Esteemed thinker: John Burroughs

robin close up For those who live in a hemisphere that awards the four seasons, it is winter that challenges us to be creative in ways that the other seasons do not. And though we often find ourselves cursing the cold temperatures, there are some who are most fortunate enough to be able to turn discomfort into pleasure… There are some lucky folks that can defrost frosty sentiments by a warm fireplace. In these homes cold hands are reminders to make a mug of hot chocolate, while icy feet walk themselves into a pair of woolly slippers.

And though many would prefer to remain indoors so as not to be bitten by its harsh winds; if you take a look from your window, winter has invited into its world some very enchanting visitors, birds. Look closely among the leafless branches, under the holly bushes, or flitting to and fro, and you may find quite a variety of winged guests, which makes you wonder how it is that they are not cold.

Against the whiteness of snow one notices the scarlet head crest of the cardinal, the black caps and bibs of the chickadees, the iridescent green and purple flossed head of the starlings, and hidden in the house eves are the rust colored sparrows. The birds of winter are like pieces of a rainbow that have broken off and flutter from snow crest to crest; they delight our world from our safe warm place in the winter.

John BurroughsToday’s post introduces the literary naturalist of the ninetieth century,
the esteemed thinker: John Burroughs (1837-1921). Born in Roxbury, N.Y., he is credited as an essayist, environmentalist, and the man who revolutionized the “conservation movement” in the United States. Burroughs quest to become a writer turned favorable when he befriended the poet Walt Whitman, who encouraged him to continue the path he loved. His writings and studies regarding nature later granted him the title of, “The Grand Old Man of Nature.” Best known for his observations of birds, flowers, and rural America, it is his quote that exemplifies his true feelings; “I seldom go into a natural history museum without feeling as if I were attending a funeral.”

From his book titled, Birds, and Bees Sharp Eyes and Other Papers, I have prepared a brief reading. Find a quiet moment to take in the sights revealed by our essayist and champion of nature, Mr. Burroughs….

“…These sparrows are becoming about the most noticeable of my winter neighbors, and a troop of them every morning watch me put out the hens’ feed, and soon claim their share. I rather encouraged them in their neighborliness, till one day I discovered the snow under a favorite plum-tree where they most frequently perched covered with the scales of the fruit-buds. On investigating I found that the tree had been nearly stripped of its buds—a very unneighborly act on the part of the sparrows, considering, too, all the cracked corn I had scattered for them …

… The bird that seems to consider he has the best right to the bone both upon the tree and upon the sill is the downy woodpecker, my favorite neighbor among the winter birds His retreat is but a few paces from my own, in the decayed limb of an apple-tree which he excavated several autumns ago. I say “he” because the red plume on the top of his head proclaims the sex. It seems not to be generally known to our writers upon ornithology that certain of our woodpeckers—probably all the winter residents—each fall excavate a limb or the trunk of a tree in which to pass the winter, and that the cavity is abandoned in the spring, probably for a new one in which nidification takes place. So far as I have observed, these cavities are drilled out only by the males. Where the females take up their quarters I am not so well informed, though I suspect that they use the abandoned holes of the males of the previous year…”

Esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson

penguin They say that white is a color without hues; a pigment that ignores any gradual progression of tints or tones by which allowing us to proclaim that white is perhaps the purist of all the colors. Yet there is a paradox to our declaration; for if this wily pigment lacks the natural property attached to what we know as an essential facet of “color”… the saturation and mixture of pigments together … (a very elementary skill we all learned when we were just finger painting; red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and so forth)…we must ask ourselves… what then is “white”?

Can we say that white is indeed a color or is it the anti-color, the spoiler of the color wheel, the rainbow, and the kaleidoscope? We know it is present in a prism but it never really reveals itself…rather it magically performs as an invisible light that we need but don’t see. Much like infinity; which brings the mind reeling with the concept that a number line can go on infinitely; the same notion that accosts one’s thoughts that space has no end… so does the brain have to come to terms that white is not a color as we know it, but actually a perceived lack there-of; a notion that introduces a most unsettling prospect.

Yet, it is possible that this ‘unsettling’ feeling corresponds with the vast and sheer emptiness one experiences when confronted with a world that is singularly devoid of color…when everything is pure white…when you lose your sense of location for there is not a single landmark to set perspective… the land of ice and snow.And we must wonder if this sensation happens to a polar bear or a penguin…creatures that spend their lives in and out of the icy waters and then on the frozen land that is unforgiving…a most uninhabitable part of earth for many, yet although it does not seem to unfurl the welcome mat, for even the plants that we are accustomed to made a decision eons ago not to adapt, there are some brave souls who find such exotic places adventurous, exciting, even though they are vacant of all accommodations… Even though night chooses not to fall upon its frigid days…and it is always the color of the albatross…the color of pearls… the color of truth….the color…or shall we say the purist of colors… white.

Matthew_Henson_1910 Today’s blog was inspired by the esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955). Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of two freeborn black sharecroppers. Though both his parents died when he was very young, at the age of 12 he left home and became a cabin boy. Under the tutelage of Captain Childs he learned to read maps and books, the operation of ships, and navigational skills; by twenty- one he was an expert seaman. He later met the Admiral Robert Edwin Peary and was hired as his valet. Yet as time went on he proved himself to be an invaluable asset. Becoming one of the world’s greatest explorers, he accompanied Peary on numerous Arctic expeditions. Though it took years to receive his just place in history, he is best remembered today as having discovered the North Pole with Peary in 1909.

I now give you a parcel of thoughts from our great American explorer and hero, Mr. Henson. From his remarkable auto-biography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), take a moment… for his words will surely last you a life-time….

“… Naturally there were frequent storms and intense cold, and in regard to the storms of the Arctic regions of North Greenland and Grant Land, the only word I can use to describe them is “terrible,” in the fullest meaning it conveys. The effect of such storms of wind and snow, or rain, is abject physical terror, due to the realization of perfect helplessness. I have seen rocks a hundred and a hundred and fifty pounds in weight picked up by the storm and blown for distances of ninety or a hundred feet to the edge of a precipice, and there of their own momentum go hurtling through space to fall in crashing fragments at the base. Imagine the effect of such a rainfall of death-dealing bowlders on the feelings of a little group of three or four, who have sought the base of the cliff for shelter. I have been there and I have seen one of my Esquimo companions felled by a blow from a rock eighty-four pounds in weight, which struck him fairly between the shoulder-blades, literally knocking the life out of him. I have been there, and believe me, I have been afraid. A hundred-pound box of supplies, taking an aërial joy ride, during the progress of a storm down at Anniversary Lodge in 1894, struck Commander Peary a glancing blow which put him out of commission for over a week. These mighty winds make it possible for the herbivorous animals of this region to exist. They sweep the snow from vast stretches of land, exposing the hay and dried dwarf-willows, that the hare, musk-oxen, and reindeer feed on…”