Return to Woodchuck Lodge: Rediscovering John Burroughs for the First Time

George Cassidy Payne

To be honest I never really knew who John Burroughs was before I made the trip to his memorial site in Roxbury, NY. Sure, I had heard the name. I also knew a little something about his work as a naturalist, writer, and collaborator with famous wilderness lovers as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. When one first becomes familiar with the history of the environmentalism movement in America, they will inevitably come across the name John Burroughs. It is a name that is in the ether of greatness.

But I didn’t know he was born in the Catskills of Upstate New York in little old Roxbury. Nor did I know that he was friends with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. And until I read out loud some of his writings  — while my dad drove through the bucolic towns and villages of Delaware County — that he was not just a good writer, but an immensely gifted writer who could change the way one sees the world in a single description.

Front page. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 16, 1922

John Burroughs (April 3, 1837 – March 29, 1921) Front page. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 30, 1921

To read Burroughs out loud while traveling through the landscapes that gave birth to his fertile imagination is a supreme joy and lasting memory that I will share with my father for the rest of our lives. I found out through this intimate experience with Burroughs’ own prose that he is the most sublime voice of the poet-scientists — perhaps even better than Rachel Carson. His observations not only detail the exact behavior of Nature itself, they capture the feeling of being alive. From what I could tell, every one of his sentences jumps off the page and is released from the prison of ordinary sensation. Burroughs can make squirrels appear to be more clever than mankind’s most celebrated inventors and the shape of a snowflake to be more important than a dozen skyscrapers in Chicago.  In just one paragraph he can say everything anyone has ever wanted to utter about winter. I suspect that Burroughs finds the right words.  Burroughs always finds the right words.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 16, 1922

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 16, 1922

This photo montage presents a recent trip to the John Burroughs Memorial Field Site at what is known as Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, NY. It is a place of enchantment. You run because there is a boyish glee in the air there. Then you stop to admire the magic of the Catskills. They shimmer in the afterglow of eternity. It is no wonder that it was here, after being all over the world, that Burroughs wanted to return forever.

And return we must. All of us. Sooner rather than later. We must return to the earth that gave birth to us. We must go back to a time when we did not exist. In going back, we take everything that we have experienced with us. The experience of going back to Woodchuck Lodge for the fist time is one that I will never forget.

Digital Enhancement Photography by George Cassidy Payne

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John Burroughs