Slabsides Day talk by Ed Kanze, October 6, 2012
Hoping that what I have to say will have relevance to this important occasion, a day on which we celebrate the grand opening and re-opening of trails here at Slabsides. I want to talk about how I first met John Burroughs, indirectly and by chance, forty years ago, how he became part of my daily life ten years later, and how I've come to view him after all these years.
At about age 15, I first met John Burroughs on Slide Mountain. The day changed my life in ways I could not have imagined. I came from a family that largely avoided nature. My father, especially, had had his fill of the outdoors while serving as infantry soldier in France and Germany during World War II. Yet thanks to a close friend and his kindly father, I was able to ride along to Kingston and Big Indian, drive up to the old trailhead at Winnisook Lodge, and huff and puff my way to the top of the world. Arriving there, I, who had never before climbed anything larger than a modest hill, was astonished.
The view down over fast forests and the Ashokan Reservoir, the scent of balsam firs, wind roaring through the trees, and birds singing weird, swirling songs (I later learned these were Bicknell's thrushes) all grabbed hold of my consciousness and stretched it wide. Despite the power of all those sensations and the feelings they stirred, the memory that sticks with me most vividly from that day, forty years in the past, is of words I found cast in bronze and bolted to the mountaintop. They read:
"In Memoriam, John Burroughs: Who in his early writings introduced Slide Mountain to the world. He made many visits to this peak and slept several nights beneath this rock. This region is the scene of many of his essays. 'Here the works of man dwindle in the heart of the Southern Catskills.'"
I knew nothing about Burroughs, but I sensed he was a kindred spirit. Perhaps, like him, I would return to Slide again and again, and as indeed I have.
A decade later, working as a naturalist in a nature sanctuary in the Hudson Valley, I was handed a chance to write about Burroughs for the Vassar College magazine. The year was 1982. My next-door neighbor, a friend of the editor, had been offered the job, but he recommended me instead. Vassar had just acquired Burroughs's journals from Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley, the naturalist's eldest grandchild. They wanted someone to write about John Burroughs and his importance. I would have declined, not sure I was qualified to take on the challenge, but my life-changing experience on Slide Mountain would not let me turn away. At once I plunged into Burroughs's books, devouring all of them. I made my first visits to Slabsides, Woodchuck Lodge, and Burroughs's grave on the old family farm in Roxbury, and I began one of the most rewarding friendships of my life with Elizabeth Kelley.
Now let's leap ahead thirty years. Here I stand, back at Slabsides, feeling a touch of what the philosopher Yogi Berra famously called "deja-vu all over again." Hosts of the TV comedy program "Saturday Night Live" like to brag about how often they've hosted the show. Maybe they do it because they can't believe they were asked to appear once, let alone several times. If I'm not mistaken, this is my third time speaking from the Slabsides steps. I'm honored. I confess the whole thing feels a bit surreal. As Yogi Berra also famously said, "It ain't over 'til it's over." I guess that's the way it is with John Burroughs and me. I'm not finished with him, and perhaps he's not finished with me.
I could drone on for an hour about a hundred little things, but what I'd like to do instead is consider the questions we all ask ourselves about John Burroughs. Is he still worth reading? Is he relevant to the challenges that face us now, and that will test our mettle in the years and centuries ahead? What's the big deal about John Burroughs, anyhow? I've spent forty years mulling over this stuff. Here's what I've come up with.
Burroughs is worth reading. He is sometimes portrayed as the most timid of our nature writers, a diminished Thoreau, a weaker counterpart of Muir. But he was the opposite. More bold in important respects than Thoreau and Muir put together, he made his life a crusade to what he called "the natural truth," a truth which stated loudly and clearly that our species is a child of nature every bit as much as woodchucks and hermit thrushes are, and that it is time for us to grow up, shed ancient creeds and philosophies, and step forward bravely into a world in which humans are inseparable from nature, not something set apart, a world informed not by dogma but by science.
While Thoreau hunkered down at Walden Pond, and Muir operated within a philosophy that, as Burroughs put it, "rarely went beyond that of the Sunday School," Burroughs was convinced that our future, our best future, lay not in cordoning of so-called "wilderness" in museum-like parks from which humans are expelled, but in cultivating a world-view in which nature is the only stage, and Homo sapiens is merely one of an ensemble of actors.
I live in the Adirondack Park, a 6-million acre island of protected land set aside more along Burroughs lines (people allowed to stay) rather than Muir's (people kicked out). Still, the message is as clear in the Adirondack Park as it is in any sanctuary around the world. If our species does not develop a new and wholesome way of seeing nature and operating within it, the boundaries of our parks are meaningless. Conservations all over the world are learning that you can't protect wild things inside a park unless you reform the way humans live around it. In the Adirondacks, we can't sit idle and laud our forebears for creating such a spacious and wondrous park. We must think daily about global climate change, acid rain, mercury deposition, and more.
Who among our great environmental writers speaks to us most helpfully and hopefully about alternatives to the present mess we find ourselves in? John Burroughs does. He doesn't waste our time fussing about whether a wilderness area can contain a fire tower or not, or, for that matter, whether the concept of wilderness itself holds any real meaning. He sees humankind and nature as one. Burroughs points out in essay after essay that if we are to reform the way we do business, we must reform our thinking first.
If you like, you can read all the stuff about birds, bees, and chipmunks in John Burroughs and have a pleasant time of it. But he is a far more thorny and challenging writer than that, as his contemporaries, famous and otherwise, well knew. Burroughs and his reputation have spent nearly a century in something like exile. I propose it's time to welcome him into our culture again. When I first visited Slabsides in 1982, the place seemed all but abandoned. In fact, it was hard to find anyone who gave Burroughs more than a passing thought. I take it as a hopeful sign that that we are all here to celebrate him and Slabsides and a beautiful network of trails. His star rises again, and we are here to give it a little push.
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