years ago. Only a small part of the old forest is as yet exposed; these trees, buried for ages beneath the early seas, becoming petrified as they lay, are, after ages more, gradually being unearthed as the softer parts of the soil covering them wears away.
The scenic aspects of the place, the powerful appeal it made to the imagination, the evidences of infinite time, the wonderful metamorphosis from vegetable life to these petrified remains which copy so faithfully the form and structure of the living trees, were powerfully enhanced by the sight of these two men wandering amid these ruins of Carboniferous time, sometimes in earnest conversation, oftener in silence; again in serious question from the one and perhaps bantering answer from the other; for although Mr. Burroughs was intensely interested in this spectacle, and full of cogitations and questions as to the cause and explanation of it all, Mr. Muir was not disposed to treat questions seriously.
"Oh, get a primer of geology, Johnnie," he would say when the earnest Eastern student would ask for a solution of some of the puzzles arising in his mind—a perversity that was especially annoying, since the Scot had carefully explored these regions, and was doubtless well equipped to adduce reasonable explanations had he been so minded. That very forest to which we went on that first day, and where we ate our luncheon from the trunk of a great petrified Sigillaria, had been discovered by Mr. Muir and his daughter a few years before as they were riding over the sandy plateau. He told us how excited he was that night—he could not sleep, but lay awake trying to restore the living forest in imagination, for, from the petrified remains, he could tell to what order these giants belonged.
When others congregate to eat, the Scot seems specially impelled to talk. With a fine disregard for food, he sat and crumbled dry bread, occasionally putting a bit in his mouth, talking while the eating was going on. He is likewise independent of sleep. "Sleep!" he would exclaim, when the rest of us, after a long day of sight-seeing, would have to yield to our sense of fatigue, "why, you can sleep when you get back home, or, at least, in the grave."
Mr. Burroughs, on the contrary, is specially dependent upon sleep and food in order to do his work or to enjoy anything. On our arrival at the Grand Canon in the morning, after a night of travel and fasting, all the rest of us felt the need of refreshing ourselves and taking breakfast before we would even take a peep at the great rose-purple abyss out there a few steps from the hotel, but the teasing Scot jeered at us for thinking of eating when there was that sublime spectacle to be seen. When we did go out to the rim, Mr. Muir preceded us, and, as we approached, waved toward the great abyss and said: "There! Empty your heads of all vanity, and look!" And we did look, overwhelmed by what must be the most truly sublime spectacle this earth has to offer—a veritable terrestrial Book of Revelation, as Mr. Burroughs said.
We followed a little path along the rim, led by Mr. Muir, to where we could escape from the other sight-seers, and there we sat on the rocks, though the snow lay in patches on the ground that bright February day. Mr. Burroughs made a fire of Juniper brush, and as the fragrant incense rose on the air, with that wondrous spectacle before our eyes, we listened to Mr. Muir reciting some lines from Milton—almost the only poet one would think of quoting in the presence of such solemn, awful beauty.
Mr. Muir tried to dissuade us the next day from going down into the canon: "Don't straddle a mule and poke your noses down to the ground, and plunge down that dangerous icy trail, imagining, because you get a few shivers down your backs, you are seeing the glories of the canon, or getting any conception of the noble river that made it. You must climb, climb, to see the glories, always." But when Mr. Burroughs would ask him where we could climb to, to see the canon, since under his guidance we had been brought to the very edge on the top, he did not deign to explain, but continued to deride the project of the descent into the depths—a way the dear man has of meeting an argument that is a bit annoying at times.
We did go down into the canon on mule-back,—down, down, over four thousand feet,—and the jeering Scot went with us, sitting his mule uncompromisingly, and indulging in many a jest at the expense of the terrified women who felt, when too late to retreat, that it would have been better to heed his advice. Still, after the descent, and then the ascent, were safely accomplished, we were glad we had not let him dissuade us. None of us can ever forget that day, with its rich and varied experiences, the mingled fear and awe and exultation, the overpowering emotions felt at each new revelation of the stupendous spectacle, often relieved by the lively sallies of Mr. Muir. We ate our luncheon on the old Cambrian plateau, the mighty Colorado, still a thousand feet below us, looking entirely inadequate to have accomplished the tremendous results we were witnessing.
One day at the canon, feeling acutely aware of our incalculable privilege, I said, "To think of having the Grand Canon, and John Burroughs and John Muir thrown in!"
"I wish Muir was thrown in, sometimes," retorted Mr. Burroughs, with a twinkle in his eye, "when he gets between me and the canon."
In contrast to Mr. Muir, the Wanderer, is Mr. Burroughs, the Home-lover, one who is under the spell of the near and the familiar. The scenes of his boyhood in the Catskills, the woods he wandered in about Washington during the years he dwelt there, his later tramping-ground along the Hudson—these are the scenes he has made his readers love because he has loved them so much himself; and however we may enjoy his journeyings in "Mellow England," in "Green Alaska," in Jamaica, or his philosophical or speculative essays, we find his stay-at-home things the best. And he likes the familiar scenes and things the best, much as he enjoyed the wonders that the great West offered. The robins in Yosemite Valley and the skylarks in the Hawaiian Islands, because these were a part of his earlier associations, did more to endear these places to him than did the wonders themselves. On Hawaii, where we saw the world's greatest active volcano throwing up its fountains of molten lava sixty or more feet high, the masses falling with a roar like that of the "husky-voiced sea," Mr. Burroughs found it difficult to understand why some of us were so fascinated that we wanted to stay all night, willing to endure the discomforts of a resting-place on lava rocks, occasional stifling gusts of sulphur fumes, dripping rain, and heat that scorched our veiled faces, so long as we could gaze on that boiling, tumbling, heaving, ever-changing lake of fire. Such wild, terrible, unfamiliar beauty could not long hold him under its spell.
(Illustration of John Muir and John Burroughs, Pasadena, California. From a photograph by George R. King)
A veritable homesickness came over him amid unfamiliar scenes. One day in early March, after journeying all day over the strange region of the California desert, with its giant cacti, its lava-beds, its volcanic cones, its rugged, barren mountains, its deep gorges and canons, its snow-capped peaks, on reaching San Bernardino, so green and fresh and smiling in the late afternoon sun, and riding through miles and miles of orange groves to Riverside, this return to a winsome nature (though unlike his own), after so much of the forbidding aspect had been before us, was to Mr. Burroughs like water brooks to the thirsty hart.
His abiding love for early friends, too, crops out on all occasions. Twice while away on this trip be received the proffer of honorary degrees from two of our American universities. Loath to accept such honors at any time, he was especially so now, and declined, defending himself by saying that the acceptance would have necessitated his hurrying straight home across the States to have the degrees conferred upon him, when he was planning to tarry in Iowa and see an old schoolmate.
"I didn't want to do it," he said petulantly; "I wanted to stop and see Sandy Smith"—his tone being not unlike what he would have used when as a boy he doubtless coaxed to "go out and play with Sandy."
Mr. Burroughs is too much a follower of the genuinely simple life to be long contented in hotels, however genial the hospitality. He declared the elegant suite at the Mission Inn at Riverside, which was tendered to him and his party in the most cordial, unobtrusive way, was too luxurious for a "Slabsider" like him. It was positively painful to him to be asked, as he was frequently on the Western and Hawaiian tour, to address audiences, or "just to come and meet the students" at various schools and colleges. Such meetings usually meant being "roped in" to making a speech, often in spite of assurances to the contrary. I have known him to slip away from a men's club early in the evening, before dinner was announced, and return to our little cottage in Pasadena, where he would munch contentedly an uncooked wafer, drink a cup of hot water, read a little geology, and go to bed at the seasonable hour of nine, the next morning awakening with a keen appetite for the new day, for his breakfast, and for his forenoon of work, whereas, had he stayed out till eleven or twelve, eaten a hearty dinner, and been stimulated and excited by much talk, he would have awakened without the joy in the morning which he has managed to carry through his seventy-six years, and which his readers, who rejoice in the freshness and tranquillity of his pages, hope he will keep till he reaches the end of the Long Road.
Mr. Muir is as averse to speaking in public as is Mr. Burroughs, much as he likes to talk. They both dislike the noise and confusion of cities, and what we ordinarily mean by social life. Mr. Burroughs is less an alien in cities than is Mr. Muir, yet, on the whole, he is more of a solitaire, more of a recluse. He avoids men where the other seeks them. He cannot deal or dicker with men, but the canny Scot can do this, if need be, and even enjoy it. Circumstances seem to have made Mr. Muir spend most of his years apart from his fellows, although by nature he is decidedly gregarious; circumstances seem to have decreed that Mr. Burroughs spend the greater part of his life among his fellow-men, though there is much of the hermit in his make-up.
Mr. Muir gets lost in cities—this man who can find his way on the trackless desert, the untrodden glaciers, and in the most remote and inaccessible mountain heights. He will never admit that his wanderings were lonely: "You can always have the best part of your friends with you," he said; "it is only when people cease to love that they are separated."
One Sunday in Pasadena we had planned to have a picnic up one of the canons, but the rain decreed otherwise. So, discarding tables and other appurtenances of life within doors, we picnicked on the floor of our sitting-room, making merry there with the luncheon we had prepared for the jaunt. While passing back and forth through the room in our preparations, we heard the men of the party talk in fragments, and amusing fragments they were. Once when Mr. Browne, the editor of the "Dial," was discussing some point in connection with the Spanish-American War, I heard Mr. Muir say, with a sigh of relief, "I was getting flowers up on the Tuolumne meadows then, and didn't have to bother about those questions." When another friend was criticizing Mr. Roosevelt for the reputed slaughter of so many animals in Africa, and Mr. Burroughs declared he did not credit half the things the papers said the hunter was doing, Mr. Muir said, half chidingly, half tolerantly, "Roosevelt, the muggins, I am afraid he is having a good time putting bullets through those friends of his." Now I had heard him call Mr. Burroughs "You muggins" in the same winning, endearing way he said "Johnnie"; I had heard him speak of a petrified tree in the Sigillaria forest as a "muggins"; of a bear that trespassed on his flowery domains in the Sierra meadows as a "muggins" that he tried to look out of countenance and failed; of a "comical little muggins of a daisy" that some one had named after him; and one day he had rejoiced my heart by dubbing me "You muggins, you"; and behold! here he was now applying the elastic term to our many-sided (I did not say "strenuous") ex-President! Later I heard him apply it to a Yosemite waterfall, and by then should not have been surprised to hear him speak of a mighty glacier, or a giant sequoia, as a "muggins."
"Stickeen," Mr. Muir's incomparable dog story, came out in book form while we were in Pasadena. I sent a copy to my brother, who wrote later asking me to inquire of Mr. Muir why he did not keep Stickeen after their perilous adventures together. So I put the question to him one day. "Keep him!" he ejaculated, as he straightened his back, and the derisive wrinkles appeared on one side of his nose; "keep him! he wasn't mine—I'm Scotch, I never steal." Then he explained that Stickeen's real master was attached to him; that he could not take him from him; and besides, the dog was accustomed to a cold climate, and would have been very unhappy in California. "Oh, no, I couldn't keep Stickeen," he said wistfully, but one felt that he had kept Stickeen, the best part of him, by immortalizing him in that story.
While we were housekeeping in Pasadena, Mr. Burroughs began writing on the Grand Canon. One morning, after having disposed of several untimely callers, he had finally settled down to work. We sat around the big table writing or reading. Mr. Burroughs was there in the body, but in spirit we could see he was at the "Divine Abyss," as he called the Canon. Once he read us a few sentences which were so good that I resolved we must try harder to prevent interruptions, that he might keep all his writing up to that standard. But while engaged in letter-writing, some point arose, and, forgetting my laudable resolution, I put a question to him. Answering me abstractedly, he went on with his writing. Then I realized how inexcusable it was to intrude my trivialities at such a time. Castigating myself and resolving anew, I wrote on in contrite silence. After a little Mr. Burroughs paused and lifted his head; his expression was puzzled, as though wrestling with some profound thought, or weighing some nicety of expression; I saw he was about to speak—perhaps to utter his latest impression concerning the glories of the Canon. As he opened his lips this is what we heard: "Couldn't we warm up those Saratoga chips for luncheon?" Whereupon it will be seen that the abyss he was then cogitating about was in the epigastric region, instead of in Arizona.
Mr. Muir likes a laugh at his own expense. He told us of a school-teacher in the vicinity of his home instructing her pupils about Alaska and the glaciers; and on telling them that the great Muir Glacier was named after their neighbor, who discovered it, one little boy piped up with, "What, not that old man that drives around in a buggy!"
I may as well offset this with one of our Hawaiian experiences. When we were in Honolulu, we heard that one of the teachers there, thinking to make a special impression upon her pupils, told them the main facts about Mr. Burroughs's writings, their scope and influence, what he stood for as a nature writer, his place in literature, and then described his appearance, and said, "And this noted man, this great nature lover, is right here—a guest in our city!" A little lad broke in with, "I know—I saw him yesterday—he was in our yard stealing mangoes."
One day, while still in Pasadena, I told Mr. Muir that on April 3d a few of us wished to celebrate Mr. Burroughs's birthday, his seventy-second, by a picnic up one of the Mount Lowe canons. He said it would be impossible for him to be with us on that day, as he had to go up to San Francisco. On my expressing keen disappointment he teasingly said:—"Why, you will have Johnnie, and Mr. Browne, and the mountains—what more do you want?"
"But we want you," I protested, assuring him that this was not a case where one could say,—
"How happy could I be with either, Were t'other dear Johnnie away!"
"Well, then, why can't you have it some other day?"
"Because he wasn't born some other day."
"But why must you be tied to the calendar? Can't you celebrate Johnnie's birthday a few days later just as well? Such a stickler for the exact date as you are, I never saw."
Thus he bantered, but when he had to leave us, we knew he was as disappointed as we all were that he could not be with us on that "exact date."
How he did enjoy hectoring us for our absurd mistake in not reading our long tickets through, consequently getting on the Santa Fe train to go up to San Francisco when a little coupon stated that the ticket took us by the Coast line. We were bound to let the Scot know of our mistake, and our necessary transfer to the other road (as we had arranged to meet him at a certain point on the Santa Fe), else, I suppose, we never should have given him that chance to jeer at us. He made us tell him all about it when we met, and shaking with laughter at all the complications the mistake entailed, he declared, "Oh, but that's a bully story!"
"It'll put an inch of fat on Muir's ribs," retorted "Oom John," who was not without chagrin at the fiasco.
"Johnnie, when you sail for Honolulu, I expect, unless you're narrowly watched, you'll get on the wrong ship and go off to Vancouver," teased the fun-loving Scot.
In Yosemite, Mr. Muir told us about the great trees he used to saw into timber during his early years in the valley, showing us the site of his old mill, and bragging that he built it and kept it in repair at a cost of less than twenty-five cents a year. It seemed strange that he, a tree-lover, could have cut down those noble spruces and firs, and I whispered this to Mr. Burroughs.
"Ask him about it," said the latter, "ask him." So I did.
"Bless you, I never cut down the trees—I only sawed those the Lord had felled."
The storms that swept down the mountains had laid these monarchs low, and the thrifty Scot had merely taken advantage of the ill winds, at the same time helping nature to get rid of the debris.
"How does this compare with Esopus Valley, Johnnie?" Mr. Muir was fond of asking Mr. Burroughs, when he saw the latter gazing in admiration at mighty El Capitan, or the thundering Yosemite Falls. Or he would say, "How is that for a piece of glacial work, Johnnie?" as he pointed to Half Dome and told how the glacier had worn off at least half a mile from its top, and then had sawed right down through the valley.
"O Lord! that's too much, Muir," answered Mr. Burroughs. He declared that it stuck in his crop—this theory that ice alone accounts for this great valley cut out of the solid rocks. When the Scot would get to riding his ice-hobby too hard, Mr. Burroughs would query, "But, Muir, the million years before the ice age—what was going on here then?'
"Oh, God knows," said Mr. Muir, but vouchsafed no further explanation.
(Illustration of John Burroughs and John Muir in the Yosemite. From a photograph by F. P. Clatworthy)
"With my itch for geology," said Mr. Burroughs, "I want it scratched all the time, and Muir doesn't want to scratch it." So he dropped his questions, which elicited only bantering answers from the mountaineer, and gave himself up to sheer admiration of the glories and beauties of the region, declaring that of all the elemental scenes he had beheld, Yosemite beat them all—"The perpetual thunder peal of the waters dashing like mad over gigantic cliffs, the elemental granite rocks—it is a veritable 'wreck of matter and crush of worlds' that we see here."
Mr. Burroughs urged Mr. Muir again and again to reclaim his early studies in the Sierra which were printed in the "Overland Monthly" years ago, and give them to the public now with the digested information which he alone can supply, and which is as yet inaccessible in his voluminous notes and sketches of the region. At Mr. Muir's home we saw literally barrels of these notes. He admitted that he had always been dilatory about writing, but not about studying or note-taking; often making notes at night when fatigued from climbing and from two and three days' fasting; but the putting of them into literature is irksome to him. Yet, much as he dislikes the labor of writing, he will shut himself away from the air and sunshine for weeks at a time, if need arises, and write vigorously in behalf of the preservation of our forests. He did this back in the late seventies, and in more recent years has been tireless in his efforts to secure protection to our noble forests when danger has threatened them.
Mr. Muir's knowledge of the physiognomy and botany of most of the countries of the globe is extensive, and he has recently added South America and South Africa to his list; there is probably no man living, and but few who have lived, so thoroughly conversant with the effects of glaciation as is he; yet, unless he puts his observations into writing, much of his intimate knowledge of these things must be lost when he passes on. And, as Mr. Burroughs says, "The world wants this knowledge seasoned with John Muir, not his mere facts. He could accumulate enough notes to fill Yosemite, yet that would be worth little. He has spent years studying and sketching the rocks, and noting facts about them, but you can't reconstruct beauty and sublimity out of mere notes and sketches. He must work his harvest into bread." But concerning this writing Mr. Muir confesses he feels the hopelessness of giving his readers anything but crumbs from the great table God has spread: "I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast."
Here we see the marked contrast between these two nature students: Mr. Muir talks because he can't help it, and his talk is good literature; he writes only because he has to, on occasion; while Mr. Burroughs writes because he can't help it, and talks when he can't get out of it. Mr. Muir, the Wanderer, needs a continent to roam in; while Mr. Burroughs, the Saunterer, needs only a neighborhood or a farm. The Wanderer is content to scale mountains; the Saunterer really climbs the mountain after he gets home, as he makes it truly his own only by dreaming over it and writing about it. The Wanderer finds writing irksome; the Saunterer is never so well or so happy as when he can write; his food nourishes him better, the atmosphere is sweeter, the days are brighter. The Wanderer has gathered his harvest from wide fields, just for the gathering; he has not threshed it out and put it into the bread of literature—only a few loaves; the Saunterer has gathered his harvest from a rather circumscribed field, but has threshed it out to the last sheaf; has made many loaves; and it is because he himself so enjoys writing that his readers find such joy and morning freshness in his books, his own joy being communicated to his reader, as Mr. Muir's own enthusiasm is communicated to his hearer. With Mr. Burroughs, if his field of observation is closely gleaned, he turns aside into subjective fields and philosophizes—a thing which Mr. Muir never does.
One of the striking things about Mr. Muir is his generosity; and though so poor in his youth and early adult life, he has now the wherewithal to be generous. His years of frugality have, strange to say, made him feel a certain contempt for money. At El Tovar he asked, "What boy brought up my bags?" Whereupon a string of bell-boys promptly appeared for their fees, and Mr. Muir handed out tips to all the waiting lads, saying in a droll way, "I didn't know I had so many bags." When we tried to reimburse him for the Yosemite trip, he would have none of it, saying, almost peevishly, "Now don't annoy me about that." Yet, if he thinks one is trying to get the best of him, he can look after the shekels as well as any one. One day in Yosemite when we were to go for an all day's tramp and wished a luncheon prepared at the hotel, on learning of the price they were to charge, he turned his back on the landlord and dispatched one of us to the little store, where, for little more than the hotel would have charged for one person, a luncheon for five was procured, and then he really chuckled that he had been able to snap his fingers at mine host, who had thought he had us at his mercy.
I see I have kept Mr. Muir close to the footlights most of the time, allowing Mr. Burroughs to hover in the background where he blends with the neutral tones; but so it was in all the thrilling scenes in the Western drama—Mr. Muir and the desert, Mr. Muir and the petrified trees, Mr. Muir and the canon, Mr. Muir and Yosemite; while with "Oom John," it was a blending with the scene, a quiet, brooding absorption that made him seem a part of them—the desert, the petrified trees, the Grand Canon, Yosemite, and Mr. Burroughs inseparably linked with them, but seldom standing out in sharp contrast to them, as the "Beloved Egotist" stood out on all occasions.
Perhaps the most idyllic of all our days of camping and tramping with John of Birds and John of Mountains was the day in Yosemite when we tramped to Nevada and Vernal Falls, a distance of fourteen miles, returning to Camp Ahwahnee at night, weary almost to exhaustion, but strangely uplifted by the beauty and sublimity n which we had lived and moved and had our being. Our brown tents stood hospitably open, and out in the great open space in front we sat around the campfire under the noble spruces and firs, the Merced flowing softly on our right, mighty Yosemite Falls thundering away in the distance, while the moon rose over Sentinel Rock, lending a touch of ineffable beauty to the scene, and a voice, that is now forever silenced, lent to the rhymes of the poets its richness of varied emotion, as it chanted choicest selections from the Golden Poems of all time. We lingered long after the other campers had gone to rest, loath to bring to its close a day so replete with sublimity and beauty. Mr. Burroughs summed it up as he said good-night: "A day with the gods of eld—a holy day in the temple of the gods."
JOHN BURROUGHS: AN APPRECIATION
"John is making an impression on his age—has come to stay—has veritable, indisputable, dynamic gifts," Walt Whitman said familiarly to a friend in 1888, in commenting on our subject's place in literature. And of a letter written to him by Mr. Burroughs that same year he said: "It is a June letter, worthy of June; written in John's best outdoor mood. Why, it gets into your blood, and makes you feel worth while. I sit here, helpless as I am, and breathe it in like fresh air."
Minot Savage once asked in a sermon if it did not occur to his hearers that John Burroughs gets a little more of June than the rest of us do, and added that Mr. Burroughs had paid years of consecration of thought and patient study of the lives of birds and flowers, and so had bought the right to take June and all that it means into his brain and heart and life; and that if the rest of us wish these joys, we must purchase them on the same terms. We are often led to ask what month he has not taken into his heart and life, and given out again in his writings. Perhaps most of all he has taken April into his heart, as his essay on it in "Birds and Poets" will show:—
How it (April) touches one and makes him both glad and sad! The voices of the arriving birds, the migrating fowls, the clouds of pigeons sweeping across the sky or filling the woods, the elfin horn of the first honey-bee venturing abroad in the middle of the day, the clear piping of the little frogs in the marshes at sundown, the camp-fire in the sugar-bush, the smoke seen afar rising over the trees, the tinge of green that comes so suddenly on the sunny knolls and slopes, the full translucent streams, the waxing and warming sun,—how these things and others like them are noted by the eager eye and ear! April is my natal month, and I am born again into new delight and new surprises at each return of it. Its name has an indescribable charm to me. Its two syllables are like the calls of the first birds,—like that of the phoebe-bird, or of the meadowlark.
But why continue? The whole essay breathes of swelling buds, springing grass, calls of birds, April flowers, April odors, and April's uncloying freshness and charm. As we realize what the returning spring brings to this writer, we say with Bliss Carman:—
"Make (him) over. Mother April, When the sap begins to stir."
I fancy there are many of his readers who will echo what one of his friends has said to him: "For me the 3d of April will ever stand apart in the calendar with a poignant beauty and sweetness because it is your birthday. It is the keynote to which the whole springtime music is set." Or another: "If April 3d comes in like any other day, please understand that it will be because she does not dare to show how glad she is over her own doings." On another birthday, the same correspondent says: "I find that you are so inwoven with the spring-time that I shall never again be able to resolve the season into its elements. But I am the richer for it. I feel a sort of compassion for one who has never seen the spring through your eyes."
Mr. Burroughs puts his reader into close and sympathetic communion with the open-air world as no other literary naturalist has done. Gilbert White reported with painstaking fidelity the natural history of Selborne; Thoreau gave Thoreau with glimpses of nature thrown in; Richard Jefferies, in dreamy, introspective descriptions of rare beauty and delicacy, portrayed his own mystical impressions of nature; but Mr. Burroughs takes us with him to the homes and haunts of the wild creatures, sets us down in their midst, and lets us see and hear and feel just what is going on. We read his books and echo Whitman's verdict on them: "They take me outdoors! God bless outdoors!" And since God has blessed outdoors, we say, "God bless John Burroughs for taking us out of doors with him!"
Our writer never prates about nature, telling us to look and admire. He loves the common, everyday life about him, sees it more intimately than you or I see it, and tells about it so simply and clearly that he begets a like feeling in his reader. It was enjoined of the early Puritans "to walke honestlie in the sweete fields and woodes." How well our friend has obeyed this injunction!
And what an unobtrusive lover he is! Although it is through him that his mistress stands revealed, it is not until we look closely that we spy her adorer in the background, intent only on unveiling her charms. How does he do this? First by succumbing himself—Nature's graces, her inconsistencies, even her objectionable traits appeal to him. Like the true lover, he is captivated by each of her phases, and surrenders himself without reserve. Such homage makes him the recipient of her choicest treasures, her most adorable revelations.
(Illustration of Mr. Burroughs sitting for a Statuette. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)
I have mentioned Gilbert White's contributions to the literature about nature: one must admire the man's untiring enthusiasm, but his book is mainly a storehouse of facts; how rarely does he invest the facts with charm! To pry into nature's secrets and conscientiously report them seems to be the aim of the English parson; but we get so little of the parson himself. What were his feelings about all these things he has been at such pains to record? The things themselves are not enough. It is not alluring to be told soberly:—
Hedge-hogs abound in my garden and fields. The manner in which they eat the roots of the plaintain in the grass walk is very curious; with their upper mandible, which is much larger than the lower, they bore under the plant, and so eat the root off upward, leaving the tuft of leaves untouched.
And so on. By way of contrast, see how Mr. Burroughs treats a similar subject. After describing the porcupine, mingling description and human encounter, thereby enlisting the reader's interest, he says:—
In what a peevish, injured tone the creature did complain of our unfair tactics! He protested and protested, and whimpered and scolded like some infirm old man tormented by boys. His game after we led him forth was to keep himself as much as possible in the shape of a ball, but with two sticks and the cord we finally threw him over on his back and exposed his quill-less and vulnerable under side, when he fairly surrendered and seemed to say, "Now you may do with me as you like."
Here one gets the porcupine and Mr. Burroughs too.
Thoreau keeps his reader at arm's length, invites and repels at the same time, piques one by his spiciness, and exasperates by his opinionatedness. You want to see his bean-field, but know you would be an intruder. He might even tell you to your face that he was happiest the mornings when nobody called. He likes to advise and berate, but at long range. Speaking of these two writers, Whitman once said, "Outdoors taught Burroughs gentle things about men—it had no such effect upon Thoreau."
Richard Jefferies appeals to lovers of nature and lovers of literature as well. He has the poet's eye and is a sympathetic spectator, but seldom gives one much to carry away. His descriptions, musical as they are, barely escape being wearisome at times. In his "Pageant of Summer" he babbles prettily of green fields, but it is a long, long summer and one is hardly sorry to see its close. In some of his writings he affects one unpleasantly, gives an uncanny feeling; one divines the invalid as well as the mystic back of them; there is a hectic flush, perhaps a neurotic taint. Beautiful, yes, but not the beauty of health and sanity. It is the same indescribable feeling I get in reading that pathetically beautiful book, "The Road-Mender," by "Michael Fairless"—the gleam of the White Gate is seen all along the Road, though the writer strives so bravely to keep it hidden till it must open to let him pass. One of the purest gems of Jefferies—"Hours of Spring"—has a pathos and haunting melody of compelling poignancy. It is like a white violet or a hepatica.
But with Mr. Burroughs we feel how preeminently sane and healthy he is. His essays have the perennial charm of the mountain brooks that flow down the hills and through the fertile valleys of his Catskill home. They are redolent of the soil, of leaf mould, of the good brown earth. His art pierces through our habitual indifference to Nature and kindles our interest in, not her beauty alone, but in her rugged, uncouth, and democratic qualities.
Like the true walker that he describes, he himself "is not merely a spectator of the panorama of nature, but is a participator in it. He experiences the country he passes through,—tastes it, feels it, absorbs it." Let us try this writer by his own test. He says: "When one tries to report nature he has to remember that every object has a history which involves its surroundings, and that the depth of the interest which it awakens in us is in the proportion that its integrity in this respect is preserved." He must, as we know Mr. Burroughs does, bring home the river and the sky when he brings home the sparrow that he finds singing at dawn on the alder bough; must make us see and hear the bird on the bough, and this is worth a whole museum of stuffed and labeled specimens. To do this requires a peculiar gift, one which our essayist has to an unusual degree—an imagination that goes straight to the heart of whatever he writes about, combined with a verbal magic that re-creates what he has seen. Things are felicitously seen by Mr. Burroughs, and then felicitously said. A dainty bit in Sidney's "Apologie for Poetrie" seems to me aptly to characterize our author's prose: "The uttering sweetly and properly the conceits of the minde, which is the end of speech."
One can pick out at random from his books innumerable poetic conceits; the closed gentian is the "nun among flowers"; a patch of fringed polygalas resembles a "flock of rose-purple butterflies" alighted on the ground; the male and female flowers of the early everlasting are "found separated from each other in well-defined groups, like men and women in an old-fashioned country church"; "the note of the pewee is a human sigh"; the bloodroot—"a full-blown flower with a young one folded in a leaf beneath it, only the bud emerging, like the head of a papoose protruding from its mother's blanket." Speaking of the wild orchids known as "lady's-slippers," see the inimitable way in which he puts you on the spot where they grow: "Most of the floral ladies leave their slippers in swampy places in the woods, only the stemless one (Cypripedium acaule) leaves hers on dry ground before she reaches the swamp, commonly under evergreen trees where the carpet of pine needles will not hurt her feet." Almost always he invests his descriptions with some human touch that gives them rare charm—nature and human nature blended—if it is merely the coming upon a red clover in England—
"The first red clover head just bloomed... but like the people I meet, it has a ruddier cheek than those at home."
When we ask ourselves what it is that makes his essays so engaging, we conclude it is largely due to their lucidity, spontaneity, and large simplicity—qualities which make up a style original, fresh, convincing. His writing, whether about nature, literature, science, or philosophy, is always suggestive, potent, pithy; his humor is delicious; he says things in a crisp, often racy, way. Yet what a sense of leisureliness one has in reading him, as well as a sense of companionability!
What distinguishes him most, perhaps, is his vivid and poetic apprehension of the mere fact. He never flings dry facts at us, but facts are always his inspiration. He never seeks to go behind them, and seldom to use them as symbols, as does Thoreau. Thoreau preaches and teaches always; Mr. Burroughs, never. The facts themselves fill him with wonder and delight—a wonder and delight his reader shares. The seasons, the life of the birds and the animals, the face of nature, the ever new, the ever common day—all kindle his enthusiasm and refresh his soul. The witchery of the ideal is upon his page without doubt, but he will not pervert natural history one jot or tittle for the sake of making a pretty story. His whole aim is to invest the fact with living interest without in the least lessening its value as a fact. He does not deceive himself by what he wants to be true; the scientist in him is always holding the poet in check. Of all contemporary writers in this field, he is the one upon whom we can always depend to be intellectually honest. He has an abiding hankering after the true, the genuine, the real; cannot stand, and never could stand, any tampering with the truth. Had he been Cromwell's portrait painter, he would have delighted in his subject's injunction: "Paint me as I am, mole and all." And he would have made the mole interesting; he has done so, but that is a mole of another color.
This instinct for the truth being so strong in him, he knows it when he sees it in others; he detects its absence, too; and has no patience and scant mercy for those past-masters in the art of blinking facts,—those natural-history romancers who, realizing that "the crowd must have emphatic warrant," are not content with the infinite Variety of nature, but must needs spend their art in the wasteful and ridiculous excess of painting the lily, perfuming the violet, and giving to the rainbow an added hue. Accordingly, when one warps the truth to suit his purpose, especially in the realm of nature, he must expect this hater of shams to raise a warning voice—"Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing!" But he never cries "Wolf!" when there is no wolf, and he gives warm and generous praise to deserving ones.
It has surprised some of his readers, who know how kindly he is by nature, and how he shrinks from witnessing pain, in beast or man, much less inflicting it, to see his severity when nature is traduced—for he shows all the fight and fury and all the defense of the mother bird when her young are attacked. He won't suffer even a porcupine to be misrepresented without bristling up in its defense.
I have said that he never preaches, never seeks to give a moral twist to his observations of nature, but I recall a few instances where he does do a bit of moralizing; for example, when he speaks of the calmness and dignity of the hawk when attacked by crows or kingbirds: "He seldom deigns to notice his noisy and furious antagonist, but deliberately wheels about in that aerial spiral, and mounts and mounts till his pursuers grow dizzy and return to earth again. It is quite original, this mode of getting rid of an unworthy opponent—rising to heights where the braggart is dazed and bewildered and loses his reckoning! I'm not sure but it is worthy of imitation." Or, in writing of work on the farm, especially stone-fence making, he speaks of clearing the fields of the stones that are built into boundaries: "If there are ever sermons in stones, it is when they are built into a stone wall—turning your hindrances into helps, shielding your crops behind the obstacles to your husbandry, making the enemies of the plough stand guard over its products." But do we find such sermonizing irksome?
Just as "all architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it," so is all nature. Lovers of Nature muse and dream and invite their own souls. They interpret themselves, not Nature. She reflects their thoughts and minds, gives them, after all, only what they bring to her. And the writer who brings much—much of insight, of devotion, of sympathy—is sure to bring much away for his reader's delectation. Does not this account for the sense of intimacy which his reader has with the man, even before meeting him?—the feeling that if he ever does meet him, it will be as a friend, not as a stranger? And when one does meet him, and hears him speak, one almost invariably thinks: "He talks just as he writes." To read him after that is to hear the very tones of his voice.
We sometimes hear the expression, "English in shirt-sleeves," applied to objectionable English; but the phrase might be applied in a commendatory way to good English,—to the English of such a writer as Mr. Burroughs,—simple, forceful language, with homely, everyday expressions; English that shows the man to have been country-bred, albeit he has wandered from the home pastures to distant woods and pastures new, browsing in the fields of literature and philosophy, or wherever he has found pasturage to his taste. Or, to use a figure perhaps more in keeping with his main pursuits, he is one who has flocked with birds not of a like feather with those that shared with him the parent nest. Although his kin knew and cared little for the world's great books, he early learned to love them when he was roaming his native fields and absorbing unconsciously that from which he later reaped his harvest. It is to writers of this kind of "English in shirt-sleeves" that we return again and again. In them we see shirt-sleeves opposed to evening dress; naturalness, sturdiness, sun-tan, and open sky, opposed to the artificial, to tameness, constriction, and characterless conformity to prescribed customs.
Do we not turn to writers of the first class with eagerness, slaking our thirst, refreshing our minds at perennial springs? How are we glad that they lead us into green pastures and beside still waters, away from the crowded haunts of the conventional, and the respectably commonplace society garb of speech! What matter if occasionally one even gives a wholesome shock by daring to come into the drawing-room of our minds in his shirt-sleeves, his hands showing the grime of the soil, and his frame the strength that comes from battling with wind and weather? It is the same craving which makes us say with Richard Hovey:—
"I am sick of four walls and a ceiling; I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass."
But it will not do to carry this analogy too far in writing of Mr. Burroughs lest it be inferred that I regard the author's work as having in it something of the uncouth, or the ill-timed, or the uncultured. His writing is of the earth, but not of the earth earthy. He sees divine things underfoot as well as overhead. His page has the fertility of a well-cultivated pastoral region, the limpidness of a mountain brook, the music of our unstudied songsters, the elusive charm of the blue beyond the summer clouds; it has, at times, the ruggedness of a shelving rock, combined with the grace of its nodding columbines.
Mr. Burroughs has told us, in that June idyl of his, "Strawberries," that he was a famous berry-picker when a boy. It was with a peculiar pleasure that I wandered with him one midsummer day over the same meadows where he used to gather strawberries. My first introduction to him as a writer, many years before, had been in hearing this essay read. And since then never a year passes that I do not read it at least three times—once in winter just to bring June and summer near; once in spring when all outdoors gives promise of the fullness yet to be; and once in the radiant summer weather when daisies and clover and bobolinks and strawberries riot in one's blood, making one fairly mad to bury one's self in the June meadows and breathe the clover-scented air. And it always stands the test—the test of being read out in the daisy-flecked meadows with rollicking bobolinks overhead.
What quality is it, though, that so moves and stirs us when Mr. Burroughs recounts some of the simple happenings of his youth? What is it in his recitals that quickens our senses and perceptions and makes our own youth alive and real? It is paradise regained—the paradise of one's lost youth. Let this author describe his boyhood pastures, going 'cross lots to school, or to his favorite spring, whatsoever it is—is it the path that he took to the little red schoolhouse in the Catskills? Is it the spring near his father's sugar bush that we see? No. One is a child again, and in a different part of the State, with tamer scenery, but scenery endeared by early associations. The meadow you see is the one that lies before the house where you were born; you read of the boy John Burroughs jumping trout streams on his way to school, but see yourself and your playmates scrambling up a canal bank, running along the towpath, careful to keep on the land side of the towline that stretches from mules to boat, lest you be swept into the green, uninviting waters of the Erie. On you run with slate and books; you smell the fresh wood as you go through the lumber yard. Or, read another of his boyish excursions, and you find yourself on that first spring outing to a distant, low-lying meadow after "cowslips"; another, and you are trudging along with your brother after the cows, stopping to nibble spearmint, or pick buttercups by the way. Prosaic recollections, compared to spring paths and trout brooks in the Catskill valleys, yet this is what our author's writings do—re-create for each of us our own youth, with our own childhood scenes and experiences, invested with a glamour for us, however prosy they seem to others; and why? Because, though nature's aspects vary, the human heart is much the same the world over, and the writer who faithfully adds to his descriptions of nature his own emotional experiences arouses answering responses in the soul of his reader.
Perhaps the poet in Mr. Burroughs is nowhere more plainly seen than in his descriptions of bird life, yet how accurately he gives their salient points; he represents the bird as an object in natural history, but ah! how much more he gives! Imagine our bird-lover describing a bird as Ellery Channing described one, as something with "a few feathers, a hole at one end and a point at the other, and a pair of wings"! We see the bird Mr. Burroughs sees; we hear the one he hears. Long before I had the memorable experience of standing with him on the banks of the Willowemoc and listening at twilight to the slow, divine chant of the hermit thrush, I had heard it in my dreams, because of that inimitable description of its song in "Wake-Robin." It does, indeed, seem to be "the voice of that calm, sweet solemnity one attains to in his best moments." As one listens to its strain in the hush of twilight, the pomp of cities and the pride of civilization of a truth seem trivial and cheap.
What a near, human interest our author makes us feel in the birds, how we watch their courtships, how we peer into their nests, and how lively is our solicitude for their helpless young swung in their "procreant cradles," beset on all sides by foes that fly and creep and glide! And not only does he make the bird a visible living creature; he makes it sing joyously to the ear, while all nature sings blithely to the eye. We see the bird, not as a mass of feathers with "upper parts bright blue, belly white, breast ruddy brown, mandibles and legs black," as the textbooks have it, but as a thing of life and beauty: "Yonder bluebird with the earth tinge on his breast and the sky tinge on his back,—did he come down out of heaven on that bright March morning when he told us so softly and plaintively that, if we pleased, spring had come?" Who is there in reading this matchless description of the bluebird that does not feel the retreat of winter, that does not feel his pulse quicken with the promise of approaching spring, that does not feel that the bird did, indeed, come down out of heaven, the heaven of hope and promise, even though the skies are still bleak, and the winds still cold? Who, indeed, except those prosaic beings who are blind and deaf to the most precious things in life?
"I heard a bluebird this morning!" one exclaimed exultantly, so stirred as to forget momentarily her hearer's incapacity for enthusiasm. "Well, and did it sound any different from what it did last year, and the year before, and the year before that?" inquired in measured, world-wearied tones the dampener of ardors. No, my poor friend, it did not. And just because it sounded the same as it has in all the succeeding springs since life was young, it touched a chord in one's heart that must be long since mute in your own, making you poor, indeed, if this dear familiar bird voice cannot set it vibrating once more.