Puck, the squirrel

Puck, the squirrel

Red squirrel, Minnesota northwoods

American red squirrel, Minnesota northwoods

I wonder if those of us who travel with a camera, making photographs of our encounters, don’t become a bit stunted in our vocabulary of descriptive words.  I was reminded of this recently when I reread John Muir’s travel journals from Alaska, and again when I read some of John Burrough’s nature writings.  They relied on words to express the wonders they were seeing around them, and what powerful magic they wielded in their writings, creating vibrant pictures in the mind through words alone.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such detailed descriptions of “squirrelly” squirrel behavior as those that flowed from John Burrough’s pen.  He captures the devil-may-care acrobatics of the red squirrel better than any photograph.  See if you agree:

“He is the most frisky, diverting, and altogether impish of all our wild creatures.  He is a veritable Puck. . . . What an actor he is!  What a furry embodiment of quick, nervous energy and impertinence.”

“By jerks and nervous, spasmodic spurts he rushes along from cover to cover like a soldier dodging the enemy’s bullets. . . . What a nervous, hustling, highstrung creature he is — a live wire at all times and places!  That pert curl of the end of his tail, as he sits chipping the apple or cutting through the shell of a nut, is expressive of his character.”

“The red squirrel is always actively saucy, aggressively impudent.”

“No other  of our wood-folk has such a facile, emotional tail as the red squirrel.  It seems as if an electric current were running through it most of the time; it vibrates, it ripples, it curls, it jerks, it arches, it flattens; now it is like a plume in his cap; now it is a cloak around his shoulders; then it is an instrument to point and empathize his states of emotional excitement; every movement of his body is seconded or reflected in his tail.”

(All quotes from “A Barn Door Outlook,” The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years, 1913)

Now, wasn’t that delightful?

Watercolor sketch of squirrel

Watercolor sketch of squirrel

 

John Burroughs at home with rocking chair, books, and windows

John Burroughs at home with rocking chair, books, and windows

John Burroughs, naturalist and writer

John Burroughs, naturalist and essayist

I have found a new muse.  John Burroughs (1837 – 1921) was an American naturalist and writer.  I just read a book of his essays called The Art of Seeing Things: Essays by John Burroughs, edited by Charlotte Zoe Walker.  I found that his writings resonated with me as much as Thoreau’s.  I’ve added his other works to my Reading List, and I’m sure I will be quoting him a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

Burroughs was an avid bird watcher, and many of his essays describe his observations.  But it’s other areas of discourse that interested me more — his experiences on the farm of his boyhood, his love of walking, his thoughts on simple living, and his love of nature.  It all adds up to lessons for living life well.  Here are a few excerpts:

“I have shared the common lot, and have found it good enough for me.  Unlucky is the man who is born with great expectations, and who finds nothing in life quite up to the mark. . . . if he is going to get the most out of life in a worthy way, if he is going to enjoy the grand spectacle of the world from first to last, then he needs his life pitched in a low key and well attuned to common universal things.”
— John Burroughs, “An Outlook upon Life”

“The first phoebe-bird, the first song sparrow, the first robin or bluebird in March or early April is like the first ripple of the rising tide on the shore.”
— John Burroughs, “The Spring Procession”

“Blessed is he whose youth was passed upon the farm.”
— John Burroughs, “Phases of Farm Life”

“A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.”
— John Burroughs, “The Exhilarations of the Road”

Single crocus blossom

Single crocus blossom

“I never see the spring flowers rising from the mould, or the pond lilies born of the black ooze, that matter does not become transparent and reveal to me the working of the same celestial powers that fashioned the first man from the common dust.”
— John Burroughs, “The Grist of the Gods,” from The Art of Seeing Things:  Essays by John Burroughs, edited by Charlotte Zoe Walker

Purple crocuses growing up from the mold

Purple crocuses growing up from the mold

A commonplace miracle — witnessing rebirth, regeneration in spring flowers.

The tiny model for a flower painting

The tiny model for a flower painting

Watercolor sketch of crocuses

Watercolor sketch of crocuses

“Summer always comes in the person of June, with a bunch of daisies on her breast and clover blossoms in her hands.”
— John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril

Everything is coming up daisies!

A daisy in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Daisy shadows on the sidewalk

Posterized photo of daisies