Friday, June 20, 2008

The Creative Habitats of John Burroughs

Artists and writers love to customize the perfect environment for their creative life.

John Burroughs, (1837-1921) strove for rustic simplicity. Burroughs was an American naturalist and essayist, a friend of Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt. According to Jeff Walker, professor of geology at Vassar College, Burroughs was “a pioneer of the new school of nature writing, and one of the most widely read authors of his time.”

Yesterday we joined Jeff Walker and a small group of scholars from the Burroughs Association to be the first outside visitors in decades to tour the 9-acre family-owned estate south of Kingston, New York.

The first house that Burroughs built here was a stone cottage called “Riverby” (above), now abandoned, with a collapsing porch and three floors of accumulated bric-a-brac. Burroughs became disenchanted with its dark and crowded interiors, and wanted another place to write.

Fifty yards downhill from Riverby he built a 15x20 foot structure called “Bark Study,” covered with chestnut bark, with a cobble chimney on the north side.

Inside Bark Study his writing desk remains just as he left it, with round stream stones, ink bottles, and quill pens. The ashes in the fireplace were from his last fire in 1921. Members of the family told us that they had to remove the books from the shelves for safekeeping because they were getting eaten by bugs.

In good weather, Burroughs would do his writing in this place, called the “Summer House,” which has survived for over a hundred years because of the rot-resistance of the cedar wood. In his day, there would have been no trees to block the wide vista of the Hudson River. But Burroughs didn't care for big views of the Hudson. He aspired to live in a shack by a swamp.

After 1895, he built nearby "Slabsides," a masterpiece of rustic architecture, which is the only structure open to the public, twice a year in the spring and fall. Here his only view was a swampy celery patch. He would entertain guests like Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford—and legions of adoring fans, sometimes 100 per day.

He was always trying to rid himself of pretentions and to keep his life simple: “Unless, therefore, you have had the rare success of building without pride, your house will offend you by and by, and offend others.”
John Burroughs Association, link.
Wikipedia entry on JB, link.


John P. Baumlin said...

Thank you for posting this. Burroughs is my favorite writer and some of his books (he wrote more than 30)would be my desert island picks, hands down. His earlier ones were mostly straight natural history observations, but he became more philosophical as he got older and his later books are masterpieces of introspection and perspicacity.

Shane White said...

Might you be hinting at building a studio of your own? :)


James Gurney said...

No, I'm not planning a new studio--I just need to clean up the one I've got. I think artists need more junk than writers.

Unknown said...

I have several old books written by John Burroughs and have been moving them for about 20 years now. I don't want them to deteriorate and would like to see if you know anyone or if you, yourself are interested. I lived in Somerville, TN in the 1990s and I found these books. They are signed from Mr. Burroughs to a Mrs. George Moorman. ??? Diane Rhodes

James Gurney said...

I'm in contact with people from the John Burroughs Society and am a fan of his writing. If you could let me know what your wishes are, I would be glad to help you. James Gurney

Unknown said...

I grew up about 2 miles from Slabsides (even lived on Burroughs Drive). As a small child, My mother and I would walk to Slabsides every few days in the autumn. The crooked paths were overgrown with emence old forest trees and bushes that provided a riot of color. Sunlight shafted through every available crack in the lush canopy. When the wind picked up, cascades of leaves would twirl downward, dancing on the air currents. I would cavort with the leaves as my mother clapped to a rhythm only she could hear.
These meanders taught me that it is the journey that matters not the destination. Thank you for jarring my memory banks.