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 is no longer fashionable. In their day he and Muir were always “the two Johns,” but while the wild enthusiasm of Yosemite’s poet still has appeal, Burroughs’s contented and calm appreciations have come to seem quaint—a shame, in my view for they both have much to say to us. Muir helped us to see and then to save the rocky high places, but Burroughs had deep feeling for the woodlots and stream valleys that surround our houses and cottages. As he confessed, he was never able to bring his “eye to the Alaskan scale,” but he was blessed with an unrivaled talent for the familiar.
In some ways Burroughs seems an old-fashioned writer. He wrote far too much—the Riverside edition of his essay collections runs to twenty volumes, and this does not begin to exhaust his output. He often sounds coy or glib. (Hunters are “nimrods,” the fox is invariably “Reynard,” birds are routinely “songsters,” animals who hibernate become “the Rip van Winkles of our brute cast,” and a smelly skunk is “Sir Mephitis.”) He is forever rating things (“If we take the quality of melody as the test, the wood thrush, hermit thrush, and the veery thrush stand at the head of our list of songsters”) and his judgments are parochial: “British trout, by the way, are not so beautiful as our own. They are less brilliantly marked, and have much coarser scales.” Also, “our wren-music too is superior to anything of the kind in the Old World,” and “our purple finch, or linnet, I am persuaded, ranks far above the English linnet.”
But he was remarkably open to what was new and challenging. Though born a Catskill farmboy (to a family who never read his books), he fell as an adolescent under Emerson’s spell. “I read him in a sort of ecstasy,” he recalled. “I got him in my blood.” Burroughs’s first book was also the first book written about Walt Whitman, and throughout his career he again and again championed the poet, a close friend, in his battles against obscurity and then condemnation. He wrote in the same protective way about Darwin, repeatedly defending what were still controversial ideas to his vast public. Few lifetimes have seen such intellectual shifts—he worked in Washington during the Civil War, and his last collection was published after World War I—but he was rarely fazed. Most remarkable, perhaps, he defended emerging scientific discoveries without becoming infatuated with the purely rational. He kept his sense of the natural world’s wonder when other writers were succumbing either to a dry rationalism or to fulminating religious rhetoric. “I think that if I could be persuaded, as my fathers were, that the world was made in six days, by the fiat of a supernatural power, I should soon lose my interest in it,” he wrote. But he also wrote:
We may know an animal in the light of all the many tests that laboratory experimentation throws on it…we stone it, we electrocute it, we freeze it, we burn it…and yet not really know it at all. We are not content to know what an animal knows naturally, we want to know what it knows unnaturally.
And also: “The love of nature is a different thing from the love of science…. Without a sense of the unknown and unknowable, life is flat and barren.” These may not seem such revolutionary sentiments, but we are still groping toward them. He was that rarest of creatures, a writer at ease with the change around him and yet not its slave.
Still, it was not his philosophizing that endeared him to his public. “I am quite certain,” he wrote, “that the majority of my readers would have me always stick to natural history themes.” And he was right, for he was unmatched as an observer. Most of us, out for a walk, soon tune out much of the world around—unless we’re listening specifically for them, bird calls do not break through the soundtrack of our thoughts. But Burroughs not only heard, he reconstructed what he heard so effectively that one’s subconscious memory is jogged. Describing the song of the hermit thrush he writes:
It is very simple, and I can hardly tell the secret of its charm. “O spheral, spheral!” he seems to say; “O holy, holy! O clear away, clear away! O clear up, clear up!” interspersed with the finest trills and the most delicate preludes. It is not a proud, gorgeous strain, like the tanager’s or the grosbeak’s; suggests no passion or emotion—nothing personal,—but seems to be the voice of that calm, sweet solemnity one attains to in his best moments.
This kind of description will seem at first overblown and shamelessly anthropomorphic, but Burroughs could capture with great accuracy the sound of a call, at least for the species I know. And Burroughs’s talent does not end with birds—“The cow has at least four tones or lows,” he reports, including “the long, sonorous volley she lets off on the hills or in the yard, or along the highway, and which seems to be expressive of a kind of unrest and vague longing.”
Such precision required long hours of concentration. “The casual glances or the admiring glances that we cast upon nature do not go very far in making us acquainted with her real ways,” writes Burroughs. He waged the only real battle of his career with the “nature-fakers,” competing essayists such as the Reverend William Long who were forever producing charming reports of, say, birds who tied knots in the strings that hung from their nests so the ends wouldn’t fray. (President Roosevelt joined him in the campaign against the sham naturalists, and together they vanquished the opposition.)
Instead, Burroughs relied on steady and patient observation, returning again and again to any behavior he couldn’t understand. On finding piles of earth in his field, for instance, he kept watch on them for days until he determined they were made by chipmunks building their nests. He would count the buckwheat seeds in their winter caches (before replacing them), and mark down for another day his remaining doubts—do female chipmunks dig their own dens or find abandoned ones? He followed mice trails, left out ripe plums in a clearing to see how the squirrels would handle them, tracked bees miles through the woods to their hives, spent days walking through England, stopping everyone who passed to ask if they had recently heard a nightingale sing, and if so would they take him to the spot. These investigations were not conducted scientifically—he never designed experiments or published papers. They were, instead, an excuse to inform himself about the world around him, whose harmony he felt deeply.
It was a harmony in which people had a part. Naturalists have tended, even before Thoreau, to mild crankiness. In many cases they went to the woods or the deserts or the mountains to escape people; landscapes altered by human beings depressed them, while wilderness produced elation. And this crankiness has served a useful purpose—there are vast regions preserved today, and dozens of species alive, because of Muir and the rest. Burroughs, however, was constitutionally different—mild, not fierce. He praises a dairy farmer who worked hard to create better pasture:
Last summer I saw him take enough stones and rocks from a three-acre field to build quite a fortress, and land whose slumbers had never been disturbed with the plough was soon knee-high with Hungarian grass. How one likes to see a permanent betterment of the land like that!—piles of renegade stone and rock. It is such things that make the country richer.
The fascination with the grand, the violent, the awesome, the pure, the wild—a fascination I share—can be treacherous. Drawn to spectacle, I find myself rushing up the mountain for the view, while it is the “ordinary” nature that I pass along the way that makes up most of the world. For every Grand Canyon there are a million drainages between low hills, a million small creeks. Burroughs is the John Wesley Powell of these gulches: his great solo voyage in twenty volumes is down the east, or Pepacton, branch of the Delaware, a placid stream if ever there was one. Yet its headwaters are too wild for him. He complains not only about a farm wife whom he suspects of skimming the milk before she sells it to him (“its blueness infected my spirits”), but also about the fallen trees blocking the river and the willows along the shore “where I would lose my hat.”
The loneliness of the river, too, unlike that of the fields and woods, to which I was more accustomed, oppressed me…. The long, unpeopled vistas ahead; the still, dark eddies; the endless monotone and soliloquy of the stream…the trees and willows and alders that hemmed you in on either side, and hid the fields and the farmhouses and the road that ran nearby—these things and others aided the skimmed milk to cast a gloom over my spirits.
As he meanders further down the river during the next five days, he runs into more people—an old fisherman, and some schoolgirls “with skirts amazingly abbreviated, wading and playing in the water,” and a farm wife from whom he tries to buy more milk (“‘What do you do with it?’ [she asked] with an anxious tone, as if I might want to blow up something or burn her barns with it”), two boys on the way home from running away, and some hunters, and a schoolmarm, and a crew of railroad workers on a handcar. After a week or so, “my voyage ended at Hancock, and was crowned by a few idyllic days with some friends at their cottage near Lake Oquaga.”
This continent will never, at least in human time, be a vast wilderness again. We must preserve the wild lands that remain, but most of the nation will be neither pristine nor urban but somewhere in between. Learning to appreciate that middle ground should be one of our chief goals—and this is where Burroughs speaks to us. As his vast popularity demonstrated, he found a language for making others appreciate the small spectacles of nature: he articulated the mute delight that people have always taken in their surroundings. He chronicles the moments in which the seasons gradually change with a countryman’s precision. It is usually late in April, he writes,
when we observe the first quickening of the earth. The waters have subsided, the roads have become dry, the sunshine has grown strong and its warmth has penetrated the sod…. The warm, moist places, the places that have had the wash of some building or of the road…how quickly the turf awakens there and shows the tender green…. As the later snows lay in patches here and there, so now the earliest verdure is spread irregularly over the landscape, and is especially marked on certain slopes, as if it had blown over from the other side and lodged there…. The full charm of this April landscape is not brought out until the later afternoon…when the faint, four-o’clock shadows begin to come, and we look through the green vistas, and along the farm lanes toward the west, or out; across long stretches above which spring seems fairly hovering, just ready to alight, and notice the teams slowly plowing the brightened mouldboard gleaming in the sun now and then.
Such contentedness can be cloying or overdone—Burroughs had a tendency to stand gazing with bovine nonchalance at environmental destruction he should have been able to foresee. He was a friend not only of Henry Ford but of Edison and Firestone and he seems not to have given a thought to the havoc their inventions might produce. Always an optimist, he tended to like people indiscriminately—save for his battle with the fake naturalists, he is almost never critical of anyone or anything in his books.
Still, his moderation, his calm observations, and most of all his seductive and accurate descriptions of the beauty and order around his Catskills cabin should give him a central place in the environmental movement. What Jefferson argues for politically, what Wendell Berry sees as a moral necessity, he loved for its aesthetic value. “Read correctly the moral of the solar system—this harmony, this balance, this compensation—and there is no deeper lesson to be heard,” he insisted, an argument from ecological bedrock that preceded by some decades the popularization of ecology.
Most of us will never know at first hand what Muir experienced during a summer in the unpeopled Sierras and we cannot follow Robert Marshall into the unexplored Brooks Range. But most of us can learn about chipmunks and tanagers, and Burroughs suggested some of the most satisfying ways of observing them. On Burroughs Mountain, if Rainier is in the clouds, we can turn our backs on the great peak and hunt instead for a glimpse of the marmot, a sort of alpine woodchuck that emits a high whistle as it darts in and out of the rocks. “Scenery may be too fine or too grand and imposing for one’s daily and hourly view. It tires after a while. It demands a mood that comes to you at intervals,” he wrote. “In some things, the half is more often satisfying than the whole.”
Copyright © Bill McKibben 1992
John Burroughs (Twayne, 1974). ↩