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john burroughs

Seeing and Believing

Smarter than a 6th grader? I don’t think so. Yesterday, I witnessed my son reading a selection from John Burroughs’ The Art of Seeing Things, the 19th century American naturalist who helped popularize the U.S. conservation movement. And, I was caught off guard by the clarity and beauty of this author’s writing. But, just as importantly, Burroughs confronts his reader with a potent distinction between science as an academic subject and scientific observation as “the art of seeing things.” Take a look: 

The science of anything must be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration. The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules and precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are the organs. I have as little hope of being able to tell my reader how to see things as I would to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. 

The art of seeing, as Burroughs describes it, invites our senses to be “keenly alive” by uniting them with intelligence and imagination. With this definition, there is a “habit and disposition” that focuses on the minute details, while imaginatively storing in mind the distinct features of a given plant, animal, or formationboth for present pleasure and future reflection. Or, as Burroughs put it: 

So far as seeing things is an art, it is the art of keeping your eyes and ears open. The art of nature is all in the direction of concealment…Power of attention and a mind sensitive to outward objects, in these lies the secret of seeing things. 

Burroughs’ prolific pen produced volumes of keen observations of the natural world with a prose style that is both careful and precise, while being truly eloquent. (His writing was so good that editor James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Monthly thought that Burroughs first submission was plagiarized from Emerson!)  

Eventually, Burroughs would become an American celebrity, befriending a group of leading lights that included Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

 

His legacy is that of naturalist and amateur philosopher. At the very least, he should be read by all those hoping to have eyes for the Book of Nature. 

 

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