WITH ROOSEVELT AT PINE KNOT
by John Burroughs
Burroughs visited Roosevelt at Pine Know in 1908 but, despite repeated suggestions from the President, never wrote up the visit until a few months before his death in 1921, two years after Roosevelt himself had passed away. Despite the great respect he expressed for Roosevelt in other places (especially his book on their 1903 camping trip) the essay is almost completely matter-of-fact. Burroughs reports on birds seen and woods tramped through. Yet it gives a good feeling of the rapport that existed between the two men, the mutual respect of each for the other’s knowledge of and respect for nature.
It was in May during the last term of his Presidency that Roosevelt asked me to go with him down to Pine Knot, Virginia, to help him name his birds. I stayed with him at the White house the night before we started. I remember that at dinner there was an officer from the British army stationed in India, and the talk naturally turned on Indian affairs. I did not take part in it because I knew nothing about India, but Roosevelt was so conversant with Indian affairs and Indian history that you would think he had just been cramming on it, which I knew very well he had not. But that British officer was put on his mettle to hold his own. In fact, Roosevelt knew more about India and England’s relation to it than the officer seemed to know. It was amazing to see the thoroughness of his knowledge about India.
The next morning we started off for Virginia, taking an early train.
Pine Knot is about one hundred miles from Washington. I think we left the train at Charlottesville, Virginia, and drove about
ten miles to Pine Knot; the house is a big barnlike structure on the edge of the woods, a mile from the nearest farmhouse.
Before we reached there we got out of the wagon and walked, as there were a good many warblers in the trees ____ the spring migration was on. It was pretty warm; I took off my overcoat and the President insisted on carrying it. We identified several warblers there, among them the black-poll, the black-throated blue, and Wilson’s black-cap. He knew them in the trees overhead as quickly as I did.
We reached Pine Knot late in the afternoon, but as he was eager for a walk we started off, he leading, as if walking for a wager. We went through fields and woods and briers and marshy places for a mile or more, when we stopped and mopped our brows and turned homeward without having seen many birds.
Mrs. Roosevelt took him to task, I think, when she saw the heated condition in which we returned, for not long afterwards he came to me and said:
“Oom John, that was no way to go after birds; we were in too much of a hurry.” I replied, “No, Mr. President, that isn’t the way I usually go a-birding.” His thirst for the wild and the woods, and his joy at returning to these after his winter in the White House, had evidently urged him on. He added, “We will try a different plan to-morrow.”
So on the morrow we took a leisurely drive along the highways. Very soon we heard a wren which was new to me. “That’s Bewick’s wren,” he said. We got out and watched it as it darted in and out of the fence and sang.
I asked him if he knew whether the little gray gnatcatcher was to be seen there. I had not seen or heard it for thirty years. “Yes,” he replied, “I saw it the last time I was here, over by a spring run.”
We walked over to some plum-trees where there had been a house at one time. No sooner had we reached the spot than he cried, “There it is now!” And sure enough, there it was in full song ____ a little bird the shape of a tiny catbird, with a very fine musical strain.
As we were walking in a field we saw some birds that were new to me. Roosevelt also was puzzled to know what they were till we went among them and stirred them up, discovering that they were females of the blue grosbeak, with some sparrows which we did not identify.
In the course of that walk he showed me a place where he had seen what he had thought at the time to be a flock of wild pigeons. He described how they flew, the swoop of their movements, and the tree where they alighted. I was skeptical, for it had long been thought that wild pigeons were extinct, but that fact had not impressed itself upon his mind. He said if he had known there could be any doubt about it, he would have observed them more closely. I was sorry that he had not, as it was one of the points on which I wanted indisputable evidence. We talked with the colored coachman about the birds, as he also had seen them. His description agreed with Roosevelt’s, and he had seen wild pigeons in his youth; still I had my doubts. Subsequently Roosevelt wrote me that he had come to the conclusion that they had been mistaken about their being pigeons.
One day while there, as we were walking through an old weedy field, I chanced to spy, out of the corner of my eye, a nighthawk sitting on the ground only three or four yards away. I called Roosevelt’s attention to it and said, “Now, Mr. President, I think with care you can drop your hat over that bird.” So he took off his sombrero and crept up on the bird, and was almost in a position to let his hat drop over it when the bird flew to a near tree, alighting lengthwise on the branch as this bird always does. Roosevelt approached it again cautiously and almost succeeded in putting his hand upon it; the bird flew just in time to save itself from his hand.
One Sunday after church he took me to a field where he had recently seen and heard Lincoln’s sparrow. We loitered there, reclining upon the dry grass for an hour or more, waiting for the sparrow, but it did not appear.
During my visit there we named over seventyfive species of birds and fowl, he knowing all of them but two, and I knowing all but two. He taught me Bewick’s wren and the prairie warbler, and I taught him the swamp sparrow and one of the rarer warblers; I think it was the pine warbler. If he had found the Lincoln sparrow again, he would have been one ahead of me.
I remember talking politics a little with him while we were waiting for the birds, and, knowing that he was expecting Taft to be his successor, I expressed my doubts as to Taft’s being able to fill his shoes.
“Oh, yes, he can,” he said confidently; “you don’t know him as well as I do.”
“Of course not,” I admitted; “but my feeling is that, though Taft is an able and amiable man, he is not a born leader.”
(I am glad to say that Mr. Taft’s recent course in support of the proposed League of Nations has quite brought me around to Roosevelt’s estimate of him.)
Pine Knot is a secluded place in the woods. One evening as we sat in the lamplight, he reading Lord Cromer on Egypt, and I a book on the maneating lions of Tsavo, and Mrs. Roosevelt sit-ting near with her needlework, suddenly Roosevelt’s hand came down on the table with such a bang that it made us both jump, and Mrs. Roosevelt exclaimed in a slightly nettled tone, “Why, my dear, what is the matter?”
He had killed a mosquito with a blow that would almost have demolished an African lion.
It occurred to me later that evening how risky it was for the President of the United States to be so unprotected ____ without a guard of any kind ____ in that out-of-the-way place, and I expressed something of this to him, suggesting that some one might “kidnap” him.
“Oh,” he answered, clapping his hand on his hip pocket, “I go armed, and they would have to be mighty quick to get the drop on me.”
Shortly after that, to stretch my legs a little and listen to the night sounds in the Virginia woods, I went out around the cabin and almost immediately heard some animal run heavily through the woods not far from the house. I thought perhaps it was a neighboring dog, but, on speaking of it to Mrs. Roosevelt, was told that two secret service men came every night at nine o’clock and stood on guard till morning, spending the day at a farmhouse in that vicinity. She did not let the President know of this because it would irritate him.
The only flower we saw there which was new to me was the Indian pink. Roosevelt seemed to know the flowers as well as he did the birds. Pink moccasin-flowers and the bird’s-foot violet were common in that locality.
On our return trip, Roosevelt’s secretary being on the train, Roosevelt threw himself into the dictation of many letters, the wrens and the warblers already sidetracked for the business of the Administration.
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.
“They often stare at me as though they thought me crazy,” he said, “when they see me gazing up into the trees.”
“Well, now they will think I am your keeper,” I said.
“Yes, and I your nurse,” laughed Mrs. Roosevelt. When I left, Roosevelt gave me a list of the birds that we had seen while at Pine Knot and hoped that I would sometime write up the trip; in fact, for years after, whenever we would meet, almost the first thing he would say was, “Have you written up our Pine Knot trip yet, Oom John?” And his disappointment at my failure to do so was always unmistakable.