Accepting the Universe

john burroughs

In his prime, John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the most popular writers in America, with a huge following of readers and relationships with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and railroad tycoon E. F. Harriman.  His passion was the birds, forests, rivers, and mountains of his native Catskills, and his writings reveal a scientist’s powers of observation and a nature-lover’s emotional connection to the land.  In 1919, at age 82 he appeared in a short film, shown leading a trio of young children around his Catskill farm.  He points out butterfly, chipmunk, grasshopper, and then the following words appear on the screen:

I am an old man now and have come to the summit of my years.  But in my heart is the joy of youth for I have learned that the essentials of life are near at hand and happiness is his who but opens his eyes to the beauty which lies before him.

Today, these words are remembered by a dedicated group of Burroughs enthusiasts.  But despite his enormous popularity, his hasn’t become a household name like other American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir.  I wondered, why?

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Accepting the Universe

Let’s Put Thoreau in his Proper Place

In a recent post, I compared a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, as both were experiments in natural living and self-sufficiency.

But then my daughter Emeline brought to my attention a recent article entitled “Pond Scum.”  The author, Kathryn Schulz, questions why we still admire the literature of a man who was mean-spirited and a fake.  She summarizes her opinion in no uncertain terms:

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Let’s Put Thoreau in his Proper Place

A Catskills Afternoon, Complete with Flies, Thorns, Stinging Nettles, and Gunfire

As I dragged myself out of bed, the main topic on my mind was breakfast — not another bushwhacking adventure in the Catskills.

The day before, my friend Todd Jennings and I had put on the inaugural Ellenville Mountain Running Festival.  Organizing the race and ensuring everything went smoothly had taken a lot of effort.  That night I went to bed tired and didn’t bother to set the alarm.  But once I was finally awake and suitably nourished, there were no other pressing tasks at hand, and in due course I found myself motoring down the Thruway in search of Bearpen Mountain.

Todd and I had designed the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival as a “minimalist format” event, meaning that the course wasn’t marked and runners had to carry maps.  Many of the racers missed turns and ran extra miles, and a small number gave up and returned to the start.  It was only fitting, therefore, that on the way to Bearpen I would get lost.  And this despite having both Google Maps and NY-NJ Trail Conference maps on my phone.  It was high noon before I pulled into the parking area, almost two hours later than expected.  As they say, Karma’s a bitch.

Continue reading “A Catskills Afternoon, Complete with Flies, Thorns, Stinging Nettles, and Gunfire”

A Catskills Afternoon, Complete with Flies, Thorns, Stinging Nettles, and Gunfire