John Burroughs

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John Burroughs in 1909

John Burroughs (April 3, 1837 - March 29, 1921) was an American naturalist and nature essayist.


  • To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter... to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest or a wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.
    • Leaf and Tendril (1908)
  • Science has fairly turned us out of our comfortable little anthropomorphic notion of things into the great out-of-doors of the universe. We must and will get used to the chill, yea, to the cosmic chill, if need be. Our religious instincts will be all the hardier for it.
    • Time and Change, p. 2 (1912)

The Light of Day (1900)[edit]

Online text

  • Theology passes; religion, as a sentiment or feeling of awe and reverence in the presence of the vastness and mystery of the universe, remains.
    • Preface
  • The old theology had few if any fast colors, and it has become very faded and worn under the fierce light and intense activity of our day. Let it go; it is outgrown and outworn. What mankind will finally clothe themselves with to protect them from the chill of the great void, or whether or not they will clothe themselves at all, but become toughened and indifferent, is more than I can pretend to say. For my part, the longer I live the less I feel the need of any sort of theological belief, and the more I am content to let unseen powers go on their way with me and mine without question or distrust. They brought me here, and I have found it well to be here; in due time they will take me hence, and I have no doubt that will be well for me too.
    • Preface
  • We are like figures which some great demonstrator draws upon the blackboard of Time. A problem is to be solved, without doubt; what the problem is, we, the figures, cannot know and do not need to know; all we know is that sooner or later we shall be sponged off the board and other figures take our places, and the demonstration go on.
    • Preface
  • From the first the progress of man has been slowly but surely from the artificial to the natural, from the arbitrary and chimerical to the simple and scientific. Getting himself and his affairs more and more into natural currents and following them, this is the way man has progressed.
    • Ch. II: From the Artificial to the Natural
  • All political progress has been the removal of forced and artificial relations among men, and the establishment of natural relations. Democracy is a search for natural leaders and the rights and privileges that belong to man by virtue of his manhood.
    • Ch. II: From the Artificial to the Natural
  • Science, in the broadest sense, is simply that which may be verified; but how much of that which theology accepts and goes upon is verifiable by human reason or experience?
    • Ch. III: Science and Theology
  • Theology, for the most part, adopts the personal point of view the point of view of our personal wants, fears, hopes, weaknesses, and shapes the universe with man as the centre. It has no trouble to believe in miracles, because miracles show the triumph of the personal element over impersonal law. Its strongest hold upon the mind of the race was in the pre-scientific age. It is the daughter of mythology, and has made the relation of the unseen powers to man quite as intimate and personal. It looks upon this little corner of the universe as the special theatre of the celestial powers powers to whom it has given the form and attributes of men, and to whom it ascribes curious plans and devices. Its point of view is more helpful and sustaining to the mass of mankind than that of science ever can be, because the mass of mankind are children, and are ruled by their affections and their emotions. Science chills and repels them, because it substitutes a world of force and law for a world of humanistic divinities.
    • Ch. III: Science and Theology
  • ...the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place, but a state of mind.
    • Ch. III: Science and Theology
  • If we take science as our sole guide, if we accept and hold fast that alone which is verifiable, the old theology, with all its miraculous machinery, must go.
    • Ch. III: Science and Theology
  • Goethe, as lately quoted by Matthew Arnold, said those who have science and art have religion; and added, let those who have not science and art have the popular faith; let them have this escape, because the others are closed to them. Without any hold upon the ideal, or any insight into the beauty and fitness of things, the people turn from the tedium and the grossness and prosiness of daily life, to look for the divine, the sacred, the saving, in the wonderful, the miraculous, and in that which baffles reason. The disciples of Jesus thought of the kingdom of heaven as some external condition of splendor and pomp and power which was to be ushered in by hosts of trumpeting angels, and the Son of man in great glory, riding upon the clouds, and not for one moment as the still small voice within them. To find the divine and the helpful in the mean and familiar, to find religion without the aid of any supernatural machinery, to see the spiritual, the eternal life in and through the life that now is--in short, to see the rude, prosy earth as a star in the heavens, like the rest, is indeed the lesson of all others the hardest to learn.
    • Ch. IV: Natural Versus Supernatural
  • But we must learn it sooner or later. There surely comes a time when the mind perceives that this world is the work of God also and not of devils, and that in the order of nature we may behold the ways of the Eternal; in fact, that God is here and now in the humblest and most familiar fact, as sleepless and active as ever he was in old Judea. This perception has come and is coming to more minds to-day than ever before--this perception of the modernness of God, of the modernness of inspiration, of the modernness of religion; that there was never any more revelation than there is now, never any more conversing of God with man, never any more Garden of Eden, or fall of Adam, or thunder of Sinai, or ministering angels, than there is now; in fact, that these things are not historical events, but inward experiences and perceptions perpetually renewed or typified in the growth of the race. This is the modern gospel; this is the one vital and formative religious thought of modern times.
    • Ch. IV: Natural Versus Supernatural
  • The deeper our insight into the methods of nature . . . the more incredible the popular Christianity seems to us.
    • Ch. IV: Natural Versus Supernatural
  • It is always easier to believe than to deny. Our minds are naturally affirmative; it is not till the second or third thought that doubt begins. Belief is so vital and necessary that one would say the tendency was made strong at the perpetual risk of extra belief and superstition; it were better to believe too much than not enough. Hence mankind have always believed too much, as if to make sure that the anchor hold. To believe just enough, to free his mind from all cant and from all illusion, and see things just as in themselves they are, is the aim of the philosopher or of the true skeptic.
    • Ch. VII: The Modern Skeptic
  • Science has done more for the development of Western civilization in one hundred years than Christianity did in eighteen hundred.
    • Ch. X: Religious Truth
  • Under the old dispensation, before the advent of science, when this little world was all, and the sun, moon, and stars were merely fixtures overhead to give light and warmth, the conception of a being adequate to create and control it all was easier. The storms were expressive of his displeasure, the heavens were his throne, and the earth was his footstool. But in the light of modern astronomy one finds himself looking in vain for the God of his fathers, the magnified man who ruled the ancient world. In his place we have an infinite and eternal Power whose expression is the visible universe, and to whom man is no more and no less than any other creature.
    • Ch. XI: Points of View
  • Hence when the man of science says, 'There is no God,' he only gives voice to the feeling of the inadequacy of the old anthropomorphic conception, in the presence of the astounding facts of the universe.
    • Ch. XI: Points of View
  • When I look up at the starry heavens at night and reflect upon what it is that I really see there, I am constrained to say, "There is no God." The mind staggers in its attempt to grasp the idea of a being that could do that. It is futile to attempt it. It is not the works of some God that I see there. I am face to face with a power that baffles speech. I see no lineaments of personality, no human traits, but an energy upon whose currents solar systems are but bubbles. In the presence of it man and the race of man are less than motes in the air. I doubt if any mind can expand its conception of God sufficiently to meet the astounding disclosures of modern science. It is easier to say there is no God. The universe is so unhuman, that is, it goes its way with so little thought of man. He is but an incident, not an end. We must adjust our notions to the discovery that things are not shaped to him, but that he is shaped to them. The air was not made for his lungs, but he has lungs because there is air; the light was not created for his eye, but he has eyes because there is light. All the forces of nature are going their own way; man avails himself of them, or catches a ride as best he can. If he keeps his seat he prospers; if he misses his hold and falls he is crushed.
    • Ch. XII: God and Nature

Accepting the Universe (1920)[edit]

  • We are here to see and contemplate the great spectacle.
    • p.10
  • Science kills credulity and superstition, but to the well-balanced mind it enhances the feeling of wonder, of veneration, and of kinship which we feel in the presence of the miraculous universe.
    • p.108
  • In us or through us the Primal Mind will have contemplated and enjoyed its own works and will continue to do so as long as human life endures on this planet.
    • p.111
  • Man’s craving for the supernatural is as natural as our discounting of the present moment... The natural becomes trite and commonplace to us and we take refuge in an imaginary world above and beyond it.
    • p.261
  • Every day is a Sabbath to me. All pure water is holy water, and this earth is a celestial abode.
    • p.263
  • The truths of naturalism do not satisfy the moral and religious nature.
    • p.301

Quotes about John Burroughs[edit]

  • The tradition of John Burroughs, which you seek to keep alive through these awards, is a long and honorable one. It is a tradition that had its beginnings in even earlier writings. On the other side of the Atlantic it flowered most fully in the works of Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson; and in this country the pen of Thoreau - as that of John Burroughs himself-most truly represented the contemplative observer of the world about us. These four, I think, were the great masters. To those of us who have come later, there can scarcely be any greater honor than to be compared to one of them. Yet if we are true to the spirit of John Burroughs, or of Jefferies or Hudson or Thoreau, we are not imitators of them but-as they themselves were - we are pioneers in new areas of thought and knowledge. If we are true to them, we are the creators of a new type of literature as representative of our own day as was their own.
    • Rachel Carson 1950s speech included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1998)
  • The awful thing seemed too big for hate by puny humans, and I was amazed and no little shocked soon after the outbreak when, visiting my friend John Burroughs at Squirrel Lodge in the Catskills, I found him whom I had always regarded apostle of peace and light in a continuous angry fever against all things German. Woodchucks were troubling his corn, and every morning he went out with his gun. "Another damned Hun," he would cry savagely when he returned with his dead game. Time did not cure John Burroughs' wrath, for in December, 1917, he pledged himself in an open letter published in the New York Tribune never to read a German book, never to buy an article of German make.

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