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Burroughs: Fine Print on the Art of Seeing Things

August 29, 2016
English: American naturalist and essayist John...

English: American naturalist and essayist John Burroughs (1837-1921) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some focal points from John Burroughs, an important figure in the emergence of American environmental writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think McKibben’s note is relevant and useful: Burroughs “reintroduced reading America to the natural world.” Though he spent a great deal of time outdoors seeing, his audience was thoroughly folks sitting inside reading.
There are three terms in particular that I think about and want to explore as we move on: love, fine print, initiated. I also read this essay by Burroughs as being its own model for how to read, write, and think about nature. In other words, the essay demonstrates, in the ways it writes and sees, how Burroughs thinks the writer/reader (us) should see the environment. That last phrase of the essay–we must be initiated–is particularly resonant for our exploration. There are various connotations, beyond the initial you might hear, namely, beginning or beginner. It also suggests an intimacy and closeness (his sense of an order of secrets) we have, or should have, with nature. There is also the implication of devotion, a spiritual version of which is a pilgrim or anchorite (think novitiate). These are implications evident in Thoreau and Dillard and Berry, among others. And thus to live in nature is to love nature, and to love nature, one must read and see it closely, pay attention to the implications in the fine print. And use the OED.
  1. To love is the other half (147). Note Burroughs’s initial focus on love. To love is the necessary “other half” of knowing. With this Burroughs suggests that the scientific understanding of nature (science, knowing) needs to be combined with an artistic and “poetic temperament.”  This is a point embodied in Thoreau–and we see it in Dillard, as well as in the essays of Wendell Berry. All are, in the root sense of the word, amateur scientists and naturalists. And so the writer of nature must read nature as a book that demands both observation and imagination.
  2. To find what you are not looking for (149). Echoes with Thoreau (two views of the same) and with Dillard: her interest in seeing, in being restored to sight. Is it too much of a stretch to think of this as early versions of systems thinking? We could throw Emerson into the mix, Emerson whose famous passage in Nature(1836) is about imagining a different way of seeing (we will get back to this in a few weeks):
    1. To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
  3. The focus on senses: seeing hearing, touching. The many senses of senses.
  4. Taking note–and taking notes–from the book of nature: to be read slowly…the reader/writer as ‘saunterer.’
  5. We must be initiated. Studying nature, writing and reading the environment as an art, but also something deeper, perhaps spiritual. Writers where this sense comes up, in various ways as we will see: Thoreau, Dillard, Muir (who famously wrote the we need wilderness parks as places to play and pray in), Abrams, Berry.

And so, if Burroughs is one field guide for us, if we are to read and write nature as Burroughs sees it, what do we do?

One Comment leave one →
  1. SRM permalink*
    September 10, 2012 7:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Graduate Studies in English.

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