I visited John Burroughs’ Slabsides on two separate occasions, and both featured the type of icy weather Burroughs would have confronted with the same violent gusto he confronted porcupines.
Burroughs was a preeminent naturalist who produced a cornucopia of essays now considered to be tomes of nature writing. He scribed much of them while at his Riverby Estate south of Kingston, where he moved in 1873.
The John Burroughs Association owns the former estate, known as the John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, and you, like me, can hike the land and visit Slabsides, one of the structures Burroughs built on the land.
Burrough’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley, documented the erecting of Riverby, the main house on the estate, in “John Burroughs: Naturalist,” and it’s a such a tale of thrusting male achievement I seriously questioned my manhood.
Burroughs was a native of Roxbury in Delaware County, and always considered the Catskills his home, even when he moved to Washington D.C. in his 30s, where he lived with his wife, Ursula, and worked as a bank receiver when not emerging as a talented writer.
He started looking to relocate in 1872, traveling up the Hudson River to view land in Marlboro, but eventually bought the Deyo property along the Espous-Highland border for $10,800 the next summer.
Even though he felt he got a deal (river view!), the purchase was financially irresponsible for someone making $3,000 a year, something his wife told him repeatedly, but he was to save money by doing most of the construction himself.
In “Rooftree,” Burroughs wrote the “fine building stone nearby” was the deciding factor in purchasing the land, and he commenced to lead a crew of stonemasons in rending it from the earth and heaving it into place like gods building planets.
Burroughs did all the carpentry himself, sniffing out rare woods in the surrounding forest for boards and intricate inlays. He liked the natural grain, and wrote in “Rooftree” that “a painted surface is a blank, meaningless surface.”
He worked through the winter like a real man, and the three-story masterpiece was completed by the summer of 1874. Ursula didn’t like it; she said it was too small.
Burroughs eventually built Slabsides with his son a mile west of Riverby and received thousands of visitors through the years, including his close friend Walt Whitman and President Theodore Roosevelt.
I read a bunch of Burroughs’ essays between my two visits to Slabsides, and I must say, for one of the original conservationists, I was expecting someone with a more Buddhist relationship with nature. In his stories, Burroughs is always trapping animals for pelts and chopping down old growth trees and shooting things.
Burroughs has both an adversarial view of nature and a real superiority complex towards animals, which he’s always calling “stupid.” Many of these insults come after successfully killing or trapping these animals, so it’s just adding insult to injury.
For instance, in “The Heart of the Southern Catskills,” Burroughs sees a porcupine crossing his path, and immediate elects to leap on it with his bedroll in an attempt to “investigate” it.
As one would imagine, this makes the porcupine unhappy, and it snaps Burroughs’ hand with its tail as he tries to poke at it.
Burroughs gets a handful of quills and starts chasing the thing, which wedges itself between two giant rocks with its tail pointing at its tormentor. Burroughs and his bros on the hike keep poking at it with a stick so the porcupine will snap its tail and embed its quills in the rotten wood, but they tire of this, and fashion a noose out of spruce root and eventually get it around the animal’s neck.
“In what a peevish, injured tone the creature did complain of our unfair tactics!” Burroughs jokes in the essay.
Burroughs and company prod it for a while, trying to get it to curl in to a ball, but eventually let it go.
In a second example of Burroughs tormenting porcupines, found in his essay “An Astonished Porcupine,” the writer’s dogs “tree” one as he and his friends are roaming the woods one day. Burroughs convinces one of the younger men to climb the tree to shake out the animal.
“I wished to see what the dogs would do to [it], and what the ‘quill-pig’ would do with the dogs,” Burroughs recalls suggestively.
They eventually get the porcupine to crawl down, after which Burroughs roundhouses it with a stick, killing it. He only meant to STUN the thing, Burroughs writes, and is very smug that it “succumbed to a blow that a woodchuck or a coon would hardly have regarded at all.”
Burroughs acts very differently than the modern nature-phile, what with their veganism and “leave no trace behind” attitude. He’s always “assaulting” mountain hikes and challenging the elements, but this adversarial and, by modern standards, anti-environmental stance is understandable in an age when nature was your adversary.
In Burroughs’ lightly trailed, pre-global warming Catskills, one could actual die on a day-hike. Burroughs, in “The Heart of the Southern Catskills,” worries about two fellow hikers who decide to take an alternate path down Slide Mountain, fearing they won’t make it, and they nearly don’t.
But it’s more than that. In Burroughs’ time, humans were closer to their original place in nature’s web, not detached through central heating and genetically modified crops like we are today. Technology operates to make humanity independent from the environment, and destroys the environment in the process, but there was an abundance of nature in Burroughs’ time, and the abundance could kill you.
Technology has sapped that abundance so that no one in New York is going to be mauled to death by a timber wolf or anything, but now we face a bigger problem: technology has eradicated nature to the degree that its absence, instead of its abundance, is the danger.
I wish I could go back in time and tell Burroughs there wouldn’t be so many porcupines to club in the future, but the argument would be hard to make. Burroughs was just acting with the times.