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By Clifton Johnson

In the town of Roxbury, among the western Catskills, was born April 3, 1837, John Burroughs. The house in which he first saw the light was an unpainted, squarish structure, only a single story high, with a big chimney in the middle. This house was removed a few years later, and a better and somewhat larger one, which still stands, was built in its place. The situation is very pleasing. Roundabout is a varied country of heights, dales, woods and pastures, and cultivated fields. The dwelling is in a wide upland hollow that falls away to the east and south into a deep valley, beyond which rise line on line of great mounding hills. These turn blue in the distance and look like immense billows rolling in from a distant ocean.

There were nine children in the Burroughs family, and John was one of the younger members of this numerous household. He was a true country boy, acquainted with all the hard work and all the pleasures of an old-fashioned farm life. His people were poor and he had his own way to make in the world, but the environment was on the whole a salutary one.

He has always had a marked affection for the place of his birth, and he rejoices in the fact that from an eminence near his present home on the Hudson he can see mountains that are visible from his native hills. Two or three times every year he goes back to these hills to renew his youth among the familiar scenes of his boyhood.

“Johnny” Burroughs, as he was known to his home folks and the neighbors, was very like the other youngsters of the region in his interests, his ways, and his work. Yet as compared with them he undoubtedly had a livelier imagination, and things made a keener impression on his mind. In some cases his sensitiveness was more disturbing than gratifying. When his grandfather told “spook” stories to the children gathered around the evening blaze of the kitchen fireplace, John’s hair would almost stand on end and he was afraid of every shadow.

He went to school in the little red schoolhouse across the valley, and as he grew older he aspired to attend an academy. But he had to make the opportunity for himself, and only succeeded in doing so at the age of seventeen, when he raised the needful money by six months of teaching. This enabled him in the autumn of 1854 to enter the Heading Literary Institute at Ashland. He found the life there enjoyable, but his funds ran low by spring and he was obliged to return to the farm. Until September he labored among his native fields, then took up teaching again. When pay day came he set off for a seminary of some note at Cooperstown, where a single term brought his student days forever to a close, and after another period of farm work at home he borrowed a small sum of money and journeyed to Illinois. Near Freeport he secured a school at forty dollars a month, which was much more than he could have earned in the East. Yet he gave up his position at the end of six months. “I came back,” he says, “because of ’the girl I left behind me’; and it was pretty hard to stay even as long as I did.”

Soon afterward he married. His total capital at the time was fifty dollars, a sum which was reduced one fifth by the wedding expenses. For several years he continued to teach, and at the age of twenty-five we find him in charge of a school near West Point. Up to this time his interest in nature and his aptitude for observation lay dormant. But now it was awakened by reading a volume of Audubon which chanced to fall into his hands. That was a revelation, and he went to the woods with entirely new interest and enthusiasm. He began at once to get acquainted with the birds, his vision grew keen and alert, and birds he had passed by before, he now saw at once.

Meanwhile the Civil War was going on, and it aroused in Burroughs a strong desire to enlist. He visited Washington to get a closer view of army life, but what he saw of it rather damped his military ardor. It seemed to him that the men were driven about and herded like cattle; and when a peaceful position in the Treasury Department was offered him he accepted it, and for nine years was a Government clerk.

At the Treasury he guarded a vault and kept a record of the money that went in or out. The duties were not arduous, and in his long intervals of leisure his mind wandered far afield. It dwelt on the charm of flitting wings and bird melodies, on the pleasures of rambling along country roads and into the woodlands; and, sitting before the Treasury vault, at a high desk and facing an iron wall he began to write. There was no need for notes. His memory was all-sufficient, and the result was the essays which make “Wake-Robin,” ­his first book.

By 1873 Burroughs had had enough of the routine of a Government clerkship, and he resigned to become the receiver of a bank in Middletown, New York. Later he accepted a position as bank examiner in the eastern part of the State. But his longing to return to the soil was growing apace, and presently he bought a little farm on the west shore of the Hudson. He at once erected a substantial stone house and started orchards and vineyards, yet it was not until 1885 that he felt he could relinquish his Government position and dwell on his own land with the assurance of a safe support.

He has never been a great traveler. Still, he has been abroad twice and has recently made a trip to Alaska. Lesser excursions have taken him to Virginia and Kentucky, and to Canada, and he has camped in Maine and the Adirondacks. But the district that he knows best and that he puts oftenest into his nature studies is his home country in the Catskills and the region about his “Riverby” farm. Very little of his writing, however, has been done in the house in which he lives. This was never a wholly satisfactory working-place. He felt he must get away from all conventionalities, and he early put up on the outskirts of his vineyards a little bark-covered study, to which it has been his habit to retire for his indoor thinking and writing. He still uses this study more or less, and often in the summer evenings sits in an easy-chair, under an apple-tree just outside the door, and listens to the voices of Nature while he looks off across the Hudson.

But the spot that at present most engages his affection is a reclaimed woodland swamp, back among some rocky hills, a mile or two from the river. A few years ago the swamp was a wild tangle of brush and stumps, fallen trees and murky pools. Now it has been cleared and drained, and the dark forest mould produces wonderful crops of celery, sweet corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. On a shoulder of rock near the swamp borders Burroughs has built a rustic house, sheathed outside with slabs, and smacking in all its arrangements of the woodlands and of the days of pioneering. It has an open fireplace, where the flames crackle cheerfully on chilly evenings, and over the fireplace coals most of the cooking is done; but in really hot weather an oil stove serves instead.

On the other side of the hollow a delightfully cold spring bubbles forth, and immediately back of the house is a natural cavern which makes an ideal storage place for perishable foods. The descent to the cavern is made by a rude ladder, and the sight of Burroughs coming and going between it and the house has a most suggestive touch of the wild and romantic.

He is often at “Slabsides” ­sometimes for weeks or months at a time, though he always makes daily visits to the valley to look after the work in his vineyards and to visit the post-office at the railway station. He is a leisurely man, to whom haste and the nervous pursuit of wealth or fame are totally foreign. He thoroughly enjoys country loitering, and when he gets a hint of anything interesting or new going on among the birds and little creatures of the fields, he likes to stop and investigate. His ears are remarkably quick and his eyes and sense of smell phenomenally acute, and much which to most of us would be unperceived or meaningless he reads as if it were an open book. Best of all, he has the power of imparting his enjoyment, and what he writes is full of outdoor fragrance, racy, piquant, and individual. His snap and vivacity are wholly unartificial. They are a part of the man ­a man full of imagination and sensitiveness, a philosopher, a humorist, a hater of shams and pretension. The tenor of his life changes little from year to year, his affections remain steadfast, and this hardy, gray poet of things rural will continue, as ever, the warm-hearted nature enthusiast, and inspirer of the love of nature in others.