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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

JOHN BURROUGHS: A NATURE WRITER TO REMEMBER

Air Date: Week of April 25, 1997

April marks the birthday of nature writer John Burroughs. Once one of the most popular figures in America, Burrough's work is almost entirely out of print today. Commentator Nancy Lord says this writer-naturalist deserves some modern attention. Nancy Lord comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska. Her newest book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore is due out in May.

Transcript

CURWOOD: April marks the birthday of nature writer John Burroughs. Once one of the most popular figures in America, Mr. Burroughs's work is almost entirely out of print today. But commentator Nancy Lord says this writer naturalist deserves some modern attention.

LORD: Robins have been flocking through town, and varied thrushes whistle from the forest. These birds of spring send me flying to my great grandmother's copy of Wake, Robin, the first of John Burroughs's many books of nature essays. Burroughs's great gift to literature was his willingness and ability to take readers into the woods and fields and along the trout streams near his Catskills home and to show them, by close observation and an elegant prose, what was found there. Along with John Muir and following in the big footsteps of Thoreau, he developed and popularized the nature essay.

A century ago, Burroughs's books were widely read and acclaimed. He was one of the stars of American culture. Today, Thoreau and Muir are icons, while Burroughs has just about disappeared. I think I understand at least some of why that's so. When Burroughs visited Alaska, he barely noted the grandeur of mountains and glaciers, bears and killer whales. Instead, he chose to settle into deep moss under a spruce tree and wait 2 hours for a varied thrush to show itself. The he described the bird's song, appearance, and movements in both carefully wrought prose and rhymed verse. That was the kind of writer Burroughs was: patient, quiet, observant not of the large and dramatic but of the small and subtle. He did not go for flash, but he knew something very basic: that the same artistry and wonder found in spectacular wild nature are present in the small things close at hand.

Any of us today can learn to pay attention to the robins tilting their heads to our lawns, to the bees working over our petunias. To all the delights that grow and move and call from just beyond our doorsteps. If we're willing to listen with John Burroughs to the birds, maybe we'll discover more about what happens in our yards and neighborhoods. Maybe we'll recognize the marvel close to home. And then, maybe, we might take better care of what we know and love.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska. Her newest book, Fish Camp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, is due out in May.

 

 

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