I’ve visited Arrowhead in the Berkshires, the yellow house where young Herman Melville set himself up as a country squire to finish Moby Dick, perhaps inspired by the whale-humped profile of Mt. Graylock outside his window. I’ve also been to Robert Frost’s Stone House near Bennington where he composed “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” one hot June morning after pulling an all-nighter on a long poem about New Hampshire. Both sparked my curiosity about their lives. But neither compares to Slabsides, John Burroughs’s rustic cabin hidden off in the woods several miles from the Hudson River. Unlike Arrowhead and the Stone House, which have the august importance of history but lack the daily mess of life, Slabsides looks like the old man, famously photographed with his Nineteenth Century beard worthy of Santa Claus, just stepped out back to water the bushes, so to speak, and will return any minute. A straw hat still hangs on a nail. Literary journals lay shelved beside the window. The tree bark on the wall columns and table legs has yet to peel, giving the room its folk art appeal. One of my fantasies is to someday lie down on the wide rope bed covered by a blue and white quilt. What is a writer’s cabin without a good afternoon nap? Built in 1896 Slabsides was John Burroughs’s escape from his stone mansion overlooking the Hudson, and from his celebrity as one of America’s most beloved authors. For reasons I don’t fully understand, he’s now largely forgotten, but twice a year the John Burroughs Association opens Slabsides to the public. I have fun each time I go.
“Friends have often asked me why I turned my back upon the Hudson and retreated into the wilderness. Well, I do not call it a retreat; I call it a withdrawal, a retirement, the taking up of a new position to renew the attack, it may be, more vigorously than ever,” Burroughs wrote in 1899, sounding like Henry David Thoreau crossed with Norman Mailer. He continued, “I had been so long perched high upon the banks of a great river, in sight of all the world, exposed to every wind that blows, with a horizon-line that sweeps over half a county, that, quite unconsciously to myself, I was pining for a nook to sit down in.” As luck would have it, his son, out partridge hunting one day, came upon twenty acres of an old swampy farmstead up among craggy rocks, which Burroughs bought for its “secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land shut off from the vain and noisy world of railroads, steamboats, and yachts by a wooded, precipitous mountain.” He added, “Life has a different flavor here. It is reduced to simpler terms; its complex equations all disappear.”
For several years, a group of us gathered on the Slabsides porch once a month to picnic, gossip, and write poetry. Jo Pitkin compared our efforts to plein air painting for which artists erect their easels right out in the fields. To be honest, our visits did more to refresh my interest in Burroughs than to inspire new poems. I’m too accustomed to composing on the computer. But others wrote and wrote. Here’s one of my favorites from a chapbook of our work, Universe at Your Door: The Slabsides Poets, edited by Alison Koffler and published by Dayl Wise of Post Traumatic Press. It’s by Annajon Russ, the pen name for Anne Richey, who has written a series of these Li Po poems.
An Afternoon at Slabsides,
West of the Hudson
From the rough porch of the master’s hut,
the laughter of disciples rings through the trees.
Leaning on an out-of-the-way boulder,
I, Li Po, am sober for once. I listen and continue
to scribble. It sounds like a lively party, I almost
abandon my pen. Then their laughter stops.
They too have found their way to secluded nooks
where they can write. Now only the trill of birds:
John Burroughs, the old beard himself, distilled.
Everyone silent, imbibing.
Li Po (701—762 C.E.), the beloved Chinese poet, had a fondness for wine. “Wine’s view,” he said, “is lived…”