timons (timons) wrote,

Leaf and Tendril

     The latest John Burroughs collection I have finished is the 1908 volume called Leaf and Tendril. This volume consists of reflections on science and natural history, including some discussions of evolution. I was amused to see that several of the topics were nearly identical to those in the Stephen Jay Gould collection I recently finished, as were the conclusions.
     Let me back up and make a few remarks about Burroughs, who is getting a bit of a revival these days, but is less well known than he deserves. I discovered his works by happy accident. I began collecting the Riverside Literature Series in my early teens, and his essays appeared in a couple of the first volumes I came across. I found them mesmerizing. His typical nature essays have a topic (like the varieties of apples that grow in New England, or the bad things that happen to bird nests) and they wander from anecdote to anecdote, and then wind down. They generally don't try to hammer home a point, but there often is one. Observation is everything. He's not as memorable as Thoreau, but he isn't trying for constant life lessons and metaphors. The essays are quieter, and more knowledgeable.
    Burroughs was a clerk in Washington, DC during the Civil War, and started writing essays about natural history. DC has Rock Creek Park because Burroughs observed that it would make a great park. Later in life he would be friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and go camping with him in Yellowstone; and encourage the National Park movement. Likewise he participated in the Urban Park movement and the Rural Cemetery movement. He also engaged in some literary criticism, and was the major early advocate of Walt Whitman.
     Having "discovered" Burroughs, I pieced together a complete works at the St. Louis Book Fairs. Most of the set were from two complete works; one from an amateur naturalist, the other discards from John Burroughs School in St. Louis. (Yes, they liquidated the collection of their namesake.) Then I did a Very Bad Thing. I kept putting off reading the collection, because I treasured them.
     Okay, I've grown up and gotten over it. When I realized that I was systematically putting off the "best stuff" until "later" ... well, I decided to read the best stuff before the weak stuff, mostly. My life has been better since.
     Back to this volume. Because it's more meta than observational, I enjoyed this less. Much of the thinking is old news to me (and recently covered by reading Gould), even though Burroughs wrote it long before my time. But there is sound writing and sound reasoning in here.
One paragraph that stood out for its time was this one, his evaluation of where the environment is headed:
"Again, one cannot but reflect what a sucked orange the earth will be in the course of a few more centuries. Our civilization is terribly expensive to all its natural resources; one hundred years of modern life doubtless exhausts its stores more than a millennium of the life of antiquity. Its coal and oil will be about used up, all its mineral wealth greatly depleted, the fertility of its soil will have been washed into the sea through the drainage of its cities, its wild game will be nearly extinct, its primitive forests gone, and soon how nearly bankrupt the planet will be!"
     My other quote is from one of the observational essays in this volume, "A Walk in the Woods." It's the concluding paragraph, in which he discusses stone walls.
"The more padding there is in a stone wall, the less enduring it is. Let your stone reach clean through. A smooth face will not save it; a loose and cobbly interior will be its ruin. Let there be a broad foundation, let the parts be well bound together, let the joints be carefully broken, and, above all, let its height not be too great for its width. If it is too high, it will topple over; if its interior is defective, it will spread and collapse. Time searches out its every weakness, and respects only good material and good workmanship."
Tags: essays, john burroughs, natural history

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