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.