Around the same time as Thoreau was writing his influential works, another prominent American essayist was making a strong case for natural resource protection, establishing a reputation that demands his inclusion as one of our past environmental heroes. A gentle man who eschewed the limelight, John Burroughs—considered the “Father of the Modern Nature Essay” —was constantly writing and diligently working behind the scenes to protect the natural world he so ardently loved. In fact, Burroughs advocated for the protection of our natural resources in the 1850s—decades before there were any national parks or official conservation movements.
Burroughs was born in 1837 on his family’s farm near Roxbury, New York. As a young boy, he developed a deep passion for the Catskills woods and fields around him. He became a teacher when he was only seventeen—easily securing the good will of the pupils with a knack for imparting knowledge. He saved his teaching wages, supplementing them with money earned working on a farm, to put himself through the Hedding Literary Institute at Ashland, NY in the fall of his seventeenth year.
Watching with chagrin as rapid westward expansion and industrialization systematically ate away the wilderness of his country, Burroughs decided to help save America’s natural resources from disappearing forever. He used what he could do best— writing natural history essays—to help people visualize and understand the irreplaceable value of what they had. Then he taught them to feel passionately about protecting these resources. Very few people living today are aware of the tremendous influence Burroughs’s nature essays had on the consciousness of the American public during the nineteenth century.
Burroughs was one of the most famous authors of his day. He had a knack for describing the natural world vividly and simply. His prose communicated the value of slowing down and taking the time to really observe and appreciate the great outdoors. His message resonated with all ages, but especially with children. No image of Burroughs fits his grandfatherly persona better than one of him sitting on a hillside, his long white beard flowing down while he tells a tale about his exploits in the natural world to a group of visibly enthralled youngsters. By encouraging his readers to understand and share a sense of their purpose and place in the landscape, Burroughs championed the importance of keenly observing and understanding what was happening in the natural world.
As is the case with most of our past environmental heroes who did not have the good fortune of being born into wealthy families, Burroughs had to take other jobs to support his writing lifestyle. While he worked as a clerk for the US Treasury Department in Washington, DC during the Civil War, he continued to pursue his interests in botany and ornithology. In Washington, he developed a fast friendship with the poet Walt Whitman, eighteen years his senior. Burroughs’s first book, published in 1867, was entitled Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person and was partially written by Whitman.
Summarizing his love affair with the birds in DC, Burroughs wrote Wake-Robin in 1871. Although he enjoyed the city, he missed his boyhood Catskills and he returned to them in 1873 to build a house he named “Riverby” along the western shore of the Hudson River, about eighty miles north of New York City. Then—about twenty years later—yearning for a more pristine writing environment, he built what he called “Slabsides,” a rustic cabin located more than a mile into the deep woods from “Riverby.”
Slabsides was where Burroughs’s profound and personal connections with the literary world took off. A parade of dignitaries—including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Muir—regularly stopped by to visit and chat with him there. Nature enthusiasts of all ages and occupations also visited Slabsides, for walks, discussions, fishing, and camping with Burroughs.
Through the lasting friendships he built with his more prominent visitors, Burroughs began to have an important influence on the emerging preservationist movement. By capitalizing on his newfound conservation clout, he also inspired political leaders to work at protecting wild lands and wildlife. He continually encouraged his readers to get out and explore the natural world, telling them, “Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door.”
Over a period of sixty years, Burroughs wrote more than three hundred nature essays and articles, published in leading magazines, along with twenty-seven books. When Burroughs died in 1921, Clyde Fisher, then curator of visual instruction at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote in Natural History Magazine, “John Burroughs did perhaps more than anyone else to open our eyes to the beauty of nature.” Ginger Wadsworth, author of the children’s book, John Burroughs: The Sage of Slabsides, wrote this description of Burroughs—which would have given him the ultimate pleasure in knowing that his life’s goal had been accomplished: “His essays teach us to slow down and look around. They encouraged people of all ages to go out their backdoors and experience nature.”
More than anything else, John Burroughs had a remarkable predilection for moving people to action through his writing. For the writers among us climate change activists, this is a critical skill for getting people involved with the solution process. Before you can convince people to act, you have to convince them to care, and that is exactly what world-class writings—such as those of John Burroughs—are carefully tailored to accomplish.