The forgotten wisdom of John Burroughs

“The universe is so unhuman, that is, it goes its way with so little thought of man. He is but an incident, not an end. We must adjust our notions to the discovery that things are not shaped to him, but that he is shaped to them. The air was not made for his lungs, but he has lungs because there is air; the light was not created for his eye, but he has eyes because there is light. All the forces of nature are going their own way; man avails himself of them, or catches a ride as best he can. If he keeps his seat, he prospers; if he misses his hold and falls, he is crushed.” – John Burroughs, The Light of Day 

When I was in my late teens I found an old book at an antique auction called Locusts and Wild Honey by John Burroughs (4/3/1837-3/29/1921). I think I paid about five dollars for it. At the time I fancied myself a naturalist, or at least I thought I was until I discovered John Burroughs. In my opinion, Mr. Burroughs set the standard for what it meant to be a naturalist, someone with a keen sense of natural history with the added benefit and ability of expressing their observations in words.

I devoured this book, carrying it everywhere with me. Mr. Burroughs wrote in a gentle, poetic tone. Topics were simple; The Pastoral BeesStrawberriesIs It Going to Rain? and Speckled Trout. As I read his essays I pictured an old man with a gray beard sitting quietly on rock by a babbling brook, with pen and paper and sharp blue eyes gathering his information and thoughts. I discovered much later, that my images of this man were spot on.

He counted as his friends and contemporaries great men of accomplishment such as Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. These men, many of whom changed the world with their products and inventions, were drawn to his intellect and simple observations about nature and our place in it. His knowledge was based not on science, but common sense, and a keen eye and ear. Tools every one of us have if we would just develop their use.

Sadly, somewhere between college and my first job I lost my copy of Locusts and Wild Honey but I never lost my love of his thoughts, wisdom or words. The local library (remember when we used the local library) had three of his books Wake-Robin, Ways of Nature and Signs and Seasons which I continuously kept checked out. His books were not in high demand and over the course of several years my name was the only one that ever appeared on the check-out card. As an aside, 20 years later, I was at the library with one of my kids. I found those three books and my name was still the last one on all three cards.

My wife, knowing my love for his writing, found his published works (19 volumes) printed in the late 1920’s in an antique book store and bought them for me for our fifth anniversary. I bought her a diamond engagement band and still contend I got the better deal. I have few objects that I would declare as prized possessions, but these 19 books would qualify.

The wisdom of John Burroughs was written at a different time, in a different place, and in a different world from today. The pace was slow, the space expanse and much of the universe still wide, wild and unexplored. But his thoughts and observations, written in a 19th century dialect, remain fresh and timely for anyone willing to explore the world through his eyes. If you have the chance, I recommend you do.

“I am in love with this world… I have tilled its soil, I have gathered its harvest, I have waited upon its seasons, and always have I reaped what I have sown. I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings.”  – John Burroughs, The Summit of the Years   

About ends and beginnings blog

I am a frustrated writer and poet waiting to be discovered. A stand-up philosopher performing on a street corner near you. A Christian with questions but I don’t want to hear your answers. A Buddhist with a bumper sticker on my truck to prove it. A collector of quotes. A grower of lettuce. The Patron Saint of earthworms who name their children after me. A cyclist whose big ass strains the seams of his Lycra bibs. I am American by birth, Southern by the grace of God. My goal in life is to leave an imprint on the lives of the people I love not a footprint on the earth. I am a son, a husband, a father composed of 65%-Oxygen, 18%-Carbon, 10%-Hydrogen, 3%-Nitrogen, 3%-Diet Coke and 1%-Oreo.
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6 Responses to The forgotten wisdom of John Burroughs

  1. Belinda O says:

    I remember reading some of his essays — I think my great-aunt gave us a book of his. Compelling ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some of his books are trickling into the public domain and are available to download at Project Gutenberg:

    I much prefer real dead-tree books that I can hold in my hand, but it’s also nice to have my iPad loaded up with things to read in waiting rooms. Thank you for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Patty says:

    Certainly going to add this to my ‘must-read’ list.

    Liked by 1 person

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