Our book today is a bright little thing of wonder housed, this time around, in a brittle package: it’s a selection of the writings of John Burroughs called The Birds of John Burroughs: Keeping a Sharp Lookout, a volume published in 1976 by Hawthorn Books, edited by Jack Kligerman with nice stately black-and-white illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
I was delighted to find it and pay my pittance for it, since John Burroughs is always a happy find in any book-hunting expedition. He was a lyrical nature-essayist of the first order, and he wrote voluminously for his entire long life (“His essays,” we’re told, “have the kind of open-endedness that one finds in winter woods, not the shape that one finds in individual trees or in many of the journal entries of Thoreau”), so you might think that encountering some book or other of his would happen every single time you set foot into a used-book venue of any kind – but it isn’t so. The lovely uniform sets done for this author a century ago proved to be swan-songs; nobody reads John Burroughs anymore, and that’s a shame. In his easy combination of personal focus and lovely prose, he’s a clear precursor of later 20th century writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez:
Getting toward the high tide of summer. The air well warmed up. Nature in her jocund mood, still, all leaf and sap. The days are idyllic. I lie on my back on the grass in the shade of the house and look up to the soft, slowly moving clouds, and to the chimney swallows disporting themselves up there in the breezy depths. No hardening in vegetation yet. The moist, hot, fragrant breath of the fields – mingled order of blossoming grasses, clover, daisies, rye – the locust blossoms dropping. What a humming about the hives; what freshness in the shade of every tree; what contentment in the flocks and herds!
Burroughs is a very intentionally homely writer, usually foregoing the sweepingly large canvas in favor of a much more narrow focus – and stressing that nature’s “procession” will come to those who wait regardless:
One has only to sit down in the woods or the fields, or by the shore of the river or the lake, and nearly everything of interest will come round to him – the birds, the animals, the insects; and presently, after his eye has got accustomed to the place, and to the light and shade, he will probably see some plant or flower that he has sought in vain, and that is a pleasant surprise to him. So, on a large scale, the student and lover of nature has this advantage over people who gad up and down the world, seeking some novelty or excitement; he has only to stay at home and see the procession pass. The great globe swings around to him like a revolving showcase; the change of the seasons is like the passage of strange and new countries; the zones of the earth with all their beauties and marvels pass one’s door, and linger long in the passing. What a voyage is this we make without leaving for one night our own fireside!
I keep waiting for some enterprising publishing imprint like Penguin or Random House to assemble a big, glorious volume of this author, or better yet, a a new uniform set of the man’s complete writings. I day-dream that such a new edition would be filled not only with the wonderful artwork that graced their equivalent pages decades ago but also with the high-detail black-and-white photos of those long-ago editions.
But no such future production would have the bit of artwork I like best from this cheap paperback I bought the other day: a carefully hand-drawn and colored little item somebody pasted onto the book’s first page, with the inscription: “From one owl to another – cutest owl I saw yet … a saw-whet!” Which is why I’ll be keeping this old paperback, fragile as it is.
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