Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

John Burroughs, Poet and Naturalist

When I visited the hill-top retreat of John Burroughs, the distinguished lover of nature, at West Park, New York, it was with the feeling that all success is not material; that mere dollars are nothing, and that the influential man is the successful man, whether he be rich or poor. John Burroughs is unquestionably both influential and poor. On the wooden porch of his little bark-covered cabin I waited, one June afternoon, until he should come back from the woods and fields, where he had gone for a ramble. It was so still that the sound of my rocker moving to and fro on the rough boards of the little porch seemed to shock the perfect quiet. From afar ofif came the plaintive cry of a wood-dove, and then all was still again. Presently the interpreter of out-door life appeared in the distance, and, seeing a stranger at his door, hurried homeward. He was without coat or vest, and looked cool in his white outing shirt and large straw hat. After some formalities of introduction, we reached the subject which I had called to discuss, and he said: —

"It is not customary to interview men of my vocation concerning success."

"Any one who has made a lasting impression on the minds of his contemporaries," I began, "and influenced men and women "

"Do you refer to me?" he interrupted, naively.


I nodded and he laughed. "I have not endowed a university nor made a fortune, nor conquered an enemy in battle," he said.

"And those who have done such things have not written 'Locusts and Wild Honey' and 'Wake, Robin.' "

"I recognize," he said, quietly, "that success is not always where people think it is. There are many ways of being successful, and I do not approve of the mistake which causes many to consider that a great fortune acquired means a great success achieved. On the contrary, our greatest men need very little money to accomplish the greatest work."

"I thought that anyone leading a life so wholly at variance with the ordinary ideas and customs would see success in life from a different point of view," I observed. "Money is really no object with you?"

"The subject of wealth never disturbs me."

"You lead a very simple life here?"

"Such as you see."

The sight would impress anyone. So far is this disciple of nature away from the ordinary mode of the world that his little cabin, set in the cup-shaped top of a hill, is practically bare of luxuries and the so-called comforts of life. His surroundings are of the rudest, the very rocks and bushes encroaching upon his back door. All about, the crest of the hill encircles him, and shuts out the world. Only the birds of the air venture to invade his retreat from the various sides of the mountain, and there is only a straggling, narrow path, which branches off a dozen times before it takes the true direction. In his house are no decorations but such as can be hung upon the exposed wood. The fireplace is of brick, and quite wide; the floor, rough boards scrubbed white; the ceiling, a rough array of exposed rafters, and his bed a rudely constructed work of the hand. Very few and very simple chairs, a plain table and some shelves for books made the wealth of the retreat and serve for his ordinary use.

"Many people think," I said, "that your method of living is an ideal example of the way people ought to live."

"There is nothing remarkable in that. A great many people are very weary of the way they think themselves compelled to live. They are mistaken in believing that the disagreeable things they find themselves doing, are the things they ought to do. A great many take their idea of a proper aim in life from what other people say and do. Consequently, they are unhappy, and an independent existence such as mine strikes them as ideal. As a matter of fact, it is very natural."


"Would you say that to work so as to be able to live like this should be the aim of a young man?"

"By no means. On the contrary, his aim should be to live in such a way as will give his mind the greatest freedom and peace. This can be very often obtained by wanting less of material things and more of intellectual ones. A man who achieved such an aim would be as well off as the most distinguished man in any field. Money-getting is half a mania, and some other 'getting' propensities are manias also. The man who gets content comes nearest to being reasonable."

"I should like," I said, "to illustrate your point of view from the details of your own life."

"Students of nature do not, as a rule, have eventful lives. I was born in Roxbury, New York, in 1837. That was a time when conditions were rather primitive. My father was a farmer, and I was raised among the woods and fields. I came from an uncultivated, unreading class of society, and grew up amid surroundings the least calculated to awaken the literary faculty. Yet I have no doubt that daily contact with the woods and fields awakened my interest in the wonders of nature, and gave me a bent toward investigation in that direction."

"Did you begin early to make notes and write upon nature?" I questioned,"

"Not before I was sixteen or seventeen. Earlier than that, the art of composition had anything but charms for me. I remember that while at school, at the age of fourteen, I was required, like other students, to write 'compositions' at stated times, but I usually evaded the duty one way or another. On one occasion, I copied something from a comic almanac, and unblushingly handed it in as my own. But the teacher detected the fraud, and ordered me to produce a twelve-line composition before I left school. I remember I racked my brain in vain, and the short winter day was almost closing when Jay Gould, who sat in the seat behind me, wrote twelve lines of doggerel on his slate and passed it slyly over to me. I had so little taste for writing that I coolly copied that, and handed it in as my own."


"You were friendly with Gould then?"

"Oh, yes; 'chummy,' they call it now. His father's farm was only a little way from ours, and we were fast friends, going home together every night."

"His view of life must have been considerably different from yours."

"It was. I always looked upon success as being a matter of mind, not money; but Jay wanted the material appearances. I remember that once we had a wrestling match, and as we were about even in strength, we agreed to abide by certain rules ,—taking what we called 'holts' in the beginning and not breaking them until one or the other was thrown. I kept to this in the struggle, but when Jay realized that he was in danger of losing the contest, he broke the 'holt' and threw me. When I remarked that he had broken his agreement, he only laughed and said, 'I threw you, didn't I?' And to every objection I made, he made the same answer. The fact of having won (it did not matter how), was pleasing to him. It satisfied him, although it wouldn't have contented me."

"Did you ever talk over success in life with him?"

"Yes; quite often. He was bent on making money and did considerable trading among us schoolboys, — sold me some of his books. I felt then that my view of life was more satisfactory to me than his would have been. I wanted to obtain a competence, and then devote myself to high thinking instead of to moneymaking."

"How did you plan to attain this end?"


"By study. I began in my sixteenth or seventeenth year to try to express myself on paper, and when, after I had left the country school, I attended the seminary at Ashland and at Cooperstown, I often received the highest marks in composition, though only standing about the average in general scholarship. My taste ran to essays, and I picked up the great works in that field at a bookstore, from time to time, and filled my mind with the essay idea, I bought the whole of Dr. Johnson's works at a second-hand bookstore in New York, because, on looking into them, I found his essays appeared to be of solid literature, which I thought was just the thing. Almost my first literary attempts were moral reflections, somewhat in the Johnsonian style."

"You were supporting yourself during these years?"

"I taught six months and 'boarded round' before I went to the seminary. That put fifty dollars into my pocket, and the fifty paid my way at the seminary. Working on the farm, studying and teaching filled up the years until 1863, when I went to Washington and found employment in the Treasury Department."

"You were connected with the Treasury, then?"

"Oh, yes; for nearly nine years. I left the department in 1872, to become receiver of a bank, and subsequently for several years performed the work of a bank examiner. I considered it only as an opportunity to earn and save up a little money on which I could retire. I managed to do that, and came back to this region, where I bought a fruit farm. I worked that into a paying condition, and then gave all my time to the pursuit of the studies I like."

"Had you abandoned your interest in nature during your Washington life?"

"No; I gave as much time to the study of nature and literature as I had to spare. When I was twenty-three, I wrote an essay on 'Expression,' and sent it to the 'Atlantic' It was so Emersonian in style, owing to my enthusiasm for Emerson at that time, that the editor thought some one was trying to palm off on him an early essay of Emerson's which he had not seen. He found that Emerson had not published any such paper, however, and printed it, though it had not much merit. I wrote off and on for the magazines."

The editor in question was James Russell Lowell, who, instead of considering it without merit, often expressed afterward the delight with which he read this contribution from an unknown hand, and the swift impression of the author's future distinction which came to him with that reading.


"Your successful work, then, has been in what direction?" I said.

"In studying nature. It has all come by living close to the plants and animals of the woods and fields, and coming to understand them. There I have been successful. Men who, like myself, are deficient in self-assertion, or whose personalities are flexible and yielding, make a poor show in business, but in certain other fields these defects become advantages. Certainly it is so in my case. I can succeed with bird or beast, for I have cultivated my ability in that direction. I can look in the eye of an ugly dog or cow and win, but with an ugly man I have less success.

"I consider the desire which most individuals have for the luxuries which money can buy, an error of mind," he added, "Those things do not mean anything except a lack of higher tastes. Such wants are not necessary wants, nor honorable wants. If you cannot get wealth with a noble purpose, it is better to abandon it and get something else. Peace of mind is one of the best things to seek, and finer tastes and feelings. The man who gets these, and maintains himself comfortably, is much more admirable and successful than the man who gets money and neglects these. The realm of power has no fascination for me. I would rather have my seclusion and peace of mind. This log hut, with its bare floors, is sufficient. I am set down among the beauties of nature, and in no danger of losing the riches that are scattered all about. No one will take my walks or my brook away from me. The flowers, birds and animals are plentifully provided. I have enough to eat and wear, and time to see how beautiful the world is, and to enjoy it. The entire world is after your money, or the things you have bought with your money. It is trying to keep them that makes them seem so precious. I live to broaden and enjoy my own life, believing that in so doing I do what is best for everyone. If I ran after birds only to write about them, I should never have written anything that anyone else would have cared to read. I must write from sympathy and love, — that is, from enjoyment, —or not at all. I come gradually to have a feeling that I want to write upon a given theme. Whenever the subject recurs to me, it awakens a warm, personal response. My confidence that I ought to write comes from the feeling or attraction which some subjects exercise over me. The work is pleasure, and the result gives pleasure."

"And your work as a naturalist is what?"

"Climbing trees to study birds, lying by the waterside to watch the fishes, sitting still in the grass for hours to study the insects, and tramping here and there, always to observe and study whatever is common to the woods and fields." "Men think you have done a great work," I said.

"I have done a pleasant work," he said, modestly.

"And the achievements of your schoolmate Gould do not appeal to you as having anything in them worth aiming for ?" I questioned.

"Not for me. I think my life is better for having escaped such vast and difficult interests."

The gentle, light-hearted naturalist and recluse came down the long hillside with me, "to put me right" on the main road. I watched him as he retraced his steps up the steep, dark path, lantern in hand. His sixty years sat lightly upon him, and as he ascended I heard him singing. Long after the light melody had died away, I saw the serene little light bobbing up and down in his hand, disappearing and reappearing, as the lone philosopher repaired to his hut and his couch of content.


It must not be inferred that Mr. Burroughs has no money. As an author, he has given us such delightful books, dear to every lover of nature, as "Wake, Robin," "Winter Sunshine," "Locusts and Wild Honey," "Fresh Fields," "Indoor Studies," "Birds and Poets," "Pepacton," "Signs and Seasons," "Riverby," "Whitman," and "The Light of Day," published by Houghton, Mifflin & Company.

His writings produce goodly sums, while his vineyards and gardens produce as much as he needs; but the charm of it all is, he knows not the unrest of eagerly seeking it. His is one of the very infrequent instances in which a man knows when he has enough, and really and truthfully does not care for more. Nor is he a "hayseed" in the popular application of that expressive term. When he goes to the city, as he occasionally does (just to reassure himself that he prefers life in the country), he is not met at the station by gentlemen in loud checked suits; he carries no air of the rustic with him. As an Irish wit recently put it, "When in Paris, he does as the parasites do," and he conducts himself and clothes himself as a well regulated citizen should.

So John Burroughs is rich, not in money, but in thought, in simplicity, in the knowledge that he is making the best of life. He has found out that money is not everything, that all the money in the world will not buy a light heart, or a good name, —that there is a place for every one, and in that place alone can a man be of service to himself or others, —that there alone can he be successful; there only can he be "rich without money!"

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