“The walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday,” wrote John Burroughs in his essay, “A Sharp Lookout.” Taking this advice, we took our walk today, as we have on many yesterdays, at the John Burroughs Sanctuary in West Park, site of “Slabsides,” the rustic cabin built in 1895 by the famous writer and naturalist. Though Slabsides is open to the public just twice a year, we made it our first destination, anyway, at the end of a short walk from the gate on Burroughs Drive. We took our time along the gravel road that leads to the cabin, pausing often to inspect the rich tapestry of mosses, lichens and ferns on rock outcrops and rotting logs, or on the loamy ground itself. There was even a small patch of pale green, springy “reindeer moss,” actually a kind of lichen that forms dense mats in the Arctic tundra, to give the place a slightly exotic touch.
We were aware all along that this in some sense sacred ground, whose soil perhaps retains the memory of Burroughs’ own footsteps as he tramped these woods with his friend, Walt Whitman. Burroughs had met Whitman in Washington, DC during the Civil War years, and became an early champion of his poetry. The poet came to West Park on several occasions to visit John Burroughs and his wife Ursula at their home, “Riverby,” just a mile or so from where Slabsides was built. Burroughs enjoyed their walks in the hemlock woods here so much that he called them “Whitman land” in commemoration. There are still a few big hemlocks left in this mostly second-growth forest that might recall the walks those two friends took together.
Whitman died before Slabsides was built, but the path to this ‘retreat’ was trod by thousands more as Burroughs fame grew, among them Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Henry Ford. On this misty, overcast morning, though, we had the place to ourselves. Even the winds, and the birds, were still. Though I have seen Slabsides dozens of times, I’m always somehow surprised when I come upon it, as natural as a bird’s nest on its rock outcrop, with its gray cedar trunks propping the front porch, its bark-covered slab walls, and its chimney made of squarish stones hand picked by Burroughs on site. To explain why he chose to build his retreat here, Burroughs compares the place to that of a farmhouse he once visited in a mountain valley: “The earth put out protecting arms all about it … How my heart warmed toward it!” (“Wild Life About My Cabin,” Far and Near, 1901). As we stood there admiring the cabin, we understand how he felt.
We took the short path alongside the red maple swamp that Burroughs had drained and planted with celery, which he successfully raised for the market during his Slabsides years. The path is framed now by large yellow birch trees, shaggy with curls of peeling bark, which would have been saplings when Burroughs died in 1921. They remind me of the shining bronze trunks of young birches Burroughs used to make the partition walls in Slabsides. This trail ends at the spring, now stopped and “swamped,” where Burroughs drew his water. Before we turn back, though, our black Lab, Sam, tries out the plank walkway that now extends across the swamp. When he steps off the boards, he sinks down to his hocks in black muck, demonstrating why Burroughs found this such a great place to grow celery. There are pictures of Burroughs plowing the drained swampland with horses, hooves shod with wide boards to keep them from sinking in.
The next part of our walk was the wilder stretch below the ridge where Slabsides is perched. A trail leading down from an outhouse near the cabin leads to a small waterfall, just a trickle over the stones now. The land drops off here in a series of rock ledges, reflecting the ancient, worn-down ranges of the once-mighty Taconic Mountains, whose fine-grained sandstones and mudstones are older than the Shawangunk conglomerate, and far more deformed. Cliffs bounding the trail here are softened by a lush green carpet of mosses, ranging in color from emerald to lime-green. Rosettes of lacy columbine leaves grace the sheer rock faces, along with the leathery evergreen fronds of common polypody, and the lovely, delicate, fans of maidenhair spleenwort, whose wiry stalks bearing twin rows of tiny fern leaflets (pinnae) ray out like the arms of a starfish. In fact, this entire ridge, with its rich and intricate textures and varied life forms, is a kind of land reef, as fantastic and as fragile in its own way as the coral reefs of tropical and subtropical seas.
Reluctantly we left the ridge, descending with the waters from its many seeps and springs to the swamp at its base. Here, with the Sanctuary Pond just visible in the distance through the bare elms, maples, and tulip trees, we decided to turn back. The six-inch tall leaf buds of next year’s skunk cabbages poked up like horns from the dark water of the pool, and a tulip tree towered above us whose trunk was perforated by the “wells” drilled by sapsuckers in previous seasons. We were reminded that even now, in the waning daylight of December, spring is somehow ‘just around the corner.’
John Burroughs Sanctuary in West Park. The upper gate is on Burroughs Drive, off Floyd Ackert road a short distance west of route 9W.