Highland Books

Books & Photographs by Chris Highland

Burroughs

A Book for Brights! and Pantheists!

John Burroughs is perhaps the most unfortunately forgotten philosophical naturalist of the last two centuries.  Having said that, I am grateful to Harold Wood of the Sierra Club (and the Universal Pantheist Society) for suggesting I take a closer look at this friend of Muir, Roosevelt and Edison.  My last book in the meditations series grew from this seed.

The following is an excerpt from my essay “The Spirituality of John Burroughs.”

A Naturalist’s Creed

Burroughs saw that “a love of nature has high religious value.”  He observed that the disease of old creeds and theologies has led some to find their spiritual health in the ordinary miracle of Nature.  Alongside some seminal passages in Thoreau, Emerson, Muir and Whitman, the following lines from Burroughs offer the closest “This I Believe” kind of Nature Creed that I have read.

“It has made them contented and at home wherever they are in nature–in the house not made with hands.  This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills are the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore.  A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through.  Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance.  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.  There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants” (Accepting the Universe). 

This portion of one of my favorite passages in Burroughs’ work brilliantly presents what he calls “the faith of a naturalist.”  This is the only faith I can assent to anymore.  It may be the only spirituality worthy of our time, practical for a grown-up humanity and critical for our survival–our health and Nature’s.  And, in truth, our health is inextricably linked to all of Nature.  Here again the wisdom of the naturalist reminds us,

“We do not realize that we are a part of Nature till we begin to think about it.  Our lives proceed as if we were two–[Humanity] and Nature–. . .but the two are one; there is only Nature” (Accepting the Universe.  Note, Burroughs is not consistent in capitalizing the word Nature).       

Today I emerged from my cabin on the bluff to watch eagles gliding across this sandy bay of the island, choosing from the menu of the sea, feasting on the edge of tide pools and perched on a high piling.  The queen and king of the ocean’s bounty.  To observe them, to observe any of the natural world, is a peculiar art. I want to “capture” the experience.  Instead, I catch myself grabbing a pen, a camera, to hold what I see and experience. I suppose I grope for some form of creedalizing experience.  I am confined in my “cabin mind”–a mentality that wants to incessantly box and package direct encounter with the ineffable.  It is not wrong to try, not wrong to share it.  It is only a potential opportunity to let the boxes and cabins go, if only for a few moments.

In The Breath of Life (1915) Burroughs looks closely at the stuff of life, finding words to express an almost mystical devotion.  He says that the molecules and atoms of our own bodies “take hold of hands and perform their mystic dances in the inner temple of life.”  This vibrant life is going on without end.  It is a dance we join just by breathing and we never leave the dance even in death.  As he says of our lungs, “Through these spongy lungs of ours we lay hold upon the outward world in the most intimate and constant way.  Through them we are rooted to the air” (The Breath of Life).  This is our vitality, what makes all life a livelihood.

1 Comment»

  John long wrote @

The Burroughs book by Chris Highland is one of the most powerful books I have read in the last 10 years. I knew nothing about Burroughs prior to Chris introducing his writings to me. When I read it, time and again I found myself thinking here is someone who puts specific words and clarity to thoughts that have floated vaguely around in my skull, most often when I have been on wilderness trips. This book is the perfect gift for friends who love the outdoors. And it’s compact enough to fit on your hiking gear.


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