March 10, 2006

Inspired by Past, NY Town Seeks to Get Kids Into Nature

By Daniel Trotta

KINGSTON, New York -- With American kids increasingly obese and addicted to video games, a small town in upstate New York is looking 100 years into its past to lead them outdoors and maybe help conserve the planet.

John Burroughs, who died in 1921, was one of the great naturalists of his day, and his accessible books and nature essays were once required reading for schoolchildren.

Now, in an age when some kids have never seen a squirrel, a group of fans wants to return Burroughs to prominence, fearful that his greatness is fading away when it is needed most.

"All this technology and video games are intimidating children, making them afraid of nature. This message is a nice antidote to that," said Melinda Terpening, director of a museum about the history of the Hudson Valley, the area north of New York City where Burroughs lived.

Burroughs preached the importance of experiencing nature first-hand, and his nature essays were among the first of the genre. He produced 29 books based in large part on his observations while farming, camping, fishing and walking.

He was a friend of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and one of the early promoters of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The Burroughs advocates, organized by first-grade teacher Gloria Lipton, have gathered in Kingston, a strikingly rural area for being just 90 miles north of New York City, straight up the Hudson River.

They have vowed to get Burroughs's work republished and used in school curricula, to create a learning center dedicated to his work and to promote his rural cabin Slabsides as a tourist site. They also hope to launch an essay contest for local schoolchildren and among students at more than a dozen public schools named after Burroughs across the country.


"In the past 10 years or so, there has been a revival of his work by writers and naturalists. He's getting a lot more play," Joan Burroughs, his great-granddaughter and treasurer of the John Burroughs Association, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"There are a lot of people who are just interested in walking out their back door and seeing what nature is like. It's like what John Burroughs advocated. Sit down, be still and watch. There's a lot going on out there," she said.

Julie and Steve Noble, a married couple, work in environmental education for the Kingston parks department.

"We've taken children from Kingston down to the Hudson River. They didn't even know it was there. We've had kids who had never seen a squirrel before," Julie Noble said.

Said Steve, "It's not about learning Latin names. It's about getting out there and seeing it. They're not getting it at school because of funding cuts, and they're not getting it at home because both parents are working and on the weekends they have to do the shopping at Wal-Mart."


Among Burroughs's titles are "Birds and Bees and Other Studies in Nature," "Accept the Universe" and "Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person."

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order," Burroughs wrote.

The rich and powerful found solace in Burroughs' approach, visiting him at Slabsides, which was made a national landmark in 1968. Roosevelt, as president, hiked 2 miles through the woods to spend a day there after sailing up the Hudson in a white yacht. John Muir, Burroughs's more famous contemporary and a friendly rival, also visited.

"He (Burroughs) was a quiet guy. He wasn't in your face like John Muir was. John Burroughs more subtle, and he may have been more influential with Roosevelt because of it," Joan Burroughs said.

Both Muir and Burroughs had the attention of Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and conservationist who created 150 national forests and 51 bird reservations among other protected sites.

The cabin in the woods outside the town of Esopus was made of slabs of bark-covered wood nailed to rough-cut lumber in 1895. It still closely resembles that of vintage photographs from Burroughs' time there, minus the strong old man with the flowing white beard.