The Hudson River holds a special place in our collective heart here at EarthDesk. It is just down the road from Pace Academy World Headquarters in Pleasantville, NY, we all live within its watershed, and our education and research programs touch it at every turn. Dr. Helane Levine-Keating is a Pace Academy Faculty Scholar whose teaching and art embrace the Hudson and its literary and artistic traditions. This is her reflection on John Burroughs, the Hudson River Valley’s most celebrated author and naturalist. All photos Helane Levine-Keating.
What does it mean to write about the environment from the point of view of a creative writer? While many works of fiction, creative non-fiction, memoirs, and poetry might incorporate descriptions of scenery or nature imagery, there are writers whose focus on nature and the environment have allowed their readers to understand nature in a new way, and, therefore, to respect the environment and generate a love for it that is akin to the way we come to love a character in a novel, a type of music or a song, a friend or a soulmate.
For many decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) influenced the readers of his 27 books by his careful and loving observations of the landscapes in which he dwelt. Whether Burroughs was writing about the habits of birds, the Catskill Mountains, or the Hudson River, among his wide-ranging topics, his words encouraged generations of people to grasp the message of land stewardship and to look more closely and quietly at the beauty of their environment.
Woodchuck Lodge, Burroughs’ summer home in Roxbury, New York, in the Catskill Mountains, is dedicated to continuing the spirit of John Burroughs by hosting events on the first Saturday of every month from May to October called “Wild Saturdays,” which allow visitors to learn more about the local environment and about Burroughs. Slabsides, Burroughs’ rustic cabin near his home on the Hudson River, which was a “mecca for nature lovers and writers,” is also open to the public, as is the 170-acre John Burroughs Sanctuary, located in the mid-Hudson Valley. Slabsides Open House is scheduled for the third Saturday in May and again in October every year.
While the events sponsored at John Burroughs’ homes honor him and his literary naturalism, they also offer us a way to connect or reconnect with the nature around us. Every summer a stand selling jars of local honey goes up across the road from my house, and I get to buy the best honey around thanks to beekeeper and raconteur Joe Hewitt, who lives nearby. But if you want to understand what it means to be a beekeeper, show up at Woodchuck Lodge on August 3rd and Joe will talk about “The Life of the Honeybee” and show you a box of his buzzing bees after an appropriate Burroughs’ essay is read from the front porch where Burroughs himself would sit and write, weather permitting. You can also go inside and see the desk he wrote at while looking out the window at the mountains he loved. He’s still speaking to us, teaching us to see. For then, thanks to John Burroughs and his influence on folks like Joe Hewitt, when we read about the large-scale deaths of honeybees that have been taking place in this country and in Europe, it won’t be some abstract headline in a newspaper and we may even begin to pay attention to what we can do about it.