Just twice a year, visitors can look into the studio of one of America’s most important, but least-known, nature writers
Home in the woods: The West Park retreat, Slabsides, was built by Burroughs and his son
Photograph by Greg Howard
John Burroughs was no marketing genius. In 1895, when he built a little cabin in the woods in what is now the town of West Park in eastern Ulster County, Burroughs — then America’s preeminent nature writer — could have called it anything. He called it Slabsides.
Even he knew that was far from poetic. But he didn’t care, as he wrote in his essay “Far and Near”:
“I was offered a tract of wild land, barely a mile from home, that contained a secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land shut off from the vain and noisy world by a wooded precipitous mountain... and built me a rustic house there, which I call ‘Slabsides,’ because its outer walls are covered with slabs. I might have given it a prettier name, but not one more fit, or more in keeping with the mood that brought me thither.”
Had he chosen something more captivating — something along the lines of, say, Walden Pond — Burroughs might today be as well known as Henry David Thoreau, the poster-boy of American environmentalist writers. But Burroughs is not nearly as celebrated as his counterparts, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that, at the time of his death in 1921, this Hudson Valley icon was “perhaps the most famous writer in the country, if not the world.”
So says Jeff Walker, an earth science professor at Vassar College and second vice president of the John Burroughs Association. “Burroughs wrote at a time when people were feeling trapped by the Industrial Revolution,” Walker says. “They felt confined by the big cities. He wrote about nature in a way that was refreshing and approachable.” And wildly successful.
The interior of the cabin (above, with Burroughs in the rocking chair) remains the same today as it did during the naturalist’s lifetime
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
John Burroughs was born April 3, 1837, on his family’s farm in Delaware County. The seventh of 10 children, he was an avid reader, but his parents were barely literate and intellectually unsupportive. At 17, he left home. For a few years he taught to earn money to continue his studies at Cooperstown Seminary, among other places. While there, he first read the works of the early naturalists: William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thoreau. These writers rekindled his love of life on the farm and the rhythms of the plant and animal world, especially birds.
In 1860, he published his first essay in a then-new magazine called the Atlantic Monthly. He also continued to teach until 1864, when he got a job in Washington, D.C., as a clerk at the Treasury. Eventually he became a federal bank examiner, but writing remained his passion. He even met Walt Whitman, who became his friend and encouraged him to pursue nature writing.
He did, publishing articles in the Atlantic Monthly and other popular magazines of the day, such as Harper’s and Scribner’s. In 1871, his essays were collected in book form and published under the title Wake-Robin. It was a hit. Though he continued to work in the government until the 1880s, he grew more famous — and financially successful — as a writer.
In 1874, Burroughs bought a nine-acre farm in West Park. He called his estate Riverby, and grew a variety of crops, the most successful being grapes. By 1895, he had enough money to purchase more land, and with his only child, Julian, built Slabsides as a writing studio to host visitors and students from Vassar.
Writer and Celebrity
“Life has a different flavor here. It is reduced to simpler terms; its complex equations all disappear,” Burroughs wrote of Slabsides. That flavor inspired the writing that made him a celebrity. Slabsides became a destination for both anonymous nature lovers and turn-of-the-century power brokers, including Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who reportedly gave him one of the first automobiles in the Hudson Valley.
“He took a train trip to Yosemite with President Roosevelt, and it was reported that there were more banners welcoming Burroughs than Roosevelt,” Walker says. “A reporter from the New York Times wrote that Roosevelt was lucky to be spending time with Burroughs, not the other way around.”
Burroughs was a quiet, noncombative gentleman who tried to please everyone, Walker says. “He commanded respect with his knowledge, and some argue that he was more influential in [prompting] Roosevelt to start the national park system than Muir, who was kind of obnoxious.”
After Burroughs died in 1921, just short of his 84th birthday, Slabsides was presented to the newly formed John Burroughs Association. Over the years, the association raised funds to purchase additional acres, which now comprise the 170-acre John Burroughs Sanctuary. Slabsides was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.
The grounds are open year-round, but the cabin itself is only open for two days a year. Preserved just as it was when Burroughs occupied it, the one-story structure is made of slabs of lumber with the bark covering the exterior walls. Red cedar posts that Burroughs and his son set in place still hold up the covered front porch. Inside, Burroughs’s original furniture, much of which he made himself, also remains throughout the small house, which consists of an open area designated for dining and as a living room/study, with a bedroom that can be sectioned off. Large windows look out into the surrounding woods.
So why doesn’t his reputation remain as well? Walker has two theories. “He published something almost every month the last decade of his life, so he was always in the public eye,” he says. “But he wrote in popular magazines, so when he died, someone else took his place. His many book collections didn’t continue his fame.”
In addition, his contemporary, John Muir, wrote about more spectacular sites. “Burroughs wrote more about backyard nature, so he can seem a bit tame,” Walker says.
Still, Burroughs is worth reading — Walker teaches some of his work in his classes. “I find his style holds up pretty well. He does know how to write a good sentence,” Walker says. “And I think his work is really important now, as more people live in cities than not in cities. Most people can’t have the Muir kind of experience. The only nature they encounter is in their backyard.”
And though he was lousy with names, no one wrote about backyard nature better than John Burroughs.
Nature writing was all the rage at the turn of the last century — in more than one sense of the word. Two camps raged at each other during the four-year war of words now known as the Nature Fakers Controversy.
On one side: John Burroughs, John Muir, and other science-based writers and thinkers. On the other side were even more popular writers — such as Ernest Thompson Seton, Charles G. D. Roberts and William J. Long — who composed sentimental, highly anthropomorphic renderings of the animal world and passed them off as nonfiction.
By 1903, Burroughs had had enough. He published an article called “Real and Sham Natural History” in the Atlantic Monthly in which he called those works “yellow journalism of the woods.” Singling out Seton’s best-selling book Wild Animals I Have Known, Burroughs wrote, “Mr. Thompson Seton says in capital letters that his stories are true, and it is this emphatic assertion that makes the judicious grieve. True as romance, true in their artistic effects, true in their power to entertain the young reader, they certainly are but true as natural history they as certainly are not.”
The War of the Naturalists, as the New York Times called it, was on.
As one example, he took on Seton’s calling a crow’s habitat a fortress and a college. “There is not a shadow of truth in it,” Burroughs wrote. “It is simply one of Mr. Thompson Seton’s strokes of fancy. The crows do not train their young. They have no fortresses, or schools, or colleges, or examining boards, or diplomas, or medals of honor, or hospitals, or churches, or telephones, or postal deliveries, or anything of the sort. Indeed, the poorest backwoods hamlet has more of the appurtenances of civilization than the best organized crow or other wild animal community in the land!”
Even President Theodore Roosevelt got involved. He kept an eye on the debate, and as a naturalist sided with his friend Burroughs. He even came up with the term “nature faker.” In 1907 Roosevelt publicly came out against the sentimentalists: “As for the matter of giving these books to children for the purpose of teaching them the facts of natural history — why, it’s an outrage.”
And that, more or less, was the end of the Nature Fakers Controversy.
Slabsides Open House:
Slabsides is open to the public on May 15 and Oct. 2 from 12-4:30 p.m. Visitors can tour the cabin, listen to lectures, and take guided nature walks. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.research.amnh.org/burroughs.