Thursday, February 18, 2010

Burgess is hired to write about nature

In 1902, Burgess was offered a job writing a monthly calendar feature for Country Life in America. (According to his autobiography, a friend in New York hooked him up with the position.) Country Life was an over-sized photography oriented monthly that published articles by the likes of John Burroughs, Anna Botsford Comstock, and Rudyard Kipling. It was a prestigious, high-visibility job for Burgess. He wrote under the name W.B. Thornton, concerned that Phelps would enforce an exclusivity clause in his contract.

Burgess would write 11 installments, running from March 1902 to January 1903. Each entry is encyclopedic, listing in great detail the gardening and agricultural work that needed to be done that month, the typical recreational activities, and nature study opportunities. (December 1903 is an exception, his calendar article broken up into several essays.) I've scanned the entry from April just to give you a taste of the extensiveness of this undertaking. (You can click on it if you want to attempt to read it but note that some of the copy is truncated).

Burgess writes that the botanical and horticultural information was fact-checked by Liberty Bailey and Frank M. Chapman supervised the "bird work." (These were intimidating figures for Burgess but also fantastic contacts to have made). The rigorously factual work would be valuable experience for Burgess's later career as a nature question-and-answer man.

At the same, the calendar pages allowed some latitude for the nature writing (in the mode of "reverie") that Burgess had been doing for Recreation and New England Homestead.

Here's a sample, from the very first paragraph
April! Month of showers, of sudden bursts of golden sunshine, of swelling buds, of the sound of many running waters, of the joyous carolings of the birds returning to their own, of the shrill peeping of frogs! Winter throws a snowball and summer throws a kiss. We go about drawing deep invigorating breaths. Dwelling in cities we develop an unexpected, sudden and altogether inexplicable interest in the house-keeping perplexities of that insufferable little mischief-maker and interloper, the English sparrow. With heads thrown back, we go about watching for a glimpse of a cloud-ship crossing the narrow little strip of blue which is still left to us. And altogether without volition of our own we find our thoughts turning to the country. Vainly we sniff for just a suggestion of newly turned furrows, of things smelling of the earth earthy. Dwelling in the country--ah, you who have never seen Mistress April trip in through the door of spring over the hillsides and the meadows, through the bard woodlands and across the brown fields, betake you to the country when the robin and the bluebird call, and the matins of the meadow-lark and the vespers of the song sparrow make sweet melodies where erstwhile lay the drifted snow!
Some familiar TWB concerns (house sparrows, thoughts turning to the country--he would incorporate his moose photo and marsh hunting experiences in later installments). Note the perspective of the writing: despite the autobiographical notes, Burgess is narrating the experiences of a whole community.

Tomorrow: Burgess's bird work

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