Scenes of Wonder: Encounters with the Present (Continued)
John Burroughs's literary interests were wider than most modern readers know.
There can be no doubt that the Burroughs Medal, given each year to the best work in
nature writing, is named well; it was Burroughs, even more than Muir, who brought the
genre before the wide public and showed them how to draw the natural world into their
hearts. His writings exhibit this skill even now. In his day, though, he was someone the
literary establishment willingly reckoned with. Friend and lionizer of Whitman, widely
published poet, prolific philosopher of time and religion, Burroughs was someone close
to the arbiters of literature–close enough, for example, to have received Oscar Wilde
during his sensational American lecture tour in 1882.
Of the authors represented in this volume, the reputations of Muir and Burroughs are
perhaps the most similar. Yet the two men were markedly different in their approach to
nature. Muir was reverent, Burroughs, bookish. They were great friends from the day
they met in 1896. "You are a dear anyway, "Burroughs wrote to Muir in 1909, “Scotch
obstinacy and all, and I love you, though at times I want to punch you or thrash the
ground with you.” Some o f Muir's playful irascibility will be evident in the following
excerpt from an article Burroughs wrote for Century in 1911.
IN MAKING the journey to the great Southwest,-Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona,
-if one does not know his geology, he is pretty sure to wish he did, there is so much
geology scattered over all these Southwestern landscapes crying aloud to be read. The
book of earthly revelation, as shown by the great science, lies wide open in that land, as it
does in few other places on the globe. Its leaves fairly flutter in the wind, and the print is
so large that he who runs on the California limited may read it. Not being able to read it
at all, or not taking any interest in it, is like going to Rome or Egypt or Jerusalem,
knowing nothing of the history of those lands.
Erosion, erosion-one sees in the West as never before that the world is shaped by
erosion. There are probably few or no landscapes in any part of the country from which
thousands of feet of rocky strata have not been removed by the slow action of the rain,
the frost, the wind; but on our Atlantic seaboard the evidences of it are not patent. In the
East, the earth's wounds are virtually healed, but in the West they are yet raw and gaping,
if not bleeding. Then there is so much color in the Western landscape, so many of the
warm tints of life, that this fact seems to emphasize their newness, as if they had not yet
had time to pale or fade to an ashen gray, under the effects of time, as have our older
formations. Indeed, the rocks of the Southwestern region are like volumes of colored
plates: not till the books are opened do we realize the splendor of the hues they hold.