The Call of the Not So Wild

Mt. Rainier is the most imposing peak in the lower forty-eight states, an astoundingly large and isolated mountain that rises black and white out of the wet, green rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. The best vantage point for studying the sides of this sublime peak is probably Burroughs Mountain, which thousands of people climb daily during the summer months.

I stood there in early September, watching a helicopter pull the bodies of two climbers off the main mountain. It is strange that this mountain should be named for John Burroughs, strange for two reasons. First, Burroughs has almost disappeared from literary history; it is hard to believe that he was so popular only seventy years ago, just after he died in 1921, and that Washington state honored him by naming after him a prominent peak that he had never visited, or written about. During the first two decades of this century he was among the most beloved American writers. Presidents and presidential candidates visited him at home in the Catskills; when he traveled across the country with Teddy Roosevelt on one trip, witnesses say it was difficult to tell which man was more popular with the crowds that turned out to greet their train. Nearly every schoolchild read his works in special Houghton Mifflin educational editions. For sixty-one years his pieces ran in the Atlantic Monthly. According to Perry Westbrook’s biography, Henry Ford, who gave him one Model T after another, insisted that his writing was “superior to that of any other author who had ever lived.” Yet after his death he disappeared pretty much without a trace.

But the name Burroughs Mountain seems strange for another reason, a reason that I think helps to explain the nearly total eclipse of Burroughs’s reputation. The mountain is a place of rock and ice, of magnificent and heartcatching views. The bulging, rockcoated tongue of Emmons Glacier spreads out beneath; above are the groaning crevasses and sheer walls that guard the summit. It is the kind of landscape that John Muir loved, and Robert Marshall, and Ansel Adams, and indeed most of the other naturalists before and since. Grandeur, spectacle—we have been conditioned to prize these above all. But Burroughs had little interest in the sublime. Instead he filled book after book of essays with the local, with small-scale glimpses of nature. When he finally did visit Yosemite, on a rare trip west, he wrote the first paragraph extolling the robin, “the first I had seen since leaving home. Where the robin is at home, there at home am I.” Instead of mountain goats and grizzly bears, he wrote again and again about the chickadee, the woodchuck, and the chipmunk. Instead of the vast and unexplored wilderness, he wrote about his native Catskills, where woodlands gave way to pasture and field, where small brooks ran into the placid Hudson. Not untamed wilderness, but half-domesticated forest, slowly healing from the first rounds of logging and mining.

This mild, amiable vision …

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