The architectural brilliance of a bird’s nest; the seasonal habitudes of a bushy-tailed squirrel; the winter sunshine streaming across a frozen landscape – these are the things that fascinated American naturalist, conservationist and nature essayist John Burroughs, eventually bringing him back to his boyhood home nestled among the Catskill Mountains. It was here during his youthful days whiled away on Old Clump Mountain, that Burroughs found purpose in contemplating and developing an intimate connection with the natural world and recording his observations in writing.
As he grew older, Burroughs continued to write and publish essays about various topics. However, it was his friend Walt Whitman who encouraged him to develop his skill in nature writing, and finally, in 1871, Burroughs’ first collection of nature essays, Wake-Robin, was published. In 1873, Burroughs left Washington, D.C., where he had worked for many years as a federal bank examiner, to put down roots once again in his home of upstate NY. He built several properties in the Catskills region until he eventually made his way back to his family’s farmland. There, he renovated an old farm hand’s home on the property, named it ‘Woodchuck Lodge,’ and spent every summer there, many with his companion and biographer, Clara Barrus, until his death in 1921.
Today, his legacy is partially upheld by Bill Birns, who has been on the board of trustees at Woodchuck Lodge for five years. Bill credits much of the trend towards holistic living – eating whole foods, knowing where your foods and goods come from, getting back to the wilderness – to Burroughs. “Today as people have sort of rediscovered the importance of connecting to the natural world in their own lives, Burroughs has come back as an important figure,” says Bill. “Burroughs was the apostle of living close to the land, of nature at your doorstep.”
Just inside the entrance of this typical center hall home is the parlor where Burroughs’ companion and biographer, Clara Barrus, would write each day while he worked in his hay barn study overlooking the apple orchard. Everything, from the plaster walls to the worn staircase, is just as Burroughs left it. “We walk a narrow line between maintaining a museum as is and taking care of Mr. Burroughs house the way he would if he wasn’t dead,” Bill says.
Twiggy bookshelves – either built by Burroughs himself or by someone imitating the Burroughsian style – line the parlor. Says Bill, “Even though he was a living a life somewhat outside the mainstream, he was still a gentleman of the Victorian era and he had to have a parlor.”
Though Burroughs enjoyed a more bucolic way of life, he was not above a little fun with his inventor contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, whose photo hangs here. Burroughs and Edison, along with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, were regular travel companions who would use Ford cars to go on magnificent camping adventures. Dubbing themselves “The Four Vagabonds,” these trips were often filmed and turned into shorts used to sell Ford cars.
Burroughs had a deep connection to farm life, evident in the number of cattle horns found around the Lodge.
This downstairs bedroom, situated just off the parlor, is where Clara Barrus slept while Burroughs spent his nights on the porch to be closer to nature. A medical doctor and psychiatrist with her own practices, Barrus shattered the gender barriers of her day.
The bathroom, just as Burroughs left it, was considered state-of-the-art in 1910. “It reminds us that this whole notion of indoor plumbing is not that old,” Bill says.
Like many features of Woodchuck Lodge, the rocking chair cushions have a story that reveals much about Burroughs’ practical, country mentality. Says Bill, “Henry Ford came to visit in the summertime, wearing a gray flannel suit – wool flannel. It was hot, so he must have changed out of it into more comfortable clothes and when he left, he forgot the suit. That’s the cushions – Henry Ford’s suit.”
Above the sideboard is a pastel rendering of the view from Woodchuck Lodge, as portrayed by Walter Otto Beck one of the many artists who would often visit the Lodge in Burroughs’ day. Though the view is quite different now (forestland has grown over what was once pastures) it is still just as breathtaking.
Burroughs was fascinated by artifacts of nature, especially bird nests. He collected them and other objects while out exploring, and then proudly displayed them throughout the home on shelves he built himself.
About a quarter mile behind Woodchuck Lodge is a large boulder that was left behind by a glacier. As a child, Burroughs could often be found perched upon the rock, daydreaming, and so he called it “Boyhood Rock”. When he died in 1921, he was buried beneath his beloved Boyhood Rock with a relief plaque serving as his tombstone. The plaque is marked with a line from Burroughs’ poem, “Waiting”: I stand amid the eternal ways, and what is mine shall know my face.