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My Boyhood by John Burroughs

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especially on Sunday when young winter-green and black birch gave us an
excuse to go to the woods. What an eternity of time was written in the
faces of those rocks! What world-old forces had left their marks there!
--in the lines, in the colours, in the huge dislocations and look of
impending downfall of many of them, yet with a look of calm and
unconquerable age that can be felt only in the presence of such
survivals of the primaeval. I want no better pastime now, far from my
boyhood as I am, than to spend part of a summer or autumn day amid these
rocks. One passes from the sunny fields, where the cattle are grazing or
the plough is turning the red furrow, into these gray, time-sculptured,
monumental ruins, where the foundations of the everlasting hills are
crumbling, and yet where the silence and the repose are like that of
sidereal space. How relative everything is! The hills and the mountains
grow old and pass away in geologic time as invariably as the snow bank
in spring, and yet in our little span of life they are the types of the
permanent and unchanging.

The phoebe bird loves to build its mossy nest in these shelving ledges,
and once I found that one of our native mice, maybe the jumping mouse,
had apparently taken a hint from her and built a nest of thistledown
covered with moss on a little shelf three or four feet above the ground.
Coons and woodchucks often have their dens in these ledges, and before
the country was settled no doubt bears did also. In one place, under a
huge ledge that projects twelve or fifteen feet, there is a spring to
which cattle come from the near fields to drink. The old earth builders
used material of very unequal hardness and durability when they built
these hills, their contracts were not well supervised, and the result
has been that the more rapid decay of the softer material has undermined
the harder layers and led to their downfall. Every fifty or a hundred or
two hundred feet in the Catskill formation the old contractors slipped
in a layer of soft, slatey, red sandstone which introduces an element of
weakness and that we everywhere see the effects of. One effect of this
weakness has an element of beauty. I refer to the beautiful waterfalls
that are sparsely scattered over this region, made possible, as nearly
everywhere else, by the harder strata holding out after the softer ones
beneath have eroded away, thus keeping the face of the falls nearly

The Catskill region is abundantly supplied with springs that yield the
best water in the world. My father's farm had a spring in nearly every
field, each one with a character of its own. What associations linger
about each one of them! How eagerly we found our way to them in the hot
haying and harvesting days!--the small, cold, never-changing spring in
the barn-hill meadow under the beech tree, upon whose now decayed bowl
half-obliterated initials of farm boys and hired men of thirty, fifty,
and nearly seventy years ago may still be seen; the spring in the old
meadow near the barn where the cattle used to drink in winter and where,
with the haymakers, I used to drink so eagerly in summer; the copious
spring in the bank at the foot of the old orchard which, in the severe
drouths of recent years, holds out when other springs fail; the tiny but
perennial spring issuing from under the huge tilted rock in the sumac
field where the young cattle and the sheep of the mountain pasture drink
and where we have all refreshed ourselves so many times; the spring from
under a rocky eyebrow on the big side hill which is now piped to the
house and which in my boyhood was brought in pine or hemlock "pump
logs," and to which I have been sent so many times to clean the leaves
off the tin strainer--what associations have we all of us with that
spring! For over eighty years it has supplied the family with water, and
not till the severe drouths of later years did it fail.

The old beech tree that stands above it is one of the landmarks of the
farm. Once when a boy I saw a flock of wild pigeons disappear in its
leafy interior, and then saw Abe Meeker, who worked for Father in 1840,
shoot into it from the stone wall, six or seven rods below, and bring
down four birds which he could not see when he fired. Three of them fell
dead and one fell at his feet behind the stone wall. But I need not call
the roll of all the fountains of my youth on the home farm--fountains of
youth indeed! and fountain of grateful memories in my later years. I
never pass any of them now but my footsteps linger by them and I clean
them out if they are clogged and neglected and feel that here is a
friend of other days whose face is as bright and youthful as ever.




The earliest recollection that I have of Father was of one spring day
when he was chasing and stoning the cat, our pet cat, who had caught a
bluebird. I remember the fierce look in the cat's eyes, and her nose
flattened over the back of blue, her nervously twitching tail, and the
speed and strength with which Father pursued her, and the language he
used, language that impressed me, at least, if not the cat, and which
discredited the cat and her ancestry as well. As I remember it we
rescued the bluebird, and there the picture fades. Just how Father
himself looked then I do not know; doubtless, childlike, I accepted him
as a matter of course, along with all the other interesting things in
this world in which I was finding myself. Again I remember riding on his
shoulder in the downstairs hall, as he skipped about with me, and of
being face to face, on equal terms, with the hall lamp, and of telling
Father that when I grew up I was going to be a king, and of Father
telling me at once that they hung kings on a sour-apple tree. It was
always a sour-apple tree, never a sweet one, used for hangings. So I was
glad to relinquish the idea of being a king and to become instead a
"finder-out of things." How Father did laugh at that! He had been
telling me something of his readings in astronomy and the sciences, just
at that time coming into their own, and I was so impressed and fired
with emulation that I, too, declared for wanting to be "a finder-out of
things," and Father would repeat it and laugh heartily. It is a joy to
think of him as he was then, virile in body, full fleshed, active,
leading in walking and skating and swimming--what a flood of memories!
What an interest he took in all the things I did, and how often a most
active part. One day in May I had gone out with our one shot of shad
net, and was to try an experiment. I had told Father that I would row a
ways up the river and throw out the net and then row on up to the mouth
of Black Creek and fish for perch, and when the tide turned would row
out and take up the net, which would catch the flood slack not far
above. What he thought I do not know, for he went to Dick Martin, an
experienced shad fisherman, and told him what I was going to do. Dick
hastened to tell him, in alarm, that what I intended was impossible,
that there was a row of old stakes out from the black barn just below
the mouth of Black Creek and that my net would get fast on these and I
would lose it, and perhaps come to harm besides. So Father walked the
two miles, hurrying up along the steep and rocky shore, and found me
just coming out from the creek. He told me what Dick had said and got
into the boat and we rowed out to the net, which was acting very

"You're fast now, boy, it's just as Dick said," he exclaimed as I rowed
as hard as I could for the long line of buoys. Never can I forget the
hour of alarm and distress, for me, that followed. The tide turned and
the loitering flood gave way to the sweeping ebb, the dark water from
the creek came rushing down on us, the buoys swirled and twisted in the
running water and began to disappear one by one. We quickly got hold of
the end and I picked up as much as I could; then Father got hold and
tried to pull the net loose. He pulled and pulled until he literally
pulled the stern of the skiff under water.

"You'll have to cut the net, it is the only way," he said finally, red-
faced and panting, so we did cut the net, leaving a middle section there
on the old stake in the bottom of the river. There is no denying that it
was thoughtful of him to come, and that he had my safety and welfare at
heart. Though I was always cautious and wise to the way of the river,
something might have happened and my bones might be there beside the old
stake--and what a lot I would have missed!--or as Father once so aptly
expressed it: "I'm not afraid to die, but I enjoy so much living!"

He was always cautioning me, and worrying about me when I was out on the
river, especially at night, and yet he took chances that I would not
take. In the early days here at Riverby there was no railroad on this
side of the Hudson, and to get a train one must cross the river. In
summer one hung out a white flag from West Park dock and Bilyou would
row over for you, but when there was ice in the river one must walk or
stay home. In zero weather it was only a matter of a long walk over the
ice, often facing a blast of below-zero wind, but when the March thaws
had begun one took one's life very lightly to venture on the ice. The
thawing water cut away the ice from underneath, leaving no mark on the
surface, weakening it in spots, and if one went through, the tide swept
him under the ice, where the water was at least cold enough to chill one
and make death easy. On such a day Father crossed the river on a crack,
for, strange to say, one of the big cracks that always come in the ice
had pushed or folded down, and not up, and the water had frozen over,
making a streak of triple-thick ice, and on this streak he crossed the
Hudson, the ice so far gone from the sun, so honeycombed and rotten,
that he could stick his cane through on either side of his crack!
Another time he was crossing in early April with his dog, and when in
the middle of the river, which is a full half mile wide at Riverby, busy
with his thoughts, he suddenly saw his dog running for the shore, which
apparently was moving away rapidly toward New York! But the shores were
standing eternally still; the ice it was that moved, and was moving up
with the flood tide, moving just the width of a big canal that the ice
harvesters had cut above. When the tide turned, about an hour later, all
the ice went out of the river.

When first Father saw some smokeless powder he was surprised at its
appearance, and would not believe it was powder, until he threw some on
the hot stove. I used it in our old shotgun and he was much alarmed, yet
he told me that in his hunt for Thomas's Lake, of which he speaks in
"Wake Robin," he loaded his little muzzle-loading gun with an entire
handful of powder and then, for he felt it would burst, he held it at
arm's length over his head to fire. This he did time after time, in his
attempt to signal to his companions. The little gun survived the ordeal
and hangs now in the gun room. With it is the little cane gun, a small
shotgun that looked exactly like a cane, but which was quite effective
for small birds, and which he used when making collections of birds
about Washington. Strangely enough for those days, it was against the
law to shoot birds, and mounted guards enforced this law. Father would
tell with glee how he would shoot a bird he wanted for his collection,
and in a moment the guard would come rushing up, asking who fired the
shot, and Father would tell him it was just over the rise of ground, or
behind those trees, or something, and off would hurry the guard while
Father picked up his bird and reloaded his cane. It seems queer to us
now--to think of John Burroughs as shooting and mounting song birds,
making collections to be set up on a tree behind glass, but he did, for
in those days they were quite the proper thing, cases of them, fitting
enough for museums, often being seen in private homes. I can remember
taking lessons in taxidermy from Father, and of skinning and mounting
wildfowl, and today there are a loon and a prairie chicken here in the
house at Riverby that he mounted in those early years. The collections
of birds he made are scattered far and wide or were destroyed long ago.
All of them were shot with the little muzzle-loading cane gun or with a
little muzzle-loading fowling piece: those were the days of the ramrod
and wasps' or hornets' nests gathered and used for wadding, and the
superstition, which Father often expressed, that if you spilled or
dropped a shot in loading, it was your game shot, the one that would
have killed and without which the shot would miss. I can see the
fascinating-looking black powder now, scintillating as Father poured it
from the palm of his short brown hand into the muzzle of the gun.

There was one quality which Father possessed to a marked degree and
which I always envied him, a thing small in itself, yet which enabled
him to accomplish what he did in literature, and that was the ability to
lay aside the business or cares of life, as one would hang up one's hat,
absolutely and completely, and turn to his writing. The world will think
of him as a poet naturalist, as a gentle sage and philosopher, when he
was in truth a literary craftsman, and one who could never give but a
portion of his time and effort to his life's work until he was sixty
years of age. I first remember him as a bank examiner. I remember his
going away for trips to examine banks, of his packing his valise and
putting on a white or "boiled" shirt, the gold cuff buttons, his combing
his beard, the wonder and mystery of it all. Then he became a "mugwump"
and the new party gave his bank-examining to someone else; and, as he
expressed it, "I had to stir my stumps," and he took up the raising of
fine grapes.

Just as his boyhood had the cow for its centre of interest, mine had the
Delaware grape. And Father made a success of his vineyards. I can see
him now summer pruning, he on one side of the row, I on the other,
"pulling down" as we called the summer pruning, or he was stamping lids
or tying up bundles of baskets. Many of the lids had sawdust on them
which had to be blown or brushed off before they could be stamped.
Father acquired the habit of blowing, and he got so used to it that he
would blow anyway, whether or not the lid needed it; if it did not he
would blow straight ahead and I would laugh at him for it, and he would
raise his eyebrows and half smile, meaning, that it was something he
could indulge himself in. He once wrote of his grandson:

"I had the rare good fortune to be born in the country upon a farm and
to share in the duties and responsibilities of farm life. My poor
grandson John is not so lucky in this respect and he has not had to pick
up potatoes and stone and gather apples and husk corn and hoe corn and
spread and rake hay and drive the cows and hunt up the sheep in the
mountain and spread manure and weed the garden and clean the cow
stables, and so on, and go two miles through snow-choked fields and
woods to school in winter and have few books to read and see no
illustrated papers or magazines. John has the movies by night and his
bicycle by day and a graded school to attend and a hundred aids and
spurs where I had none. My fate was better than John's and I can but
hope he has advantages that I did not have that may offset the
advantages I had."

In this case I know that time and distance lend enchantment, for of the
hard work in the vineyards Father did very little--the cultivating with
a horse on days so hot that the horse was covered with lather and the
dust rose in a cloud over one's perspiration-soaked clothes, the days
following the spray cart with the lime and blue vitriol flying in one's
face and running down one's legs, the tying in March and early April
until one's fingers were raw and one's neck ached from reaching up--of
all these and other tasks he knew nothing. Often he said of himself that
he was lazy; and, though what he accomplished in his life stands like a
monument in one sense of the word, he was lazy. Routine work, a daily
grind at tasks for which he had no liking, would have shortened his days
and perhaps even embittered him. Yet with what eagerness he went at his
writing! For sixty years and over he found his greatest joy in his
craft--as he once wrote me, "There is no joy like it, when sap runs
there is no fun like writing." As he said of his books in a preface to a
new edition, "Very little real 'work' has gone into them." One day out
at La Jolla, California, up on the hillside overlooking the blue Pacific
there was a gathering in one of the biological laboratories and the
school children came trooping in. Father was asked to talk to them and
among other things he asked them if a bee got honey from the flowers.
"No," he said, "the bee gets nectar from the flower, a thin sweetish
liquid which the bee, by processes in its own body, turns into honey." I
have always suspected that Father liked to think of himself as a bee,
out in the sunshine and warmth, in the fields and woods, among the
flowers, gathering delightful impressions of it all which with his
handicraft he could preserve in an imperishable form that others might
also enjoy. And does a bee really work? Is it not doing exactly what it
enjoys or wants to do? Does it have to make any conscious effort to fare
forth among the flowers? Does it have to keep on doing what it dislikes
to do long after it is tired out? So whether the life of John Burroughs
was one long life of happiness and lazy play, or whether it was one of
hard work, depends, like so many other things, on the point of view. I
like to think of his long and happy life as one in which he turned all
work to play, and in so doing he accomplished mightily.

Often Father tried to account for himself, how he happened to break away
from the life of his family and early environment so absolutely and
completely and become, not a weak, easy-going, though picturesque farmer
in the farther Catskills, but a man of letters, a unique and picturesque
literary craftsman. "I had it in my blood, I guess," he once said. With
it he had what most of us have, the love of the woods and fields and the
hunting and fishing. Trout fishing, the most delightful of all, had for
him a perennial charm, and bee-hunting, too, and camping out, exploring
new streams and woods. All this was fostered and developed by his farm
life and early associations, and then when he became vault keeper in the
Treasury Department in Washington he was shut up away from it all with
nothing to do but look at the steel doors. Almost without being able to
do otherwise he began to live over again the delightful days he had
spent afield by writing of them. He was like an exile dreaming of his
native land. Nature has a trick of casting a spell over those who spend
their days with her so that when the day is gone only the memories of
the delights of it remain and these become ever more beautiful and
highly coloured with time. To the homesick young man, shut up in the
vault in Washington, the scenes of his native hills took on a beauty and
charm they never could have done had he remained there among those very
hills where his eyes and senses could drink their fill every hour. It
seems to me like a lucky chance that his ambition to write, already
manifest and firmly fixed, took the course it did, writing about Nature.

"I must have been a sport," he says of himself--a born word worshipper,
a man fired with unquenchable literary ambition, a lover of the best of
the world's books, born of parents who knew not the meaning even of the
words. I doubt very much that any of his immediate family, that is of
his own generation, read a line in any of his books. His sister told him
not to write, that "it was bad for the head"--how different he was from
them all is shown in an incident Mother once related, and which can be
told only with a word of explanation. During the war he and Mother had
gone "out home," as he always spoke of visiting the parents on the
homestead, and during dinner Grandfather exclaimed: "I'd like to see Abe
Lincoln hung higher than Haman and I'd like to have hold of the rope!"
Father sat speechless with pain and amazement, then silently pushing
back his plate he rose and silently walked from the room. Then
Grandmother "went for" Grandfather. But Grandfather did not realize what
he was saying, and he would have been one of the very last to have
harmed Lincoln, or any one else for that matter. The incident shows how
different those passionate, intense, and bitter-feeling times were from
ours, and how the spread of the magazines and the illustrated papers has
broadened and mellowed the feelings of the people.

Father often spoke of his joy when the _Atlantic_ accepted his
first article, the one on "Expression" which was attributed to Emerson--
he felt a new world had opened up for him, new worlds to explore and
conquer with unlimited possibilities. His ambition to write got a
tremendous incentive. At that time he was teaching school at a small
town near Newburgh and when Saturday came he wanted to go into the
parlour for his day's work. That was the time of the supremacy of the
parlour, the darkened room held sacred for special occasions, funerals,
and Sunday company and such, and Mother had no notion of its order being
disturbed and its sanctity profaned by such a frivolous thing as
writing--she locked the door. I think Father took it as an insult, not
to himself, but to his calling, a deadly insult to his god of
literature, and in what to me was a fine and noble and justifiable
frenzy he smashed and kicked the door into "smithereens." I applaud; I'm
glad he did it; he proved himself worthy of his chosen god. Mother no
doubt cried. Poor demolished door--a small and material sacrifice indeed
for the great god of letters!

Those years were hard ones in many ways for Father, the years in the
late '50's when he was teaching school and trying many things, trying to
find himself and make a living and appease the material ambitions of
Mother. One summer he spent on the old homestead and grew onions; the
seed he used was poor, few came up, and a summer of hard work, for both
him and Mother, came to nothing. For a time he studied medicine in the
office of Doctor Hull near Ashokan, and there, sitting in the little
office at a spot now just on the edge of the water of what is now the
great Ashokan Reservoir, he wrote his poem, "Waiting." One cannot but
marvel at the prophecy of it, the vision of the discouraged boy of
twenty-five every line of which has had such a fulfilment. He tried
several ventures, blindly groping, hoping for success which never came
to any of them. One of his ventures was a share in a patent buckle from
which he was to get rich, but from which he got losses and
discouragement--in fact, he had borrowed money to go into it and on his
non-payment he was arrested and brought up the river on a night boat.
Waking when the boat stopped at Newburgh and finding his guard was
asleep, he got up and dressed and went ashore. His arrest was not legal
anyway, and soon the matter was settled. He continued to teach, and
finally, in the early years of the war, drifted to Washington. A friend
of his wanted him to come, saying there were many opportunities and also
holding out the inducement that he could meet Walt Whitman. Finally he
got a position in the Treasury Department and from Hugh McCulloch,
Secretary of the Treasury, in his "Men and Measures of Half a Century,"
we get a picture of the young John Burroughs seeking a job, a picture
that Father said was not accurate, but which at least shows how he
impressed a man used to seeing many job-seekers:

One day a young man called at my office and said to me that he
understood that the force of the bureau was to be increased, and that he
should be glad to be employed. I asked him if he had any
recommendations. "I have not," he replied; "I must be my own." I looked
at his sturdy form and intelligent face, which impressed me so
favourably that I sent his name to the Secretary, and the next day he
was at work as a twelve-hundred-dollar clerk. I was not mistaken. He was
an excellent clerk, competent, faithful, willing.

And Father has said that of the hundred dollars a month he received, he
and Mother saved just half. And the real cost of living then was as high
as it is now; the actual cost of food and clothing and the manner of
living have changed. Father's first book: "Notes on Walt Whitman, Poet
and Person," published in 1867, now long out of print, a small brown
volume with gilt lettering, was brought out in those Washington days.
The book was not a success and though Father took a loss on its
publication, he did not have to deduct it from his income tax. Of all
that life there in Washington he has spoken so much in his books,
"Winter Sunshine," "Indoor Studies," "Whitman, a Study," and so on that
I will leave it and return to the vineyard here on the banks of the

It was in 1872 that Father and Mother came here and bought about a nine-
acre place, sloping from the road down to the water, living for a time,
nearly a year, in a small house up by the road, during which time they
were building the stone house, the building of which Father has
described in "Roof-Tree." He had wanted a stone house, and here was
plenty of stone, "wild stone" as a native called them, to be picked up,
weathered and soft in colouring, only a short haul and a few touches
with the hammer or peen needed to make them into building stone. He has
often spoken of Mother's first visit to her new home, just as the
foundation was nicely started, and of her grief and disappointment when
she saw the size of the building. The foundation of a house, open to the
sky, gives no idea of the size of the finished building, and it was in
vain that Father tried to explain this. "I showed her the plans," he
often said, "so many feet this way and so many that, such a size to this
room and such a size to that, but it was no use, she cried and took on
at a great rate." Father was bank receiver then, getting three thousand
a year, and on that he was building this big, three-story stone house.
He took great pleasure in it--he loved to tell of the Irish mason who
went off on a drunk just when he was working on the stone chimney.
Disgusted at the delay Father went up, and with hammer and trowel went
at the chimney himself, and the sobering mason could see him from Hyde
Park, across the river. When he was sober enough to come back and go on
with his work he carefully inspected what Father had done and exclaimed,
"and you are a hondy mon, ye are."

The southwest bedroom on the third floor Father was to have for his
room, his study, where he could write. This room he panelled to the
ceiling with native woods: maple, oak, beech, birch, tulip, and others,
and I like to think of his happy anticipation, his dreams of the happy
hours he would spend in this room, and of the writing he would do. But
he did no writing here, for a few years later he built the bark-covered
study down on the edge of the bank, then a few years later yet he built
Slabsides, two miles over the low mountain. It was there, especially in
the study, that he did the bulk of all his literary work.

Mother was a materialist; she never rated literary efforts very high;
she often seemed to think that Father should do the work of the hired
man and then do his writing nights and holidays. She could see no sense
in taking the best hours of the day for "scribbling," and it was only in
the later years when Father had a steady income from his writings that
her point of view softened. She was what they called in those days a
"good housekeeper" and she kept it so well that Father had to move out
for his working hours, first to the study, then two miles away. When it
came to housework, Mother possessed the quality called inevitableness to
an extraordinary degree. She had a way of fastening a cloth about her
head, a sort of forerunner of the boudoir cap of to-day, a means of
protecting her hair from any imaginary dust, and this became a symbol, a
battle flag of the goddess of housecleaning. Father was ordered out of
the library, where he did his writing, and his thread was rudely broken;
it was a day when sap did not run. For a high-strung, temperamental
being, hasty and quick tempered, I think he showed wonderful patience, a
patience that does him great credit. And yet in many ways Mother was an
invaluable helpmate, she was a balance wheel that kept their world
moving steadily, and I am sure saved Father from many mistakes and

It was only years afterward, when he began to ship grapes, that Father
named his place "Riverby." He had been reading a book of adventure to
me, Stevenson's "Black Arrow," and in it there was a place named
"Shoreby," or "by-the-shore." This suggested the name of "Riverby," or
"by-the-river," to Father for his place. So it was adopted and became
the trademark, "Riverby Vineyards," an oval stamp with a bunch of grapes
in the middle and the address below. It became the name of the place,
the name of one of Father's books, and was stamped on the lid of every
crate or basket of grapes.

Father was an absolutely honest man, honest not only in packing a crate
of grapes, but honest as to his own weaknesses and shortcomings. I can
never forget how he admired an exclamation attributed to General Lee at
Gettysburg. Pickett had made his famous charge and his veterans had come
back, a few of them, defeated, and Lee said to them, "It's all my fault,
boys!" "That is the true spirit of greatness," Father said,
thoughtfully. And when the _Titanic_ went down in mid-ocean with
such a loss of life, and the order was for the women and children first
to the lifeboats, men to keep back, Father said: "That took real grit. I
hope I'll never have to face such a crisis."

At another time the boys were stealing his grapes, the first Delawares,
not yet ripe enough, and then scattering the bunches they could not eat
along the road. Father wrapped himself in a waterproof and at dark sat
down under one of the vines to wait. Strange to say, he went to sleep,
and stranger still one of the boys did come, and came to the very vine
under which Father was sleeping. He was instantly awake and, watching
his chance, jumped up and grabbed the boy. There was a swift scrimmage,
the boy breaking away and fleeing. As he went over the stone wall Father
clinched him and they went over together, taking the top of the wall
over on them. Father being hampered by his coat, the boy was able to
break away and fled up the hill toward the road where he had left his
bicycle. He was unable to get away on it, however, and ran away into the
night, leaving his bicycle as hostage. In the morning when I came down I
found Father like a boy with a new toy. "Come out in the wash-house and
see my prisoner," he laughed, and could hardly contain himself for the
fun of it all. I came, and there stood the bicycle, and Father danced a
war dance about it. Later the boy came and owned up and insisted on
paying something, but in all kindliness Father would not of course take
any of the boy's hard-earned money. He simply explained the situation to
him and I am sure the boy never came back, as he might have done if he
had not been treated generously. At another time some boys from across
the river were caught red-handed stealing grapes. After scaring them for
a time, Father gave them some grapes and sent them home. He was always
cautioning us about cutting grapes, to cut only such as we would be
willing to eat ourselves not to mislead or cheat the purchaser. One of
his first letters, written thirty years ago, is mainly about the
vineyards--it is written on paper made to imitate birch bark, and
written in a swift, up and down hand that is almost as easily read as
the best printing:

Onteora Club, July 25, 1891.


I want you to write me when you receive this if the dog has turned up
yet. If he has not you better drive down to Bundy's again and see if he
has been there. Also tell me if the hawk flies, etc. Has there been a
heavy rain, and has it done any damage to the vineyard? It rained very
hard here the night I arrived. If it has damaged the vineyard I will
come back. Look about and see if there is any grape rot yet. I want Zeke
to send me a crate of those pears there in the currants.... It is very
pleasant up here, but I fear I will be dined and tead and drove and
walked until I am sick. I have had no good sleep yet. Mr. Johnson of the
_Century_ is here. We sleep in a large fine tent. It is in the
woods and is just like camping out, except that we do not have a bed of
boughs. It is warm and rainy here this morning. Tell me if you and your
mother are going out to Roxbury, or anywhere else. Tell Northrop to send
on my letters if there are any. I have not received any yet. Tell me
what Dude and Zeke have been doing.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.

The dog spoken of was Dan, or Dan Bundy-ah, a pretty medium-sized dog
that won Father's heart and was bought for two dollars, which seemed a
big price for a dog then, of a workman who helped us in the vineyards.
He was always running off home. "It breaks a dog all up to change his
home, or rather household; it makes of him a citizen of the world," said
Father. How he did love a nice dog! Even in his last illness he often
spoke of the one we owned; he had a true feeling of comradeship for a

The hawk referred to is the young marsh hawk we got from the nest and
raised ourselves. I know it fell to me to supply this hawk with food:
English sparrows, red squirrels, and small game, a ceaseless undertaking
and one which took most of my time, so much so that Mother took me to
task for it time and again. When later Father "wrote up" the hawk and
got something for the article I felt that I should be paid for what I
had been compelled to endure in the cause! "Fifty cents for every
scolding I got," was what I demanded. "You are getting your pay now,"
Father replied as he watched me eat.

Did the rain do any damage to the vineyard?--Yes, that was a fear that
was always present. The steep side hills would often wash very badly,
the soil being carried down the hill, costing us much labour in bringing
it back. When there was a slack time there was always dirt to drag up
the steep slopes. I know one time some of it was carried up the hill by
hand. We nailed two sticks for handles on a box and Charley and I spent
days carrying this box full of dirt up a very steep spot--"just like two
jackasses," Father exclaimed in fun. Though he could say in his poem--

"I rave no more 'gainst time or fate"

he did often rave against the weather, especially the "mad,
intemperate," as he called them, summer showers. Once there was a
hailstorm. We were "out home," and after supper Mother brought forth a
telegram, saying, "I did not give you this until after you had eaten."
Even I was conscious of the tactless way she did it, the household
looking on. With drawn face Father slowly opened and read: "Hailstorm,
grapes all destroyed." How limp Father felt! He said: "I had
complimented myself when I looked at those grapes. I had seen several
statements that grapes would bring a good price this fall." Well, we
found that half of them could be saved and that the terrific hailstorm
had extended over only two vineyards--the path of the storm not half a
mile across in either direction, a curious freak, but one that in ten
minutes took away all profits for the year.

If I can invent a phrase I will say that Father had the pride of
humility; that is, he had the true spirit of the craftsman--pride in and
for his work, and not pride of self. Nothing was too good for his art,
nothing too poor for himself. The following letter, written twenty-eight
years ago, gives us a glimpse of himself as he was then, alone and
introspective. There evidently had been a family jar, something that
came far too frequently, and Father was alone here at Riverby.

West Park, July 24, [1893].


Your letter is rec'd. Glad you are going to try the hay field. Don't try
to mow away. But in the open air I think you can stand it. It is getting
very dry here. I think you had a fine shower Saturday night about eight
o'clock. I stood on the top of Slide Mountain at that hour all alone and
I could look straight into the heart of the storm and when it lightened
I could see the rain sweeping down over the Roxbury hills. The rain was
not heavy on Slide and I was safely stowed away under a rock. I left
here Friday afternoon, went up to Big Indian where I stayed all night. I
found Mr. Sickley and his family boarding there at Dutchers. Saturday I
tried to persuade Mr. S. to go with me to Slide, but he had promised his
party to go another way. So I pushed on alone with my roll of blankets
on my back. I was very hot and I drank every spring dry along the route.
I reached the top of Slide about two o'clock and was glad after all to
have the mountain all to myself. It is very grand. I made myself a snug
camp under a shelving rock. Every porcupine on the mountain called on me
during the night, but I slept fairly well. I stayed till noon on Sunday,
when I went down to Dutchers. I made the trip easily and without
fatigue, tramping 13 miles that hot Saturday with my traps. Big Indian
valley is very beautiful. Monday morning Mr. Sickley walked down to the
station with me and I got home on the little boat, well paid for my
trip. I doubt if I come up to Roxbary now, I fear the air will not agree
with me. Do not follow your mother's example in one respect, that is, do
not think very highly of yourself and very meanly of other people; but
rather reverse it--think meanly of yourself and well of other people--
think anything is good enough for yourself and nothing too good for
others. The berries are about done--too dry for them. I may go to
Johnsons and Gilders, am not in the mood yet. Write me when you get
this. Love to all.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.

In these early letters to me he always signed his name in full,
something he never did later.

The blankets were two army blankets, of a blue-gray with two blackish
stripes at each end: they were smoke-scented from a hundred camp fires
and there were holes burned in them from sparks. They had been in many
woods and forests.

The berries so lightly spoken of were those of a large patch below the
study, a venture which Father made in small fruit and which he was glad
enough not to repeat. The berries were too insistent in their demands;
they just had to be picked over every day or they wept little reddish
tears and became too soft to be shipped. When Father bought the place it
was nearly all out in red berries--the old Marlboroughs and Antwerps and
Cuthberts, and Father continued them until they tried his patience
beyond endurance.

In winter there were no grapes or berries and for a time Father went on
some lecture trips, but only for a time, for he was too nervous, too
easily embarrassed, too excitable for lecturing. It took too much out of
him. Somewhere, something unpleasant happened, and for a long time
afterward he did not give a formal lecture, if he ever did make a formal

He told one of his audiences that Emerson said we gain strength by doing
what we do not like to do, and everyone laughed, for it was exactly the
way Father felt about his lecturing. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a
pretty good time while on a lecture trip, as the following letter,
written when away lecturing, will show:

Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 6, '96.


Things have gone very well with me so far. I reached Boston Sunday night
at 9:05. I went to the Adams house that night. Monday at 3 P. M. I went
out to Lowell and spoke before the women--a fine lot of them. I got
along very well. One of them took me home to dinner. I came back to the
Adams house at 9 o'clock. Tuesday night I went home with Kennedy and
stayed all night. Wednesday I came out to Cambridge to the house of Mrs.
Ole Bull, who had sent me an invitation. I am with her now: it is
raining furiously all day. To-night I am to speak before the Procopeia
club, and to-morrow night before the Metaphysical Society. I met Clifton
Johnson in Boston and I am going to his place on Saturday and may stay
over Sunday or I may come home on the 5:04 train Sunday.... I saw some
Harvard professors last night. I hope you and your mother keep well and
live in peace and quiet. Love to you both.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.

One of the enemies we had to fight in the vineyard was the rot, the
black rot, an imported disease of the grape that for a few years swept
everything. Then spraying with the Bordeaux mixture of lime and copper
sulphate checked and finally stopped it altogether--but it was the early
sprayings that counted. One year I remember Father neglected this, in
his easy, optimistic way, and later, when the rot began, spraying was in
vain, and I know that I took him to task for it, to my regret now. The
following letter speaks of this and of my going to college, something we
did not consider until the last moment. Father, not being a college man,
had not thought of it:

Lee, Mass., July 21 [1897].


I rec'd your letter this morning. I am having a nice time here, but
think I shall go back home this week, as the rot seems to be working in
the Niagaras quite badly, and the rain and heat continue. Mr. Taylor is
dead and buried. He died the day I left (Friday). Rodman likes Harvard
very much and says he will do anything he can for you He says if you
want to mess in Memorial Hall you ought to put your name down at once.
There is a special Harvard student here, a Mr. Hickman, who is tutoring
Mr. Gilder's children. I like him very much. He is in the Lawrence
Scientific School--about your age and a fine fellow--from Nova Scotia. I
have been to the Johnsons at Stockbridge. Owen is in love with Yale and
wants you to come there. Owen will be a writer, he has already got on
the Yale "Lit." He is vastly improved and I like him much. We had a five
mile walk together yesterday. Rodman I think will be a journalist. He is
already one of the editors of a Harvard paper--"The Crimson" I think.
The country here is much like the Delaware below Hobart. I shall stop at
Salisbury to visit Miss Warner and then home Friday or Saturday. I will
write to my publishers to send you Hill's Rhetoric. I think you better
come home early next week and stop with me at SS. Love to all.

Your loving father,


If the grapes fail we will try to raise the money for your Harvard
expenses. At the end of 1898, I expect to get much more money from my
books--at least $1,500 a year.

This last was in pencil, a postscript. Evidently Father had the grape
rot in mind, but at this date, July 21st, the die was cast; there was
nothing one could do then. If they had been properly sprayed in May and
June one could laugh at the black rot, but very likely Father had not
attended to it; that is, he had made the hired man spray. He had other
fish to fry, as he often said. To me the marvel of it all is that he had
so many irons in the fire and was always able to write. The different
properties that Father accumulated in his lifetime were alone enough to
take all his time were it not for his happy nature and wonderful faculty
of being able to put them aside when the muse nudged his elbow.

First he had the place here, Riverby, to which he added another nine
acres later, clearing and ditching it all and getting it all out in the
best grapes, the ones that made the most work and trouble: Delawares,
Niagaras, Wordens, and Moore's Early. There were other kinds tried, the
once famous Gaertner, Moore's Diamond, the Green Mountain or Winchell,
and so on. And currants, too, acres of them set under and between the
rows of grapes, and Bartlett pears, and peaches. As I write, a picture
comes to mind of Father up in a peach tree, on a high step-ladder,
picking peaches, and of some girls with cameras taking his picture and
all laughing and the girls exclaiming; "At the mercy of the Kodakers"--
and Father enjoying the joke and picking out soft peaches for them. He
liked to pick peaches. The big handsome fruit in its setting of
glistening green leaves appealed to him, and as he said, "When I come to
one too soft to ship I can eat it." I so vividly remember our carrying
the filled baskets to the dock where they were shipped to town and
Father being ahead with a basket on his shoulder and of his stumbling
and going headlong, his head hanging over the steep ledge of rocks, the
basket bursting in its fall and the peaches going far and wide over the
rocks below. We gathered up the peaches, and Father was not hurt, though
he fell so close to the top of the steep ledge that his head and
shoulder hung over and his face got red in his struggle to hold himself

Then in the early nineties he bought the land and built Slabsides,
clearing up the three acres of celery swamp; and for a while he spent
much time there. "Wild Life About My Cabin" was one of the nature essays
written of Slabsides. The cabin was covered with slabs, and Father
wanted to give it a name that would stick, he said, one that would be
easily associated with the place, and he certainly succeeded, for
everyone knows of Slabsides. Uncle Hiram, Father's oldest brother, spent
much time with him there, the two brothers, worlds apart in their mental
make-up and their outlook, spending many lonely evenings together,
Father reading the best philosophy or essays, Uncle Hiram drumming and
humming under his breath, dreaming his dreams, too, but never looking at
a book or even a magazine. Soon he would be asleep in his chair, and
before the low-burning open fire Father would be dreaming his dreams, so
many of which he made come true, listening to the few night sounds of
the woods. Father tried hard to make Uncle Hiram's dreams come true. He
gave him a home for many years and helped him with his bee-keeping and
sympathized with him fully and understood his hope that "next year" the
bees would pay and return all.

Someone caught a big copperhead, one of the meanest of all poisonous
snakes, and one which is quite rare here, fortunately, and for a time
Father kept it in a barrel near Slabsides. Later he grew tired of it,
but he had not the heart to kill it, his prisoner. "After keeping a
thing shut up and watching it every day I can't go out and kill it in
cold blood," he said in half apology for his act. He told the man who
worked on the swamp to carry the snake, barrel and all, up among the
rocks and let him go. The man, when out of sight, promptly killed the
snake. It seems to me that they were both right and the snake, though
innocent himself, had to suffer.

It was about two miles to Slabsides, a good part of it through the
woods, and some of it up a very steep hill. I can see Father starting
off with his market basket on his arm, the basket as full of provisions
and reading matter as his step was full of vigour. I'll admit he did
often raid Mother's pantry, and he was not averse to taking pie and
cake. In fact, he was brought up on cake largely, and always ate of it
freely until these last years. "His folks," as Mother would say, always
had at least three kinds of cake three times a day, and then more cake
the last thing before going to bed. At Slabsides most of the cooking was
done over the open fire--potatoes and onions baked in the ashes, lamb
chops broiled over the coals, peas fresh from the garden--how Father did
enjoy it all--the sweetness of things! He would hum:

"He lived all alone, close to the bone
Where the meat is sweetest, he constantly eatest,"

and he liked to think of this old rhyme as applying to himself.

The interior of Slabsides was finished in birch and beech poles, with
the bark on them, and much of the furniture he made of natural crooks
and crotches. He always had his "eye peeled," as he said, for some
natural piece of wood that he could use. The bittersweet has a way of
winding itself about some sapling, and as the two grow it puts a mark
about the tree that makes it look as though it were twisted. One such
piece, a small hemlock, is over the fireplace, and Father would tell how
he told the girls who visited Slabsides that he and the hired man
twisted this stick by hand. "We told them we took it when it was green,"
he would laugh, as he told the story, "and twisted it as you see it,
then fastened it and it dried or seasoned that way--and they believed
it!" and he would chuckle over it mightily.

In 1913, Father was able, with the help of a friend, to buy the old
homestead at Roxbury, and then he developed one of the farmhouses there,
one built long ago by his brother Curtis, and thus made the third
landmark in his life, any one of which was enough to occupy the time and
care of one man. He called it Woodchuck Lodge, and the last years of his
life were spent largely there, going out in June and returning in

At the time the following letter was written, Father spent much of his
time at Slabsides and his interest in both the celery and lettuce grown
there, as well as the grapes at Riverby, was most keen. The black duck
referred to was one I had winged and brought home; it was excessively
wild until we put it with the tame ducks, whereupon, as Father expressed
it, "He took his cue from them and became tamer than the tame ones."

Slabsides, July 13, '97.


I enclose a circular from Amherst College that came to you yesterday.
You would doubtless do as well or better at one of the small colleges as
you would at Harvard. The instruction is quite as good. It is not the
college that makes the man, but the reverse. Or you might go to Columbia
this fall. You would be nearer home and have just as able instructors as
at Harvard. Harvard has no first class men now. But if you have set your
heart on Harvard, you would of course do just as well as a special
student as if admitted to college. You would miss only non-essentials.
Their sheep skin you do not want; all you want is what they can teach

It has rained here most of the time since you left. The grapes are
beginning to rot and if this rain and heat continues we may lose all of
them. If the grapes go I shall not have money for you to go away this

Another duck was killed Saturday night, one of the last brood. It looked
like the work of a coon and I and Hiram watched all Sunday night with
the gun, but nothing came and nothing came last night as we know of.

Let me know what you hear from your chum. I shall look for a letter from
you to-night. It is still raining and at four o'clock the sky looks as
thick and nasty as ever. It threatens to be like eight years ago when
you and I were in the old house. Tell me what Mr. Tooker says, etc. I
may go to Gilders the last of the week.

Your affectionate father, JOHN BURROUGHS.

Your black duck is getting tame and does not hide at all.

It is hard for the present generation to realize what a shadow, or
rather influence, the Civil War cast over the days of Father's
generation. War veterans, parades, pensions, stories of the war--it
coloured much of the life, civil, social, political, and even the
literature of the day. Some have spoken of it, in architecture, as the
General Grant Period. The "panoramas"--what has become of them? I
remember visiting one with Father--you went into a building and up a
flight of stairs and came out on a balcony, a round balcony in the
centre, and all around was a picture of one of the battlefields of the
war, bursting shells, men charging, falling, and all, always the two
flags, smoke enshrouded. It made a great impression on my boyish mind.
Father knew many war veterans and together we read the impressions of
his friend, Charles Benton, "As Seen from the Ranks," and he kept up the
friendships he had made those years he lived in Washington.

Washington, D. C.,

Mch. 2nd. [1897.]


I came on from N. Y. last night, left N. Y. at 3:30 and was here at
8:45, round trip $8, ticket good till next Monday. I had a nice time in
N. Y. and improved all the time, though I was much broken of my sleep. I
stayed with Hamlin Garland at the hotel New Amsterdam, I like him much,
he is coming on here. I was out to dinner and to lunch every day. The
_Century_ paid me $125 for another short article on bird songs. I
wrote it the week before my sickness. It is lovely here this morning,
warm and soft like April, the roads dusty. Baker's people are all well
and very kind to me. They have a large house on Meridian Hill where it
was all wild land when I lived here. I shall stay here until next
Monday. Write me when you get this how matters go and how your mother
is. Tell Hiram you have heard from me.

Your loving father,


When I went away to college in the fall of 1897 I was able to see our
home life there at Riverby from a new angle, as one must often do, get a
short distance away to get a clear perspective of a place. And it being
my first time away from home Father wrote more frequently, and he
dropped the formality of his earlier letters.

West Park, N. Y., Oct. 11. [1897.]


Your letter was here Monday morning. I am sorry you did not send some
message to your mother in it. You know how quick she is to take offence.
Why not hereafter address your letters to us both--thus "Dear Father and
Mother." But write to her alone next time. How about that course in
Geology given by Shaler? I thought you were going to take that? I had
rather you take that than any course in English Composition. Read
Ruskin's "Modern Painters" when you get a chance. Read Emerson's
"English Traits" and his "Representative Men."

Send me some of the pictures you took at Slabsides of the Suter girls
and any others that would interest me.

I go to-day to the Harrimans at Arden for two or three days. On Saturday
last I had 25 Vassar girls at SS and expect more this Saturday. Lown
said Black Creek was full of ducks on Sunday--I see but few on the
river. Give my love to the Suter girls.... Much fog here lately.

Your affectionate father, J. B.

Ducks in Black Creek--it was tantalizing to read that! It brought back
the memories of the days Father and I hunted them there--I shall never
forget how impressed he was by one duck, so impressed that he spoke of
it at length in an article he wrote--"The Wit of a Duck." He was
paddling me up the sun-lit reaches of the Shataca on Black Creek when
suddenly two dusky mallards or black ducks tore out of the willow herb
and dodder and came like the wind over our heads. I was using a high-
powered duck gun, and brought down both ducks, one, however, with a
broken wing. The duck came tumbling down and with a fine splash struck
the water, where for a moment it shone and glistened in the sun. And
that was all, the duck was gone instantly, we never saw it again. What
happened of course was that the duck dived, using its other wing and
feet, and came up in the brush, where it hid, no doubt with only half an
inch of its bill out of water. Its presence of mind, working instantly
and without hesitation, caused Father to exclaim in wonder.

Father was never a sportsman in the strict sense--he never had a shotgun
that was really good for anything, or any hunting dogs or hunting
clothes--a pair of rubber boots used for trout fishing was as far as he
got in that direction--unless the soft felt hat, gray, torn, with some
flies or hooks stuck in the band, could be counted. He was an expert
trout fisherman, but was not averse to using grasshoppers, worms, live
bait, or caddis fly larvae. I know we stood one day in the Shataca and
Father shot and shot at the black ducks that flew overhead, and he
bemoaned his lack of skill in not being able to bring them down. "Dick
Martin would bring those fellows down every time," he would say. As I
look back on it with the light of later experience I am sure the ducks
were out of range, and the borrowed gun was a weak poor thing, not a
duck gun. We built ourselves a bough house out on a little island in the
swamp and got in it, crouched down, and soon some ducks came down, down,
lowering their feet to drop in the water. "Don't shoot, Poppie, don't
shoot!" I exclaimed, and he did not shoot, and to this day he never knew
why I gave such bad advice--I was afraid of the noise of the gun!
Father thought I wanted him to wait until they were nearer. But the
chance never came again and we went home duckless.

In one of his essays Father spoke of a large family as being like a big
tree with many branches which, though it was exposed to the perils of
the storms and all enemies of trees, had as compensation more of the
sun, more places for birds and their nests, more beauty, and so on. I
told him that Balzac expressed the same idea in fewer words, and for a
moment he looked worried. Balzac said, "Our children are our hostages to
Fate." And each way of expressing the similar idea is characteristic of
the man. In many ways Father was like a wide-spreading tree--his intense
nature was one that caught all the sun and beauty of life, enough and
more to compensate for the sorrow and pain he knew. To adventures out-
of-doors, the rise of a big trout to his fly, the sudden appearance of
some large wild animal, how his whole nature would react! He was well
aware of this trait and often spoke of it--in fact, he had no desire to
be cold and calculating before either the unusual or beautiful in
nature. Something as illustrating this trait of his comes vividly to
mind: one early March day I was out duck hunting here on the Hudson and
Father was watching me from shore with field glasses. He was sitting in
a sunny nook beside the high rocks below the hill. I was out in the
drifting ice with my duck boat, which I had painted to resemble a cake
of ice, and was very carefully paddling up on a flock of about a hundred
Canada geese. When I got almost within range I found my lead in the ice
closed and could not get nearer, but that near by there was another lead
in the ice that would take me within easy range. To get to this lead I
had to back out of the one I was in, rather a ticklish performance when
so near the watchful geese. I did it, however, and as I remember I got
some geese. But Father on shore could not see the narrow leads in the
great fields of ice; he saw only that when near the geese I suddenly
began to drift backward, and judging me by himself he said afterward: "I
thought when you saw all those geese so near you got so excited you were
overcome or something--and were lying there in the bottom of that boat,
helpless in the ice!"

The following three letters show how he watched the river for the
migrating wild fowl:


Riverby, Mch. 26, [1898.]


Your letter rec'd. I enclose check for $10 as I have no bills by me. You
can get it cashed at Houghton, Mifflin Co., No. 4 Park St.--ask for Mr.
Wheeler. Or may be the treasurer of the college will cash it. We are all
well and beginning the spring work. Hiram and I are grafting grapes, and
the boys are tying up and hauling ashes. The weather is fine and a very
early spring is indicated. I have not seen a wild goose and only two or
three flocks of ducks. I should like to have been with you at the
Sportsman's Fair. If you make those water shoes or foot boats I should
advise you to follow copy--make them like those you saw.

Your sentence about the whispering of the ducks' wings, etc., was good.
Ruskin invented that phrase "the pathetic fallacy." You will probably
find it in your rhetoric. It was all right as applied to your sentence.

Susie is very quick witted.

The shad men are getting ready. I hope you will go and hear the lectures
of the Frenchman Domnic. He is worth listening to. I shall be very glad
when the Easter vacation brings you home once more, you are seldom out
of my thoughts. I made two gallons of maple syrup. Walt Dumont has an
auction this P. M. Nip and I are going.

Your loving father,


Nip was a fox terrier that was for years Father's constant companion,
and they had many adventures together.

Riverby, Mch. 8 [1898]


I wish you were here to enjoy this fine spring morning. It is like
April, bright, calm, warm, and dreamy, sparrows singing, robins and blue
birds calling, hens cackling, crows cawing, while now and then the ear
detects the long drawn plaint of the meadow lark. The ice in the placid
river floats languidly by and I dare say your hunting ground is alive
with ducks. I am boiling sap on the old stove set up here in the chip
yard. I have ten trees tapped and lots of sap. I wish you had some of
the syrup. Your mother came back yesterday and she is now busy in the
kitchen, good natured as yet, if it only lasts. She has hired a girl who
is expected soon. Your letter came yesterday. No doubt you will have fun
acting as "supe" with the boys. It will be a novel experience. Tell me
all about it. A note from Kennedy says he saw Trowbridge lately and that
T is going to ask you out to see him. Go if he asks you, he is an old
friend of mine and a fine man. You have read his stories when you were a
boy. He has some nice girls. Remember me to him if you go.

I do not see or hear any ducks lately, I think they are slow in coming.
But I must stop. Write soon.

Your loving father,


When you get time look over my article in the March _Century_, I
think the style is pretty good.

West Park Mch. 2 [1898]


Your letter came in due course last week and yesterday your mother was
up and brought me your last letter to her. It is a great pleasure to
know you keep well and in good heart and courage. I see you have pains
in your arms which you vainly think the waists of girls would alleviate.
But they would not, they would only increase the pains I have tried it
and I know.

It is quite spring like here--blue birds and clear bright days and half
bare ground and drying roads and cackling hens. Ice still in the river
down to the elbow.

Keep Lent all you can--that is slow up in your meat--not more than once
a day at most. Your head will be all the clearer. I am very well since
my return and am still writing. This thought came into my head as I lay
in bed this morning--You go to college for two things, knowledge and
culture. In the technical schools the student gets much knowledge and
little culture. The sciences and mathematics give us knowledge, only
literature can give us culture. In the best history we get a measure of
both, we get facts and are brought in contact with great minds.
Chemistry, physics, geology, etc., are not sources of culture. But
Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, etc., are. The discipline of
mathematics is not culture in the strict sense; but the discipline that
chastens the taste, feeds the imagination, kindles the sympathies,
clarifies the reason, stirs the conscience and leads to self-knowledge
and self-control, is culture. This we can only get from literature. Work
this idea up in one of your themes and show that the highest aim of a
university like Harvard should be culture and not knowledge.

Your mother is well and will soon be back. I see no ducks yet. Hiram is
still on his hives and the music of his saw and hammer sounds good in my
ears. I shall tap a tree to-day.

Your loving father,

J. B.

After I had been settled in Matthews Hall, Cambridge, for a time Father
and Mother came to Cambridge to see me. Father said in his inimitable
way that he asked Mother if she would go to this place or that, and she
said "No" to each; then when he suggested Cambridge she said, "Yes."
When they returned to Riverby, in the still, lonely house, they missed
me, and Father wrote of it all:

Slabsides, Oct. 16, 1897.


... We reached home safely Thursday night after a dusty ride and
tiresome. It is very lonesome in the house. I think we both miss you now
more than we did before we left home; it is now a certainty that you are
fixed there in Harvard and that a wide gulf separates us. But if you
will only keep well and prosper in your studies we shall endure the
separation cheerfully. Children have but little idea how the hearts of
their parents yearn over them. When they grow up and have children of
their own, then they understand and sigh, and sigh when it is too late.
If you live to be old you will never forget how your father and mother
came to visit you at Harvard and tried so hard to do something for you.
When I was your age and was at school at Ashland, father and mother came
one afternoon in a sleigh and spent a couple of hours with me. They
brought me some mince pies and apples. The plain old farmer and his
plain old wife, how awkward and curious they looked amid the throng of
young people, but how precious the thought and the memory of them is to
me! Later in the winter Hiram and Wilson came each in a cutter with a
girl and stayed an hour or so.... The world looks lovely but sad, sad.
Write us often.

Your affectionate father, J. B.

"When it is too late"--how he understood, how broad were his
sympathies! What anguish those words must cost all of us at some time!
Father understood, I did not--and now it is too late.

West Park, N. Y., Nov. 7, 1897.


If you will look westward now across New England about seven o'clock in
the evening you will see a light again in my study window--a dim light
there on the bank of the great river--dim even to the eye of faith. If
your eye is sharp enough you will see me sitting there by my lamp,
nibbling at books or papers or dozing in my chair wrapped in deep
meditation. If you could penetrate my mind you would see that I am often
thinking of you and wondering how your life is going there at Harvard
and what the future has in store for you. I found my path from the study
grass grown, nearly obliterated. It made me sad. Soon, soon, I said, all
the paths I have made in this world will be overgrown and neglected. I
hope you may keep some of them open. The paths I have made in
literature, I hope you may keep open and make others of your own.

Your affectionate father, J. B.

It was always a source of disappointment to Father that I did not write
more, that I could not carry on his work--but this was more than he
should have expected. He was an essayist, fired with a literary ambition
that never faltered or grew dim for over sixty years. Once I wrote a
brief introduction to a hunting story that won a prize in a sporting
journal and I can never forget how pleased Father was with it--"It
filled me with emotion," he said, "it brought tears to my eyes--write a
whole piece like that and I'll send it to the _Atlantic_."

How he loved the telling phrase, the turn of words that was apt and made
the form and substance one! I know I had a little silver cup or mug that
I used at table, and when I saw my first locomotive bell slowly ringing
I watched it and exclaimed, "Cup open bell." How Father did laugh and
repeat it to me afterward--the childish way of expressing the strange
and new in terms of the familiar and old. The small son of a friend of
Father's when he first saw the ocean exclaimed, "Oh, the great rainy!"
and Father would laugh over this expression and slap his sides in glee.
The homely expressions always pleased him. One day some children came to
see him. They had been sent by their parents with strict instructions to
see "the man himself," and when they asked Father if he was "the man
himself" he had a good laugh and told them he guessed he was. He always
liked to tell and act out the story of the man who went down into the
cellar for a pitcher of milk. In going down he fell down the stone
stairs and bruised himself painfully. As he lay groaning and rubbing
himself he heard his wife call, "John, did you break the pitcher?"
Looking about in his anguish he saw the pitcher, unbroken. "No," he
called back, gritting his teeth, "but, by thunder, I will," and seizing
it by the handle he savagely smashed it over the stones. And Father
understood exactly how he felt.

The deep interest he took in self-knowledge is well shown in the
following letter:

Riverby, Nov. 17, 1897.


I was very sorry to hear of that "D" and "E." I was probably quite as
much cut up as you were. I have been melancholy ever since I heard of
it. But you will feel better by and by.... One thing you are greatly
lacking in, as I suppose most boys are--self-knowledge. You do not seem
to know what you can or cannot do, or when you have failed or succeeded.
You have always been fond of trying things beyond your powers (I the
same) as in the case of the boat. I think you over estimate yourself,
which I never did. You thought you ought to have had an "A" in English,
and were not prepared for your low mark in French and German. Do a
little self-examination and nip the bud of conceit; get a fair estimate
and make it too low rather than too high. I am sure I know my own weak
points, see if you can't find yours. That saying of the ancients, "know
thyself," is to be pondered daily. I always keep my expectations down,
so that I am not disappointed if I get a "D" or an "E." My success in
life has been far beyond my expectations. I know several authors who
think they have not had their just deserts; but it is their own fault. I
have just read this in Macaulay: "If a man brings away from Cambridge
[where he graduated in eighteen hundred and twenty-two] self-knowledge,
accuracy of mind and habits of strong intellectual exertion he has got
the best the college can give him." That is what I think too.

Your loving father,

J. B.

Slabsides, Oct. 27. [1897.]


I found your letter here yesterday on my return from N. J. whither I had
gone on Saturday to visit Mr. Mabie. I was glad to hear from you. You
must write at least once a week. Get the rowing pants you refer to and
anything else you really need.... Do not try to live on less than $3.50
a week, Select the simplest and most nourishing food--meat only once a
day--no pie but fruit and puddings. The weather still keeps fine here
and dry; no rain yet and no heavy frosts.

Celery is most off; not more than $175 for this second crop. I am taking
out the Niagaras below the hill--nothing pays, but Delawares in the
grape line. I have had a good deal of company as usual. It cheers me up
and keeps me from the blue devils. Your mother is cleaning house and
groaning as usual. I can only keep my temper by flight to SS.

Hiram goes to Roxbury to-morrow for two months or more. I shall miss him
very much. He stands to me for father and mother and the old home. He is
part of all those things. When he is here my chronic homesickness is

I hope you will do some reading outside of your courses. Read and study
and soak yourself in some great author for his style. Try Hawthorne or
Emerson or Ruskin or Arnold. The most pregnant style of all is in
Shakespeare. Go into the laboratory some day and have your strength
tested. Binder says they can tell you what part is weakest. Watch your
health and keep regular hours. Write us as often as you can. How I wish
I was a Harvard student too.

With deepest affection, JOHN BURROUGHS.

Doubtless it is a wise provision of Nature that we find our mates in
our opposites. It is some natural law working for the good of the race,
something to maintain the balance and uniformity of mankind. Certainly
in many ways two people could not have been more unlike than Father and
Mother. She said he was as weak as water, and he said he could get tipsy
on a glass of water. He always said that Mother made the housekeeping an
end in itself, and she said, "You know how he is, he never takes care of
anything." How many evenings have I spent in the study when the lamp
would begin to burn low for lack of oil and Father would have to run and
fill lit and Mother would complain, "Just like you, come mussing around
after dark. Why didn't you fill it by daylight?" Ah, me, when it was
daylight Father did not need the lamp! It was Mother who filled the
lamps, trimmed them and polished the chimneys regularly in the
afternoon, while the sun was still up; but it was Father who trimmed and
filled his lamp and let it so shine that all the world might see! After
all, I am not sure but what Mother was just the wife for him; he had a
streak stubborn determination along with his ambition to write that
carried him through any trials of housecleaning or complaints about the
housework. A wife in full sympathy with his work, who coddled him and
made him think that everything he wrote was perfect, would never have
done at all, nor would a selfish, extravagant, or society-mad woman.
Father was temperamental, moody, irritable, easily influenced, easily
led, suffering at times with attacks of melancholy, with but one fixed
purpose, and that was to write. Mother was economical, thrifty,
material, suspicious of people, determined to bring their ship to a snug
harbour before old age, and she took the best of care of Father and held
him steady and no doubt by her strength of character and firmness gave
strength and firmness to his life. Their last years were most happy
together and filled with a sympathy and understanding that were

Sometimes Father would talk to himself, though but very seldom, and the
following two letters are almost as though he were talking to himself.
"I am far less forlorn when he is here," he says of himself and Uncle
Hiram. With all his self-analysis he did not see that being forlorn was
part of the price he must pay for the simple but intense joy he
experienced from the beauty life and Nature.

W. P. Tuesday, Jan. 25 [1897].


It still keeps mild here--snow nearly gone, but ice in the river to the
elbow. We do not get away yet. Your mother will not stir and Hiram and I
will probably go to Slabsides, as she wants to shut up the house.

Hiram came a week ago and stays and eats here in the study--I am far
less forlorn when he is here. It probably seems strange to you, I know
you have never looked upon him very kindly. But you have never seen
Hiram--not the Hiram I see. This little dull ignorant old man whom you
have seen is only a transparent mask through which I see the Hiram of my
youth, and see the old home, the old days and father and mother and all
the life on the old farm. It is a feeling you cannot understand, but you
may if you live to be old.

I hope you have given up that boat crew business by this time. It is not
the thing for you. You do not go to Harvard for that. As I wrote you,
you have not the athletic temperament, but something finer and better.
Good sharp daily exercise you need, but not severe training. If you had
been half my age probably those cold baths would have killed you. Old
men often die in the cold bath. The blood is driven in and makes too
great a strain on the arteries. Write me when you get this and tell me
about yourself.

Your loving father,

J. B.

Very likely what I did write told Father much more than I suspected,
and he always stood ready with any advice he could give, especially
about matters of health. Those were the years when he had many troubles:
insomnia, neuralgia, and especially a trouble he called malaria, but
which was largely autotoxemia. One doctor seared his arm with a white-
hot iron in an effort to do away with the pain of the neuralgia and
years afterward Father would laugh about it--"just like African medicine
man, driving out the devils in my arm with a white-hot iron--the trouble
was not there, it was the poison in my system from faulty elimination."
When at last he did discover the source of his troubles how happy he

Riverby, Feb. 3 [1898]


Your letter came this morning. Winter is rugged here too. Snow about 20
inches and zero weather at night. I almost froze the top of my head up
there in the old house. The ice men are scraping off the snow, ice 8 or
9 inches. Your mother is in Poughkeepsie, I was down there Monday night.
I doubt if she comes to Cambridge and I am wondering whether I had
better come or stay here and save my money. If you can come home on the
Easter holidays perhaps I had better not come. If you get a week had you
rather not come home then than to have me come now? Tell me how you
feel. But I may feel different next week, I may be written out by that
time. If I thought I could go on with my work there I would come at
once. I am in excellent health and do not need a change. I could not do
much with your English Exams. I have a poor opinion of such stuff. That
is not the way to make writers or thinkers. I enclose my check for the
bill which you must get receipted. Write me at once about the Easter

Your loving father,


Later when he visited me in Cambridge he wrote a daily theme, and I
copied it and handed it in as my own, and it promptly came back marked
"sane and sensible," the instructor quite unconsciously and unknowingly
having hit upon two salient qualities of Father's style. I remember the
theme he wrote was about the statue of John Harvard who sits bareheaded
in the open, exposed to all weathers. Father said he always wanted to go
and hold something over him to keep off the snow or sun. The life he led
here and the surroundings could not produce other than wholesome and
sane writing. The old house spoken of was the original farmhouse that
stood up near the road--it was torn down in 1903 and a new cottage put
up just below it. Father and I spent one summer there when we rented
Riverby to New York people and he spent time there later as for

Saturday P. M., Jan. 29 [1898].


Hiram and I are with the Ackers [who were living in the old house then].
I find the food and give them the rent and they do the work. I shall
have peace now and it will taste good. If I come to C when would you
rather I should come? I am not done with my writing yet but may be in
eight or ten days. Writing is like duck hunting, one doesn't know what
game he will get or when he will be back: that is why I am undecided. I
make everything wait upon my writing. It is cold here, down to four two
mornings; good sleighing. I rec'd your letter yesterday, I do not know
about those plays--ask Mr. Page or Rodman. I hope you are prospering in
your exams. This is the new pen, do not like it much yet. The prospect
for an ice harvest brightens. Write.

Your loving father


W. P., Saturday Jan. 15 [1898]


I was glad to get your letter and to see you in such high feather. I
hope you will keep so. Watch your health and habits and you may. Still
your letter did not give me unmixed satisfaction. If you knew how I
dislike slang, especially the cheap vulgar kind, you would spare me the
affliction of it. There is slang and slang. Some has wit in it some is
simply a stupid perversion of language. The latter I dislike as I do the
tobacco habit to which it is close akin. You had so far escaped the
tobacco habit and I had hoped you would escape the slang habit. It is
not a bit more manly than the cigaret or cigar. Some slang phrases, like
"you're not in it" or "you're off your trolley" and others, may do in
familiar conversation with friends, but "bunches of cold" or "cuts no
ice" etc., are simply idiotic. When you write return me again the postal
card that I may see what words I misspelled. It still keeps very mild
here, but is snowing this morning. Nip and I have had some fine skating
--like a mirror for over a mile here in front: but the ice is getting
thin. I do not know when I will come to Cambridge. Your mother has just
been passing through the winter solstice of her temper and declares she
is not going anywhere. I shall get away by and by, even if she stays
here. I read Balzac and enjoyed it. The first half is much the best. The
ending is weak and absurd. The old miser is clearly and strongly drawn,
so are most of the characters. But we do not pity or sympathize with the
heroine. How large and fine is that New Paltz girl, but probably like a
big apple, she lacks flavour....

Your affectionate father, J. B.

It was very easy to see why Father disliked slang--it was a perversion
of his art, and as I have said he had the true pride of the craftsman in
his art. No one loved more the apt and witty expression; he was forever
seeking them, and slang was something that overstepped the bounds and
was therefore something truly abhorrent. Often I have heard him tell the
story with delighted relish of some men who were spending a winter night
in a country hotel. Eugene Field I think it was who made the remark that
so delighted Father, and J. T. Trowbridge recounts it in "My own Story."
It was a bitter cold night and covers were scanty; and more than that,
there were several panes out of the window. Field rummaged about in the
closet and found the hoops of an old hoop skirt, just then going out of
fashion, and these he hung over the broken window, saying "That will
keep out the coarsest of the cold!" "Coarsest of the cold," Father would
repeat the expression and laugh again. I remember his envious
acknowledgment of an apt illustration: two famous wood choppers were
chopping in a match to see which could fell his tree first, and so great
was their skill and so swift their blows that the chips literally poured
out of the tree as though it had sprung a leak. "That is good," he said
of the phrase and lowered his eyes. Once we were motor-boating upon the
Champlain Canal and we were delayed all day by the numbers of slow canal
boats. Yet some of the lock tenders said business was very slack. One of
our party commented upon this and said that there were enough canal
boats as it was, that the canal seemed pretty well gummed up with them.
"Pretty well gummed up with them," Father repeated over and over and
laughed like a child each time. Often I complained about the stone house
at Riverby, that Father in planning it did not plan to use the winter
sunshine; not only were the windows not placed right but there were
spruce trees in the way. "You write a book on 'Winter Sunshine' and you
let none in your house," I told him and he said that if he had the
winter sunshine in his house he might not have written the book. A
statement which has a large element of fundamental truth, at least in
his case.

In those days we had much fun skating; Father had a curious pair of old
skates that he fastened on a pair of shoes so that they would not come
off. These shoes he tucked, skates and all, under his arm and we were
off. He would slip off his "Congress" shoes and slip on the shoes with
skates attached and start over the ice, his dog running by his side.
Once he rigged up an attempt at a sail with one of his army blankets and
some pieces of moulding left over from building the study, but it would
not work. People on shore said they thought it was some kind of a life-
saving contraption in case he broke through the ice. One day in the
Shataca we had as fine a skate as we ever could imagine--there had been
a thaw with high water and Black Creek had flooded the swamp, the water
going out over the heavily timbered Shataca back to the upland. This had
then frozen and the water gone out from under it, leaving the glassy ice
hanging from the boles of the trees. The ice sagged a little between the
trees which gave one a most delightful up and down motion as they glided
over it on skates, as near flying as one could imagine at that time.

In spirit and often in fact Father went to college with me, he attended
lectures in the courses I was taking, and often when I had read a book
required I sent the copy on to him to read and he would comment upon it.
In the following letter he comments upon a book I had sent him, and
draws at the same time a picture of days at Slabsides:

Slabsides, Sunday, May 22 [1898].


The other day when I went home your mother "jumped" me about two
things,--my going down to R's to lunch and my taking you to that 5 cent
show in Boston....

Heavy thunder showers here Thursday night, cloudy to-day. Pretty warm
the last three days. The Primus is a great success. It uses rather more
than one half cent's worth per hour. The Van B's with two Vassar girls
were just over here. The "Iceland Fisherman" is a sweet tender pathetic
story. One does not forget Yann: and what a picture of the life of those
fishermen! I did not know that France had such an industry. I paddled up
Black Creek again on Friday, but saw no ducks.... There were 35 people
here last week. Write what you conclude to do about your room. The woods
are nearly in full leaf now.

Your loving father--J. B.

Comparing the life of Father's boyhood with our life here at Riverby in
those days and again comparing that with the life to-day, one cannot but
wonder what will be the final outcome. In a primitive society every
individual knows everything about everything that he has in life; as
civilization becomes more complex we become more and more specialists,
more and more the thing that the economists call the "division of
labour" becomes operative, and individuals go through life to-day
knowing how to do but a very few of the things necessary to their
existence. The early or primitive civilization produced an independent
race, and individuals picturesque and unique in character. Father
noticed this. He loved the old-fashioned man or woman who was so
strongly individual and picturesque. I remember one such character, "Old
blind Jimmy" he was called, who went about the country with a staff, and
when Father saw him coming, one day "out home," he asked me to run with
my camera and station myself down the road and get a picture of old
blind Jimmy as he came along. I did so, and I knew at once that Jimmy
knew I was there. He must have heard me in some way, and surely must
have heard the purr of the focal plane shutter as I took his picture.
One day in the market place in Jamaica, West Indies, there was a savage-
looking man who looked the way you would imagine a pirate of the Spanish
Main would look, and Father was much interested in him and asked me to
get his picture--it took considerable manoeuvring, but I did get him at

Much of the old order clung to us here at Riverby--Mother always made
buckwheat cakes, we got a sack of flour from "out home" and she set the
cakes to rise; I can hear the sound of the wooden spoon as she mixed
them up in the evening and then set them behind the stove. Now we get
the flour all ready to mix with water. No more running for buttermilk to
use in them, no more having them rise over the batter pitcher during the
night. Father always ate them, five or six. No day was begun in cold
weather without "pancakes." And "out home" they made their own soap, but
here Mother got a box of soap and carefully piled it up to dry and
harden. There was a pail in the cellar for "soap grease," into which was
put every scrap of fat or grease and saved until the day when the "soap
man" came around and bought it. Those were the days when potatoes were
less than fifty cents a bushel, eggs a dollar a hundred, and the very
finest roe shad could be had for twenty-five cents. And shad nets were
knit by hand. I can remember Father telling how the Manning family, who
lived below the hill, knit shad nets all winter. Now one can buy the net
already knit practically as cheaply as one can buy the twine. Sail boats
dotted the Hudson--sloops and schooners loitering up and down the river
or tacking noisily back and forth. I know they used to get becalmed and
tide-bound out here and the sailors would come ashore and raid fruit
orchards. Once some of them stole a sheep and took it out to the
schooner. The owner of the sheep came after the sailors with a search
warrant but the mischievous sailors pulled the anchor chain up taut and
tied the sheep to the chain and lowered away until the sheep, which they
had butchered, was under water and the search warrant even could not
find it.

"The little boat" referred to in the letter of July 24, 1893, and on
which Father shipped his peaches, was a small steamer that ran from
Rondout to Poughkeepsie and was more or less of a family institution
when the river was open. It landed when we hailed it, at the dock at the
bottom of our vineyard, and Father mostly went to town to do his
shopping on "the little boat." Once he went to get his garden seeds and,
coming back, a violent squall blew his basket with all his purchases
overboard. I can still remember how disgusted and ruffled he appeared
over it. At another time he was on this little boat when it landed at
Hyde Park and a team of horses, hitched to a big wagon loaded with
brick, were standing on the dock. They became frightened and began to
back, in spite of the efforts of the driver to stop them. In a moment
the rear wheels went over the edge of the dock and then when they felt
the terrible backward pull of the wagon they sprang ahead in a desperate
and vain effort to save themselves. Their hoofs beat frantically upon
the plank, throwing up a shower of splinters, and though they strained
every fibre of their bodies, they were drawn over to their death. Father
was much upset over it. It made a vivid impression on him. "But," he
said, "there was a priest who sat near me and who hardly saw it; he paid
no more attention than if nothing had happened," and I feel that all
priests suffered on that account in Father's estimation!

One of the ceremonies here at Riverby was the bringing in of the door
mat at night. Mother did this or told me to do it--I doubt that Father
would. It was brought in for fear of dampness or rain during the night,
which would wet the mat and shorten its usefulness. How different from
housekeeping nowadays!

Father always wore flannel shirts, of a dark gray, and these had the
unfortunate habit of shrinking about the neck, so in washing them they
were stretched and then dried over a milk pail--I can see them now,
hanging on the line with the pail protruding from the neck. I played a
cruel joke on Father one night; I was going out to the hired man's house
to play cards and asked Father to leave the door open for me, which he
did. It was very late when I returned, half-past nine or ten o'clock,
and as I did not want to disturb any one I crept in in my most stealthy
way and up to bed. In the morning Father asked me excitedly when I got
in. "You must have been mighty sly about it," he said, half in
admiration, half in reproach, when I told him, "for I lay awake
listening for you to come in and when it got to be after ten I got up to
come down and see what had become of you and I found you had come in."

It is ever true that many of the things that a man regards as important
a woman does not; and conversely, many things a woman takes seriously
are to a man a joke. The following gives a picture of the life here then
and sums up the difference between the point of view of Father and

Thursday, May 17 [1900]


I meant to have written you before this but I have been very much
occupied and your mother has been wrestling with her house. She has
gotten down to the kitchen with her cleaning. She has hired a woman who
is to come next week and she wants to get the house in order for her. I
have had company. On Friday afternoon "Teddy Roosevelt Jr" came and
stayed until Monday morning. He is his father in miniature. He kept me
on the stretch all the time. On Saturday we went up the Shataca and
cooked our dinner on the little island where you and I did. We had a
good time. He climbed trees and rocks like a squirrel. He was all the
time looking for something difficult to do.

May 19. I was choked off here and now I am in a pickle. We began to fix
the cistern yesterday and got it half finished when the rain came--an
inch and a half of water and your mother is furious--cried all night and
is crying and storming yet this morning. Of course the blame is all
mine. I wanted to fix it ten days ago but she said no, she wanted the
water to clean house. If I and you had both died she could not have shed
more tears than she has over this petty matter. I shall take to
Slabsides to escape this tearful deluge. It has been very dry, no rain
and no tears for six weeks. I was glad to see it come, cistern or no
cistern. It has saved the hay crop and the strawberries.

The leaves are all out here and the apple blossoms fallen. Mr. and Mrs.
Johnson of N. Y. came Sunday and left Monday night. Clifton Johnson came
Tuesday morning and left Wednesday. Some Vassar people were coming to-
day but it rains from the N. E.

Of course you can pick up no decent girl on the street and I should keep
aloof from them. A decent girl would resent the advances of a stranger.

The birds are very numerous this spring.

Your loving father J. B.

In the spring of '99 Father was asked to join the E. H. Harriman Alaska
Expedition, and though very reluctant he consented to go--he was
historian of the expedition and his account of it appeared in the
_Century_ and in his book, "Far and Near." Mother had always said
that "his folks" were afraid to go out of sight of the smoke of the home
chimney. Something of this was in Father. He had to make himself go. He
was always unhappy when leaving home and home ties. He made many new
friends on this trip--John Muir, whom he liked immensely in spite of the
fact that he sometimes called him a "cross-grained Scotchman"; Fuertes,
the nature artist; Dallenbaugh, one of those who made the trip through
the Grand Canyon with Major Powell and who wrote "A Canyon Voyage";
Charles Keeler, the poet, and many others.

Near Fort Wrangell, Alaska June 5 [1899].


Still we steam northward through these wonderful channels and
mountain-locked sounds that mark this side of the continent amid
such scenery as you and I never dreamed of. This morning we woke up at
Fort Wrangell under a clear cold sky, like a Florida winter, some of
them said, mercury 44 and snow capped peaks all around the horizon. On
shore some wild flowers were blooming and weeds and shrubs had a good
start. I saw swallows and heard song sparrows, not differing much from
those at home. We have had fair weather most of the time since leaving
Victoria but cold. I have borrowed a heavy overcoat and wish I had two.
I sit at the door of my state room writing this and looking out upon the
blue sparkling sea water and the snow capped and spruce mantled mountain
ranges. Muir has just passed by, then Mr. Harriman racing with his
children. I like him. He is a small man, about the size of Ingersoll and
the same age, brown hair and moustache and round strong head. He seems
very democratic and puts on no airs. 11 A. M. We are now going up the
Wrangell narrows like the highlands of the Hudson, 25 miles long with
snow capped peaks in the back-ground and black spruce clad hills and
bends in the foreground. Ducks, geese, loons, and eagles all along.
Bang, bang, go the rifles from the deck, but nothing is hurt. It is
clear and still. How I wish for you! Last night at nine thirty we had
such a sun-set; snow white peaks seven or eight thousand feet high
riding slowly along the horizon behind dark purple walls of near
mountain ranges all aflame with the setting sun. Such depths of blue and
purple, such glory of flame and gold, such vistas of luminous bays and
sounds I had never dreamed of.

I keep well but eat better than I sleep. Only two or three times have we
felt the great throb of the Pacific through open gateways in this wall
of islands. The first time it made me miss my dinner, which is not as
bad as to lose it. In a week or two we shall have to face it for many
days; then I shall want to go home. We have seen deer and elk from the
steamer. We have reached the land of Indians and ravens. Many Indians in
every town and ravens perched in rows upon the house tops. Our crowd is
fearfully and wonderfully learned--all specialists. I am the most
ignorant and the most untravelled man among them, and the most silent.
We expect to reach Juneau to-night and I may be able to write once more
--from Sitka.

I wish I knew if you were going west and how things are at home. I
suppose you will be home before this can reach you. I wonder if you have
had rain and if the grapes are breaking. I got me a stunning pair of
shoes at Seattle--$7.50. Down in the belly of our ship are fat steers, 2
horses, a cow, a lot of sheep, hens, chickens, turkeys, etc. It looks
like a farmer's barn yard down there. But I must stop, with much love to
you and your mother. J. B.

We have just passed the Devil's Thumb, over 9,000 feet high. From the
top rises a naked shaft 1600 feet high--this is the thumb. Our first
glacier, too is here, a great mass of whitish ice settled low in the lap
of the mountains.

From Sitka, June 17th, he wrote:


The steamer yesterday did not bring me a letter from you or your mother.
I was much disappointed. If you had written as late as June 3rd it would
have reached me. I got one from Hiram, he is well and his bees are doing
well. There will be no other chance to get letters until we return the
last of July. I dreamed of you last night and you told me the grapes
were not doing well. I read in the papers of the heat in the east and we
all wish for some of it here. I got me a heavy flannel shirt here and I
feel warmer. The mercury is from 52 to 55 to-day. Dandelions are just
past the height of their bloom, currant bushes just blooming, peas are
up ten inches and weeds have a good start. There is no agriculture in
Alaska, though potatoes do well. I have seen one cow, a yoke of oxen and
a few horses. There are no roads except about one mile here. The streets
of most of the towns are only broad plank sidewalks. Yet hens scratch
here and roosters crow the same as at home. This town is very prettily
situated; back of it rise steep, dark spruce-covered mountains, about
3,000 feet--in front of it a large irregular bay studded with tree-
tufted islands, beyond that ten miles away rise snow capped peaks, from
the top of which one could look down upon the Pacific. No land has been
cleared except where the town stands. There may be 1,500 people here,
half of them Indians. The Indians are well clad and clean and quiet and
live in good frame houses. Many of them are half breeds. The forests are
almost impassable on account of logs, brush, moss and rocks. We have
nothing like it in the east. The logs are as high as your head and the
moss knee deep. There are plenty of deer and bears here. Day before
yesterday one of Mr. Harriman's daughters shot a deer. There are four
nice girls in the party from sixteen to eighteen, as healthy and jolly
and unaffected as the best country girls--two of Mr. Harriman's, a
cousin of theirs, and a friend, a Miss Draper. Then there are three
governesses and a trained nurse.

This is a land of ravens and eagles. The ravens perch on the houses and
garden fences and the eagles are seen on the dead trees along shore. The
barn swallow is here and the robin and red-start. One day we went down
to the hot springs and I drank water just from Hades: it reeked with its
sulphur fumes and steamed with its heat. I wish we had such a spring on
board, it would help warm us. I have met a Hyde Park man here, De Graff.
I have met four people here who read my books and two at Juneau and one
at Skagway. We leave here tonight for Yakutat Bay, 30 hours at sea. I
should be quite content to go home now or spend the rest of the time in
the west. I would give something to know how things are with you--the
vineyards and the celery and what your plans are and your mother's. I
still eat and sleep well and am putting on flesh. Love to you both. Let
me find letters at Portland in July.

Your loving father,

J. B.

Near Orca, Prince William Sound, Alaska, June 27 [1899].


Since I wrote you at Sitka we have come further north and spent five
days in Yakutat Bay and since Saturday in this sound--have seen
innumerable glaciers and lofty mountains and wild strange scenes. At
Yakutat we went into Disenchantment Bay, 30 miles where no large steamer
had ever gone before. This bay is a long slender arm of the sea which
puts out from the head of Yakutat Bay and penetrates the St. Elias range
of mountains. It was a weird grand scene. Birds were singing and flowers
were blooming with snow and ice all about us. I saw a single barn
swallow skimming along as at home. There were many Indians hunting seal
among the icebergs.

In coming on here the ship rolled a good deal and I was not happy,
though not really sick. On Saturday we entered this sound in clear
sunshine and the clear skies continued Sunday and Monday. This morning
it is foggy and misty. We steamed eighty-miles across the sound on
Sunday in the bright warm sunshine over blue sparkling waters. How we
all enjoyed it! Far off rose lofty mountains as white as in midwinter,
next to them a lower range streaked with snow and next to them and
rising from the water a still lower range, dark with spruce forests.

Orca, where we anchored Saturday night, is a small cluster of houses on
an arm of the sound where they can salmon, immense numbers of them. Two
hundred men are employed there at this season. The salmon run up all the
little rivers and streams, some of our party have shot them with rifles.
Camping parties go out from the ship to collect birds and plants and to
hunt bears and to stay two or three nights. No bears have as yet been
seen. I stick to the ship. The mosquitoes are very thick on shore and
besides that my face has troubled me a good deal, till the sunshine came
on Sunday. I must have a taste of camp life on Kadiak Island, where we
expect to be eight or ten days. Yesterday we found many new glaciers and
two new inlets not down on the largest maps. We are now anchored to pick
up a camping party we left on Sunday. Near us are two islands where two
men are breeding blue foxes, their skins bring $20. We have seen one
Eskimo here in his kyack. One can read here on deck at eleven o'clock at
night. We have set our watches back six hours since leaving New York. I
am rather dainty now about my eating, but keep well. I dreamed last
night again about home and that the grapes were a failure. I hope dreams
do go by opposites. I suppose you are shipping the currants. We get no
mail. I hope to send this by a steamer from the north, said to be due.
We have lectures and concerts and games and the people enjoy themselves
much. I keep aloof much of the time. I hope you both keep well. Love to
you both. J. B.

From Kadiak Father wrote of the "epidemic of verse writing" that broke
out among the members of the expedition. It was the custom to hang the
verses up in the smoking room, and on that fact, even, Father later
wrote some doggerel. It was while on this expedition that he wrote,
"Golden Crowned Sparrow in Alaska," one verse especially:

But thou, sweet singer of the wild,
I give more heed to thee;
Thy wistful note of fond regret
Strikes deeper chords in me.

seems so strangely pathetic and like many of his moods.

Kadiak, July 5, '99.


In trying to get off last night the ship got aground and must wait for
high tide. I wrote to your mother yesterday. It is bright and lovely
this morning, the mercury at 70--it is hot. I send you a jingle. Several
of the men write doggerel and put it up in the smoking room, so I am
doing it too. Mine is best so far. We will soon be off now, I trust you
are well. I try not to worry.

Bow westward faithful steamer
And show the east your heels
New conquests lie before you
In far Aleutian fields
Kick high, if high you must
But don't do so at meals,
Oh don't do so at meals.
Your swinging it is graceful
But I do detest your reels.

We're bound for Unalaska
And we do not care who squeals
But mend your pace a little
And show the east your heels
But in your waltzing with old Neptune
Don't forget the hours of meals
Don't forget the hours of meals
I'm sure you have no notion
How dreadful bad it feels!

Push onward into Bering
And hasten to the seals
One glance upon their harems
Then take unto your heels
More steam into your boilers
More vigor in your wheels
But in flirting with the billows
Oh regard the hours of meals
Do regard the hours of meals.
If in this we are exacting
Please remember how it feels.

We're bound for Arctic waters
And for the midnight sun
Then quicken your propeller
And your pace into a run
We'll touch at lone Siberia
To take a polar bear
Then hie away through Bering Straits
And more frigid regions dare
But in all thy wild cavorting
Oh don't forget our prayer

A noble task's before us
And we'll do it ere we go
We'll cut the Arctic circle
And take the thing in tow
And put it round the Philippines
And cool 'em off with snow.
Our boys will hail our coming,
But a chill will seize the foe.
And we'll end the war in triumph
Go you homeward fast or slow.

Kadiak, July 2, 1899.

Though this was a delightful trip, one might say, an ideal trip, he was
homesick, sea sick, and, as he says of himself, of all the party the
most ignorant, the most untravelled, the most silent. It was a new
experience to him, this going with a crowd. I know he often spoke of the
expedition's cheer, and how they would all give it when they came into

Who are we!
Who are we!
We're the Harriman, Harriman
H. A. E.! H. A. E.!

and "how the people would stare at us!" Father said. He liked it, this
jolly comradeship and crowd spirit, but it was new to him, almost
painfully new, and though no one had more human sympathy, more
tenderness and understanding with human weaknesses and shortcomings, no
one had less of the crowd spirit. As he said, he kept aloof--not from
aloofness but from embarrassment and shyness. Later he overcame most of
this and was able to face a crowd or an audience with composure and
sureness. With this picture in mind another is recalled, one of him here
at Riverby on summer days, scraping corn to make corn cakes. With an
armful of green corn that he had picked, I can see him seated and with
one of Mother's old aprons tucked under his beard. He would carefully
cut down the rows of kernels and then with the back of a knife would
scrape the milk of the corn into a big yellow bowl. He would hold the
white ears in his brown hands and deftly cut each row, a look of
composure and serenity in his eyes. He could eat his share of the cakes,
too, and I like to think of those summer days. That fall he wrote from

Nov. 30, 1899


I am over here this morning warming up and making ready for dinner. Hud
and his wife and your mother are coming over soon. We are to have a
roast duck and other things and I shall do the roasting and baking here.
I wish you were here too. It is a cloudy day, but still and mild. I keep
pretty well and am working on my Alaska trip--have already written about
ten thousand words. The _Century_ paid me $75 for two poems--three
times as much as Milton got for "Paradise Lost." The third poem I shall
weave into the prose sketch. The N. Y. _World_ sent a man up to see
me a couple of weeks ago to get me to write six or seven hundred words
for their Sunday edition. They wanted me to write on the Thanksgiving
turkey! Offered me $50--they wanted it in two days. Of course I could
not do it off-hand in that way. So I fished out of my drawer an old MS,
that I had rejected and sent that. They used it and sent me $30. It was
in the Sunday _World_ of Nov. 19.

I have sold four lots here for $225. One house will be started this
fall. Wallhead and Millard of P. If I don't look out I will make some
money out of this place yet. Your mother begins to look more kindly upon
it. A N. Y. sculptor has bought the rock beyond the spring for $75. Van
and Allie are ditching and cleaning the swamp of the Italians below

Photography is not an art in the sense that painting or music or
sculpture is an art. It is nearer the mechanical arts. Nothing is an art
that does not involve the imagination and the artistic perceptions. All
the essentials of photography are mechanical--the judgment and the
experience of the man are only secondary. A photograph can never be
really a work of art. You can put those statements in the form of a

I hope you are better of your cold. Some building burned up in Hyde Park
early last night. Robert Gill shot himself in N. Y. the other day--
suicide. We shall be very glad to see you again.

Your loving father,

J. B.

A long line of ducks just flew over going north.

The last letter from Slabsides was on May 23, 1900:


I am here surrounded by the peace and sweetness of Slabsides. I came
here Saturday morning in the rain. It is a soft, hazy morning, the sun
looking red through a thin layer of seamless clouds. Amasa is hoeing in
the celery, which looks good, and the birds are singing and calling all
about. I have got to go to N. Y. this afternoon to a dinner. I had much
rather stay here, but I cannot well get out of going.... I begin to feel
that I could get to writing again if I was left alone. I want to write a

Book of the day: