Thursday, February 22, 2007

Facts

For most of my career at Stonehill College I kept near my desk an early edition of the complete works of the naturalist John Burroughs, a dozen or so volumes I picked up for a couple of bucks at a yard sale. Readers of my books will know how much the grand old man of American nature writing influenced my work.

What I loved about Burroughs can be summed up in this entry from his journal for October 24, 1907: "To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, to imagine your facts is quite another."

Burroughs had a great respect for careful empirical observation. He avoided the intellectual fads and superstitions that often preoccupied his fellow citizens, and he was disinclined to faith in God and the supernatural. But once he had facts in hand, he shaped them into essays of grace and spiritual nourishment. "Facts are the flora upon which [the literary naturalist] lives," he wrote. "To interpret nature is not to improve upon her...it is to have an emotional intercourse with her, and reproduce her tinged with the colors of the spirit."

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office I gave my shelf of Burroughs away to a budding young literary naturalist. It was like parting with an old friend (but I knew the college library had the same set of books, near to hand should I need them). Never in my 40 years of teaching did I proselytize my students to any opinion of mine that might be at all controversial. But I do hope I managed to convey by example respect for the consensus knowledge of the world that is the hallmark of science. Facts are elusive things, and should be treated with suspicion. But, as Burroughs knew, they are also the fragile sustenance upon which we live.