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My Boyhood by John Burroughs

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_Youth's Companion_ piece called "Babes in the Woods" about some
young rabbits and young blue birds Teddy [Footnote: The son of President
Roosevelt.] and I found.

Did you row in the races? What race are you preparing for now? It is bad
business. The doctors tell me that those athletic and racing men nearly
all have enlargement of the heart and die young. When they stop it, as
they do after their college days, they have fatty degeneration. In
anything we force nature at our peril.

When you are in Boston go into Houghton Mifflin Co. and tell them to
give you my last book "The Light of Day" and charge to me. There is some
good writing in it. Your loving father,

J. B.

When I graduated at Harvard of course Father was there and he went to
the baseball game and other things--we had a little reception in my room
in Hastings. In the yard one day one of the old classes came along and
among them was the new Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, and everyone
cheered. "Yes," said Father. as we stood there that bright June day,
"Teddy takes the crowd"--how little did he know the future, or guess
that some day he would write a book "Camping and Tramping with
Roosevelt"! Jacob Reid has said that no one who really knew Roosevelt
ever called him Teddy, and I know it was so in Father's case. On his
trip to the Yellowstone with the President, Father wrote:

In South Dakota, April 6, 7 P. M.


We are now speeding northward over Dakota prairies. On every hand the
level brown prairie stretches away to the horizon. The groups of farm
buildings are from one half to a mile apart and look as lonely as ships
at sea. Spots and streaks of snow here and there, fallen this morning. A
few small tree plantations, but no green thing; farmers plowing and
sowing wheat; straw stacks far and near; miles of corn stubble, now and
then a lone school house; the roads a black line fading away in the
distance, the little villages shabby and ugly. When the train stops for
water a crowd of men, women, and children make a rush for the
President's car. He either speaks to them a few minutes or else gets off
and shakes hands with them. He slights no one. He is a true democrat. He
makes about a dozen speeches per day, many of them in the open air. As
his friend and guest I am kept near him. At the banquets I sit at his
table; on the platforms I sit but a few feet away, in the drives I am in
the fourth carriage. If I hang back he sends for me and some nights
comes to my room to see how I have stood the day. In St. Paul and
Minneapolis there were fifty thousand people on the sidewalks. As we
drove slowly along through the solid walls of human beings I saw a big
banner borne by some school girls with my name upon it. As my carriage
came up the girls pushed through the crowd and hurriedly handed me a big
bouquet of flowers. The President saw it and was much pleased.... Other
things like that have happened, so you can see your dad is honored in
strange lands--more than he is at home.... I see prairie chickens as we
speed along, and a few ducks and one flock of geese.... It is near
sundown now and I see only a level sea of brown grass with a building
here and there on the rim of the horizon.... We are well fed and I have
to look out or I eat too much. You can see that the world is round up
here. Your affectionate father,

J. B.

How well I can see Father's expression as he wrote that line, "Your dad
is honoured in strange lands--more than he is at home"! and I sympathize
with him fully. It has always been thus, that people of genius are least
appreciated in their own home. And yet few men have the patience and
gentleness that he had; few were as easy to get along with. He asked
little for himself and was generous with what was his, and generous to
the faults or shortcomings of others. I remember in one of those early
March days the school boys raided his sap pans and Father chased and
caught them, and as he overhauled one boy, the boy exclaimed pantingly,
"I didn't touch your sap, Mr. Burris!" and Father laughed over it. "The
little rascal was all wet down his front then with sap!" Father would
then tell the story of the boy in school who was seen by his teacher
eating an apple. "I saw you then," exclaimed the teacher. "Saw me do
what?" said the boy. "Saw you bite that apple." "I didn't bite any
apple," replied the boy. "Come here," and as the boy came up the teacher
opened his mouth and took out a big chunk of apple. "I didn't know it
was there," promptly said the boy. Father would always laugh at that: he
sympathized with the boy. Yet when he taught school he had a big bundle
of "gads" as he called them and he hid them in the stove pipe, where the
boys failed to find them. I remember how Mother said that one boy
imposed upon Father's good nature too far, and then when Father did
finally get angry he got furious and grabbed the boy, who hung on his
desk, and Father took him desk and all, tearing the desk from its floor
fastenings. Doubtless afterward he was very sorry he had let his temper
"get the better" of him, as he would express it.

In those days we often went for a swim, either in the river, or over to
the swimming pool in Black Creek. Father was a good swimmer but he would
never dive--he said it always seemed to him that there would be many
water soldiers down there holding up spears, and one would be impaled
upon them if he dived. Many times I have asked myself just how he looked
in those days when he was so strong and active. There was something very
natural about him, a thin white skin that bled easily at a scratch; fine
hair that grew well and was wavy; a fine-grained, fluid kind of body,
like the new growth of ferns or new shoots of willows; medium size
hands, broad and brown, with fingers bent from milking when he was a
small boy; picturesque in dress, everything soft and subdued in colour.
Someone once said that his style in literature was slovenly, and Father
said that that was true. "I am slovenly in my dress and all I do, so no
doubt my style is slovenly also." Though this may seem to be a harsh
criticism, it is true in the sense that Nature he self is slovenly,
slovenly in contrast to what is stiff and artificial. His eyes were
grayish brown, light, with a hint of green. His voice was soft and when
he was embarrassed he stammered; he would force the words out, with a
little hesitation; then when the word did come it was quick and forced.
In the same way his long-enduring patience, when once it did become
exhausted the temper came out in full measure. Often he was the one who
suffered--more often, I should say. In the following letter he refers to
the broken bone in his hand, a long and painful break, that caused him
months of suffering. One day when chopping wood on his wood pile by the
study a small stick irritated him, it would not lie still, but rolled
about and dodged the axe until in fury Father managed to strike it. The
stick flew back and in some way broke the bone in his right hand that
goes to the knuckle of the index finger, which he used in writing.

At Home, Feb. 12 [1907].


Your letter was forwarded me from M. I got here early Monday morning. I
got my teeth Saturday. I feel as if I had a tin roof in my mouth,
cornice and all. I don't know how I can ever endure them, they are

I took your Hobo piece to Dr. Barrus and she read it to Miss C and me,
they were both delighted with it, even enthusiastic. _Forest and
Stream_ has returned your piece. I enclose their letter. I have read
the paper. It is not anywhere near as good as your Hobo sketch--has not
the same sparkle, buoyancy, and go. You can make it better. In such an
account you must put a spell upon your reader and to do this you must go
more into detail and be more deeply absorbed yourself.

My hand is nearly well. Three doctors in M agreed that I had broken a
bone.... Love to you all,

J. B.

Father always took a most lively interest in the few magazine articles
I wrote and though he would never "correct" a MS. he would tell why it
was good or bad, and if it was good it gave him the greatest pleasure.
Once when I wrote an article called "Making Hens Lay" and showed him the
cheque I received for it, he exclaimed, "_That_ is the way to make
hens lay!" Though he often said that if he wrote what the editors wanted
him to write, very soon they would not want what he did write, he
replied to my saying that Verdi's most popular opera was written to
order, that a similar request from an editor gave him a hint from which
he wrote one of his best essays. The controversy which Father started
and which President Roosevelt joined and in which he coined the phrase
"nature fakers" did Father much good in that it quickened his thoughts
and stimulated him in many ways. He received many abusive letters, which
only amused and entertained him, and in all it made a most interesting
episode. In one of his letters from Washington he wrote: "At the
Carnegie dinner I met Thompson Seton. He behaved finely and asked to sit
next me at dinner. He quite won my heart." That was March 31, 1903. In
checking up the statements made by the "nature fakers" Father's own
power of observation was much sharpened and he became more alert. And
receiving pay for articles that he wrote on the subject was an added
source of fun; it was like spoils captured from the enemy. I remember
well one day on the Champlain Canal we stopped at noon and Father said
hilariously: "We'll all go to the hotel for dinner. We won't bother to
cook dinner, we'll let the nature fakers pay for our dinner!" Like
everyone else he had his blind side, things he looked at without seeing,
things that had no interest or message for him. On March 1, 1908, he
wrote: "That slip in the _Outlook_ letter irritates me. But any one
can see it was a slip of the pen--nothing can drift to windward--things
drift to leeward. I see how they are laughing at me in the last number."

One first-hand observation Father made I can never forget. The joke was
entirely on him, but he laughed and saw only the nature facts. In going
up to Maine on a fishing expedition we had to wait for hours in the
woods at a junction. While waiting we went down to a fall, where the
brown waters of a small river poured down over many ledges of sandstone.
In this sandstone were worn many pot-holes, some of them perfect, and of
all sizes. In one about the size of a butter tub was a sucker, a measly
fish about a foot long. Nothing else to do, Father pulled off his coat
and rolled up his sleeves, and getting down on his knees he began to
chase this sucker about the pot-hole to catch him. The sucker went
around and around very deliberately until just the right moment arrived
when, with a sudden burst, he threw at least half the water in the pool
into Father's face. The sucker went down with the miniature flood to a
larger pot-hole below. Father was soaked, choked, strangled, and blinded
with the water, but when he had shaken himself and blown the water from
his mouth and nose and wiped his eyes he said: "Now if that had been a
trout he would have been so rattled that he would have jumped right out
here on the rocks, but you see you can't rattle a sucker!"

There was one subject that Father always took seriously, and that was
the question of his diet. In his youth he had known nothing of proper
diet, and though the wholesome, home-made food on the farm had been the
best possible thing for him, in his early manhood he had been most
intemperate in his eating--"eating a whole pie at one sitting," he said.
He loved to recall that when he had the measles he was ordered by the
doctor to drink nothing, and when his thirst got to an unbearable point
he arose, dressed, climbed out of the bedroom window and got some
lemonade, of which he drank about a quart--"and I got well at once," he
would add with a laugh. I wrote some verses about his eating experiments
and I never knew whether he was amused or hurt. He said rather soberly,
the only mention he ever made of them: "I have a new rule now, so you
can add another verse to your poem."

Mother was taken sick in Georgia, where she and Father were spending the
winter, the winter of 1915-16, and in March, 1917, she died here at West
Park. Father had gone away. Though we all knew she could not recover, we
all thought she would live until he returned, but she did not, and from
Cuba, where the news reached him, he wrote a beautiful tribute. Later,
after his return, we laid her to rest among her family in the little
cemetery in Ton Gore, the town where Father first taught school so many
years ago. One by one he had seen his family go, and many of his
friends. I remember that when I told him of a princess whom Carlyle said
outlived her own generation and the next and into the next, he said,
"How lonely she must have been!" and much of this loneliness came into
his sighs and into his thoughts as he felt himself nearing the grave. As
he sat at his desk in the little study, his feet wrapped in an old coat,
an open fire snapping in the fireplace, his pen turned more and more to
the great question. Even in 1901 he wrote from Roxbury, at the time of
the death of his sister Abigail:

I am much depressed, but must not indulge my grief, our band of
brothers and sisters has not been broken since Wilson died, thirty-seven
years ago. Which of us will go next? In the autumn weather in the autumn
of our days we buried our sister beside her husband.

In the same letter, from his own experience he says:

I can understand your want of sympathy with the new college youth. You
have learned one of the lessons of life, namely, that we cannot go back
--cannot repeat our lives. There is already a gulf between you and those
college days. They are of the past. You cannot put yourself in the place
of the new men. The soul constantly demands new fields, new experiences.

In 1905 he wrote:

In this mysterious intelligence which rules and pervades nature and
which is focussed and gathered up in the mind of man and becomes
conscious of itself--what becomes of it at death? Does it fall back
again into nature as the wave falls back into the ocean, to be gathered
up and focussed in other minds?

During Mother's last illness she was tenderly cared for by an old
friend of the family, Dr. Clara Barrus, who then took up the burden of
caring for Father, not only safeguarding his health, but helping him in
his literary work as well.

On November 23, 1921, we said good-bye in the station in Poughkeepsie. I
looked forward to seeing him in the spring with so much joy. But he was
very sad, and his hand felt frail in mine. His last letter, written in a
broken, running hand, so different from the swift, virile up-and-down
hand of thirty years ago, came from California, where he was urging me
to join the party.

So characteristic of him and of his love of a dog and all the homely
things is the line "Scratch Jack's back for me." I had written him that
I was anxious to see smoke coming out of his study chimney once more,
and this simple thought gave him much pleasure. But it was not to be.

La Jolla, California, Jany. 26 [1921]


Your letters come promptly and are always very welcome. We all keep
well. Eleanor is back again and is driving the car. Ursie is getting
fat, she drinks only filtered water, as we all do. I have had attacks of
my old trouble, but a dose of Epsom salts every morning is fast curing
me of them. It is still cold here and has been showery for a week or
two. Shriner is painting my portrait and has got a fine thing.

We are booked to return on Mch. 25th. We shall go to Pasadena Feb. 3rd,
our address there will be Sierra Madre. It is about six miles from
Pasadena in Pasadena Glen. How I wish you could be here for those last
two months. Yesterday Shriner took us for a long drive over in El Cajon
valley and we saw a wonderful farming country, the finest I have yet
seen in California, miles of orange and lemon orchards and grape vines
and cattle ranches. For the past week we can see snow on the mountains
nearer by than I have ever seen it. We can just see the peak of old
Baldie, white as ever. As I write a big airplane is going north out over
the sea.

I wish you would have Taroni or some one bring me a load of wood for my
study fire.

I am bidding farewell to La Jolla and California. I never expect to
return: it is too far, too expensive, and too cold. I long to see the
snow again and to feel a genuine cold and escape from this "aguish"
chill. I hope you all keep well. Scratch Jack's back for me. Love to
Emily and Betty and John,

Your loving father,

J. B.


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