When the literary naturalist John Burroughs first began writing about Nature, as he called it, the country looked askance. Where he saw beauty, where he found repose, the vast majority of Americans still saw an enemy who stood in the way of progress. They had their eye set firmly on a future that looked nothing like the countryside that Burroughs’ writings extolled.
Much of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was still a wilderness, especially in the West and even more especially in the minds of the people who were settling the still-new land. America was in the throes of its new Industrial Age. Once-quiet rural communities were suddenly hubs of a booming postwar economy. The embodiment of the progress that the new age promised was the railroad: the Promethean bringer of “civilization” to a countryside that had once known only silence.
Burroughs’ writings – his first essay was published in 1865 – helped establish the notion that Nature was no enemy that needed to be overcome and destroyed, but a place and a quality that needed and deserved protection and appreciation. His essays brought him to the attention of famous men, among them Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Walt Whitman, who shared his love of the outdoors and who – in Roosevelt’s case especially – were partly responsible for launching what has become over the years the conservationist tradition.
You can still hear the whistle of the railroad that runs not a mile or two from the base of the modest mountain atop which sits Slabsides, the rustic wooden retreat that John Burroughs built as a bulwark against the advance of American industrial progress. To his ears – and to the ears of countless men and women, famous and forgotten – what may sound to us today as a romantic, lonely echo of simpler times had a more ominous ring to it. It was the sound that Burroughs sought all his life to escape. The place where he chose to take his stand, where he could provide for his many friends and visitors, was called Slabsides.
Here’s how Burroughs described the situation that he was escaping and the cure that he had found when he bought the land on which he built Slabsides, which was near his riverfront home in West Park in the Town of Esopus:
“I was offered a tract of land, barely a mile from my home, that contained a secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land, shut off from the vain and noisy world of railroads, steamboats and yachts by a wooded, precipitous mountain. I quickly closed the bargain, and built me a rustic house there, which I called ‘Slabsides’ because its outer walls are covered with slabs.”
– from Wildlife about My Cabin
A visit to Slabsides today prompts any number of questions, chief of which is: How has such a fragile-looking structure survived more than 100 Hudson Valley winters without benefit of regular human occupancy? And how was it possible for a visitor on a sunny early-spring Saturday afternoon to be happily alone with his thoughts in the shadow of the building and the memory of the man who built it, without being inundated by the crowds usually attracted to such an untouched-by-progress historic site? Put another way: is Slabsides the best-kept history-laden secret eyrie in the Hudson Valley?
Joan Burroughs is the inheritor of her great-grandfather’s legacy. As a child, she spent summers cavorting in the woods that her ancestor quietly championed. Today, she’s the president of the John Burroughs Association – a woman who’s more than reluctant to claim any kind of credit for enlivening that organization, but who shows no such similar reluctance to talk about the man to whom she refers simply as “John.”
Burroughs, she said, was a man whose passionate essays extolling and explaining the ways of Nature worked its way into the bloodstream of American life much more quietly than his better-known soulmates, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Those stalwart New England Transcendentalists wrote about the importance of Nature in the third person. Burroughs wrote about his beloved Catskills in the first person. It made all the difference. Burroughs took your hand and guided you through the world that he saw and loved. His essays were personal, as easy and inspiring to read and enjoy now as they were then.
Over the years, as men and women discovered his essays in the great magazines of the day and schoolchildren discovered them in their primers, he developed a devoted multigenerational following. Let other conservation-minded writers of the day pound their fists and decry what they saw and feared; Burroughs took a gentler tack. The intimacy of his work and its popularity played a huge role in laying the groundwork for the conservation movement that we take for granted today.
Over the years, and until his death in 1921, the world beat a path to John Burroughs’ hand-hewn door. Close to 7,000 people signed his guestbook. The story that his fan mail was so voluminous that he was designated West Park’s postmaster may be apocryphal, but it was also believable. His decision to build Slabsides was fired by the consequences of his popularity.
Far from being simply a retreat from which to write, Joan Burroughs said, her great-grandfather built it as a place where he could entertain his many guests. “His writings rang a bell with people, and they responded. People developed a personal relationship to him through his writing…. But he was not what we would call a Type A personality. He was a gentle soul who liked people. And he definitely was not a hermit.”
The cabin was essentially rescued from the forces of Nature through the 200-acre John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, which owns and maintains Slabsides. In 2007, the Association, together with the federal parks service and state parks and recreation department, completed a restoration project that included repairing and restoring the building’s exterior and its foundation.
Although Joan Burroughs is loath to take any credit, she’s an undeniable sparkplug who has helped preserve the site and the naturalist’s legacy. She can not only quote you chapter and verse of Burroughs’ legend, but also direct you to wherever you want to go on the pristine site.
To that end, it will be her that she hopes you’ll be messaging in coming days when you decide to join her in her effort to help bring Slabsides into the 21st century by creating an extension of the ten trails that lace their way through the storied terrain on Saturday, April 23. It’s then that the Association has put out the call for volunteers to start putting “picks to dirt” as part of what they’re calling Spring Trail-Building Day.
Extending the trail is the association’s part in joining the regional effort, especially in Ulster County, to be part of the emerging trail network whose best-known site is the Walkway over the Hudson. Volunteers will be working with members of Scenic Hudson on a segment of the planned John Burroughs Black Creek Corridor Trail; in time, the new trail will continue along the creek to the Hudson at Scenic Hudson’s Black Creek Preserve.
As Burroughs sees it, joining the county’s trail effort is a way to bring the Burroughs legacy out of the woods of anonymity and into the world that Burroughs’ writings have helped create: a world that values Nature and even allows people to make their livings in that realm. Eventually there will be kayaking and, she hopes, trout-fishing available at Black Creek, while businesses located near the extended trails will prosper from what she calls “multimodal” recreation opportunities.
You’ll still be able to hear that lonesome train whistle blow. But you’ll also be able to hear the sound of the silence about which John Burroughs once wrote so memorably.
Volunteers will meet on Saturday, April 23 at Slabsides’ Pond Lane entrance at 9 a.m. Stay as long as you’re able. Please notify Joan Burroughs that you’re coming at [email protected]. For those who can stay into the afternoon, pack a lunch. Bring water and work gloves; clippers and a metal rake would also help.
Spring Trail-Building Day at John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, Saturday, April 23, bring gear and hydration. Starts at 9 a.m. but come any time you can spare throughout the day. Meet at Pond House entrance in the morning, 261 Floyd Ackert Road, West Park; www.johnburroughsassociation.org. For info, e-mail [email protected]