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My Boyhood - My Father By Julian Burroughs (cont.) Post by :kippstips Category :Nonfictions Author :John Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :1781

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My Boyhood - My Father By Julian Burroughs (cont.)

It was always a source of disappointment to Father that I did not write more, that I could not carry on his work--but this was more than he should have expected. He was an essayist, fired with a literary ambition that never faltered or grew dim for over sixty years. Once I wrote a brief introduction to a hunting story that won a prize in a sporting journal and I can never forget how pleased Father was with it--"It filled me with emotion," he said, "it brought tears to my eyes--write a whole piece like that and I'll send it to the _Atlantic_."

How he loved the telling phrase, the turn of words that was apt and made the form and substance one! I know I had a little silver cup or mug that I used at table, and when I saw my first locomotive bell slowly ringing I watched it and exclaimed, "Cup open bell." How Father did laugh and repeat it to me afterward--the childish way of expressing the strange and new in terms of the familiar and old. The small son of a friend of Father's when he first saw the ocean exclaimed, "Oh, the great rainy!" and Father would laugh over this expression and slap his sides in glee. The homely expressions always pleased him. One day some children came to see him. They had been sent by their parents with strict instructions to see "the man himself," and when they asked Father if he was "the man himself" he had a good laugh and told them he guessed he was. He always liked to tell and act out the story of the man who went down into the cellar for a pitcher of milk. In going down he fell down the stone stairs and bruised himself painfully. As he lay groaning and rubbing himself he heard his wife call, "John, did you break the pitcher?" Looking about in his anguish he saw the pitcher, unbroken. "No," he called back, gritting his teeth, "but, by thunder, I will," and seizing it by the handle he savagely smashed it over the stones. And Father understood exactly how he felt.

The deep interest he took in self-knowledge is well shown in the following letter:

Riverby, Nov. 17, 1897.

MY DEAR JULIAN,

I was very sorry to hear of that "D" and "E." I was probably quite as much cut up as you were. I have been melancholy ever since I heard of it. But you will feel better by and by.... One thing you are greatly lacking in, as I suppose most boys are--self-knowledge. You do not seem to know what you can or cannot do, or when you have failed or succeeded. You have always been fond of trying things beyond your powers (I the same) as in the case of the boat. I think you over estimate yourself, which I never did. You thought you ought to have had an "A" in English, and were not prepared for your low mark in French and German. Do a little self-examination and nip the bud of conceit; get a fair estimate and make it too low rather than too high. I am sure I know my own weak points, see if you can't find yours. That saying of the ancients, "know thyself," is to be pondered daily. I always keep my expectations down, so that I am not disappointed if I get a "D" or an "E." My success in life has been far beyond my expectations. I know several authors who think they have not had their just deserts; but it is their own fault. I have just read this in Macaulay: "If a man brings away from Cambridge (where he graduated in eighteen hundred and twenty-two) self-knowledge, accuracy of mind and habits of strong intellectual exertion he has got the best the college can give him." That is what I think too.

Your loving father,

J. B.

 

 

Slabsides, Oct. 27. (1897.)

MY DEAR BOY,

I found your letter here yesterday on my return from N. J. whither I had gone on Saturday to visit Mr. Mabie. I was glad to hear from you. You must write at least once a week. Get the rowing pants you refer to and anything else you really need.... Do not try to live on less than $3.50 a week, Select the simplest and most nourishing food--meat only once a day--no pie but fruit and puddings. The weather still keeps fine here and dry; no rain yet and no heavy frosts.

Celery is most off; not more than $175 for this second crop. I am taking out the Niagaras below the hill--nothing pays, but Delawares in the grape line. I have had a good deal of company as usual. It cheers me up and keeps me from the blue devils. Your mother is cleaning house and groaning as usual. I can only keep my temper by flight to SS.

Hiram goes to Roxbury to-morrow for two months or more. I shall miss him very much. He stands to me for father and mother and the old home. He is part of all those things. When he is here my chronic homesickness is alleviated.

I hope you will do some reading outside of your courses. Read and study and soak yourself in some great author for his style. Try Hawthorne or Emerson or Ruskin or Arnold. The most pregnant style of all is in Shakespeare. Go into the laboratory some day and have your strength tested. Binder says they can tell you what part is weakest. Watch your health and keep regular hours. Write us as often as you can. How I wish I was a Harvard student too.

With deepest affection, JOHN BURROUGHS.

 


Doubtless it is a wise provision of Nature that we find our mates in our opposites. It is some natural law working for the good of the race, something to maintain the balance and uniformity of mankind. Certainly in many ways two people could not have been more unlike than Father and Mother. She said he was as weak as water, and he said he could get tipsy on a glass of water. He always said that Mother made the housekeeping an end in itself, and she said, "You know how he is, he never takes care of anything." How many evenings have I spent in the study when the lamp would begin to burn low for lack of oil and Father would have to run and fill lit and Mother would complain, "Just like you, come mussing around after dark. Why didn't you fill it by daylight?" Ah, me, when it was daylight Father did not need the lamp! It was Mother who filled the lamps, trimmed them and polished the chimneys regularly in the afternoon, while the sun was still up; but it was Father who trimmed and filled his lamp and let it so shine that all the world might see! After all, I am not sure but what Mother was just the wife for him; he had a streak stubborn determination along with his ambition to write that carried him through any trials of housecleaning or complaints about the housework. A wife in full sympathy with his work, who coddled him and made him think that everything he wrote was perfect, would never have done at all, nor would a selfish, extravagant, or society-mad woman. Father was temperamental, moody, irritable, easily influenced, easily led, suffering at times with attacks of melancholy, with but one fixed purpose, and that was to write. Mother was economical, thrifty, material, suspicious of people, determined to bring their ship to a snug harbour before old age, and she took the best of care of Father and held him steady and no doubt by her strength of character and firmness gave strength and firmness to his life. Their last years were most happy together and filled with a sympathy and understanding that were beautiful.

Sometimes Father would talk to himself, though but very seldom, and the following two letters are almost as though he were talking to himself. "I am far less forlorn when he is here," he says of himself and Uncle Hiram. With all his self-analysis he did not see that being forlorn was part of the price he must pay for the simple but intense joy he experienced from the beauty life and Nature.

W. P. Tuesday, Jan. 25 (1897).

 


MY DEAR JULIAN,

It still keeps mild here--snow nearly gone, but ice in the river to the elbow. We do not get away yet. Your mother will not stir and Hiram and I will probably go to Slabsides, as she wants to shut up the house.

Hiram came a week ago and stays and eats here in the study--I am far less forlorn when he is here. It probably seems strange to you, I know you have never looked upon him very kindly. But you have never seen Hiram--not the Hiram I see. This little dull ignorant old man whom you have seen is only a transparent mask through which I see the Hiram of my youth, and see the old home, the old days and father and mother and all the life on the old farm. It is a feeling you cannot understand, but you may if you live to be old.

I hope you have given up that boat crew business by this time. It is not the thing for you. You do not go to Harvard for that. As I wrote you, you have not the athletic temperament, but something finer and better. Good sharp daily exercise you need, but not severe training. If you had been half my age probably those cold baths would have killed you. Old men often die in the cold bath. The blood is driven in and makes too great a strain on the arteries. Write me when you get this and tell me about yourself.

Your loving father,

J. B.

 


Very likely what I did write told Father much more than I suspected, and he always stood ready with any advice he could give, especially about matters of health. Those were the years when he had many troubles: insomnia, neuralgia, and especially a trouble he called malaria, but which was largely autotoxemia. One doctor seared his arm with a white- hot iron in an effort to do away with the pain of the neuralgia and years afterward Father would laugh about it--"just like African medicine man, driving out the devils in my arm with a white-hot iron--the trouble was not there, it was the poison in my system from faulty elimination." When at last he did discover the source of his troubles how happy he was!

 


Riverby, Feb. 3 (1898)

MY DEAR JULIAN,

Your letter came this morning. Winter is rugged here too. Snow about 20 inches and zero weather at night. I almost froze the top of my head up there in the old house. The ice men are scraping off the snow, ice 8 or 9 inches. Your mother is in Poughkeepsie, I was down there Monday night. I doubt if she comes to Cambridge and I am wondering whether I had better come or stay here and save my money. If you can come home on the Easter holidays perhaps I had better not come. If you get a week had you rather not come home then than to have me come now? Tell me how you feel. But I may feel different next week, I may be written out by that time. If I thought I could go on with my work there I would come at once. I am in excellent health and do not need a change. I could not do much with your English Exams. I have a poor opinion of such stuff. That is not the way to make writers or thinkers. I enclose my check for the bill which you must get receipted. Write me at once about the Easter holidays.

Your loving father,

JOHN BURROUGHS.

 


Later when he visited me in Cambridge he wrote a daily theme, and I copied it and handed it in as my own, and it promptly came back marked "sane and sensible," the instructor quite unconsciously and unknowingly having hit upon two salient qualities of Father's style. I remember the theme he wrote was about the statue of John Harvard who sits bareheaded in the open, exposed to all weathers. Father said he always wanted to go and hold something over him to keep off the snow or sun. The life he led here and the surroundings could not produce other than wholesome and sane writing. The old house spoken of was the original farmhouse that stood up near the road--it was torn down in 1903 and a new cottage put up just below it. Father and I spent one summer there when we rented Riverby to New York people and he spent time there later as for instance:

Saturday P. M., Jan. 29 (1898).

MY DEAR JULIAN,

Hiram and I are with the Ackers (who were living in the old house then). I find the food and give them the rent and they do the work. I shall have peace now and it will taste good. If I come to C when would you rather I should come? I am not done with my writing yet but may be in eight or ten days. Writing is like duck hunting, one doesn't know what game he will get or when he will be back: that is why I am undecided. I make everything wait upon my writing. It is cold here, down to four two mornings; good sleighing. I rec'd your letter yesterday, I do not know about those plays--ask Mr. Page or Rodman. I hope you are prospering in your exams. This is the new pen, do not like it much yet. The prospect for an ice harvest brightens. Write.

Your loving father

J.B.

 


W. P., Saturday Jan. 15 (1898)

MY DEAR JULIAN,

I was glad to get your letter and to see you in such high feather. I hope you will keep so. Watch your health and habits and you may. Still your letter did not give me unmixed satisfaction. If you knew how I dislike slang, especially the cheap vulgar kind, you would spare me the affliction of it. There is slang and slang. Some has wit in it some is simply a stupid perversion of language. The latter I dislike as I do the tobacco habit to which it is close akin. You had so far escaped the tobacco habit and I had hoped you would escape the slang habit. It is not a bit more manly than the cigaret or cigar. Some slang phrases, like "you're not in it" or "you're off your trolley" and others, may do in familiar conversation with friends, but "bunches of cold" or "cuts no ice" etc., are simply idiotic. When you write return me again the postal card that I may see what words I misspelled. It still keeps very mild here, but is snowing this morning. Nip and I have had some fine skating --like a mirror for over a mile here in front: but the ice is getting thin. I do not know when I will come to Cambridge. Your mother has just been passing through the winter solstice of her temper and declares she is not going anywhere. I shall get away by and by, even if she stays here. I read Balzac and enjoyed it. The first half is much the best. The ending is weak and absurd. The old miser is clearly and strongly drawn, so are most of the characters. But we do not pity or sympathize with the heroine. How large and fine is that New Paltz girl, but probably like a big apple, she lacks flavour....

Your affectionate father, J. B.

 


It was very easy to see why Father disliked slang--it was a perversion of his art, and as I have said he had the true pride of the craftsman in his art. No one loved more the apt and witty expression; he was forever seeking them, and slang was something that overstepped the bounds and was therefore something truly abhorrent. Often I have heard him tell the story with delighted relish of some men who were spending a winter night in a country hotel. Eugene Field I think it was who made the remark that so delighted Father, and J. T. Trowbridge recounts it in "My own Story." It was a bitter cold night and covers were scanty; and more than that, there were several panes out of the window. Field rummaged about in the closet and found the hoops of an old hoop skirt, just then going out of fashion, and these he hung over the broken window, saying "That will keep out the coarsest of the cold!" "Coarsest of the cold," Father would repeat the expression and laugh again. I remember his envious acknowledgment of an apt illustration: two famous wood choppers were chopping in a match to see which could fell his tree first, and so great was their skill and so swift their blows that the chips literally poured out of the tree as though it had sprung a leak. "That is good," he said of the phrase and lowered his eyes. Once we were motor-boating upon the Champlain Canal and we were delayed all day by the numbers of slow canal boats. Yet some of the lock tenders said business was very slack. One of our party commented upon this and said that there were enough canal boats as it was, that the canal seemed pretty well gummed up with them. "Pretty well gummed up with them," Father repeated over and over and laughed like a child each time. Often I complained about the stone house at Riverby, that Father in planning it did not plan to use the winter sunshine; not only were the windows not placed right but there were spruce trees in the way. "You write a book on 'Winter Sunshine' and you let none in your house," I told him and he said that if he had the winter sunshine in his house he might not have written the book. A statement which has a large element of fundamental truth, at least in his case.

In those days we had much fun skating; Father had a curious pair of old skates that he fastened on a pair of shoes so that they would not come off. These shoes he tucked, skates and all, under his arm and we were off. He would slip off his "Congress" shoes and slip on the shoes with skates attached and start over the ice, his dog running by his side. Once he rigged up an attempt at a sail with one of his army blankets and some pieces of moulding left over from building the study, but it would not work. People on shore said they thought it was some kind of a life- saving contraption in case he broke through the ice. One day in the Shataca we had as fine a skate as we ever could imagine--there had been a thaw with high water and Black Creek had flooded the swamp, the water going out over the heavily timbered Shataca back to the upland. This had then frozen and the water gone out from under it, leaving the glassy ice hanging from the boles of the trees. The ice sagged a little between the trees which gave one a most delightful up and down motion as they glided over it on skates, as near flying as one could imagine at that time.

In spirit and often in fact Father went to college with me, he attended lectures in the courses I was taking, and often when I had read a book required I sent the copy on to him to read and he would comment upon it. In the following letter he comments upon a book I had sent him, and draws at the same time a picture of days at Slabsides:

Slabsides, Sunday, May 22 (1898).

MY DEAR SON,

The other day when I went home your mother "jumped" me about two things,--my going down to R's to lunch and my taking you to that 5 cent show in Boston....

Heavy thunder showers here Thursday night, cloudy to-day. Pretty warm the last three days. The Primus is a great success. It uses rather more than one half cent's worth per hour. The Van B's with two Vassar girls were just over here. The "Iceland Fisherman" is a sweet tender pathetic story. One does not forget Yann: and what a picture of the life of those fishermen! I did not know that France had such an industry. I paddled up Black Creek again on Friday, but saw no ducks.... There were 35 people here last week. Write what you conclude to do about your room. The woods are nearly in full leaf now.

Your loving father--J. B.

 

 

Comparing the life of Father's boyhood with our life here at Riverby in those days and again comparing that with the life to-day, one cannot but wonder what will be the final outcome. In a primitive society every individual knows everything about everything that he has in life; as civilization becomes more complex we become more and more specialists, more and more the thing that the economists call the "division of labour" becomes operative, and individuals go through life to-day knowing how to do but a very few of the things necessary to their existence. The early or primitive civilization produced an independent race, and individuals picturesque and unique in character. Father noticed this. He loved the old-fashioned man or woman who was so strongly individual and picturesque. I remember one such character, "Old blind Jimmy" he was called, who went about the country with a staff, and when Father saw him coming, one day "out home," he asked me to run with my camera and station myself down the road and get a picture of old blind Jimmy as he came along. I did so, and I knew at once that Jimmy knew I was there. He must have heard me in some way, and surely must have heard the purr of the focal plane shutter as I took his picture. One day in the market place in Jamaica, West Indies, there was a savage- looking man who looked the way you would imagine a pirate of the Spanish Main would look, and Father was much interested in him and asked me to get his picture--it took considerable manoeuvring, but I did get him at last.

Much of the old order clung to us here at Riverby--Mother always made buckwheat cakes, we got a sack of flour from "out home" and she set the cakes to rise; I can hear the sound of the wooden spoon as she mixed them up in the evening and then set them behind the stove. Now we get the flour all ready to mix with water. No more running for buttermilk to use in them, no more having them rise over the batter pitcher during the night. Father always ate them, five or six. No day was begun in cold weather without "pancakes." And "out home" they made their own soap, but here Mother got a box of soap and carefully piled it up to dry and harden. There was a pail in the cellar for "soap grease," into which was put every scrap of fat or grease and saved until the day when the "soap man" came around and bought it. Those were the days when potatoes were less than fifty cents a bushel, eggs a dollar a hundred, and the very finest roe shad could be had for twenty-five cents. And shad nets were knit by hand. I can remember Father telling how the Manning family, who lived below the hill, knit shad nets all winter. Now one can buy the net already knit practically as cheaply as one can buy the twine. Sail boats dotted the Hudson--sloops and schooners loitering up and down the river or tacking noisily back and forth. I know they used to get becalmed and tide-bound out here and the sailors would come ashore and raid fruit orchards. Once some of them stole a sheep and took it out to the schooner. The owner of the sheep came after the sailors with a search warrant but the mischievous sailors pulled the anchor chain up taut and tied the sheep to the chain and lowered away until the sheep, which they had butchered, was under water and the search warrant even could not find it.

"The little boat" referred to in the letter of July 24, 1893, and on which Father shipped his peaches, was a small steamer that ran from Rondout to Poughkeepsie and was more or less of a family institution when the river was open. It landed when we hailed it, at the dock at the bottom of our vineyard, and Father mostly went to town to do his shopping on "the little boat." Once he went to get his garden seeds and, coming back, a violent squall blew his basket with all his purchases overboard. I can still remember how disgusted and ruffled he appeared over it. At another time he was on this little boat when it landed at Hyde Park and a team of horses, hitched to a big wagon loaded with brick, were standing on the dock. They became frightened and began to back, in spite of the efforts of the driver to stop them. In a moment the rear wheels went over the edge of the dock and then when they felt the terrible backward pull of the wagon they sprang ahead in a desperate and vain effort to save themselves. Their hoofs beat frantically upon the plank, throwing up a shower of splinters, and though they strained every fibre of their bodies, they were drawn over to their death. Father was much upset over it. It made a vivid impression on him. "But," he said, "there was a priest who sat near me and who hardly saw it; he paid no more attention than if nothing had happened," and I feel that all priests suffered on that account in Father's estimation!

One of the ceremonies here at Riverby was the bringing in of the door mat at night. Mother did this or told me to do it--I doubt that Father would. It was brought in for fear of dampness or rain during the night, which would wet the mat and shorten its usefulness. How different from housekeeping nowadays!

Father always wore flannel shirts, of a dark gray, and these had the unfortunate habit of shrinking about the neck, so in washing them they were stretched and then dried over a milk pail--I can see them now, hanging on the line with the pail protruding from the neck. I played a cruel joke on Father one night; I was going out to the hired man's house to play cards and asked Father to leave the door open for me, which he did. It was very late when I returned, half-past nine or ten o'clock, and as I did not want to disturb any one I crept in in my most stealthy way and up to bed. In the morning Father asked me excitedly when I got in. "You must have been mighty sly about it," he said, half in admiration, half in reproach, when I told him, "for I lay awake listening for you to come in and when it got to be after ten I got up to come down and see what had become of you and I found you had come in."

It is ever true that many of the things that a man regards as important a woman does not; and conversely, many things a woman takes seriously are to a man a joke. The following gives a picture of the life here then and sums up the difference between the point of view of Father and Mother:

 


Thursday, May 17 (1900)

MY DEAR BOY,

I meant to have written you before this but I have been very much occupied and your mother has been wrestling with her house. She has gotten down to the kitchen with her cleaning. She has hired a woman who is to come next week and she wants to get the house in order for her. I have had company. On Friday afternoon "Teddy Roosevelt Jr" came and stayed until Monday morning. He is his father in miniature. He kept me on the stretch all the time. On Saturday we went up the Shataca and cooked our dinner on the little island where you and I did. We had a good time. He climbed trees and rocks like a squirrel. He was all the time looking for something difficult to do.

May 19. I was choked off here and now I am in a pickle. We began to fix the cistern yesterday and got it half finished when the rain came--an inch and a half of water and your mother is furious--cried all night and is crying and storming yet this morning. Of course the blame is all mine. I wanted to fix it ten days ago but she said no, she wanted the water to clean house. If I and you had both died she could not have shed more tears than she has over this petty matter. I shall take to Slabsides to escape this tearful deluge. It has been very dry, no rain and no tears for six weeks. I was glad to see it come, cistern or no cistern. It has saved the hay crop and the strawberries.

The leaves are all out here and the apple blossoms fallen. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson of N. Y. came Sunday and left Monday night. Clifton Johnson came Tuesday morning and left Wednesday. Some Vassar people were coming to- day but it rains from the N. E.

Of course you can pick up no decent girl on the street and I should keep aloof from them. A decent girl would resent the advances of a stranger.

The birds are very numerous this spring.

 


Your loving father J. B.

In the spring of '99 Father was asked to join the E. H. Harriman Alaska Expedition, and though very reluctant he consented to go--he was historian of the expedition and his account of it appeared in the _Century and in his book, "Far and Near." Mother had always said that "his folks" were afraid to go out of sight of the smoke of the home chimney. Something of this was in Father. He had to make himself go. He was always unhappy when leaving home and home ties. He made many new friends on this trip--John Muir, whom he liked immensely in spite of the fact that he sometimes called him a "cross-grained Scotchman"; Fuertes, the nature artist; Dallenbaugh, one of those who made the trip through the Grand Canyon with Major Powell and who wrote "A Canyon Voyage"; Charles Keeler, the poet, and many others.

 


Near Fort Wrangell, Alaska June 5 (1899).

MY DEAR BOY,

Still we steam northward through these wonderful channels and mountain-locked sounds that mark this side of the continent amid such scenery as you and I never dreamed of. This morning we woke up at Fort Wrangell under a clear cold sky, like a Florida winter, some of them said, mercury 44 and snow capped peaks all around the horizon. On shore some wild flowers were blooming and weeds and shrubs had a good start. I saw swallows and heard song sparrows, not differing much from those at home. We have had fair weather most of the time since leaving Victoria but cold. I have borrowed a heavy overcoat and wish I had two. I sit at the door of my state room writing this and looking out upon the blue sparkling sea water and the snow capped and spruce mantled mountain ranges. Muir has just passed by, then Mr. Harriman racing with his children. I like him. He is a small man, about the size of Ingersoll and the same age, brown hair and moustache and round strong head. He seems very democratic and puts on no airs. 11 A. M. We are now going up the Wrangell narrows like the highlands of the Hudson, 25 miles long with snow capped peaks in the back-ground and black spruce clad hills and bends in the foreground. Ducks, geese, loons, and eagles all along. Bang, bang, go the rifles from the deck, but nothing is hurt. It is clear and still. How I wish for you! Last night at nine thirty we had such a sun-set; snow white peaks seven or eight thousand feet high riding slowly along the horizon behind dark purple walls of near mountain ranges all aflame with the setting sun. Such depths of blue and purple, such glory of flame and gold, such vistas of luminous bays and sounds I had never dreamed of.

I keep well but eat better than I sleep. Only two or three times have we felt the great throb of the Pacific through open gateways in this wall of islands. The first time it made me miss my dinner, which is not as bad as to lose it. In a week or two we shall have to face it for many days; then I shall want to go home. We have seen deer and elk from the steamer. We have reached the land of Indians and ravens. Many Indians in every town and ravens perched in rows upon the house tops. Our crowd is fearfully and wonderfully learned--all specialists. I am the most ignorant and the most untravelled man among them, and the most silent. We expect to reach Juneau to-night and I may be able to write once more --from Sitka.

I wish I knew if you were going west and how things are at home. I suppose you will be home before this can reach you. I wonder if you have had rain and if the grapes are breaking. I got me a stunning pair of shoes at Seattle--$7.50. Down in the belly of our ship are fat steers, 2 horses, a cow, a lot of sheep, hens, chickens, turkeys, etc. It looks like a farmer's barn yard down there. But I must stop, with much love to you and your mother. J. B.

We have just passed the Devil's Thumb, over 9,000 feet high. From the top rises a naked shaft 1600 feet high--this is the thumb. Our first glacier, too is here, a great mass of whitish ice settled low in the lap of the mountains.

 

 

From Sitka, June 17th, he wrote:

MY DEAR BOY,

The steamer yesterday did not bring me a letter from you or your mother. I was much disappointed. If you had written as late as June 3rd it would have reached me. I got one from Hiram, he is well and his bees are doing well. There will be no other chance to get letters until we return the last of July. I dreamed of you last night and you told me the grapes were not doing well. I read in the papers of the heat in the east and we all wish for some of it here. I got me a heavy flannel shirt here and I feel warmer. The mercury is from 52 to 55 to-day. Dandelions are just past the height of their bloom, currant bushes just blooming, peas are up ten inches and weeds have a good start. There is no agriculture in Alaska, though potatoes do well. I have seen one cow, a yoke of oxen and a few horses. There are no roads except about one mile here. The streets of most of the towns are only broad plank sidewalks. Yet hens scratch here and roosters crow the same as at home. This town is very prettily situated; back of it rise steep, dark spruce-covered mountains, about 3,000 feet--in front of it a large irregular bay studded with tree- tufted islands, beyond that ten miles away rise snow capped peaks, from the top of which one could look down upon the Pacific. No land has been cleared except where the town stands. There may be 1,500 people here, half of them Indians. The Indians are well clad and clean and quiet and live in good frame houses. Many of them are half breeds. The forests are almost impassable on account of logs, brush, moss and rocks. We have nothing like it in the east. The logs are as high as your head and the moss knee deep. There are plenty of deer and bears here. Day before yesterday one of Mr. Harriman's daughters shot a deer. There are four nice girls in the party from sixteen to eighteen, as healthy and jolly and unaffected as the best country girls--two of Mr. Harriman's, a cousin of theirs, and a friend, a Miss Draper. Then there are three governesses and a trained nurse.

This is a land of ravens and eagles. The ravens perch on the houses and garden fences and the eagles are seen on the dead trees along shore. The barn swallow is here and the robin and red-start. One day we went down to the hot springs and I drank water just from Hades: it reeked with its sulphur fumes and steamed with its heat. I wish we had such a spring on board, it would help warm us. I have met a Hyde Park man here, De Graff. I have met four people here who read my books and two at Juneau and one at Skagway. We leave here tonight for Yakutat Bay, 30 hours at sea. I should be quite content to go home now or spend the rest of the time in the west. I would give something to know how things are with you--the vineyards and the celery and what your plans are and your mother's. I still eat and sleep well and am putting on flesh. Love to you both. Let me find letters at Portland in July.

Your loving father,

J. B.

 


Near Orca, Prince William Sound, Alaska, June 27 (1899).

MY DEAR JULIAN,

Since I wrote you at Sitka we have come further north and spent five days in Yakutat Bay and since Saturday in this sound--have seen innumerable glaciers and lofty mountains and wild strange scenes. At Yakutat we went into Disenchantment Bay, 30 miles where no large steamer had ever gone before. This bay is a long slender arm of the sea which puts out from the head of Yakutat Bay and penetrates the St. Elias range of mountains. It was a weird grand scene. Birds were singing and flowers were blooming with snow and ice all about us. I saw a single barn swallow skimming along as at home. There were many Indians hunting seal among the icebergs.

In coming on here the ship rolled a good deal and I was not happy, though not really sick. On Saturday we entered this sound in clear sunshine and the clear skies continued Sunday and Monday. This morning it is foggy and misty. We steamed eighty-miles across the sound on Sunday in the bright warm sunshine over blue sparkling waters. How we all enjoyed it! Far off rose lofty mountains as white as in midwinter, next to them a lower range streaked with snow and next to them and rising from the water a still lower range, dark with spruce forests.

Orca, where we anchored Saturday night, is a small cluster of houses on an arm of the sound where they can salmon, immense numbers of them. Two hundred men are employed there at this season. The salmon run up all the little rivers and streams, some of our party have shot them with rifles. Camping parties go out from the ship to collect birds and plants and to hunt bears and to stay two or three nights. No bears have as yet been seen. I stick to the ship. The mosquitoes are very thick on shore and besides that my face has troubled me a good deal, till the sunshine came on Sunday. I must have a taste of camp life on Kadiak Island, where we expect to be eight or ten days. Yesterday we found many new glaciers and two new inlets not down on the largest maps. We are now anchored to pick up a camping party we left on Sunday. Near us are two islands where two men are breeding blue foxes, their skins bring $20. We have seen one Eskimo here in his kyack. One can read here on deck at eleven o'clock at night. We have set our watches back six hours since leaving New York. I am rather dainty now about my eating, but keep well. I dreamed last night again about home and that the grapes were a failure. I hope dreams do go by opposites. I suppose you are shipping the currants. We get no mail. I hope to send this by a steamer from the north, said to be due. We have lectures and concerts and games and the people enjoy themselves much. I keep aloof much of the time. I hope you both keep well. Love to you both. J. B.

From Kadiak Father wrote of the "epidemic of verse writing" that broke out among the members of the expedition. It was the custom to hang the verses up in the smoking room, and on that fact, even, Father later wrote some doggerel. It was while on this expedition that he wrote, "Golden Crowned Sparrow in Alaska," one verse especially:

But thou, sweet singer of the wild,
I give more heed to thee;
Thy wistful note of fond regret
Strikes deeper chords in me.

seems so strangely pathetic and like many of his moods.

 


Kadiak, July 5, '99.

MY DEAR JULIAN,

In trying to get off last night the ship got aground and must wait for high tide. I wrote to your mother yesterday. It is bright and lovely this morning, the mercury at 70--it is hot. I send you a jingle. Several of the men write doggerel and put it up in the smoking room, so I am doing it too. Mine is best so far. We will soon be off now, I trust you are well. I try not to worry.

Bow westward faithful steamer
And show the east your heels
New conquests lie before you
In far Aleutian fields
Kick high, if high you must
But don't do so at meals,
Oh don't do so at meals.
Your swinging it is graceful
But I do detest your reels.

We're bound for Unalaska
And we do not care who squeals
But mend your pace a little
And show the east your heels
But in your waltzing with old Neptune
Don't forget the hours of meals
Don't forget the hours of meals
I'm sure you have no notion
How dreadful bad it feels!

Push onward into Bering
And hasten to the seals
One glance upon their harems
Then take unto your heels
More steam into your boilers
More vigor in your wheels
But in flirting with the billows
Oh regard the hours of meals
Do regard the hours of meals.
If in this we are exacting
Please remember how it feels.

We're bound for Arctic waters
And for the midnight sun
Then quicken your propeller
And your pace into a run
We'll touch at lone Siberia
To take a polar bear
Then hie away through Bering Straits
And more frigid regions dare
But in all thy wild cavorting
Oh don't forget our prayer

A noble task's before us
And we'll do it ere we go
We'll cut the Arctic circle
And take the thing in tow
And put it round the Philippines
And cool 'em off with snow.
Our boys will hail our coming,
But a chill will seize the foe.
And we'll end the war in triumph
Go you homeward fast or slow.

Kadiak, July 2, 1899.


Though this was a delightful trip, one might say, an ideal trip, he was homesick, sea sick, and, as he says of himself, of all the party the most ignorant, the most untravelled, the most silent. It was a new experience to him, this going with a crowd. I know he often spoke of the expedition's cheer, and how they would all give it when they came into stations--

Who are we!
Who are we!
We're the Harriman, Harriman
H. A. E.! H. A. E.!

 


and "how the people would stare at us!" Father said. He liked it, this jolly comradeship and crowd spirit, but it was new to him, almost painfully new, and though no one had more human sympathy, more tenderness and understanding with human weaknesses and shortcomings, no one had less of the crowd spirit. As he said, he kept aloof--not from aloofness but from embarrassment and shyness. Later he overcame most of this and was able to face a crowd or an audience with composure and sureness. With this picture in mind another is recalled, one of him here at Riverby on summer days, scraping corn to make corn cakes. With an armful of green corn that he had picked, I can see him seated and with one of Mother's old aprons tucked under his beard. He would carefully cut down the rows of kernels and then with the back of a knife would scrape the milk of the corn into a big yellow bowl. He would hold the white ears in his brown hands and deftly cut each row, a look of composure and serenity in his eyes. He could eat his share of the cakes, too, and I like to think of those summer days. That fall he wrote from Slabsides:

Nov. 30, 1899

MY DEAR JULIAN,

I am over here this morning warming up and making ready for dinner. Hud and his wife and your mother are coming over soon. We are to have a roast duck and other things and I shall do the roasting and baking here. I wish you were here too. It is a cloudy day, but still and mild. I keep pretty well and am working on my Alaska trip--have already written about ten thousand words. The _Century paid me $75 for two poems--three times as much as Milton got for "Paradise Lost." The third poem I shall weave into the prose sketch. The N. Y. _World sent a man up to see me a couple of weeks ago to get me to write six or seven hundred words for their Sunday edition. They wanted me to write on the Thanksgiving turkey! Offered me $50--they wanted it in two days. Of course I could not do it off-hand in that way. So I fished out of my drawer an old MS, that I had rejected and sent that. They used it and sent me $30. It was in the Sunday _World of Nov. 19.

I have sold four lots here for $225. One house will be started this fall. Wallhead and Millard of P. If I don't look out I will make some money out of this place yet. Your mother begins to look more kindly upon it. A N. Y. sculptor has bought the rock beyond the spring for $75. Van and Allie are ditching and cleaning the swamp of the Italians below here.

Photography is not an art in the sense that painting or music or sculpture is an art. It is nearer the mechanical arts. Nothing is an art that does not involve the imagination and the artistic perceptions. All the essentials of photography are mechanical--the judgment and the experience of the man are only secondary. A photograph can never be really a work of art. You can put those statements in the form of a syllogism.

I hope you are better of your cold. Some building burned up in Hyde Park early last night. Robert Gill shot himself in N. Y. the other day-- suicide. We shall be very glad to see you again.

Your loving father,

J. B.

A long line of ducks just flew over going north.

 


The last letter from Slabsides was on May 23, 1900:

MY DEAR BOY,

I am here surrounded by the peace and sweetness of Slabsides. I came here Saturday morning in the rain. It is a soft, hazy morning, the sun looking red through a thin layer of seamless clouds. Amasa is hoeing in the celery, which looks good, and the birds are singing and calling all about. I have got to go to N. Y. this afternoon to a dinner. I had much rather stay here, but I cannot well get out of going.... I begin to feel that I could get to writing again if I was left alone. I want to write a _Youth's Companion piece called "Babes in the Woods" about some young rabbits and young blue birds Teddy (Footnote: The son of President Roosevelt.) and I found.

Did you row in the races? What race are you preparing for now? It is bad business. The doctors tell me that those athletic and racing men nearly all have enlargement of the heart and die young. When they stop it, as they do after their college days, they have fatty degeneration. In anything we force nature at our peril.

When you are in Boston go into Houghton Mifflin Co. and tell them to give you my last book "The Light of Day" and charge to me. There is some good writing in it. Your loving father,

J. B.

 


When I graduated at Harvard of course Father was there and he went to the baseball game and other things--we had a little reception in my room in Hastings. In the yard one day one of the old classes came along and among them was the new Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, and everyone cheered. "Yes," said Father. as we stood there that bright June day, "Teddy takes the crowd"--how little did he know the future, or guess that some day he would write a book "Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt"! Jacob Reid has said that no one who really knew Roosevelt ever called him Teddy, and I know it was so in Father's case. On his trip to the Yellowstone with the President, Father wrote:

In South Dakota, April 6, 7 P. M.

DEAR JULIAN,

We are now speeding northward over Dakota prairies. On every hand the level brown prairie stretches away to the horizon. The groups of farm buildings are from one half to a mile apart and look as lonely as ships at sea. Spots and streaks of snow here and there, fallen this morning. A few small tree plantations, but no green thing; farmers plowing and sowing wheat; straw stacks far and near; miles of corn stubble, now and then a lone school house; the roads a black line fading away in the distance, the little villages shabby and ugly. When the train stops for water a crowd of men, women, and children make a rush for the President's car. He either speaks to them a few minutes or else gets off and shakes hands with them. He slights no one. He is a true democrat. He makes about a dozen speeches per day, many of them in the open air. As his friend and guest I am kept near him. At the banquets I sit at his table; on the platforms I sit but a few feet away, in the drives I am in the fourth carriage. If I hang back he sends for me and some nights comes to my room to see how I have stood the day. In St. Paul and Minneapolis there were fifty thousand people on the sidewalks. As we drove slowly along through the solid walls of human beings I saw a big banner borne by some school girls with my name upon it. As my carriage came up the girls pushed through the crowd and hurriedly handed me a big bouquet of flowers. The President saw it and was much pleased.... Other things like that have happened, so you can see your dad is honored in strange lands--more than he is at home.... I see prairie chickens as we speed along, and a few ducks and one flock of geese.... It is near sundown now and I see only a level sea of brown grass with a building here and there on the rim of the horizon.... We are well fed and I have to look out or I eat too much. You can see that the world is round up here. Your affectionate father,

J. B.

 


How well I can see Father's expression as he wrote that line, "Your dad is honoured in strange lands--more than he is at home"! and I sympathize with him fully. It has always been thus, that people of genius are least appreciated in their own home. And yet few men have the patience and gentleness that he had; few were as easy to get along with. He asked little for himself and was generous with what was his, and generous to the faults or shortcomings of others. I remember in one of those early March days the school boys raided his sap pans and Father chased and caught them, and as he overhauled one boy, the boy exclaimed pantingly, "I didn't touch your sap, Mr. Burris!" and Father laughed over it. "The little rascal was all wet down his front then with sap!" Father would then tell the story of the boy in school who was seen by his teacher eating an apple. "I saw you then," exclaimed the teacher. "Saw me do what?" said the boy. "Saw you bite that apple." "I didn't bite any apple," replied the boy. "Come here," and as the boy came up the teacher opened his mouth and took out a big chunk of apple. "I didn't know it was there," promptly said the boy. Father would always laugh at that: he sympathized with the boy. Yet when he taught school he had a big bundle of "gads" as he called them and he hid them in the stove pipe, where the boys failed to find them. I remember how Mother said that one boy imposed upon Father's good nature too far, and then when Father did finally get angry he got furious and grabbed the boy, who hung on his desk, and Father took him desk and all, tearing the desk from its floor fastenings. Doubtless afterward he was very sorry he had let his temper "get the better" of him, as he would express it.

In those days we often went for a swim, either in the river, or over to the swimming pool in Black Creek. Father was a good swimmer but he would never dive--he said it always seemed to him that there would be many water soldiers down there holding up spears, and one would be impaled upon them if he dived. Many times I have asked myself just how he looked in those days when he was so strong and active. There was something very natural about him, a thin white skin that bled easily at a scratch; fine hair that grew well and was wavy; a fine-grained, fluid kind of body, like the new growth of ferns or new shoots of willows; medium size hands, broad and brown, with fingers bent from milking when he was a small boy; picturesque in dress, everything soft and subdued in colour. Someone once said that his style in literature was slovenly, and Father said that that was true. "I am slovenly in my dress and all I do, so no doubt my style is slovenly also." Though this may seem to be a harsh criticism, it is true in the sense that Nature he self is slovenly, slovenly in contrast to what is stiff and artificial. His eyes were grayish brown, light, with a hint of green. His voice was soft and when he was embarrassed he stammered; he would force the words out, with a little hesitation; then when the word did come it was quick and forced. In the same way his long-enduring patience, when once it did become exhausted the temper came out in full measure. Often he was the one who suffered--more often, I should say. In the following letter he refers to the broken bone in his hand, a long and painful break, that caused him months of suffering. One day when chopping wood on his wood pile by the study a small stick irritated him, it would not lie still, but rolled about and dodged the axe until in fury Father managed to strike it. The stick flew back and in some way broke the bone in his right hand that goes to the knuckle of the index finger, which he used in writing.

 


At Home, Feb. 12 (1907).

DEAR JULIAN,

Your letter was forwarded me from M. I got here early Monday morning. I got my teeth Saturday. I feel as if I had a tin roof in my mouth, cornice and all. I don't know how I can ever endure them, they are horrible....

I took your Hobo piece to Dr. Barrus and she read it to Miss C and me, they were both delighted with it, even enthusiastic. _Forest and Stream has returned your piece. I enclose their letter. I have read the paper. It is not anywhere near as good as your Hobo sketch--has not the same sparkle, buoyancy, and go. You can make it better. In such an account you must put a spell upon your reader and to do this you must go more into detail and be more deeply absorbed yourself.

My hand is nearly well. Three doctors in M agreed that I had broken a bone.... Love to you all,

J. B.

 

Father always took a most lively interest in the few magazine articles I wrote and though he would never "correct" a MS. he would tell why it was good or bad, and if it was good it gave him the greatest pleasure. Once when I wrote an article called "Making Hens Lay" and showed him the cheque I received for it, he exclaimed, "_That is the way to make hens lay!" Though he often said that if he wrote what the editors wanted him to write, very soon they would not want what he did write, he replied to my saying that Verdi's most popular opera was written to order, that a similar request from an editor gave him a hint from which he wrote one of his best essays. The controversy which Father started and which President Roosevelt joined and in which he coined the phrase "nature fakers" did Father much good in that it quickened his thoughts and stimulated him in many ways. He received many abusive letters, which only amused and entertained him, and in all it made a most interesting episode. In one of his letters from Washington he wrote: "At the Carnegie dinner I met Thompson Seton. He behaved finely and asked to sit next me at dinner. He quite won my heart." That was March 31, 1903. In checking up the statements made by the "nature fakers" Father's own power of observation was much sharpened and he became more alert. And receiving pay for articles that he wrote on the subject was an added source of fun; it was like spoils captured from the enemy. I remember well one day on the Champlain Canal we stopped at noon and Father said hilariously: "We'll all go to the hotel for dinner. We won't bother to cook dinner, we'll let the nature fakers pay for our dinner!" Like everyone else he had his blind side, things he looked at without seeing, things that had no interest or message for him. On March 1, 1908, he wrote: "That slip in the _Outlook letter irritates me. But any one can see it was a slip of the pen--nothing can drift to windward--things drift to leeward. I see how they are laughing at me in the last number."

One first-hand observation Father made I can never forget. The joke was entirely on him, but he laughed and saw only the nature facts. In going up to Maine on a fishing expedition we had to wait for hours in the woods at a junction. While waiting we went down to a fall, where the brown waters of a small river poured down over many ledges of sandstone. In this sandstone were worn many pot-holes, some of them perfect, and of all sizes. In one about the size of a butter tub was a sucker, a measly fish about a foot long. Nothing else to do, Father pulled off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, and getting down on his knees he began to chase this sucker about the pot-hole to catch him. The sucker went around and around very deliberately until just the right moment arrived when, with a sudden burst, he threw at least half the water in the pool into Father's face. The sucker went down with the miniature flood to a larger pot-hole below. Father was soaked, choked, strangled, and blinded with the water, but when he had shaken himself and blown the water from his mouth and nose and wiped his eyes he said: "Now if that had been a trout he would have been so rattled that he would have jumped right out here on the rocks, but you see you can't rattle a sucker!"

There was one subject that Father always took seriously, and that was the question of his diet. In his youth he had known nothing of proper diet, and though the wholesome, home-made food on the farm had been the best possible thing for him, in his early manhood he had been most intemperate in his eating--"eating a whole pie at one sitting," he said. He loved to recall that when he had the measles he was ordered by the doctor to drink nothing, and when his thirst got to an unbearable point he arose, dressed, climbed out of the bedroom window and got some lemonade, of which he drank about a quart--"and I got well at once," he would add with a laugh. I wrote some verses about his eating experiments and I never knew whether he was amused or hurt. He said rather soberly, the only mention he ever made of them: "I have a new rule now, so you can add another verse to your poem."

Mother was taken sick in Georgia, where she and Father were spending the winter, the winter of 1915-16, and in March, 1917, she died here at West Park. Father had gone away. Though we all knew she could not recover, we all thought she would live until he returned, but she did not, and from Cuba, where the news reached him, he wrote a beautiful tribute. Later, after his return, we laid her to rest among her family in the little cemetery in Ton Gore, the town where Father first taught school so many years ago. One by one he had seen his family go, and many of his friends. I remember that when I told him of a princess whom Carlyle said outlived her own generation and the next and into the next, he said, "How lonely she must have been!" and much of this loneliness came into his sighs and into his thoughts as he felt himself nearing the grave. As he sat at his desk in the little study, his feet wrapped in an old coat, an open fire snapping in the fireplace, his pen turned more and more to the great question. Even in 1901 he wrote from Roxbury, at the time of the death of his sister Abigail:


I am much depressed, but must not indulge my grief, our band of brothers and sisters has not been broken since Wilson died, thirty-seven years ago. Which of us will go next? In the autumn weather in the autumn of our days we buried our sister beside her husband.

 

In the same letter, from his own experience he says:

I can understand your want of sympathy with the new college youth. You have learned one of the lessons of life, namely, that we cannot go back --cannot repeat our lives. There is already a gulf between you and those college days. They are of the past. You cannot put yourself in the place of the new men. The soul constantly demands new fields, new experiences.


In 1905 he wrote:

In this mysterious intelligence which rules and pervades nature and which is focussed and gathered up in the mind of man and becomes conscious of itself--what becomes of it at death? Does it fall back again into nature as the wave falls back into the ocean, to be gathered up and focussed in other minds?


During Mother's last illness she was tenderly cared for by an old friend of the family, Dr. Clara Barrus, who then took up the burden of caring for Father, not only safeguarding his health, but helping him in his literary work as well.

On November 23, 1921, we said good-bye in the station in Poughkeepsie. I looked forward to seeing him in the spring with so much joy. But he was very sad, and his hand felt frail in mine. His last letter, written in a broken, running hand, so different from the swift, virile up-and-down hand of thirty years ago, came from California, where he was urging me to join the party.

So characteristic of him and of his love of a dog and all the homely things is the line "Scratch Jack's back for me." I had written him that I was anxious to see smoke coming out of his study chimney once more, and this simple thought gave him much pleasure. But it was not to be.

 


La Jolla, California, Jany. 26 (1921)

DEAR JULIAN,

Your letters come promptly and are always very welcome. We all keep well. Eleanor is back again and is driving the car. Ursie is getting fat, she drinks only filtered water, as we all do. I have had attacks of my old trouble, but a dose of Epsom salts every morning is fast curing me of them. It is still cold here and has been showery for a week or two. Shriner is painting my portrait and has got a fine thing.

We are booked to return on Mch. 25th. We shall go to Pasadena Feb. 3rd, our address there will be Sierra Madre. It is about six miles from Pasadena in Pasadena Glen. How I wish you could be here for those last two months. Yesterday Shriner took us for a long drive over in El Cajon valley and we saw a wonderful farming country, the finest I have yet seen in California, miles of orange and lemon orchards and grape vines and cattle ranches. For the past week we can see snow on the mountains nearer by than I have ever seen it. We can just see the peak of old Baldie, white as ever. As I write a big airplane is going north out over the sea.

I wish you would have Taroni or some one bring me a load of wood for my study fire.

I am bidding farewell to La Jolla and California. I never expect to return: it is too far, too expensive, and too cold. I long to see the snow again and to feel a genuine cold and escape from this "aguish" chill. I hope you all keep well. Scratch Jack's back for me. Love to Emily and Betty and John,

Your loving father,

J. B.


(THE END)
John Burroughs's Book: My Boyhood

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