The 200th anniversary of the birth of American poet, journalist, essayist and humanist Walt Whitman is this month, and a dear colleague of his (or the people now taking care of his old cabin) will be throwing his birthday party — John Burroughs.
This Saturday, Oct. 5 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. there will be a community celebration and open house at Slabsides in West Park to celebrate the acclaimed Civil War-era naturalist poet. At noon, Dr. Edward Widmer, the guest curator of “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” the 2019 exhibition at The Morgan Library and Museum will host a talk on his many intriguing discoveries researching the poet that “came to life” through the many artifacts and manuscripts Widmer found in the Library of Congress.
Widmer will hearken back to the Washington, D.C. days of Whitman and Burroughs circa 1863, as Burroughs was developing his craft. Deep in the throes of the Civil War, Whitman’s focus on nature had deep and lasting impact on Burroughs’ writing.
John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the most popular authors of his day and is credited with creating the modern nature essay. Using easily understood prose, he described nature that was familiar and local, bringing the natural world to his readers. His work was accessible; suddenly a lifelong city resident, for example, could be in the woods … an impact still experienced by many today.
Burroughs wrote more than 300 articles published in leading magazines and 27 books over 60 years. Through his writings and friendships with national leaders like President Theodore Roosevelt — the first American president to conserve and protect lands — Burroughs had a profound influence on the emerging conservation movements.
The John Burroughs Association strives to “bring to life the legacy, writing, and natural world” of Burroughs with the “aim to promote engagement in nature.” A visit to his rustic cabin Slabsides in the woods that inspired his writing is no mansion tour; it’s a cozy cabin built by Burroughs and his son in 1895 because of, it was rumored, Burroughs’ wife’s frustrations with the endless stream of unannounced visitors who would “drop by” and stay for weeks. Historians do know that Burroughs did build Slabsides as a place to write, entertain and grow celery to supplement his writing income. The cabin remains furnished with handmade furniture, a stone fireplace, yellow birch log walls, a flax-woven bed coverlet and even a cabinet trimmed in vines. Slabsides sits in the 202-acre John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary.
Burroughs received many visitors at the cabin, ranging from Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford to students from Vassar College and monks from the Marist Brothers. Slabsides is so-named for the pieces of timber used in the cabin’s construction which is the “slab-side” — the “slab” or first cut of the log at the mill undertaken to remove the bark-covered rounded side of the log. Outside his door was his celery swamp where he grew the finicky vegetable to sell for the New York City market to supplement his writing income.
Joan Burroughs, Burroughs’ great-granddaughter, works effortlessly to promote the Naturalist legacy at the sanctuary and honor the intention of her ancestor and to inspire people to connect deeply with nature. She says Whitman’s presence and own work encouraged Burroughs to find his own voice and to write what he knew. Whitman helped Burroughs transition from writing about farm life to a more authentic expression of himself, she explained, as Whitman had freed himself from the conventional poetic structure of the times.
Walking through the winding trails laden with stone stairs, exposed tree roots, shed acorns and early autumn yellow leaves with Joan is perhaps a glimpse of what it was to have walked with Burroughs himself, though today on well-laid out trails built by crews of volunteers. Joan interrupts herself speaking to drop to her knees and scrutinize a petite woodfern leaf for identification purposes, or pauses mid-sentence to clear the surface of a rock step of dead leaves. The entire forest is like Joan’s own living room as she tidies the path she walks by relocating every errant branch or felled log along the trail.
Slabsides visitor and friend Bob Drake’s grandparents were the caretakers of the sanctuary, and he recalled sleeping on the cabin floor overnight as a child. “It was so quiet at night; it was so, unbelievably, quiet.”
Slabsides volunteer John Esposito drives from central New Jersey several times a summer to volunteer as a docent at the place which he says he experienced so deeply in college through Burroughs’ works. “John Burroughs learned from Whitman that writing allowed for a much wider audience and allows the reader their own interpretation.” Esposito is donating a rare presentation copy of Leaves of Grass valued at several hundred dollars, which will be raffled off during the day with the proceeds going to the John Burroughs Association’s Gateway Project to continue to improve the entrances which greet visitors.
“Slabsides Day Open House is an occasion is to share with our community the essence of John Burroughs and Walt Whitman’s friendship and contributions—and besides, there will be cake.”
For more information about Slabsides Day Open House on October 5 and the John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, please visit http://www.johnburroughsassociation.org
Living in ‘Whitman Land’
Why did John Burroughs call the rugged land around Slabsides “Whitman Land?”
He explains in the preface to his Whitman: A Study, written in 1896 at Slabsides:
“The writing of this preliminary chapter, and the final survey and revision of my Whitman essay, I am making at a rustic house I have built at a wild place a mile or more from my house upon the river. I call this place Whitman Land, because in many ways it is typical of my poet — an amphitheater of precipitous rock, slightly veiled with a delicate growth of verdure, inclosing a few acres of prairie-like land, once the site of an ancient lake, now a garden of unknown depth and fertility. Elemental ruggedness, savageness, and grandeur, combined with wonderful tenderness, modernnesss, and geniality. There rise the gray scarred cliffs, crowned here and there with a dead hemlock or pine, where, morning after morning, I have seen the bald eagle perch. And here at their feet this level area of tender humus, with three perennial springs of delicious cold water flowing at its margin; a huge granite bowl filled with the elements of potencies of life. The scene has a strange fascination for me, and holds me here day after day. From the highest point of rocks I can overlook a long stretch of the river and of the farming country beyond; I can hear owls hoot, hawks scream, and roosters crow. Birds of the garden and orchard meet birds of the forest upon the shaggy cedar posts that uphold my porch. At dusk the call of the whip-poor-will mingles with the chorus of the pickerel frogs, and in the morning I hear through the robins’ cheerful burst the somber plaint of the mourning-dove. When I tire of my manuscript, I walk in the woods, or climb the rocks, or help the men clear up the ground, piling and burning the stumps and rubbish. This scene and situation, so primitive and secluded, yet so touched with and adapted to civilization, responding to the moods of both sides of life and imagination of a modern man, seems, I repeat, typical in many ways of my poet, and is a veritable Whitman Land. Whitman does not suggest the wild and unkempt as he seems to do to many; he suggests the cosmic and the elemental, and this is one of the dominant thoughts that run though my dissertation. Scenes of power and savagery in nature were more welcome to him, probably more stimulating to him, than the scenes of the pretty and placid, and he cherished the hope that he had put into his ‘Leaves’ some of the tonic and fortifying quality of Nature in her more grand and primitive aspects.
His Wildness is only the wildness of the great primary forces from which we draw our health and strength. Underneath all his unloosedness, or free launching forth of himself, is the sanity and repose of nature.”