Friday, October 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 171: John Burroughs, The Art of Seeing Things (#135)

John Burroughs, "The Art of Seeing Things" (1908) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

John Burroughs was a nature writer who was very popular in his day; according to the LoA headnote to his essay, "if John Muir was the craggy champion of the rugged West, John Burroughs is the lower-key bard of the lower-key, lower-elevation eastern mountains, the patron saint of the weekend cottage in the Berkshires." That last bit--"the weekend cottage in the Berkshires"--sure makes Burroughs sound like a dilettante or hand-maiden (spear-bearer?) of the wealthy amateur.

That said, the LoA page is a little more helpful when it puts Burroughs into the context of the 19th-century uncertainty about natural science: something for sentimentalist amateurs or something for scientists? It reminds me of Aldo Leopold's speech on that issues in the 1930s, which I guess just goes to show that Burroughs may have been popular, but wasn't the last word on the matter.

And I can't exactly blame the people who weren't totally convinced by him, if this essay is a fair representation. Not because it's uninteresting, but because Burroughs's essay on observation is a hodge-podge of ideas and notes. There's one real over-arching point here: "love" has to be an essential component of the naturalist, since "What we love to do, that we do well." Or as he puts it at the end of the essay, "You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush." I'll say this for Burroughs: there's lots of quotable moments here.

But that over-arching idea gets expressed in dozens of spokes radiating from that main idea. There's some usual tropes, like reference to reading "the book of nature"; and some Transcendentalist nods with his notion of "eye-beams." (OK, maybe that's not from them exclusively--but it comes right before a mention of Thoreau.) But then there's also talk about how students can be trained for observation, though some of them might be born geniuses. Then there's all the examples of how his love of nature helped him to see things that others missed. And there's comments about how manual training can be good for observations; and a question about whether the environment really affects the development of genius.

Which all kind of orbits around the central point; but don't necessarily reinforce it or build it up.

That said, if, by the end of this week, I don't have a t-shirt with a bird on it and the words, "You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush," then I will have to turn in my card as an owner of cute t-shirts. (Appropriately, the card for that club is also a cute t-shirt.)

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