John Burroughs (1837–1921)
From American Birds: A Literary Companion
“If I were to name the three most precious resources of life,” wrote John Burroughs in 1908, “I should say books, friends, and nature; and the greatest of these, at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature.”
For the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, it seems fitting to remember the man who was the most famous nature writer of his day—and perhaps the most influential American ever to write about the natural world for a popular audience. Although his closest friends (and fellow travelers) included Walt Whitman, John Muir, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt, Burroughs made himself available to everyone at his remote (but hardly private) cabin, Slabsides, where he hosted a steady parade of schoolchildren, undergraduates, fans, and tourists—anyone, really, who was willing to hike a little over a mile, through woods, across fields and over hills, to get there. The writer of some thirty books, he inspired a notable subgenre of essays written by his visitors, with titles like “Our Friend John Burroughs,” “Rambles with John Burroughs,” and “Bird-Watching with Burroughs.”
In essays such as “The Art of Seeing Things” and “Nature Near Home,” he endeavored to encourage readers to slow down, look around, and watch the stories of the fauna and flora in their immediate surroundings, be it a yard, a park, or just an empty lot. In “Wild Life about My Cabin,” he explored this theme by focusing on two of his favorite hobbies: walking near his Slabsides retreat and observing its multiplicity of birds. Recently reprinted in the new Library of America anthology American Birds, the essay is presented here as our Story of the Week selection.