Friday, February 23, 2007

A few more words on John-o'-Birds

John Burroughs, did not believe in a personal God or have any truck with the supernatural, but he was the archetypal religious naturalist. According to his biographer Edward Renehan, he took seriously the Biblical saying, "In Him we live and move and have our being." The "Him" in which we exist was for Burroughs the natural world, especially the woods, meadows, brooks, and ponds. "How childish this talk is, that we can be nearer God, nearer heaven, in some other world, than we are here!" he wrote in 1883, when he was 46 years old and already far from his fundamentalist Baptist roots. "What irreligion and atheism it is! The child in its mother's womb is no nearer its mother than you and I and all men are at all times to God." Was he a pantheist? Yes, of course, but there was a "-the-" in his pan-the-ism that was considerably more Godlike than the crude projection of our personhood that he boldly termed "irreligion and atheism."

Burroughs would have us live, like John the Baptist, on locusts and wild honey. He rejected cities and "scientific barbarism." The New York Museum of Natural History was for him a sort of funeral parlor filled with stuffed animals. He may have lived at the last time in history when it was remotely possible to dream of all men and women living in close harmony with wild nature. Science and technology were in the ascendancy, and his own essays, so wildly popular during his lifetime that they were issued in special editions for use in schools, were already headed for the yard sales, where I ultimately found my sad but brave collection.

Does Burroughs have any relevance for us today? Oh, yes. Every dead river restored to life, every green rooftop on a factory building, every patch of woods saved from development, every hawk nesting on a New York high-rise that is allowed to live, honor the man who told schoolchildren that nature is not to be found in museums, or in his own books, but where the sparrows circle, the sea gulls screech, and the squirrel nests in the old oak. Burroughs can't be our prophet of the future -- the world has long since passed him by -- but he can teach us to save enough of the past so that we can remember where we came from.