Sunday, April 19, 2020

Wild Life about My Cabin

John Burroughs (1837–1921)
From American Birds: A Literary Companion

“Landlord and Tenant.” Frontispiece photograph by Frank M. Chapman for the May–June 1901 number of Bird-Lore. The issue contained Chapman’s article “Bird-Nesting with Burroughs,” which explains that the photograph shows Burroughs alongside the habitat of a hummingbird that “had placed her nest in the low sweeping limb of an apple tree” situated so close to a pathway that “the suspicious little creature invariably darted from it whenever any one approached to within twenty feet.”
In December 1906 University of Georgia professor R.J.H. DeLoach visited the home of the naturalist John Burroughs, the author of nearly twenty popular books on nature and wildlife. “I was anxious to see the far-famed cabin in the woods,” he wrote five years later in Rambles with John Burroughs. “As we followed the beaten pathway up the rugged mountain side, Mr. Burroughs appeared perfectly at ease, and would tell of the famous visitors who had come along the same path with him to Slabsides.” As they reached their destination:
. . . my eyes were fixed on the very odd, yet beautiful house, that we were about to enter. The thought that here is a house that nature lovers, literateurs, college boys and girls, business men, working men, and all classes and conditions of humanity had made pilgrimages to see, caused my first sight of it to sink deeply into my heart. The house was so well suited to its environment that one might call it Nature’s own. The bark covered slabs out of which it was built, the rustic looking doors, floors and steps, made me happier than anything I had ever seen, except the man who built it and called it home. The scattered shelves on the rustic walls filled with all kinds of books indicated what the house was built for. The table on one side of the room, covered with papers of every description, and letters, the little ink-well and goose quill pen, all contributed to my interest in the place. On the table lay a book containing a list of the names of visitors to Slabsides, in which I was asked to write my name. . . .

To my surprise, there was an upstairs to Slabsides, and the great philosopher and poet, on taking me up in the second story of his little house, told me that he had entertained more than a half dozen men and women, two or three days at a time, at Slabsides. . . .
DeLoach’s trek was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Burroughs’s death fifteen years later.

Despite the cabin’s remoteness, Burroughs hosted hundreds of visitors at Slabsides over the course of quarter century: dignitaries and dilettantes, biologists and birdwatchers, children of his friends and students from nearby Vassar College. One frequent guest to the refuge was Frank M. Chapman, ornithologist, photographer, and founding editor of Bird-Lore, the official magazine of the national network of Audubon Societies. Shortly after the turn of the century, in an article titled “Best-Nesting with Burroughs,” Chapman described Slabsides as “the ideal haunt for man and bird, and round about were inviting wooded hills, and here and there cultivated valleys between them, and, not far away, fields and orchards.” Chapman reported both that the variety of species around the cabin were a birdwatcher’s delight, although the birds in the area proved just as challenging to a photographer as winged creatures the world over.

Yet another visitor to Slabsides was a ten-year-old boy named Ted. In his essay “Babes in the Woods,” Burroughs describes his embarrassment when he broke off the branch of a dead tree in order to show his pupil an old bluebird nest—only to discover it was an active home with two nestlings inside. He and Ted worked to reposition the branch as best they could and retreated out of sight to watch with relief when the mother, after displays of anxiousness and confusion, discovered her relocated home. After the boy’s weekend at Slabsides had come to an end, Burroughs wrote to Ted’s father, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, that the young lad’s tree-climbing activities had kept his host in a state of perpetual fright. “He’s a chip off the old block,” he added pointedly. Roosevelt responded, “Never in your life have you given more happiness than to the small boy who spent last Saturday and Sunday with you. He has really been very interesting over some of his experiences, notably the conduct of the two parent bluebirds after you by accident broke down the stump containing their nest and then put it up again.”

In “Wild Life about My Cabin,” perhaps the best-known essay about Slabsides, Burroughs describes the abundance of life in his nature-built sanctuary. Reprinted in the just-published Library of America anthology American Birds: A Literary Companion, we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

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Friends have often asked me why I turned my back upon the Hudson and retreated into the wilderness. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.