Burroughs on “Observing”

The east coast naturalist John Burroughs was a passionate observer of the forests, animals, and especially the birds of his native Catskill Mountains.  He wrote unabashedly, “I find I see, almost without effort, nearly every bird within sight in the field or wood I pass through (a flit of the wing, a flirt of the tail are enough, though the flickering leaves do all conspire to hide them).”

This was no idle boast.  Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great birder, acknowledged Burroughs’ mastery in his 1905 book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, where he wrote that “No bird escaped John Burroughs’ eye; no bird note escaped his ear.”

As a Burroughs fan and someone trying to improve his own skills, I was thrilled to discover recently that the master had left behind some advice on the art of observation.  Several of his essays contain how-to tips, including “The Art of Seeing Things,” “Sharp Eyes” and The Gospel of Nature, which I’ve tried to summarize in this blog post.

But first a few words of caution, in the form of a caveat Burroughs offered his readers:  “I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it. Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles.”

As you can tell, Burroughs relished metaphor.  The first step in learning to observe, he wrote, is to develop “a steady, deliberate aim of the eye,” just like a sharpshooter or hunter.  Whether observing or shooting, you “must look intently, and hold your eye firmly to the spot.”

The great mass of mankind are, in this respect, like the rank and file of an army: they fire vaguely in the direction of the enemy, and if they hit, it is more a matter of chance than of accurate aim. But here and there is the keen-eyed observer; he is the sharpshooter; his eye selects and discriminates, his purpose goes to the mark.

— John Burroughs, The Art of Seeing Things

A marksman must know his target, and this principle holds true for the observer, too.  “You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush,” Burroughs wrote, meaning that the eye must have a specific “purpose and aim.”  That purpose is different for different people:  “A person whose eye is full of Indian relics picks them up in every field he walks through,” Burroughs wrote, referring here to Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, who was among other interests a student of Native American culture and inveterate collector of arrowheads.  The reference is appropriate because Thoreau had also written about the art of observing nature in his essay “Autumnal Tints”:

Why, it takes a sharp-shooter to bring down even such trivial game as snipes and woodcocks; he must take very particular aim, and know what he is aiming at. He would stand a very small chance, if he fired at random into the sky, being told that snipes were flying there. And so is it with him that shoots at beauty; though he wait till the sky falls, he will not bag any, if he does not already know its seasons and haunts, and the color of its wing, — if he has not dreamed of it, so that he can anticipate it

— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”

Whether hunter or observer, knowing and anticipating are important traits because Nature’s purpose is typically to avoid detection.  As Burroughs points out, “the birds, the animals, all the wild creatures, for the most part try to elude your observation.”  Hunters match their sight “against the keen and alert sense” of their prey, and this teaches them to keep eyes and ears open.

What a training to the eye is hunting! to pick out the game from its surroundings, the grouse from the leaves, the gray squirrel from the mossy oak limb it hugs so closely, the red fox from the ruddy or brown or gray field, the rabbit from the stubble, or the white hare from the snow, requires the best powers of this sense.

— John Burroughs, “Sharp Eyes”

The ultimate test of the hunter/observer’s alertness is to find what you are not looking for, or as Burroughs puts it, “to catch the shy winks and gestures on every side, to see all the by-play going on around you, missing no significant note or movement, penetrating every screen with your eye-beams.”


Burroughs was in favor of practices like hunting that develop real-world skills, but observation was for him also a topic of the mind and soul.  In this regard, he commented on the joy of observing nature and the importance of both knowledge and emotion:

We probably all have, in varying degrees, one or the other of these ways of enjoying Nature: either the sympathetic and emotional enjoyment of her which the young and the artistic and the poetic temperament have, or the enjoyment through our knowing faculties afforded by natural science, or, it may be, the two combined.

— John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”

In a later essay, The Gospel of Nature, he makes this point more concisely:  “To enjoy understandingly [sic], that, I fancy, is the great thing to be desired.”

Burroughs read widely, appreciated the works of naturalists like John Audubon, and embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He came to believe that scientific knowledge confers “new powers of vision.”  The ability to discriminate birds, plants, or geological features was like developing an “inner eye” or adding “new and keener eyes.”

Appreciation of science was another way in which Burroughs resembled Thoreau, another passionate student of nature (his essay “The Maine Woods” contains an appendix listing dozens of species he identified).  John Muir, too, was schooled in botany, and his accounts of the Sierra Mountains include scientific names for many plants and trees.

But while Burroughs found scientific knowledge valuable, he was not enamored of the spirit of “cold, calculating, exact science” and did not aspire to be a “cold-blooded specialist.”  Rather, he called himself a “nature-lover.”  Love was for him the “the real measure” of life, and he saw little point in understanding without enjoyment.

Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and the cold. What we love to do, that we do well.  To know is not all; it is only half.  To love is the other half

— John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”

Many people would regard “loving” and “knowing” as separate topics, but what’s interesting about Burroughs is that he saw them as two sides of the same coin.  In one sentence he wrote that “The eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind it” – and then in the very next sentence, “The eye is informed and sharpened by the thought.”  He seemed to regard the combination of “desire” and “thought” as leading to the truth, which was the ultimate goal in his philosophy:  “To love the Truth and possess it forever is the supreme good.”

As a truth-seeker Burroughs was very critical of writers who blurred the line between fact and fiction.  Well-read in the classics, he scorned ancient writers when they strayed from fact into fable (for example, in the Georgics where Virgil described the spontaneous rebirth of bees in the carcass of an ox):  “Just at the critical moment their eyes were unsteady, or their fancy, or their credulity, or their impatience, got the better of them, so that their science was half fact and half fable.”  For Burroughs skepticism was a “healthful and robust habit of mind,” while credulity and sloppiness were beneath contempt.

Burroughs was also critical of contemporary nature writers, some of whom romanticized their subjects with made-up facts (for example, one author claimed to have seen a woodcock set its broken leg and then fashion a cast out of straw and clay).  He branded these authors as “nature fakers”:

Their natural history is for the most part a sham, a counterfeit. No one quarrels with them because they are not scientific, or because they deal in something more than dry facts; the ground of quarrel is that they do not start with facts, that they grossly and absurdly misrepresent the wild lives they claim to portray.

— John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”

His scathing critiques of the nature fakers touched off a long-lasting public controversy that eventually pulled in Theodore Roosevelt (who sided with Burroughs on the importance of sticking to fact).  The nature-fakers upset Burroughs because to him the whole point of observation was “to see the thing as it is – to see the truth”:

to see no more and no less than is actually before you; to be able to detach yourself and see the thing as it actually is, uncolored and unmodified by your own sentiments or prepossessions.  In short, to see with your reason as well as your perceptions, that is to be an observer and to read the book of nature aright.

— John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”

The book of nature was another metaphor that Burroughs used frequently.  The concept referred to the belief of Christian scholars during the middle ages that close study of nature revealed the will of God.

The book of nature is like a page written over or printed upon with different-sized characters and in many different languages, interlined and cross-lined, and with a great variety of marginal notes and references. There is coarse print and fine print; there are obscure signs and hieroglyphics.  We all read the large type more or less appreciatively, but only the students and lovers of nature read the fine lines and the footnotes. It is a book which he reads best who goes most slowly or even tarries long by the way….For my part, my delight is to linger long over each page of this marvelous record, and to dwell fondly upon its most obscure text. I take pleasure in noting the minute things about me. I am interested even in the ways of the wild bees, and in all the little dramas and tragedies that occur in field and wood.

— John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”

While Burroughs described reading the book of nature, he then went on to discuss writing as an important practice in the art of observation.  Commenting once again on Thoreau, who kept voluminous journal entries, Burroughs wrote that “what seemed so insignificant in the passing, or as it lay in embryo in his mind, becomes a valuable part of his experiences when it is fully unfolded and recorded in black and white.  The process of writing develops it; the bud becomes the leaf or flower; the one is disentangled from the many and takes definite form and hue.”

Burroughs followed a similar process himself, jotting down notes after even the shortest walk in the woods:  “The pleasure and value of every walk or journey we take may be doubled to us by carefully noting down the impression it makes upon us.”  Further, “It was not till after I got home that I really went to Maine, or to the Adirondacks, or to Canada.  Out of the chaotic and nebulous impressions which these expeditions gave me, I evolved the real experience.  There is hardly anything that does not become much more in the telling than in the thinking or in the feeling.”

Or put differently, “The gold of nature does not look like gold at the first glance.  It must be smelted and refined in the mind of the observer.”

Just as Burroughs warned, the art of seeing things is not something that can be easily taught.  Just like hunting, observing nature requires practical skills:  steady aim, alertness, and knowledge of the target.  You must be passionate about seeking truth and thus have both an aptitude for scientific knowledge and a skeptical inclination.  And finally, a serious observer will likely practice the discipline of writing as a means of refining insights from impressions.  In this regard, the master observer not only reads the book of nature aright, but he or she could be said to write a part of it, too.

After a lifetime observing nature, one might well ask what did Burroughs ultimately see?  In his own words, he learned “to see the divine, the celestial, the pure, in the common, the near at hand —to see that heaven lies about us here in this world.”

Intercourse with Nature and a knowledge of her ways tends to simplicity of life. We come more and more to see through the follies and vanities of the world and to appreciate the real values. We load ourselves up with so many false burdens, our complex civilization breeds in us so many false or artificial wants, that we become separated from the real sources of our strength and health as by a gulf. For my part, as I grow older I am more and more inclined to reduce my baggage, to lop off superfluities. I become more and more in love with simple things and simple folk — a small house, a hut in the woods, a tent on the shore.

— John Burroughs, The Gospel of Nature

Easier said than done:  Burroughs thought that attaining this vision was one of the great challenges of life.

I hope the tips summarized in this post help you see more clearly!

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon – click on the image to check it out


Burroughs on “Observing”

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