I have always found that memories of places are hard to disentangle from memories of people in my life. Sometimes it seems as though the streams, fields, woods and seashores we have connected to are really among the principal characters in the stories we have lived, rather than just the “setting” or backdrop for them. This kind of feeling for place is as well expressed in the writings of John Burroughs as it is anywhere and Hudson Valley residents can have the special pleasure of recognizing some of their own favorite haunts in the landscapes he describes so lovingly.
My relationship with two home sites associated with the famous nature essayist, Slabsides in West Park and Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, goes back to 1995 when I participated in a conference to observe Slabsides’ centennial. While I always feel Burroughs’ presence strongly upon entering Slabsides (as I did many times with school classes and other groups I led on walks at the John Burroughs Sanctuary), as though he had just stepped out for a few minutes, Woodchuck Lodge is a different matter for me. I actually spent the summer of 1997 living at Woodchuck Lodge as a naturalist/writer-in-residence, but I never got such a strong sense of Burroughs’ aura within the house as I did when I stepped outside. Perhaps this is because Burroughs didn’t actually build Woodchuck Lodge himself, as he did Slabsides, though he did add many of his handmade rustic furnishings to it. The fact that many others have lived in Woodchuck Lodge since Burroughs spent the last ten summers of his life there may also have much to do with it. But I think the main reason is that the old naturalist himself spent relatively little time indoors when he was there. He wrote some of his essays while sitting at the open door of a barn (no longer standing), at an improvised desk that consisted of a chicken crate covered with brown paper. He even preferred sleeping out of doors, on a cot he placed on the front porch. And of course his days were mostly spent roaming the fields his family had farmed when he was boy.
I led a short walk recently from Woodchuck Lodge, now managed by a not-for-profit group, past the remnant of an old apple orchard and a hayfield to John Burroughs Memorial Field, where Burroughs was buried on his 84th birthday, in 1921. The field and gravesite are maintained by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. We passed through a meadow rich in summer wildflowers, pausing to admire musk mallows and fringed loosestrife, among others, and the exquisite architecture of oyster plant’s dandelion-like seed heads. Boyhood Rock, named for Burroughs’ penchant for spending hours perched upon it, gazing out over the hills dreamily, both as a farm boy and as a old man, looks out past his grave, marked by a low stone fence, at the flowing outlines of the hills he loved so much. The view we enjoyed differs from Burroughs’ mainly in that forests have mostly replaced the patchwork of sheep and cow pastures, crop fields and hay fields of his day, as they have throughout most of the Catskill region. Today’s Catskill landscape is in some respects wilder than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with more bear, wild turkey, beaver and of course deer than Burroughs would have encountered. While we stood near Boyhood Rock, an indigo bunting sang his sprightly song, a series of quick-paired notes, and the stunning cobalt blue of his plumage flashed in the sunlight from the branch of a sumach. Before we left, one of the participants agreed to let me take his picture atop Boyhood Rock, as he strove to strike to same pose as Burroughs, shown on a plaque affixed to the stone.
Here is the way John Burroughs, in one of his later essays, “The Summit of the Years,” describes the life he knew and loved in the Catskills: “The world was good; it tasted good, it delighted all my senses. The seasons came and went, each with its own charms and enticements. I was ready for each and contented with each. The spring was for the delights of sugar-making and the returning birds — the naked maple woods flooded with the warm, creative sunshine, the brown fields slipping off their covering of snow, the loosened rills, the first robin, the first phoebe, the first song sparrow — how all these things thrilled one! The summer was for bare feet, light clothes, freedom from school, strawberries, trout, haymaking and the Fourth of July. Autumn was for apples, nuts, wild pigeons, gray squirrels and the great dreamy tranquil days; winter for the fireside, school, games, coasting and the tonic of frost and snow. How the stars twinkled in winter! how the ice sang and whooped on the ponds! how the snow sculpturing decked all the farm fences! how the sheeted winds stalked across the hills!” This is a passage to transport us, to set sail upon, remembering, or maybe imagining such a life, in a simpler, saner time. But it can also take us home, to the life we can still share in as part of the natural world, to the things Burroughs enjoyed that are still our common birthright. As he put it, “The whole of nature, directly or indirectly, goes with him who gives his mind to objects in the open air.”
Woodchuck Lodge and John Burroughs Memorial Field are located just outside of the village of Roxbury, off of State Route 30 a few miles north of Margaretville. Woodchuck Lodge, Inc. conducts weekend programs and tours there, May through October (See woodchucklodge.org for more information).