Friday, March 19, 2010

Mortal soul

Once, many years ago, I made my way to the hillside farm in New York's Catskill Mountains were John Burroughs was born and where he was buried in 1921 at age 84. He was one of the two John's who established the genre of nature writing in America: John Muir was "John o' Mountains", and John Burroughs was "John o' Birds."

It was a hardscrabble farm. Burrough's grave had to be blasted out of the Devonian sandstone with dynamite. Not much farming thereabouts today; when I visited there were few signs of human activity in the broad vista over the valley. I sat on the slab of rock that marks his grave and heard nothing but the sound of the wind.

I thought of the old man whose dust lay beneath my seat, how he must have often sat there himself, letting his eyes drift across the valley, filling up his soul with the peace of it, the wonder of it, the mystery of it. A naturalist, certainly. But religious too, in a way that eschewed the miraculous, the supernatural. "I would have gladly sat in a pew, too, if I could," he wrote.

And what did he expect beyond -- beyond that hole in Catskill sandstone? "This I know too," he wrote, "that the grave is not dark or cold to the dead, but only to the living. The light of the eye, the warmth of the body, still exist undiminished in the universe, but in other relations, under other forms. Shall the flower complain because it fades and falls? It has to fall before the fruit can appear. But what is the fruit of the flower of human life? Surely not the grave, as the loose thinking of some seem to imply. The only fruit I can see is in fairer flowers, or a higher type of mind and life that follows in this world, and to which our lives may contribute."