Last night I was reading Winter Sunshine by John Burroughs. Recent editions of Burroughs’s original books are hard to come by: today we have mostly anthologies and collections of his hundreds of nature essays. This was a 1908 edition of Winter Sunshine, and in the midst of the essay ‘Autumn Tides’ I was much surprised to find two uncut pages.
Let me tell you, if you don’t know, about uncut pages. Books are printed and bound using large sheets called octavos, meaning that there are eight pages to a sheet. The sheet is printed and folded into a unit called a signature. The signatures are assembled into their proper order, then run through a finisher that cuts the edges so the pages are all separate. Sometimes, the cutter misses a few pages. Sometimes it misses many. In the old days, this was common, and one could encounter uncut pages with some regularity. A person who could read and write was likely to carry, or have handy a penknife, with which it was an easy operation to smoothly slice open the uncut pages. I have read entries in old journals about the pleasures of finding uncut pages, like unwrapping a gift, or opening a door into a new world.
I used my Swiss Army knife. I was being careful, since this was a library copy, borrowed through interlibrary loan from the Abbey Library in Conception, Missouri. As I continued through Burroughs’s wonderful musings about the changing seasons, I was struck by the fact that I was the first person reading this essay in this volume. Almost exactly one-hundred years, and never had anyone opened these pages. This is a loss: people should always be reading John Burroughs.
I have been reading and writing about the seasons on earth for more than fifteen years. In my ever-expanding book, I have written chapters about the science of the seasons, the measuring of the seasons with calendars, the mythology of the seasons, and the holidays based on the seasons. Now I am working on the chapter about music and literature of the seasons. This has led me to many of the great nature writers—Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Millay, Muir, Teale, Borland, Beston, Dillard, and of course, Burroughs. Of these, I find Burroughs the very best.
His essay ‘A Sharp Lookout,’ from the book Signs and Seasons (which I am reading in an 1886 first edition, borrowed from Grinnell College Library) begins by noting that one need not travel the globe to see unique and interesting climatic features: if one will only be still and patient, and keep a sharp lookout, no matter where one lives, all the seasons will pass by in pageant, like new and strange countries. Burroughs’s writing is beautiful and deep, but the depth comes from close observation, not mystical thought. He is spiritual, but not superstitious. In ‘A Sharp Lookout’ he cautions against things like ascribing innate intelligence to trees, or the ability of animals to predict weather. He writes of finding a frog in hibernation in November, having made its hibernaculum beneath the thinnest layer of leaves, surely an indication of a mild winter ahead. But the sharp lookout must persist, and he found the ensuing winter to be long and unusually cold. He sought out his frog in spring and found it no worse for a bad choice of winter domicile.
In the essay ‘Phases of Farm Life,’ he relates the chores on a farm more closely to the seasons than any other writer, save perhaps Laura Ingalls Wilder. By midsummer hay-mowing time, ‘The men are in the meadows by half-past four, or five, and work an hour or two before breakfast.’ Sugar making comes during ‘. . . the equipoise of the season: the heat of the day fully balances the frost of the night.’ Interesting to note that when he writes of farm life, he uses the old, Biblical terms ‘seedtime and harvest’ instead of spring and autumn.
Reading Burroughs is like entering a wonderful world we are all too rapidly leaving behind. I am as moved by his paragraphs as I am by the sense that it is a lost world. The very thought that I can still cut pages and enter that world is as close to a spiritual experience as I am likely to have in this life.