John Burroughs was born and raised on a dairy farm in New York's Catskill Mountain region. After his father turned down his son's request for funds for higher education in 1854, Burroughs left home to become a teacher in the town of Olive, New York, where he also took courses at Cooperstown Seminary. It was there that Burroughs first read the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Words-worth, who profoundly inspired his own later writing.
In 1857, Burroughs took a teaching position in Illinois, but was soon drawn back to New York, longing for the woman who would become his wife, Ursula North (1836-1917). While continuing to teach, Burroughs began submitting essays for publication, landing his first essay in Atlantic Monthly in 1860. He stopped teaching in 1863, and began work as a clerk and bank examiner, where he would remain through the 1880s while continuing to write and publish.
During the Civil War, Burroughs met poet Walt Whitman, and the two became fast friends. Burroughs admired Whitman's work, and wrote a critical biography, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867) which Whitman himself edited. Burroughs published another tome on Whitman, in 1896, that is credited for helping to establish the poet's literary merit. Whitman, on his part, encouraged Burroughs’ writing efforts, and the latter soon found his essays published, under pseudonyms “Philomel” and “All Souls,” in several periodicals.
It was not until his first collection of nature essays appeared, however, that Burroughs found his niche as a writer. Wake-Robin (1871) revealed Burroughs’ astute observations of nature, rooted in a deep yet far-reaching sense of place, with essays focusing on hiking the Catskill Mountains, rafting the Delaware River, and fly fishing in New York's waters.
As a literary critic, Burroughs also wrote about Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with the latter of whom he was often compared. Burroughs resented such comparisons, however, for he sought to eschew the moralistic strain so central to (and prized in) Thoreau's style. The “Thoreau charge” haunted Burroughs throughout his career; he insisted he described nature only, and did not use it for teaching morality. He rejected the “Book of Nature” metaphor that many American writers used to assert that studying the natural world brought one closer to knowing God; instead claiming that his nature writing reflected only a greater feeling of spirituality, rather than any substantive, let alone systemic, religiosity.
In 1874, Burroughs moved onto a nine-acre farm called Riverby in what is now Esopus, NY. (He would purchase additional land, and built a home known as Slabsides, in 1895.) Here he learned that his unadorned nature writing was also a valuable educational tool, and published essays specifically for school readers. Two collections intended for younger audiences, Birds and Bees (1887) and Sharp Eyes (1888), sold over 200,000 copies. Burroughs also personally tutored young people in ways to look at nature, and hosted students from nearby Vassar College at Slabsides.
Though Burroughs was not involved in direct political action, as the Conservation Movement accelerated, he became known as the “Grand Old Man of Nature”; and what might be termed the pragmatic reverence so prominent in his writings influenced many of the movement's leaders. He published several essays in Century, one of the leading conservation periodicals of the day, and as a respected literary naturalist, Burroughs was invited to accompany an exploratory expedition to Alaska in 1899. Though the Harriman Expedition was composed primarily of scientists, two other writers, John Muir and the poet Charles Keeler, as well as editor George Bird Grinnell, were also included.
In April 1903, Burroughs accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt on a trip through Yellow-stone National Park. They were both astute observers, and Burroughs tolerated Roosevelt's penchant for hunting because the latter also found joy in spotting birds of new species and had an understanding of nature akin to his own. Roosevelt and Burroughs found their strongest sympathy in their distaste for writers who imbued nature with anthropomorphic qualities. Burroughs, at Roosevelt's urging, published an article in Atlantic Monthly, “Real and Sham Natural History,” in which he assaulted the works of Ernest Thompson Seton and William J. Long, arguing that their brand of “naturalistic” animal stories were deleterious to people's understanding of nature and, by extension, nature itself.
The “nature faker” debate, as it became known, forced Burroughs to re-examine his own portrayals of wildlife, and his later work reflects both a cautious and empirical attitude toward animal psychology, and a prudent reluctance to project human emotions upon the animal world. He teased out his thoughts on animal experiences in the essay, “Human Traits in the Animals” and “The Reasonable but Unreasoning Animals” in Leaf and Tendril (1908)
In 1909, John Muir took Burroughs to see the North Sigillaria Petrified Forest in Arizona, and the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley. From California, Burroughs sailed to Hawaii. Muir encouraged Burroughs to think about geology and the expansive sublimity of nature. Burroughs read Darwin as well, and his reflections on these journeys reveal the same kind of “scientific imagination” that would later become such a dominant trait of environmental writing in America. In Burrough's case this imagination had a peculiarly apophatic character, finding spiritual inspiration precisely in the human inability to comprehend geologic time and evolutionary processes. Echoing the ancient philosopher and mystic, Heraclitus, Burroughs wrote, in Accepting the Universe (1920), that “all is fixed, yet all is in motion,” concluding that humans cannot “penetrate the final mystery of things, because behind every mystery is another mystery.”
In 1901, Burroughs had met a young psychiatrist, Clara Barrus (1864-1931), who admired his work and became a close companion. When his wife, Ursula, died in 1917, Barrus moved in with Burroughs. Shortly after the removal of an abscess from his chest, Burroughs himself died on a train passing through Ohio in 1921.
Almost immediately upon his death, admirers formed the John Burroughs Association. After his death, Barrus published Burroughs’ unpublished work and letters, and wrote her own biography of her companion. Altogether, Burroughs published 29 books, 23 of which were essay collections published together as the Riverby Editions. His work has been immensely influential in the field of nature writing, through its celebration — and demonstration — of the critical role of empirical observation, its rugged yet reverential poetry, and its pervasive but non-sectarian spirituality. Deeply rooted in place, Burroughs brought the nature of the Hudson Valley to life during an era increasingly focused on spectacular and monumental landscapes. Biographer James Perrin Warren also sees Burroughs as an ecocritic, citing his skilful interweaving of the human and nonhuman. Burroughs himself sums up his role as a literary naturalist in an era when scientific fields were becoming more specialized: “I know our birds well, but not as the professional ornithologist know them. I know them through my heart more than through my head” (Life and Letters 1:16).