From the Archives: The Walk to Take Today
by Stefan Milkowski
At the corner of Morse Memorial Highway and Route 28N in the town of Minerva, population 796, a boxy white building rises solidly from the earth. Its windows are stained glass, and an open belfry housing a large bell caps the roof. Across 28N is the town hall; the post office and a general store are up the road toward Newcomb. Weighted down by a pack that will keep me supplied for two weeks in the woods, I stop here for rest and to peer into the blue and purple windows of the church.
The First Baptist Church of Minerva, built in 1848, was likely noticed by essayist and naturalist John Burroughs during his trip to the Adirondacks in August 1863. The son of a Baptist minister, twenty-six years old, a little bored with nine years of teaching in rural schools and recently attracted to the study of birds, Burroughs came to the Adirondacks for his first wilderness experience.
From 1860 until his death, in 1921, Burroughs wrote about the seasons, bird life and the natural world—enough to fill twenty-seven volumes. He popularized the nature essay as a genre and drew the attention of Walt Whitman and John Muir, with whom he became friends. In later life Burroughs enjoyed celebrity status, selling one and a half million books and seeing his work required reading in schools across the country. People crowded train stations as he accompanied his friend Theodore Roosevelt on a campaign trip. They flocked to the iconic John o’Birds before the president-to-be. But today Burroughs is less well known than Muir and Henry David Thoreau.
I came across Burroughs while planning a canoe trip down the Hudson River. The naturalist lived above the river at West Park, ninety miles north of Manhattan, where he wrote essays about the Hudson and the nearby woods. I admired his eloquence, his knowledge of the forest and the joy he received from being its observer. I read a number of his books and then traveled to his archives at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to read his journals and letters.
As I researched, I realized why his writings still spoke to me so clearly. Nearly a century before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the scripting of federal pollution laws, Burroughs presented a timeless foundation for environmental action: It began with observation and grew into knowledge and appreciation. Burroughs understood that the same piece of land could seem a gold mine to some and a gravel heap to others. He enabled people to see something worth protecting.
Central to Burroughs’s writing was the idea that one needs a strong connection to a place to take pleasure from it. The natural world is compelling, but the dramas of weasels or woodpeckers are not apparent to the passerby. Nor is the awesome progression of the spring breakup on the Hudson, nor the tracking of the sun by the flowering mouse-ear. Waiting and watching are as important as seeking. Burroughs knew a frog had weathered a cold winter under a few inches of dead leaves because he stumbled upon one in the late fall and returned to check in early spring.
Burroughs did enjoy travel. “Ah, me! When shall I visit the Adirondak again!” he wrote in “The Adirondacks,” an essay from Wake-Robin (1871). But mostly he stayed home, believing that meaningful interaction with nature took place over time. “The walk to take to-day is the walk you took yester-day,” he wrote in “A Sharp Lookout,” published in Signs and Seasons (1886). “You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed.” Two years ago I decided to take the walk that Burroughs took 139 years before. I wanted to consider how “the observed and the observer have changed.” What’s different about the Adirondacks? What’s different about our attitudes toward nature? What can we learn from Burroughs now?
Like him, I was young (twenty-four) and drawn to nature. I had grown up in the Hudson Valley, had tapped maples and fished. From my home in Columbia County, I too would travel north.
Burroughs reached Minerva in a double-spring three-seated wagon. He would have seen the Baptist church, where sermons were held biweekly, as they are still because the minister is shared with another town. Minerva was settled mostly by Irish immigrants in the early nineteenth century and incorporated on St. Patrick’s Day, 1817. By mid-century the surrounding forests had been logged, their giant hardwoods reduced to charcoal for the ore furnaces at Adirondac. But Burroughs’s description of the place as “the threshold of the forest and the Adirondak region” was accurate. In his 1869 book, The Indian Pass, Alfred Billings Street characterized the mountains north of Minerva as “wild and savage to the last degree.” This wildness was not then regarded as something to cherish and protect. Heroes were made of those men who cut into the virgin forests—or into the mountains themselves for ore. Henderson Mountain and the McIntyre Range are named for two of the latter.
Burroughs would not have seen the gravestones across from the church, the first ones dating back to the 1870s, but he would have recognized the difficulties of remoteness. Carved into the weathered stone are hints of a different relationship to nature, in which people’s lives were threatened by an inhospitable climate coupled with primitive medicine. Parents saw their children die at fifteen weeks and fifteen years. A century and a half later, it’s still easy to feel insignificant among the Adirondack High Peaks and the vast forests, but roles have changed. It’s the health of the environment that now lies in our hands.
When Burroughs arrived with a friend in Minerva, they stayed at the wilderness camp of a Mr. Hewett. Maps of the region still left large sections of forest without detail, without names for peaks or ponds. Few used them anyhow. The travelers arranged to have Hewett’s son, whom Burroughs called Bub, guide them in the woods.
With detailed topo maps and Burroughs’s narrative as my guides, I leave Minerva on the dirt North Woods Club Road heading west and north. After camping on Venison Mountain I start out for the Stillwater of the Boreas River, which I reach by train tracks built, employed and abandoned since Burroughs’s time. In Minerva I had asked about what is now called “Burroughs Caves,” which the group had shimmied into. A local adventurer gave directions, but without a guide, and without any running water to mark the stream that flows from it, I don’t find the caverns (see Barbara McMartin’s Discover the Central Adirondacks for a description).
After a restful camp at the Stillwater I start the climb to Nate Pond, where Burroughs camped and hunted for deer from a dugout canoe. The easy way to the pond is by a trail over private land. The hard way, and the route Burroughs followed, is through untracked woods. To retrace Burroughs’s trip faithfully one would also have to cross private land. His narrative described a somewhat lawless forest, where a traveler was free to shoot at whatever game he chose and where felling a small tree to fashion a paddle was the canoeist’s right. But trespassing is a concern for me, and I stick to land made public under Forest Preserve status long after Burroughs passed through.
The temperature has dropped thirty degrees, I’m guessing, in a day. Winds have risen to a force that sends the occasional tree crashing down. Ancient birches catch my attention. They are similar to those I know from home yet foreign in their size and in the splitting and curling papery bark. Ruffed grouse, whose flight from the brush has stopped my heart before, surprise me anew. With baby steps I advance by compass heading toward Nate Pond.
I suppose these birches are to me what a robin was to Burroughs. In the Adirondacks—and in Yosemite—his connection was the bird he called his old friend. (That he considered plants and animals friends might partly explain his hesitation to travel, akin to the fear of arriving at a party and not knowing anyone.) In Wake-Robin Burroughs wrote of seeing a robin along the Boreas River, “He struck the right note, he brought the scene home to me, he supplied the link of association. . . . [W]here the robin is at home, there at home am I.”
Bloody Moose Pond offered Burroughs’s party the sight of a great blue heron, which in their eagerness they first mistook for a deer. To find this spot on the map now, look for Grassy Pond. The name changed, I suspect, because more people today would rather see a moose than shoot one. But Venison Mountain, where I spent my first night, hasn’t been changed to Deer Mountain.
After hours of tramping through swamps, brittle branches and a plant I angrily name “bushwhack” (hobblebush, I later learn) for its habit of grabbing my feet, catching my pack straps, even stealing my glasses, I am elated to reach Nate Pond. The water and sky are shades of gray. Wind draws shapes on the water, shooting fingers of ripples. I set up camp and share the pond with a merganser that seems unfazed by my presence.
“Nate’s Pond—a pretty sheet of water, lying like a silver mirror in the lap of the mountain, about a mile long and half a mile wide, surrounded by dark forests of balsam, hemlock, and pine, and . . . a very picture of unbroken solitude,” Burroughs wrote in Wake-Robin. His words are almost enough to act as a memory for me. I am cheered that the pond appears as it did then, as one might hope of a childhood home or favorite climbing tree.
Being on its waters gave Burroughs the sense of having been transported to a foreign land. Even from the shore, I see nothing but a ring of trees and can easily imagine that nothing lies beyond, or that the route here is precipitous. Certainly following only a compass heading and intuition adds to this feeling.
I am alone this third night, the storm keeping home those animals whose nocturnal rustlings gave me worry on Venison Mountain and by the Stillwater. In the morning the sun appears and draws out birds now familiar in sight and song. On the hike out I recognize a few trees, a ridge and a valley, and, using the sun as my compass, pop out just where I’d hoped, on the gravel road to the Moose Pond Club.
Burroughs accumulated an arsenal of farmer’s almanac-like knowledge: that one shade of red in the east at dawn means storm, another wind; that honeybees cannot harvest the nectar of locust blossoms until a bumblebee has opened them; that ants will run for cover when a storm approaches. From atop high granite peaks most of us can sense something of the power, beauty and richness of nature. Burroughs sensed it in his backyard. He wrote, in the essay “A Sharp Lookout,” “We all see about the same; to one it means much, to another little.”
It becomes clear to me that the simple act of being curious and aware, of being connected to and knowing a place, is the foundation for any act of conservation. A hundred years before “think globally, act locally,” Burroughs wrote in Signs and Seasons, “Nature comes home to one most when he is at home; the stranger and traveler finds her a stranger and traveler also. One’s own landscape comes in time to be a sort of outlying part of himself; he has sowed himself broadcast upon it, and it reflects his own moods and feelings; he is sensitive to the verge of the horizon: cut those trees, and he bleeds; mar those hills, and he suffers.”
The relationship Burroughs described between people and the land presented an ideal, in his time, to disenchanted city-dwellers. Many were drawn to his simple, balanced life as much as they were to his tales of birds and boughs. Burroughs himself cleared acres of the woods he so loved to plant celery and grapes for market. This did not seem a contradiction to him. He grew up on a farm in the Catskills, where hunting, and cutting and tapping trees were all part of a natural relationship to the environment. While John Muir was advocating the creation of parks in which man would never be more than a visitor, Burroughs considered man and nature inseparable. With its mix of wilderness and private lands, the Adirondacks would become a model of both schools of thought.
Our wild lands are indeed treasures. But our eagerness to protect these places is often greater than our care for the land surrounding our own homes. It’s unfortunate that Burroughs, with his simple philosophy of love and stewardship for all places, does not hold the attention now that he did in 1900.
Our environmental affronts were less durable in 1863. In an unedited draft of Wake-Robin from his archives, Burroughs wrote upon visiting Adirondac, a community built around an ore mine already ten years abandoned, “The primacy of nature was undisturbed and the old Earth influences had full play. The mountains looked down so kindly upon the forsaken Hamlet, seeming to smile good humouredly at man’s feeble effort to subdue and tame them.” Now at Upper Works the wooden buildings lean, sag and decay like so many trees. The two-foot-square chunks of granite stacked into the massive blast furnace only hint at the struggles of building and operating such a mine. In the years since, we have succeeded in subduing, taming and worse, but we have also preserved. A conservation group recently purchased nearly ten thousand acres surrounding Adirondac.
As I search the banks of Lake Sanford for the raspberries Burroughs enjoyed and hike past Henderson Lake, where Burroughs admired the perch, I realize that I am rushing. I had followed his trail partly as a study of change in the Adirondacks, but I also came to the woods with the hope that by sharing his physical experience I might also share his thoughts and joy. I think about Burroughs a lot. Did he carry his own pack? I wonder when my shoulders ache. But I am still trying to think like Burroughs.
I leave his trail and begin another trip I had long dreamed of: exploring the Hudson River from beginning to end. I hike to its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds. Two days later, with permission from the landowner, I put my canoe in the river just south of Upper Works and paddle on waters remote, wild and beautiful.
For six days I paddle the Hudson and camp on its banks. Beaver Brook, Ord Falls, Cedar River, the Gorge. I camp where the Boreas River joins the Hudson and know that soon I will leave the wilderness. North Creek lies only a day’s paddle away, and beyond that the river will be lined by train tracks and roads. My travels had begun just a few miles up the Boreas from where I sit, and yet, thirteen days later, the woods feel changed. Animals feeding at night I recognize by sound and find comfort in their company. The brush no longer catches my heels. In time I have come to know these woods and, like Burroughs, am sad to leave them.
A Burroughs Book Baedeker
To read more by and about John Burroughs, look for these titles: Birch Browsings: A John Burroughs Reader, edited by Bill McKibben (1992, Penguin, 240 pages); The World of John Burroughs: The Life and Work of One of America’s Greatest Naturalists by Edward Kanze (1996, Sierra Club Books, 160 pages); and Deep Woods, edited by Richard F. Fleck (1998, Syracuse University Press, 240 pages), which contains the essay “The Adirondacks,” or ask your librarian for out-of-print Wake-Robin.