Slabsides, the rustic retreat of 19th-century naturalist John Burroughs, is a Hudson Valley shrine. So the fact that the West Park cabin itself was only opened for visiting twice a year was a rather frustrating limitation on public appreciation of the great man’s legacy. Perhaps in response to the growing popularity of the surrounding John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary as a hiking destination since its trail system was renovated, this year things are changing at Slabsides, and for the better.
Though the Sanctuary’s trails are open to the public year-round, peak visitor season kicks off this weekend with the traditional third-Saturday-in-May Slabsides Day Open House. That’s when you don’t have to peer through the windows for a glimpse of the interior of the bark-bespangled cabin that Burroughs built with his own hands, displaying many of his own belongings including hand-hewn furniture. This May the John Burroughs Association is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Burroughs’ “With the Birds” in the Atlantic Monthly, deemed the birth of the modern nature essay.
As usual at these Open House days, a talk will be delivered on the Slabsides porch about some aspect of the influential naturalist’s life, fascinating career and voluminous writings. This Saturday the speaker will be Maura Toomey, a senior at Vassar College, whose libraries are home to the bulk of the John Burroughs papers: 65 boxes’ worth of journals, notebooks, letters, photos and memorabilia. Previous archivists, including Burroughs’ confidante and literary executor Dr. Clara Barrus and his granddaughter Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley, have taken ambitious stabs at transcribing his 54 volumes of journals, but his handwriting has reportedly been a bit of a stumper.
So for the past three years, Toomey has made it her project to do some new transcriptions of 22 volumes written between 1887 and 1901. “She has really worked to decipher his distinct script and his writing shorthand before posting content page by page on our Special Collections website,” Vassar College director of media relations and public affairs Jeff Kosmacher told Almanac Weekly. Hear firsthand how the student grappled with this challenge at 12 noon on Saturday, May 16 at Slabsides, and the interior of the cabin will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The new Summer at Slabsides program will unlock the cabin doors from 11 to 4 on all the following Saturdays: June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25 and August 8 and 22. Naturalist talks and guided hikes in the Sanctuary are scheduled for many of these dates, as well as others when Slabsides itself will be locked up. There will be a “Birds of the Nature Sanctuary” outing from 8 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 23. This year’s final Slabsides Day Open House will occur on Saturday, October 3, with a noontime talk yet to be announced.
For more details on upcoming events, visit www.johnburroughsassociation.org. The John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary is located at Burroughs Drive and Floyd Ackert Road in West Park. Admission and parking are free.
“The Journals of John Burroughs,” Saturday, May 16, 12 noon, Slabsides Day Open House, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., free, John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, 261 Floyd Ackert Road, West Park; www.johnburroughsassociation.org.