Burroughs's private forest
EITHER simple curiosity, or a need to test my powers of observation, or perhaps simply a form of primitive ancestor-worship, draws me to places dear to the 19th-century naturalists. In my own area I've searched out Thornton Burgess's Briar Patch in Sandwich, Mass., home of Peter Rabbit and other of Mother Westwind's neighbors; the little wood belonging to Bradford Torrey, an essayist and authority on hummingbirds, which lies unmarked behind the junior high school in Weymouth, Mass.; and going slightly farther afield, John Burroughs's sanctuary at Slabsides in West Park, N.Y., once one of the most celebrated literary shrines in America.
I went there at the end of March. The road to the cabin winds up a mountain through ``a primitive forest, druidical, solitary and savage ... broken rocks everywhere - shade overhead, thick underfoot with leaves - a just palpable wild and delicate aroma,'' as Whitman described it in ``Specimen Days.'' In early spring the ground beneath the hemlocks was opulently cushioned and carpeted with mosses of a green so brilliant it dazzled me.
Rounding a corner in the road, I came to Slabsides. The two-story wooden cabin sits by the edge of a swamp mantled by hemlocks, its view of the Hudson a mile or so away blocked by a ``precipitous'' mountain.
Maintained today by the John Burroughs Memorial Association through the American Museum of Natural History, the cabin - which is open only two days a year, in mid-May and in mid-October - has been kept much as it was when Burroughs used it. Peering in at the window, I could see his books lying open on the desk he built; his hat hanging by the door.
I followed a small path around the swamp to the spring where Burroughs got his drinking water. Black birches edge the path, their catkins forming a rusty filigree against the clear blue sky. I was pleased to see the fleshy pink spathes of skunk cabbage opening in the black muck of the swamp, just as they had done 103 years ago to the day, according to Burroughs's ``Spring Jottings.''
It is hard in visiting Slabsides not to fall victim to the charm of isolation, to the romantic notion that unity with nature implies disunity from man. But to see Slabsides in this way is to misunderstand Burroughs. He tells us that he built Slabsides in that cloistered location because he craved ``the private and the circumscribed,'' not to renounce the world (though his biographers all suggest that he did retreat from his wife's domestic ministrations there), but rather to see it from a new perspective.
``I might have given it a prettier name, but not one more fit, or more in keeping with the mood that brought me thither. A slab is the first cut from the log, and the bark goes with it. It is like the first cut from the loaf, which we call the crust, and which the children reject ... I wanted to take a fresh cut of life, - something that had the bark on, or, if you please, that was like a well-browned and hardened crust.''
Slabsides, though indeed ``shut off from the vain and noisy world of railroads, steamships and yachts,'' was never a hermitage, nor Burroughs a hermit. He welcomed thousands upon thousands of admirers to Slabsides. He entertained close friends - Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison among them - to dinner and conversation there.
Slabsides also had its own function within Burroughs's larger domestic economy. At Riverby, his estate a mile away on the banks of the Hudson, Burroughs raised grapes; at Slabsides he established a three-acre celery farm, draining the swamp, building a greenhouse and a packing shed, and netting on average $600 a year.
There are no grand vistas at Slabsides, no panoramic view of the nearby Hudson River, only a small house by a small swamp towered over by mountain and trees. It is like Burroughs's writings: intimate, simple, homey.
A precise observer of nature, Burroughs saw the familiar in the wild: ``When a bee brings pollen into the hive he advances to the cell in which it is to be deposited and kicks it off, as one might his overalls or rubber boots, making one foot help the other.''
He goes on to make delicious domestic comedy out of some aspects of nature: ``So fond am I of seeing Nature reassert herself that I even found some compensation in the loss of my chickens that bright November night when some wild creature, coon or fox, swept two of them out of the evergreens, and their squawking as they were hurried across the lawn called me from my bed to shout good-by after them. It gave a new interest to the hen-roost, this sudden incursion of wild nature.''
Burroughs writes, ``This home feeling, this domestication of nature, is important to the observer. This is the bird lime with which he catches the bird; this is the private door that admits him behind the scenes.''
I ate my lunch on the wooden porch of the cabin facing the mountain wall; a spider crawled across a slab of rock by my foot; a hawk screamed somewhere off to the west. I found myself thinking how unremarkable Slabsides was - scarcely wilder or grander than my backyard - yet what remarkable things Burroughs had seen there.
Today, Slabsides attracts only a handful of visitors. Burroughs, the most revered naturalist of his day, attracts only a small circle of readers. Both he and his cabin have proved too tame for popular taste.
Nonetheless one might say of him what he said of Wordsworth, ``His limitations make him all the more private and precious.'' He more than any other nature writer reminds us not to overlook the marvels at our door.