John Burroughs + Catskill Forest Preserve

Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski

It’s truly amazing to me how often people shrug-off the beauty of the changing seasons. Walk around campus, your hometown, or your local grocery store and you’ll often catch drifts of “Why does the weather have to be like this today?” or “Gah! It had to rain, didn’t it?” or “I’m sick of this white stuff already! Be gone!” These dismissive remarks are insults to the intricate elegance of highly geographically specific natural cycles that only some people have the privilege to experience. To shed light on this common oversight, I will share written accounts of John Burroughs, a naturalist whose homeland lay within the Catskill Mountains of New York – an astounding location to perceive the passing of our planet’s seasons.

Born in 1837, John Burroughs spent countless hours of his childhood exploring the local slopes of his home. Rather quickly, a sense of connection and love for nature was established within him. Although he left home at an early age to seek higher education, John would always be sure to come back to his beloved mountains and farmland. Usually, he returned at the turning of the seasons.

Spring brings thawing droplets of dew, buzzing bees, and the sweetness of maple sugar:

One of the features of farm life peculiar to this country, and one of the most picturesque of them all, is sugar-making in the maple woods in spring. This is the first work of the season, and to the boys is more play than work. In the Old World, and in more simple and imaginative time, how such an occupation as this would have got into literature, and how many legends and associations would have clustered around it! It is woodsy, and savors of the trees; it is an encampment among the maples. Before the bud swells, before the grass springs, before the plow is started, comes the sugar harvest. It is the sequel of the bitter frost; a sap-run is the sweet good-by of winter. It denotes a certain equipoise of the season; the heat of the day fully balances the frost of the night.

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John Burroughs fishing in the Catskills’ Esopus Creek (Copyright AMNH Library/Image #33438)

As the days and nights get equal, the heat and cold get equal, and the sap mounts. A day that brings the bees out of the hive will bring the sap out of the maple-tree. It is the fruit of the equal marriage of the sun and the frost. When the frost is all out of the ground, and all the snow gone from its surface, the flow stops.

Sugar weather is crisp weather. How the tin buckets glisten in the gray woods; how the robins laugh; how the nuthatches call; how lightly the thin blue smoke rises among the tree! The squirrels are out of their dens; the migrating water-fowls are streaming northward; the sheep and cattle look wistfully toward the bare fields; the tide of the season, in fact, is just beginning to rise.

Summer days are full of trout, surprise storms, and refreshing spring water:

Following a trout stream up a wild mountain gorge, not long since, I counted five in the distance of a mile, all within easy reach, but safe from the minks and the skunks, and well housed from the storms. In my native town I know a pine and oak clad hill, round-topped, with a bold, precipitous front extending halfway around it. Near the top, and along this front or side, there crops out a ledge of rocks unusually high and cavernous. One immense layer projects many feet, allowing a person or many persons, standing upright, to move freely beneath it. There is a delicious spring of water there, and plenty of wild, cool air. The floor is of loose stone, now trod by sheep and foxes, once by the Indian and the wolf. How I have delighted from boyhood to spend a summer day in this retreat, or take refuge there from a sudden shower! Always the freshness and coolness, and always the delicate mossy best of the phoebe-bird!

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The Catskills in July (Mark Fickett/Wikimedia Commons)

Fall is a time of unveiling trees and crunching golden leaves underfoot:

Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept. How beautifully the leaves grow old! How full of light and color are their last days! There are exceptions, of course. The leaves of most of the fruit-trees fade and wither and fall ingloriously. They bequeath their heritage of color to their fruit. Upon it they lavish the hues which other trees lavish upon their leaves.

But in October what a feast to the eye our woods and groves present! The whole body of the air seems enriched by their calm, slow radiance. They are giving back the light they have been absorbing from the sun all summer.

Winter yields a powerful scene of oversized snowflakes, dancing stars, and a howling mountain:

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter. It is true the pomp and the pageantry are swept away, but the essential elements remain, – the day and the night, the mountain and the valley, the elemental play and succession and the perpetual presence of the infinite sky. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.

Look up at the miracle of the falling snow, – the air a dizzy maze of whirling, eddying flakes, noiselessly transforming the world, the exquisite crystals dropping in ditch and gutter, and disguising in the same suit of spotless livery all objects upon which they fall.

All sounds are sharper in winter; the air transmits better. At night I hear more distinctly the steady roar of the North Mountain. In summer it is a sort of complacent purr, as the breezes stroke down its sides; but in winter always the same low, sullen growl.

As we enter new seasons, let us foster an appreciation for the dynamics we are privileged to witness. Some people will never get the chance to see oversized snowflakes, a canvas of butter-golden and crimson trees, or taste the sweetness of homemade maple syrup. As summarized by John Burroughs, “If the world is any better for my having lived in it, it is because I have pointed the way to a sane and happy life on terms within reach of all, in my love and joyous acceptance of the works of Nature about me.”

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John Burroughs and President Theodore Roosevelt stand before Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park (Copyright AMNH Library/Image #236451)

Cover photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#2A7630)

One Comment Add yours

  1. mike rice says:

    I first read this Sage several months ago-and have reflected on it several times since.
    The changing of the seasons are truly one of the joys of creation.. and I must admit Zach has helped change my perspective a bit concerning working outside during inclement weather.

    Like

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