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My Boyhood - My Father By Julian Burroughs Post by :kippstips Category :Nonfictions Author :John Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :2852

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My Boyhood - My Father By Julian Burroughs

The earliest recollection that I have of Father was of one spring day when he was chasing and stoning the cat, our pet cat, who had caught a bluebird. I remember the fierce look in the cat's eyes, and her nose flattened over the back of blue, her nervously twitching tail, and the speed and strength with which Father pursued her, and the language he used, language that impressed me, at least, if not the cat, and which discredited the cat and her ancestry as well. As I remember it we rescued the bluebird, and there the picture fades. Just how Father himself looked then I do not know; doubtless, childlike, I accepted him as a matter of course, along with all the other interesting things in this world in which I was finding myself. Again I remember riding on his shoulder in the downstairs hall, as he skipped about with me, and of being face to face, on equal terms, with the hall lamp, and of telling Father that when I grew up I was going to be a king, and of Father telling me at once that they hung kings on a sour-apple tree. It was always a sour-apple tree, never a sweet one, used for hangings. So I was glad to relinquish the idea of being a king and to become instead a "finder-out of things." How Father did laugh at that! He had been telling me something of his readings in astronomy and the sciences, just at that time coming into their own, and I was so impressed and fired with emulation that I, too, declared for wanting to be "a finder-out of things," and Father would repeat it and laugh heartily. It is a joy to think of him as he was then, virile in body, full fleshed, active, leading in walking and skating and swimming--what a flood of memories! What an interest he took in all the things I did, and how often a most active part. One day in May I had gone out with our one shot of shad net, and was to try an experiment. I had told Father that I would row a ways up the river and throw out the net and then row on up to the mouth of Black Creek and fish for perch, and when the tide turned would row out and take up the net, which would catch the flood slack not far above. What he thought I do not know, for he went to Dick Martin, an experienced shad fisherman, and told him what I was going to do. Dick hastened to tell him, in alarm, that what I intended was impossible, that there was a row of old stakes out from the black barn just below the mouth of Black Creek and that my net would get fast on these and I would lose it, and perhaps come to harm besides. So Father walked the two miles, hurrying up along the steep and rocky shore, and found me just coming out from the creek. He told me what Dick had said and got into the boat and we rowed out to the net, which was acting very queerly.

"You're fast now, boy, it's just as Dick said," he exclaimed as I rowed as hard as I could for the long line of buoys. Never can I forget the hour of alarm and distress, for me, that followed. The tide turned and the loitering flood gave way to the sweeping ebb, the dark water from the creek came rushing down on us, the buoys swirled and twisted in the running water and began to disappear one by one. We quickly got hold of the end and I picked up as much as I could; then Father got hold and tried to pull the net loose. He pulled and pulled until he literally pulled the stern of the skiff under water.

"You'll have to cut the net, it is the only way," he said finally, red- faced and panting, so we did cut the net, leaving a middle section there on the old stake in the bottom of the river. There is no denying that it was thoughtful of him to come, and that he had my safety and welfare at heart. Though I was always cautious and wise to the way of the river, something might have happened and my bones might be there beside the old stake--and what a lot I would have missed!--or as Father once so aptly expressed it: "I'm not afraid to die, but I enjoy so much living!"

He was always cautioning me, and worrying about me when I was out on the river, especially at night, and yet he took chances that I would not take. In the early days here at Riverby there was no railroad on this side of the Hudson, and to get a train one must cross the river. In summer one hung out a white flag from West Park dock and Bilyou would row over for you, but when there was ice in the river one must walk or stay home. In zero weather it was only a matter of a long walk over the ice, often facing a blast of below-zero wind, but when the March thaws had begun one took one's life very lightly to venture on the ice. The thawing water cut away the ice from underneath, leaving no mark on the surface, weakening it in spots, and if one went through, the tide swept him under the ice, where the water was at least cold enough to chill one and make death easy. On such a day Father crossed the river on a crack, for, strange to say, one of the big cracks that always come in the ice had pushed or folded down, and not up, and the water had frozen over, making a streak of triple-thick ice, and on this streak he crossed the Hudson, the ice so far gone from the sun, so honeycombed and rotten, that he could stick his cane through on either side of his crack! Another time he was crossing in early April with his dog, and when in the middle of the river, which is a full half mile wide at Riverby, busy with his thoughts, he suddenly saw his dog running for the shore, which apparently was moving away rapidly toward New York! But the shores were standing eternally still; the ice it was that moved, and was moving up with the flood tide, moving just the width of a big canal that the ice harvesters had cut above. When the tide turned, about an hour later, all the ice went out of the river.

When first Father saw some smokeless powder he was surprised at its appearance, and would not believe it was powder, until he threw some on the hot stove. I used it in our old shotgun and he was much alarmed, yet he told me that in his hunt for Thomas's Lake, of which he speaks in "Wake Robin," he loaded his little muzzle-loading gun with an entire handful of powder and then, for he felt it would burst, he held it at arm's length over his head to fire. This he did time after time, in his attempt to signal to his companions. The little gun survived the ordeal and hangs now in the gun room. With it is the little cane gun, a small shotgun that looked exactly like a cane, but which was quite effective for small birds, and which he used when making collections of birds about Washington. Strangely enough for those days, it was against the law to shoot birds, and mounted guards enforced this law. Father would tell with glee how he would shoot a bird he wanted for his collection, and in a moment the guard would come rushing up, asking who fired the shot, and Father would tell him it was just over the rise of ground, or behind those trees, or something, and off would hurry the guard while Father picked up his bird and reloaded his cane. It seems queer to us now--to think of John Burroughs as shooting and mounting song birds, making collections to be set up on a tree behind glass, but he did, for in those days they were quite the proper thing, cases of them, fitting enough for museums, often being seen in private homes. I can remember taking lessons in taxidermy from Father, and of skinning and mounting wildfowl, and today there are a loon and a prairie chicken here in the house at Riverby that he mounted in those early years. The collections of birds he made are scattered far and wide or were destroyed long ago. All of them were shot with the little muzzle-loading cane gun or with a little muzzle-loading fowling piece: those were the days of the ramrod and wasps' or hornets' nests gathered and used for wadding, and the superstition, which Father often expressed, that if you spilled or dropped a shot in loading, it was your game shot, the one that would have killed and without which the shot would miss. I can see the fascinating-looking black powder now, scintillating as Father poured it from the palm of his short brown hand into the muzzle of the gun.

There was one quality which Father possessed to a marked degree and which I always envied him, a thing small in itself, yet which enabled him to accomplish what he did in literature, and that was the ability to lay aside the business or cares of life, as one would hang up one's hat, absolutely and completely, and turn to his writing. The world will think of him as a poet naturalist, as a gentle sage and philosopher, when he was in truth a literary craftsman, and one who could never give but a portion of his time and effort to his life's work until he was sixty years of age. I first remember him as a bank examiner. I remember his going away for trips to examine banks, of his packing his valise and putting on a white or "boiled" shirt, the gold cuff buttons, his combing his beard, the wonder and mystery of it all. Then he became a "mugwump" and the new party gave his bank-examining to someone else; and, as he expressed it, "I had to stir my stumps," and he took up the raising of fine grapes.

Just as his boyhood had the cow for its centre of interest, mine had the Delaware grape. And Father made a success of his vineyards. I can see him now summer pruning, he on one side of the row, I on the other, "pulling down" as we called the summer pruning, or he was stamping lids or tying up bundles of baskets. Many of the lids had sawdust on them which had to be blown or brushed off before they could be stamped. Father acquired the habit of blowing, and he got so used to it that he would blow anyway, whether or not the lid needed it; if it did not he would blow straight ahead and I would laugh at him for it, and he would raise his eyebrows and half smile, meaning, that it was something he could indulge himself in. He once wrote of his grandson:

"I had the rare good fortune to be born in the country upon a farm and to share in the duties and responsibilities of farm life. My poor grandson John is not so lucky in this respect and he has not had to pick up potatoes and stone and gather apples and husk corn and hoe corn and spread and rake hay and drive the cows and hunt up the sheep in the mountain and spread manure and weed the garden and clean the cow stables, and so on, and go two miles through snow-choked fields and woods to school in winter and have few books to read and see no illustrated papers or magazines. John has the movies by night and his bicycle by day and a graded school to attend and a hundred aids and spurs where I had none. My fate was better than John's and I can but hope he has advantages that I did not have that may offset the advantages I had."

In this case I know that time and distance lend enchantment, for of the hard work in the vineyards Father did very little--the cultivating with a horse on days so hot that the horse was covered with lather and the dust rose in a cloud over one's perspiration-soaked clothes, the days following the spray cart with the lime and blue vitriol flying in one's face and running down one's legs, the tying in March and early April until one's fingers were raw and one's neck ached from reaching up--of all these and other tasks he knew nothing. Often he said of himself that he was lazy; and, though what he accomplished in his life stands like a monument in one sense of the word, he was lazy. Routine work, a daily grind at tasks for which he had no liking, would have shortened his days and perhaps even embittered him. Yet with what eagerness he went at his writing! For sixty years and over he found his greatest joy in his craft--as he once wrote me, "There is no joy like it, when sap runs there is no fun like writing." As he said of his books in a preface to a new edition, "Very little real 'work' has gone into them." One day out at La Jolla, California, up on the hillside overlooking the blue Pacific there was a gathering in one of the biological laboratories and the school children came trooping in. Father was asked to talk to them and among other things he asked them if a bee got honey from the flowers. "No," he said, "the bee gets nectar from the flower, a thin sweetish liquid which the bee, by processes in its own body, turns into honey." I have always suspected that Father liked to think of himself as a bee, out in the sunshine and warmth, in the fields and woods, among the flowers, gathering delightful impressions of it all which with his handicraft he could preserve in an imperishable form that others might also enjoy. And does a bee really work? Is it not doing exactly what it enjoys or wants to do? Does it have to make any conscious effort to fare forth among the flowers? Does it have to keep on doing what it dislikes to do long after it is tired out? So whether the life of John Burroughs was one long life of happiness and lazy play, or whether it was one of hard work, depends, like so many other things, on the point of view. I like to think of his long and happy life as one in which he turned all work to play, and in so doing he accomplished mightily.

Often Father tried to account for himself, how he happened to break away from the life of his family and early environment so absolutely and completely and become, not a weak, easy-going, though picturesque farmer in the farther Catskills, but a man of letters, a unique and picturesque literary craftsman. "I had it in my blood, I guess," he once said. With it he had what most of us have, the love of the woods and fields and the hunting and fishing. Trout fishing, the most delightful of all, had for him a perennial charm, and bee-hunting, too, and camping out, exploring new streams and woods. All this was fostered and developed by his farm life and early associations, and then when he became vault keeper in the Treasury Department in Washington he was shut up away from it all with nothing to do but look at the steel doors. Almost without being able to do otherwise he began to live over again the delightful days he had spent afield by writing of them. He was like an exile dreaming of his native land. Nature has a trick of casting a spell over those who spend their days with her so that when the day is gone only the memories of the delights of it remain and these become ever more beautiful and highly coloured with time. To the homesick young man, shut up in the vault in Washington, the scenes of his native hills took on a beauty and charm they never could have done had he remained there among those very hills where his eyes and senses could drink their fill every hour. It seems to me like a lucky chance that his ambition to write, already manifest and firmly fixed, took the course it did, writing about Nature.

"I must have been a sport," he says of himself--a born word worshipper, a man fired with unquenchable literary ambition, a lover of the best of the world's books, born of parents who knew not the meaning even of the words. I doubt very much that any of his immediate family, that is of his own generation, read a line in any of his books. His sister told him not to write, that "it was bad for the head"--how different he was from them all is shown in an incident Mother once related, and which can be told only with a word of explanation. During the war he and Mother had gone "out home," as he always spoke of visiting the parents on the homestead, and during dinner Grandfather exclaimed: "I'd like to see Abe Lincoln hung higher than Haman and I'd like to have hold of the rope!" Father sat speechless with pain and amazement, then silently pushing back his plate he rose and silently walked from the room. Then Grandmother "went for" Grandfather. But Grandfather did not realize what he was saying, and he would have been one of the very last to have harmed Lincoln, or any one else for that matter. The incident shows how different those passionate, intense, and bitter-feeling times were from ours, and how the spread of the magazines and the illustrated papers has broadened and mellowed the feelings of the people.

Father often spoke of his joy when the _Atlantic accepted his first article, the one on "Expression" which was attributed to Emerson-- he felt a new world had opened up for him, new worlds to explore and conquer with unlimited possibilities. His ambition to write got a tremendous incentive. At that time he was teaching school at a small town near Newburgh and when Saturday came he wanted to go into the parlour for his day's work. That was the time of the supremacy of the parlour, the darkened room held sacred for special occasions, funerals, and Sunday company and such, and Mother had no notion of its order being disturbed and its sanctity profaned by such a frivolous thing as writing--she locked the door. I think Father took it as an insult, not to himself, but to his calling, a deadly insult to his god of literature, and in what to me was a fine and noble and justifiable frenzy he smashed and kicked the door into "smithereens." I applaud; I'm glad he did it; he proved himself worthy of his chosen god. Mother no doubt cried. Poor demolished door--a small and material sacrifice indeed for the great god of letters!

Those years were hard ones in many ways for Father, the years in the late '50's when he was teaching school and trying many things, trying to find himself and make a living and appease the material ambitions of Mother. One summer he spent on the old homestead and grew onions; the seed he used was poor, few came up, and a summer of hard work, for both him and Mother, came to nothing. For a time he studied medicine in the office of Doctor Hull near Ashokan, and there, sitting in the little office at a spot now just on the edge of the water of what is now the great Ashokan Reservoir, he wrote his poem, "Waiting." One cannot but marvel at the prophecy of it, the vision of the discouraged boy of twenty-five every line of which has had such a fulfilment. He tried several ventures, blindly groping, hoping for success which never came to any of them. One of his ventures was a share in a patent buckle from which he was to get rich, but from which he got losses and discouragement--in fact, he had borrowed money to go into it and on his non-payment he was arrested and brought up the river on a night boat. Waking when the boat stopped at Newburgh and finding his guard was asleep, he got up and dressed and went ashore. His arrest was not legal anyway, and soon the matter was settled. He continued to teach, and finally, in the early years of the war, drifted to Washington. A friend of his wanted him to come, saying there were many opportunities and also holding out the inducement that he could meet Walt Whitman. Finally he got a position in the Treasury Department and from Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury, in his "Men and Measures of Half a Century," we get a picture of the young John Burroughs seeking a job, a picture that Father said was not accurate, but which at least shows how he impressed a man used to seeing many job-seekers:

One day a young man called at my office and said to me that he understood that the force of the bureau was to be increased, and that he should be glad to be employed. I asked him if he had any recommendations. "I have not," he replied; "I must be my own." I looked at his sturdy form and intelligent face, which impressed me so favourably that I sent his name to the Secretary, and the next day he was at work as a twelve-hundred-dollar clerk. I was not mistaken. He was an excellent clerk, competent, faithful, willing.

And Father has said that of the hundred dollars a month he received, he and Mother saved just half. And the real cost of living then was as high as it is now; the actual cost of food and clothing and the manner of living have changed. Father's first book: "Notes on Walt Whitman, Poet and Person," published in 1867, now long out of print, a small brown volume with gilt lettering, was brought out in those Washington days. The book was not a success and though Father took a loss on its publication, he did not have to deduct it from his income tax. Of all that life there in Washington he has spoken so much in his books, "Winter Sunshine," "Indoor Studies," "Whitman, a Study," and so on that I will leave it and return to the vineyard here on the banks of the Hudson.

It was in 1872 that Father and Mother came here and bought about a nine- acre place, sloping from the road down to the water, living for a time, nearly a year, in a small house up by the road, during which time they were building the stone house, the building of which Father has described in "Roof-Tree." He had wanted a stone house, and here was plenty of stone, "wild stone" as a native called them, to be picked up, weathered and soft in colouring, only a short haul and a few touches with the hammer or peen needed to make them into building stone. He has often spoken of Mother's first visit to her new home, just as the foundation was nicely started, and of her grief and disappointment when she saw the size of the building. The foundation of a house, open to the sky, gives no idea of the size of the finished building, and it was in vain that Father tried to explain this. "I showed her the plans," he often said, "so many feet this way and so many that, such a size to this room and such a size to that, but it was no use, she cried and took on at a great rate." Father was bank receiver then, getting three thousand a year, and on that he was building this big, three-story stone house. He took great pleasure in it--he loved to tell of the Irish mason who went off on a drunk just when he was working on the stone chimney. Disgusted at the delay Father went up, and with hammer and trowel went at the chimney himself, and the sobering mason could see him from Hyde Park, across the river. When he was sober enough to come back and go on with his work he carefully inspected what Father had done and exclaimed, "and you are a hondy mon, ye are."

The southwest bedroom on the third floor Father was to have for his room, his study, where he could write. This room he panelled to the ceiling with native woods: maple, oak, beech, birch, tulip, and others, and I like to think of his happy anticipation, his dreams of the happy hours he would spend in this room, and of the writing he would do. But he did no writing here, for a few years later he built the bark-covered study down on the edge of the bank, then a few years later yet he built Slabsides, two miles over the low mountain. It was there, especially in the study, that he did the bulk of all his literary work.

Mother was a materialist; she never rated literary efforts very high; she often seemed to think that Father should do the work of the hired man and then do his writing nights and holidays. She could see no sense in taking the best hours of the day for "scribbling," and it was only in the later years when Father had a steady income from his writings that her point of view softened. She was what they called in those days a "good housekeeper" and she kept it so well that Father had to move out for his working hours, first to the study, then two miles away. When it came to housework, Mother possessed the quality called inevitableness to an extraordinary degree. She had a way of fastening a cloth about her head, a sort of forerunner of the boudoir cap of to-day, a means of protecting her hair from any imaginary dust, and this became a symbol, a battle flag of the goddess of housecleaning. Father was ordered out of the library, where he did his writing, and his thread was rudely broken; it was a day when sap did not run. For a high-strung, temperamental being, hasty and quick tempered, I think he showed wonderful patience, a patience that does him great credit. And yet in many ways Mother was an invaluable helpmate, she was a balance wheel that kept their world moving steadily, and I am sure saved Father from many mistakes and extravagances.

It was only years afterward, when he began to ship grapes, that Father named his place "Riverby." He had been reading a book of adventure to me, Stevenson's "Black Arrow," and in it there was a place named "Shoreby," or "by-the-shore." This suggested the name of "Riverby," or "by-the-river," to Father for his place. So it was adopted and became the trademark, "Riverby Vineyards," an oval stamp with a bunch of grapes in the middle and the address below. It became the name of the place, the name of one of Father's books, and was stamped on the lid of every crate or basket of grapes.

Father was an absolutely honest man, honest not only in packing a crate of grapes, but honest as to his own weaknesses and shortcomings. I can never forget how he admired an exclamation attributed to General Lee at Gettysburg. Pickett had made his famous charge and his veterans had come back, a few of them, defeated, and Lee said to them, "It's all my fault, boys!" "That is the true spirit of greatness," Father said, thoughtfully. And when the _Titanic went down in mid-ocean with such a loss of life, and the order was for the women and children first to the lifeboats, men to keep back, Father said: "That took real grit. I hope I'll never have to face such a crisis."

At another time the boys were stealing his grapes, the first Delawares, not yet ripe enough, and then scattering the bunches they could not eat along the road. Father wrapped himself in a waterproof and at dark sat down under one of the vines to wait. Strange to say, he went to sleep, and stranger still one of the boys did come, and came to the very vine under which Father was sleeping. He was instantly awake and, watching his chance, jumped up and grabbed the boy. There was a swift scrimmage, the boy breaking away and fleeing. As he went over the stone wall Father clinched him and they went over together, taking the top of the wall over on them. Father being hampered by his coat, the boy was able to break away and fled up the hill toward the road where he had left his bicycle. He was unable to get away on it, however, and ran away into the night, leaving his bicycle as hostage. In the morning when I came down I found Father like a boy with a new toy. "Come out in the wash-house and see my prisoner," he laughed, and could hardly contain himself for the fun of it all. I came, and there stood the bicycle, and Father danced a war dance about it. Later the boy came and owned up and insisted on paying something, but in all kindliness Father would not of course take any of the boy's hard-earned money. He simply explained the situation to him and I am sure the boy never came back, as he might have done if he had not been treated generously. At another time some boys from across the river were caught red-handed stealing grapes. After scaring them for a time, Father gave them some grapes and sent them home. He was always cautioning us about cutting grapes, to cut only such as we would be willing to eat ourselves not to mislead or cheat the purchaser. One of his first letters, written thirty years ago, is mainly about the vineyards--it is written on paper made to imitate birch bark, and written in a swift, up and down hand that is almost as easily read as the best printing:

Onteora Club, July 25, 1891.


I want you to write me when you receive this if the dog has turned up yet. If he has not you better drive down to Bundy's again and see if he has been there. Also tell me if the hawk flies, etc. Has there been a heavy rain, and has it done any damage to the vineyard? It rained very hard here the night I arrived. If it has damaged the vineyard I will come back. Look about and see if there is any grape rot yet. I want Zeke to send me a crate of those pears there in the currants.... It is very pleasant up here, but I fear I will be dined and tead and drove and walked until I am sick. I have had no good sleep yet. Mr. Johnson of the _Century is here. We sleep in a large fine tent. It is in the woods and is just like camping out, except that we do not have a bed of boughs. It is warm and rainy here this morning. Tell me if you and your mother are going out to Roxbury, or anywhere else. Tell Northrop to send on my letters if there are any. I have not received any yet. Tell me what Dude and Zeke have been doing.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.


The dog spoken of was Dan, or Dan Bundy-ah, a pretty medium-sized dog that won Father's heart and was bought for two dollars, which seemed a big price for a dog then, of a workman who helped us in the vineyards. He was always running off home. "It breaks a dog all up to change his home, or rather household; it makes of him a citizen of the world," said Father. How he did love a nice dog! Even in his last illness he often spoke of the one we owned; he had a true feeling of comradeship for a dog.

The hawk referred to is the young marsh hawk we got from the nest and raised ourselves. I know it fell to me to supply this hawk with food: English sparrows, red squirrels, and small game, a ceaseless undertaking and one which took most of my time, so much so that Mother took me to task for it time and again. When later Father "wrote up" the hawk and got something for the article I felt that I should be paid for what I had been compelled to endure in the cause! "Fifty cents for every scolding I got," was what I demanded. "You are getting your pay now," Father replied as he watched me eat.

Did the rain do any damage to the vineyard?--Yes, that was a fear that was always present. The steep side hills would often wash very badly, the soil being carried down the hill, costing us much labour in bringing it back. When there was a slack time there was always dirt to drag up the steep slopes. I know one time some of it was carried up the hill by hand. We nailed two sticks for handles on a box and Charley and I spent days carrying this box full of dirt up a very steep spot--"just like two jackasses," Father exclaimed in fun. Though he could say in his poem--

"I rave no more 'gainst time or fate"

he did often rave against the weather, especially the "mad, intemperate," as he called them, summer showers. Once there was a hailstorm. We were "out home," and after supper Mother brought forth a telegram, saying, "I did not give you this until after you had eaten." Even I was conscious of the tactless way she did it, the household looking on. With drawn face Father slowly opened and read: "Hailstorm, grapes all destroyed." How limp Father felt! He said: "I had complimented myself when I looked at those grapes. I had seen several statements that grapes would bring a good price this fall." Well, we found that half of them could be saved and that the terrific hailstorm had extended over only two vineyards--the path of the storm not half a mile across in either direction, a curious freak, but one that in ten minutes took away all profits for the year.

If I can invent a phrase I will say that Father had the pride of humility; that is, he had the true spirit of the craftsman--pride in and for his work, and not pride of self. Nothing was too good for his art, nothing too poor for himself. The following letter, written twenty-eight years ago, gives us a glimpse of himself as he was then, alone and introspective. There evidently had been a family jar, something that came far too frequently, and Father was alone here at Riverby.


West Park, July 24, (1893).


Your letter is rec'd. Glad you are going to try the hay field. Don't try to mow away. But in the open air I think you can stand it. It is getting very dry here. I think you had a fine shower Saturday night about eight o'clock. I stood on the top of Slide Mountain at that hour all alone and I could look straight into the heart of the storm and when it lightened I could see the rain sweeping down over the Roxbury hills. The rain was not heavy on Slide and I was safely stowed away under a rock. I left here Friday afternoon, went up to Big Indian where I stayed all night. I found Mr. Sickley and his family boarding there at Dutchers. Saturday I tried to persuade Mr. S. to go with me to Slide, but he had promised his party to go another way. So I pushed on alone with my roll of blankets on my back. I was very hot and I drank every spring dry along the route. I reached the top of Slide about two o'clock and was glad after all to have the mountain all to myself. It is very grand. I made myself a snug camp under a shelving rock. Every porcupine on the mountain called on me during the night, but I slept fairly well. I stayed till noon on Sunday, when I went down to Dutchers. I made the trip easily and without fatigue, tramping 13 miles that hot Saturday with my traps. Big Indian valley is very beautiful. Monday morning Mr. Sickley walked down to the station with me and I got home on the little boat, well paid for my trip. I doubt if I come up to Roxbary now, I fear the air will not agree with me. Do not follow your mother's example in one respect, that is, do not think very highly of yourself and very meanly of other people; but rather reverse it--think meanly of yourself and well of other people-- think anything is good enough for yourself and nothing too good for others. The berries are about done--too dry for them. I may go to Johnsons and Gilders, am not in the mood yet. Write me when you get this. Love to all.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.


In these early letters to me he always signed his name in full, something he never did later.

The blankets were two army blankets, of a blue-gray with two blackish stripes at each end: they were smoke-scented from a hundred camp fires and there were holes burned in them from sparks. They had been in many woods and forests.

The berries so lightly spoken of were those of a large patch below the study, a venture which Father made in small fruit and which he was glad enough not to repeat. The berries were too insistent in their demands; they just had to be picked over every day or they wept little reddish tears and became too soft to be shipped. When Father bought the place it was nearly all out in red berries--the old Marlboroughs and Antwerps and Cuthberts, and Father continued them until they tried his patience beyond endurance.

In winter there were no grapes or berries and for a time Father went on some lecture trips, but only for a time, for he was too nervous, too easily embarrassed, too excitable for lecturing. It took too much out of him. Somewhere, something unpleasant happened, and for a long time afterward he did not give a formal lecture, if he ever did make a formal address.

He told one of his audiences that Emerson said we gain strength by doing what we do not like to do, and everyone laughed, for it was exactly the way Father felt about his lecturing. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a pretty good time while on a lecture trip, as the following letter, written when away lecturing, will show:

Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 6, '96.


Things have gone very well with me so far. I reached Boston Sunday night at 9:05. I went to the Adams house that night. Monday at 3 P. M. I went out to Lowell and spoke before the women--a fine lot of them. I got along very well. One of them took me home to dinner. I came back to the Adams house at 9 o'clock. Tuesday night I went home with Kennedy and stayed all night. Wednesday I came out to Cambridge to the house of Mrs. Ole Bull, who had sent me an invitation. I am with her now: it is raining furiously all day. To-night I am to speak before the Procopeia club, and to-morrow night before the Metaphysical Society. I met Clifton Johnson in Boston and I am going to his place on Saturday and may stay over Sunday or I may come home on the 5:04 train Sunday.... I saw some Harvard professors last night. I hope you and your mother keep well and live in peace and quiet. Love to you both.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.


One of the enemies we had to fight in the vineyard was the rot, the black rot, an imported disease of the grape that for a few years swept everything. Then spraying with the Bordeaux mixture of lime and copper sulphate checked and finally stopped it altogether--but it was the early sprayings that counted. One year I remember Father neglected this, in his easy, optimistic way, and later, when the rot began, spraying was in vain, and I know that I took him to task for it, to my regret now. The following letter speaks of this and of my going to college, something we did not consider until the last moment. Father, not being a college man, had not thought of it:

Lee, Mass., July 21 (1897).


I rec'd your letter this morning. I am having a nice time here, but think I shall go back home this week, as the rot seems to be working in the Niagaras quite badly, and the rain and heat continue. Mr. Taylor is dead and buried. He died the day I left (Friday). Rodman likes Harvard very much and says he will do anything he can for you He says if you want to mess in Memorial Hall you ought to put your name down at once. There is a special Harvard student here, a Mr. Hickman, who is tutoring Mr. Gilder's children. I like him very much. He is in the Lawrence Scientific School--about your age and a fine fellow--from Nova Scotia. I have been to the Johnsons at Stockbridge. Owen is in love with Yale and wants you to come there. Owen will be a writer, he has already got on the Yale "Lit." He is vastly improved and I like him much. We had a five mile walk together yesterday. Rodman I think will be a journalist. He is already one of the editors of a Harvard paper--"The Crimson" I think. The country here is much like the Delaware below Hobart. I shall stop at Salisbury to visit Miss Warner and then home Friday or Saturday. I will write to my publishers to send you Hill's Rhetoric. I think you better come home early next week and stop with me at SS. Love to all.

Your loving father,


If the grapes fail we will try to raise the money for your Harvard expenses. At the end of 1898, I expect to get much more money from my books--at least $1,500 a year.

This last was in pencil, a postscript. Evidently Father had the grape rot in mind, but at this date, July 21st, the die was cast; there was nothing one could do then. If they had been properly sprayed in May and June one could laugh at the black rot, but very likely Father had not attended to it; that is, he had made the hired man spray. He had other fish to fry, as he often said. To me the marvel of it all is that he had so many irons in the fire and was always able to write. The different properties that Father accumulated in his lifetime were alone enough to take all his time were it not for his happy nature and wonderful faculty of being able to put them aside when the muse nudged his elbow.

First he had the place here, Riverby, to which he added another nine acres later, clearing and ditching it all and getting it all out in the best grapes, the ones that made the most work and trouble: Delawares, Niagaras, Wordens, and Moore's Early. There were other kinds tried, the once famous Gaertner, Moore's Diamond, the Green Mountain or Winchell, and so on. And currants, too, acres of them set under and between the rows of grapes, and Bartlett pears, and peaches. As I write, a picture comes to mind of Father up in a peach tree, on a high step-ladder, picking peaches, and of some girls with cameras taking his picture and all laughing and the girls exclaiming; "At the mercy of the Kodakers"-- and Father enjoying the joke and picking out soft peaches for them. He liked to pick peaches. The big handsome fruit in its setting of glistening green leaves appealed to him, and as he said, "When I come to one too soft to ship I can eat it." I so vividly remember our carrying the filled baskets to the dock where they were shipped to town and Father being ahead with a basket on his shoulder and of his stumbling and going headlong, his head hanging over the steep ledge of rocks, the basket bursting in its fall and the peaches going far and wide over the rocks below. We gathered up the peaches, and Father was not hurt, though he fell so close to the top of the steep ledge that his head and shoulder hung over and his face got red in his struggle to hold himself back.

Then in the early nineties he bought the land and built Slabsides, clearing up the three acres of celery swamp; and for a while he spent much time there. "Wild Life About My Cabin" was one of the nature essays written of Slabsides. The cabin was covered with slabs, and Father wanted to give it a name that would stick, he said, one that would be easily associated with the place, and he certainly succeeded, for everyone knows of Slabsides. Uncle Hiram, Father's oldest brother, spent much time with him there, the two brothers, worlds apart in their mental make-up and their outlook, spending many lonely evenings together, Father reading the best philosophy or essays, Uncle Hiram drumming and humming under his breath, dreaming his dreams, too, but never looking at a book or even a magazine. Soon he would be asleep in his chair, and before the low-burning open fire Father would be dreaming his dreams, so many of which he made come true, listening to the few night sounds of the woods. Father tried hard to make Uncle Hiram's dreams come true. He gave him a home for many years and helped him with his bee-keeping and sympathized with him fully and understood his hope that "next year" the bees would pay and return all.

Someone caught a big copperhead, one of the meanest of all poisonous snakes, and one which is quite rare here, fortunately, and for a time Father kept it in a barrel near Slabsides. Later he grew tired of it, but he had not the heart to kill it, his prisoner. "After keeping a thing shut up and watching it every day I can't go out and kill it in cold blood," he said in half apology for his act. He told the man who worked on the swamp to carry the snake, barrel and all, up among the rocks and let him go. The man, when out of sight, promptly killed the snake. It seems to me that they were both right and the snake, though innocent himself, had to suffer.

It was about two miles to Slabsides, a good part of it through the woods, and some of it up a very steep hill. I can see Father starting off with his market basket on his arm, the basket as full of provisions and reading matter as his step was full of vigour. I'll admit he did often raid Mother's pantry, and he was not averse to taking pie and cake. In fact, he was brought up on cake largely, and always ate of it freely until these last years. "His folks," as Mother would say, always had at least three kinds of cake three times a day, and then more cake the last thing before going to bed. At Slabsides most of the cooking was done over the open fire--potatoes and onions baked in the ashes, lamb chops broiled over the coals, peas fresh from the garden--how Father did enjoy it all--the sweetness of things! He would hum:

"He lived all alone, close to the bone Where the meat is sweetest, he constantly eatest,"

and he liked to think of this old rhyme as applying to himself.

The interior of Slabsides was finished in birch and beech poles, with the bark on them, and much of the furniture he made of natural crooks and crotches. He always had his "eye peeled," as he said, for some natural piece of wood that he could use. The bittersweet has a way of winding itself about some sapling, and as the two grow it puts a mark about the tree that makes it look as though it were twisted. One such piece, a small hemlock, is over the fireplace, and Father would tell how he told the girls who visited Slabsides that he and the hired man twisted this stick by hand. "We told them we took it when it was green," he would laugh, as he told the story, "and twisted it as you see it, then fastened it and it dried or seasoned that way--and they believed it!" and he would chuckle over it mightily.

In 1913, Father was able, with the help of a friend, to buy the old homestead at Roxbury, and then he developed one of the farmhouses there, one built long ago by his brother Curtis, and thus made the third landmark in his life, any one of which was enough to occupy the time and care of one man. He called it Woodchuck Lodge, and the last years of his life were spent largely there, going out in June and returning in October.

At the time the following letter was written, Father spent much of his time at Slabsides and his interest in both the celery and lettuce grown there, as well as the grapes at Riverby, was most keen. The black duck referred to was one I had winged and brought home; it was excessively wild until we put it with the tame ducks, whereupon, as Father expressed it, "He took his cue from them and became tamer than the tame ones."


Slabsides, July 13, '97.


I enclose a circular from Amherst College that came to you yesterday. You would doubtless do as well or better at one of the small colleges as you would at Harvard. The instruction is quite as good. It is not the college that makes the man, but the reverse. Or you might go to Columbia this fall. You would be nearer home and have just as able instructors as at Harvard. Harvard has no first class men now. But if you have set your heart on Harvard, you would of course do just as well as a special student as if admitted to college. You would miss only non-essentials. Their sheep skin you do not want; all you want is what they can teach you.

It has rained here most of the time since you left. The grapes are beginning to rot and if this rain and heat continues we may lose all of them. If the grapes go I shall not have money for you to go away this year.

Another duck was killed Saturday night, one of the last brood. It looked like the work of a coon and I and Hiram watched all Sunday night with the gun, but nothing came and nothing came last night as we know of.

Let me know what you hear from your chum. I shall look for a letter from you to-night. It is still raining and at four o'clock the sky looks as thick and nasty as ever. It threatens to be like eight years ago when you and I were in the old house. Tell me what Mr. Tooker says, etc. I may go to Gilders the last of the week.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.

Your black duck is getting tame and does not hide at all.

It is hard for the present generation to realize what a shadow, or rather influence, the Civil War cast over the days of Father's generation. War veterans, parades, pensions, stories of the war--it coloured much of the life, civil, social, political, and even the literature of the day. Some have spoken of it, in architecture, as the General Grant Period. The "panoramas"--what has become of them? I remember visiting one with Father--you went into a building and up a flight of stairs and came out on a balcony, a round balcony in the centre, and all around was a picture of one of the battlefields of the war, bursting shells, men charging, falling, and all, always the two flags, smoke enshrouded. It made a great impression on my boyish mind. Father knew many war veterans and together we read the impressions of his friend, Charles Benton, "As Seen from the Ranks," and he kept up the friendships he had made those years he lived in Washington.



Washington, D. C.,

Mch. 2nd. (1897.)


I came on from N. Y. last night, left N. Y. at 3:30 and was here at 8:45, round trip $8, ticket good till next Monday. I had a nice time in N. Y. and improved all the time, though I was much broken of my sleep. I stayed with Hamlin Garland at the hotel New Amsterdam, I like him much, he is coming on here. I was out to dinner and to lunch every day. The _Century paid me $125 for another short article on bird songs. I wrote it the week before my sickness. It is lovely here this morning, warm and soft like April, the roads dusty. Baker's people are all well and very kind to me. They have a large house on Meridian Hill where it was all wild land when I lived here. I shall stay here until next Monday. Write me when you get this how matters go and how your mother is. Tell Hiram you have heard from me.

Your loving father,


When I went away to college in the fall of 1897 I was able to see our home life there at Riverby from a new angle, as one must often do, get a short distance away to get a clear perspective of a place. And it being my first time away from home Father wrote more frequently, and he dropped the formality of his earlier letters.


West Park, N. Y., Oct. 11. (1897.)


Your letter was here Monday morning. I am sorry you did not send some message to your mother in it. You know how quick she is to take offence. Why not hereafter address your letters to us both--thus "Dear Father and Mother." But write to her alone next time. How about that course in Geology given by Shaler? I thought you were going to take that? I had rather you take that than any course in English Composition. Read Ruskin's "Modern Painters" when you get a chance. Read Emerson's "English Traits" and his "Representative Men."

Send me some of the pictures you took at Slabsides of the Suter girls and any others that would interest me.

I go to-day to the Harrimans at Arden for two or three days. On Saturday last I had 25 Vassar girls at SS and expect more this Saturday. Lown said Black Creek was full of ducks on Sunday--I see but few on the river. Give my love to the Suter girls.... Much fog here lately.

Your affectionate father, J. B.

Ducks in Black Creek--it was tantalizing to read that! It brought back the memories of the days Father and I hunted them there--I shall never forget how impressed he was by one duck, so impressed that he spoke of it at length in an article he wrote--"The Wit of a Duck." He was paddling me up the sun-lit reaches of the Shataca on Black Creek when suddenly two dusky mallards or black ducks tore out of the willow herb and dodder and came like the wind over our heads. I was using a high- powered duck gun, and brought down both ducks, one, however, with a broken wing. The duck came tumbling down and with a fine splash struck the water, where for a moment it shone and glistened in the sun. And that was all, the duck was gone instantly, we never saw it again. What happened of course was that the duck dived, using its other wing and feet, and came up in the brush, where it hid, no doubt with only half an inch of its bill out of water. Its presence of mind, working instantly and without hesitation, caused Father to exclaim in wonder.

Father was never a sportsman in the strict sense--he never had a shotgun that was really good for anything, or any hunting dogs or hunting clothes--a pair of rubber boots used for trout fishing was as far as he got in that direction--unless the soft felt hat, gray, torn, with some flies or hooks stuck in the band, could be counted. He was an expert trout fisherman, but was not averse to using grasshoppers, worms, live bait, or caddis fly larvae. I know we stood one day in the Shataca and Father shot and shot at the black ducks that flew overhead, and he bemoaned his lack of skill in not being able to bring them down. "Dick Martin would bring those fellows down every time," he would say. As I look back on it with the light of later experience I am sure the ducks were out of range, and the borrowed gun was a weak poor thing, not a duck gun. We built ourselves a bough house out on a little island in the swamp and got in it, crouched down, and soon some ducks came down, down, lowering their feet to drop in the water. "Don't shoot, Poppie, don't shoot!" I exclaimed, and he did not shoot, and to this day he never knew why I gave such bad advice--I was afraid of the noise of the gun! Father thought I wanted him to wait until they were nearer. But the chance never came again and we went home duckless.

In one of his essays Father spoke of a large family as being like a big tree with many branches which, though it was exposed to the perils of the storms and all enemies of trees, had as compensation more of the sun, more places for birds and their nests, more beauty, and so on. I told him that Balzac expressed the same idea in fewer words, and for a moment he looked worried. Balzac said, "Our children are our hostages to Fate." And each way of expressing the similar idea is characteristic of the man. In many ways Father was like a wide-spreading tree--his intense nature was one that caught all the sun and beauty of life, enough and more to compensate for the sorrow and pain he knew. To adventures out- of-doors, the rise of a big trout to his fly, the sudden appearance of some large wild animal, how his whole nature would react! He was well aware of this trait and often spoke of it--in fact, he had no desire to be cold and calculating before either the unusual or beautiful in nature. Something as illustrating this trait of his comes vividly to mind: one early March day I was out duck hunting here on the Hudson and Father was watching me from shore with field glasses. He was sitting in a sunny nook beside the high rocks below the hill. I was out in the drifting ice with my duck boat, which I had painted to resemble a cake of ice, and was very carefully paddling up on a flock of about a hundred Canada geese. When I got almost within range I found my lead in the ice closed and could not get nearer, but that near by there was another lead in the ice that would take me within easy range. To get to this lead I had to back out of the one I was in, rather a ticklish performance when so near the watchful geese. I did it, however, and as I remember I got some geese. But Father on shore could not see the narrow leads in the great fields of ice; he saw only that when near the geese I suddenly began to drift backward, and judging me by himself he said afterward: "I thought when you saw all those geese so near you got so excited you were overcome or something--and were lying there in the bottom of that boat, helpless in the ice!"

The following three letters show how he watched the river for the migrating wild fowl:


Riverby, Mch. 26, (1898.)


Your letter rec'd. I enclose check for $10 as I have no bills by me. You can get it cashed at Houghton, Mifflin Co., No. 4 Park St.--ask for Mr. Wheeler. Or may be the treasurer of the college will cash it. We are all well and beginning the spring work. Hiram and I are grafting grapes, and the boys are tying up and hauling ashes. The weather is fine and a very early spring is indicated. I have not seen a wild goose and only two or three flocks of ducks. I should like to have been with you at the Sportsman's Fair. If you make those water shoes or foot boats I should advise you to follow copy--make them like those you saw.

Your sentence about the whispering of the ducks' wings, etc., was good. Ruskin invented that phrase "the pathetic fallacy." You will probably find it in your rhetoric. It was all right as applied to your sentence.

Susie is very quick witted.

The shad men are getting ready. I hope you will go and hear the lectures of the Frenchman Domnic. He is worth listening to. I shall be very glad when the Easter vacation brings you home once more, you are seldom out of my thoughts. I made two gallons of maple syrup. Walt Dumont has an auction this P. M. Nip and I are going.

Your loving father,


Nip was a fox terrier that was for years Father's constant companion, and they had many adventures together.


Riverby, Mch. 8 (1898)


I wish you were here to enjoy this fine spring morning. It is like April, bright, calm, warm, and dreamy, sparrows singing, robins and blue birds calling, hens cackling, crows cawing, while now and then the ear detects the long drawn plaint of the meadow lark. The ice in the placid river floats languidly by and I dare say your hunting ground is alive with ducks. I am boiling sap on the old stove set up here in the chip yard. I have ten trees tapped and lots of sap. I wish you had some of the syrup. Your mother came back yesterday and she is now busy in the kitchen, good natured as yet, if it only lasts. She has hired a girl who is expected soon. Your letter came yesterday. No doubt you will have fun acting as "supe" with the boys. It will be a novel experience. Tell me all about it. A note from Kennedy says he saw Trowbridge lately and that T is going to ask you out to see him. Go if he asks you, he is an old friend of mine and a fine man. You have read his stories when you were a boy. He has some nice girls. Remember me to him if you go.

I do not see or hear any ducks lately, I think they are slow in coming. But I must stop. Write soon.

Your loving father,


When you get time look over my article in the March _Century_, I think the style is pretty good.


West Park Mch. 2 (1898)


Your letter came in due course last week and yesterday your mother was up and brought me your last letter to her. It is a great pleasure to know you keep well and in good heart and courage. I see you have pains in your arms which you vainly think the waists of girls would alleviate. But they would not, they would only increase the pains I have tried it and I know.

It is quite spring like here--blue birds and clear bright days and half bare ground and drying roads and cackling hens. Ice still in the river down to the elbow.

Keep Lent all you can--that is slow up in your meat--not more than once a day at most. Your head will be all the clearer. I am very well since my return and am still writing. This thought came into my head as I lay in bed this morning--You go to college for two things, knowledge and culture. In the technical schools the student gets much knowledge and little culture. The sciences and mathematics give us knowledge, only literature can give us culture. In the best history we get a measure of both, we get facts and are brought in contact with great minds. Chemistry, physics, geology, etc., are not sources of culture. But Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, etc., are. The discipline of mathematics is not culture in the strict sense; but the discipline that chastens the taste, feeds the imagination, kindles the sympathies, clarifies the reason, stirs the conscience and leads to self-knowledge and self-control, is culture. This we can only get from literature. Work this idea up in one of your themes and show that the highest aim of a university like Harvard should be culture and not knowledge.

Your mother is well and will soon be back. I see no ducks yet. Hiram is still on his hives and the music of his saw and hammer sounds good in my ears. I shall tap a tree to-day.

Your loving father,

J. B.


After I had been settled in Matthews Hall, Cambridge, for a time Father and Mother came to Cambridge to see me. Father said in his inimitable way that he asked Mother if she would go to this place or that, and she said "No" to each; then when he suggested Cambridge she said, "Yes." When they returned to Riverby, in the still, lonely house, they missed me, and Father wrote of it all:

Slabsides, Oct. 16, 1897.


... We reached home safely Thursday night after a dusty ride and tiresome. It is very lonesome in the house. I think we both miss you now more than we did before we left home; it is now a certainty that you are fixed there in Harvard and that a wide gulf separates us. But if you will only keep well and prosper in your studies we shall endure the separation cheerfully. Children have but little idea how the hearts of their parents yearn over them. When they grow up and have children of their own, then they understand and sigh, and sigh when it is too late. If you live to be old you will never forget how your father and mother came to visit you at Harvard and tried so hard to do something for you. When I was your age and was at school at Ashland, father and mother came one afternoon in a sleigh and spent a couple of hours with me. They brought me some mince pies and apples. The plain old farmer and his plain old wife, how awkward and curious they looked amid the throng of young people, but how precious the thought and the memory of them is to me! Later in the winter Hiram and Wilson came each in a cutter with a girl and stayed an hour or so.... The world looks lovely but sad, sad. Write us often.

Your affectionate father, J. B.


"When it is too late"--how he understood, how broad were his sympathies! What anguish those words must cost all of us at some time! Father understood, I did not--and now it is too late.

West Park, N. Y., Nov. 7, 1897.


If you will look westward now across New England about seven o'clock in the evening you will see a light again in my study window--a dim light there on the bank of the great river--dim even to the eye of faith. If your eye is sharp enough you will see me sitting there by my lamp, nibbling at books or papers or dozing in my chair wrapped in deep meditation. If you could penetrate my mind you would see that I am often thinking of you and wondering how your life is going there at Harvard and what the future has in store for you. I found my path from the study grass grown, nearly obliterated. It made me sad. Soon, soon, I said, all the paths I have made in this world will be overgrown and neglected. I hope you may keep some of them open. The paths I have made in literature, I hope you may keep open and make others of your own.

Your affectionate father, J. B.

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

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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

John James Audubon - Chapter 5 John James Audubon - Chapter 5

John James Audubon - Chapter 5
CHAPTER VAs a youth Audubon was an unwilling student of books; as a merchant and mill owner in Kentucky he was an unwilling man of business, but during his whole career, at all times and in all places, he was more than a willing student of ornithology--he was an eager and enthusiastic one. He brought to the pursuit of the birds, and to the study of open air life generally, the keen delight of the sportsman, united to the ardour of the artist moved by beautiful forms. He was not in the first instance a man of science, like Cuvier, or