John Burroughs: Forgotten Naturalist


Zosia Zaks

John Burroughs He has become a forgotten piece of environmental history. “Our small John Burroughs collection does not get a lot of usage,” admitted Shelley Wallace, an archivist at the Paul F. Cooper, Jr., Archives of Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, which maintains collections relating to New York and nature.

John Burroughs began promoting the protection of nature in the 1850’s when there were no national parks or conservation movements. He was concerned about the exploitation and destruction caused by rapid expansion and industrialization. He wanted to share the beauty he saw in nature in an effort to save America’s wilderness resources. Burroughs is often recalled as an eccentric woodsman with a long beard who loved his native New York countryside. But few people are aware of Burroughs’ impact during his lifetime on the consciousness of the American public.

He was born April 3, 1837, on his family’s farm near Roxbury, New York. Growing up in a rural home, he developed a deep passion for the Catskills woods and fields around him. When he was only 17, he became a teacher and wrote articles about nature for various magazines.

Burroughs married Ursula North in 1857. Together with their young son Julian, they moved to Washington, D.C., in 1863. While working for the United States Treasury Department during the civil war, Burroughs continued to pursue his interests in botany and ornithology, completing his 1871 book on birds called Wake-Robin.

Although he enjoyed the city and made life-long friends with Walt Whitman during his stay there, he missed his boyhood Catskills and returned in 1873 to build a house in West Park, New York, along the western shore of the Hudson River about 80 miles north of New York City. He called his homestead Riverby. In 1895, he finished building an additional rustic cabin Slabsides, about a mile and a half into the woods on his property.

Burroughs finally found a mix of all he loved about nature: hard work tending his orchard, peaceful time observing wildlife and the seasons, and retreating to write and record his thoughts. “Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door,” he wrote.

Burroughs was very popular with students from Vassar College, who visited him across the Hudson River. Nancy MacKechnie, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Vassar, mentioned that this relationship started when a professor invited Burroughs to discuss birds with a college nature club that formed in 1895. The girls eventually named this the “Wake Robin Club” and made Burroughs an honorary member. “From what I gather the students would take short tramps with him and would have lunch with him,” MacKechnie said.

Nature enthusiasts of all ages and occupations visited Slabsides for walks, discussions, fishing, and camping with Burroughs. During his long life, Burroughs made friends with many leading figures of his day, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Muir. Burroughs also joined scientists and staff members of the American Museum of Natural History’s 1904 Harriman Expedition to Alaska and wrote letters to Natural History Magazine.

Burroughs also befriended President Theodore Roosevelt, who had just passed the Park Protection Act and set aside 18 new national monuments, including Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Burroughs and Roosevelt camped out in Yellowstone Park together, which Burroughs wrote about in Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt. Burroughs and Roosevelt shared their mutual bird fascination. In fact, Roosevelt pushed for the establishment of the first 51 national wildlife refuges in an effort to provide safety for the birds they loved. In an essay recalling a bird watching expedition with the President, Burroughs wrote, “On our return trip, I passed another night at the White House, and in the morning early we went out on the White House grounds to look for birds, our quest seeming to attract the puzzled attention of the passers-by.”

When Burroughs died in 1921, Clyde Fisher, then Curator of Visual Instruction at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote in Natural History Magazine, “John Burroughs did perhaps more than any one else to open our eyes to the beauty of nature,” (v. 31, n. 5, Sept./Oct. 1931, p. 510).

Yet present-day environmentalists, let alone the general public, know little about Burroughs. Ginger Wadsworth, author of the children’s book, John Burroughs, The Sage of Slabsides, suggested in a recent e-mail interview that Burrough’ greatest contribution was his writing. “His essays teach us to slow down and look around. They encouraged people of all ages to go out their backdoors and experience nature,” she said. But Wadsworth added that environmentalists of today know more about Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and Muir. “My book, John Burroughs, The Sage of Slabsides, is hard to sell… In contrast, lots of students read my John Muir, Wilderness Protector, which is in its second printing.”

To foster knowledge about Burroughs, an association was formed in 1924. The John Burroughs Association purchased Slabsides in the mid-1960’s and formed the John Burroughs Sanctuary. Current membership in the Association is roughly 350.

Lisa Breslof, current Board Director and Secretary of the John Burroughs Association, described the association’s three main objectives: “One, to preserve the legacy of John Burroughs. Two, to maintain and encourage nature writing, for which an annual bronze medal is awarded. And three, to preserve and maintain Burroughs’ cabin, Slabsides, a national historic landmark.”

With these goals in mind, the Association presents an award in nature writing every April in honor of Burroughs’ birthday and coordinates a lecture program about his life and work. The John Burroughs Sanctuary is open all year for hiking, bird watching, workshops, and nature observation. Slabsides, Burroughs’ cabin, is open twice a year in April and October.

This October 2nd features “John Burroughs At the Millenium” with a guest speaker, tours of Slabsides, and trail walks. As part of New York State Humanities Month, the day is designed to help New Yorkers learn about their history, heritage, and culture. Additionally, the day will focus on the changing environmental movement, directions for the new century, and how Burroughs’ writings can affect national change.

The American Museum of Natural History has a permanent exhibit honoring the life and work of John Burroughs. The exhibit contains an odd assortment of memorabilia, original manuscripts and letters, paintings of his estate, sketches and photographs, Burroughs’ field glasses and his watch.

Eleven schools in the United States are named after Burroughs. Don Whelan, head of the John Burroughs Academy in Saint Louis, Missouri, explained that his school opened just a year or so after Burroughs died and the name was suggested. “Not very exciting, but it has proved to be very appropriate as we place emphasis on outdoor education and conservation,” he said. When asked if his students know who Burroughs was, he mentioned a variety of presentations, films, photographs, and Burroughs’ books that serve to educate the students about Burrough’ life and work. “Years ago we had a small student-constructed theater on our campus built out of logs which was named Slabsides. And a large framed oil portrait of him hangs in our reception area for every visitor to see and students are in that area daily.”

Despite efforts to bring Burroughs to the general public, he remains an obscure figure. Richard Frisbie, head of Hope Farm Press and Bookshop, said he does not sell that many Burroughs books. “At one time, children memorized his poems and his essays were required reading. Unfortunately, for a man whose work was once a mainstay of every child’s education, he is relatively unknown today,” he stated.

One theory for Burroughs’ decline in popularity may have been his unconventional beliefs. Burroughs included spirituality in his zest for nature inquiry. “In Accepting the Universe,” Burroughs wrote, “I am convinced that no man’s life is complete without some kind of an emotional experience that may be called religious.” Harold Wood of the Pantheist Society commented on Burroughs’ spirituality by email. “John Burroughs was indeed a self-expressed Pantheist. And yes, in his day he was not very popular among conservative Christians. He once commented that he thought that Walt Whitman was greater than Jesus Christ!”

Edward J. Renehan, Jr., author of the complete biography John Burroughs: An American Naturalist, suggested several other reasons why Burroughs has largely faded from memory. “Besides his writing, Burroughs contributed little to the environmental/conservation movement. Muir founded the Sierra Club, which, in turn, Burroughs never bothered to join,” he explained.

According to Renehan, Jr., the mood of the country also affected the public’s understanding of Burroughs. “The guileless wonderment of John Burroughs could not endure amid the cynicism that pervaded America after World War I,” Renehan said. “He was very much a figure of the establishment… His days with the moguls did not play well before the cameras of posterity. He was presented to the world for decades as a… highly-unlikely saint of the woodlands. Sugar sweet. Way too sweet.”

Even so, Renehan thinks people of today still have a lot to learn from Burroughs. As Renehan put it Burroughs’ message was that, “amid the trees, by forest streams, one could find a cure for the vanity and vexation of spirit the growing American industrial colossus doled out in such generous portions… In our own modern days of mammon and scientific barbarism, this remains an important and enduring message. And Burroughs was among the first to articulate it.”

The John Burroughs Sanctuary is open all year for hiking, bird watching, and nature observation. Slabsides, John Burroughs’ rustic cabin, will be open to the public on Saturday, October 2, 1999. For more information you can call the John Burroughs Association at (914) 384-6320 or visit them on the web at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *