A Catskill Catalog: September 24, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, coming home from a visit with a friend in the Hudson Valley, I visited Slabsides. Slabsides was the Hudson Valley woodland retreat of naturalist and essayist John Burroughs, the Roxbury boy who left our mountains to seek his fortune in the middle of the 19th century and became an icon to millions of nature-observant spiritual seekers at the beginning of the 20th. His picture hangs on the wall behind me as I write this.
I hadn’t been to Slabsides in years, since the time years ago, when a teaching colleague and I invaded the semi-annual Slabsides Day celebration with an early shoulder-mounted VHS style video camera and microphone, intent on making “Slabsides, the Movie,” a projected teaching aid for school. Our bulky equipment and seemingly presumptuous manner turned us into a spectacle and led to an embarrassing moment or two – the country bumpkins among the urbane, knowing, and confident Burroughs in-crowd.
That’s a feeling John himself must have felt a few times when he left his native Catskills with his wife Ursula in the middle 1860s to seek employment in wartime Washington. He was a country kid, an aspiring writer who had published a couple of essays so close in style and subject to those of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he was once suspected of plagiarism. Having spent his entire life in the Catskills, John wanted to be a poet in the wider world. He had published one good poem, “Waiting,” which contains the line which, years later, became his epitaph: “I stand amid the eternal ways, / And what is mine shall know my face.”
Burroughs chose Washington not only because steady government employment was available there, but also because his literary hero, Walt Whitman, lived there. Burroughs had read Whitman’s revolutionary American poems Leaves of Grass, and wanted to meet the poet who seemed to speak so eloquently in the language of the common person. He did. They became fast friends, John and Walt, and it was Whitman who told Burroughs, “Publish your personality,” a bit of oblique wisdom that took the country boy a while to figure out. Write about what you know and love: in Burroughs’ case, the outdoors, the mountains, meadows, woods, and streams, birds and fishes that he knew so well. He went on to create and master the nature essay.
In 1874, John got himself transferred closer to home as a Treasury Department bank examiner for upstate New York. He and Ursula bought a fruit and berry farm on the Hudson River in West Park, Town of Esopus, Ulster County. They built a home there, which they called Riverby. The Burroughs had a difficult marriage, held together largely by their shared devotion to their son Julian, born in 1878.
It was that difficult marriage that led to Slabsides. Ursula and John had trouble occupying the same space. She was a meticulous housekeeper, a tough taskmaster, and did not support or understand John’s preoccupation with writing.
He tended to neglect household tasks, and seemed, somehow, less than properly presentable. Bad marriages often lead to unintended good results. Perhaps, we owe Ursula a debt of gratitude for driving her husband ever outward, toward nature, away from her. John kept building retreats further and further away from his wife.
First, he built “The Bark Study,” a small outbuilding near the family home where he would go to write. When Julian was 16, he and his father built Slabsides, a mile or so distant from the house, up-hill from the river, in a rock-ledged boggy ravine, next to a celery garden. Visiting Slabsides today, one is impressed by the sheer isolation of the one-and-a-half story rustic house, which appears suddenly to the eye as one approaches up a sloping path into a rocky crag of forest. The house gets its name from its siding; row upon row of tree-slabs give it an organic look.
Roxbury’s Wood-chuck Lodge may also owe its interesting history to the Burroughs’ difficult marriage. With Julian grown and off to college, John, perhaps, felt free to wander farther a-field in his search for pleasant surroundings away from his wife. Around the turn of the century, he obtained an old tenant house on the family farm in Roxbury, then owned and operated by his brother Curtis. John redid the house in his signature rustic style, renamed it Woodchuck Lodge, and used it from 1910 to 1920 as his regular summer home and sometime retreat.
Woodchuck Lodge has faced some tough times lately. The five-member board of trustees, led by its able President, Diane Galusha, strives mightily to maintain the building, but nature seems to get in the way. Last winter, a tree fell through the roof. Structural repairs are needed. Money is tight. (I should tell you: I, too, am a member of that board.) Necessary maintenance and repair projects go undone because they are unfunded. Donations to support Woodchuck Lodge, Inc. are gratefully received at Box 492, Roxbury, NY 12474. (Shameless, aren’t I?)
And Slabsides? That seems to be on firmer financial footing, from the looks of the building and the property the other day. Slabsides is worth a visit. Travel south on Route 9W from Kingston until you get to West Park. Follow the signs directing you to turn right just beyond the Holy Cross Monastery. Slabsides is open only twice a year: the first Saturday in May and the first Saturday in October.
Leave behind the VHS camera and the microphone.