The Nature Fakers


(This 772nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 15, 2006.)


Although university courses have made Henry David Thoreau the most admired of the early nature writers, John Burroughs was far more popular a century ago. He wrote enough essays to fill 23 volumes whose sales reached a million and a half, an amazing number for his time.


The elder John Burroughs with children near his home, Slabsides, in the Hudson River Valley


Best known among those volumes is Wake Robin, published in 1871. One of my favorite Burroughs passages is from the essay, "The Invitation" in that book: "Take the first step in ornithology...and you are ticketed for the whole voyage. There is a fascination about it quite overpowering. It fits so well with other things -- with fishing, hunting, farming, walking, camping-out -- with all that takes one to the fields and woods. One may go a-blackberrying and make some rare discovery; or, while driving his cow to pasture, hear a new song, or make a new observation. Secrets lurk on all sides. There is news in every bush. Expectation is ever on tiptoe. What no man ever saw before may the next moment be revealed to you. What a new interest the woods have! How you long to explore every nook and corner of them! You would even find consolation in being lost in them. You could then hear the night birds and the owls, and, in your wanderings, might stumble upon some unknown specimen."


Burroughs wrote beautifully about the world around him and created great national interest in nature, but he was careful to record accurately what he found in that world. It upset him to read wild exaggerations printed as true stories and he wrote to major journals to complain about these things.


Two authors in particular bothered him. One was a favorite of mine, Ernest Thompson Seton, whose story of an Odyssean fox escaping hunters by riding on the back of a sheep Burroughs rightly criticized. But his main target was William Long. And his attack on Long led to a heated debate, which President Teddy Roosevelt joined on Burroughs' side.


Long was an interesting character, a Harvard-educated, ordained and charismatic New England minister who spent much time in the woods. He wrote extremely well about nature and his essays regularly found their way into widely distributed school texts.


But unfortunately some of his offerings were far-fetched.


As Ralph Lutts wrote in his book about this controversy, The Nature Fakers, "Long wrote of kingfishers and fishhawks that caught fish and released them, injured but not dead, into little pools where their young could practice fishing under the careful instruction of the adults. He also had a story about a porcupine rolling downhill purely for fun."


Long also told about an eagle "gently dying on the wing high in the air and gliding gracefully to the ground - an amazing aerodynamical feat" and a fox that "coaxed chickens out of a tree by running around and around the tree in circles until the chickens became dizzy and fell."


Two stories bothered Burroughs still more. One had a pair of orioles nest building with hanging strings in which they tied perfect knots with their bills. The other was about an orthopedic woodcock that created a mud cast to allow its broken leg to heal.


Long fought back, condemning Burroughs for discourtesy and Roosevelt for hunting while maintaining that he had personally observed all of the episodes about which he wrote. People took sides and the furor continued in the magazines of the time for years.


Today almost all naturalists would agree that Burroughs and Roosevelt won out. There is usually now a clear separation between fictional and factual accounts about nature. No one would confuse Woody Woodpecker, Wiley Coyote and Bambi with the woodpeckers, coyotes and deer of our countryside, nor would they confound the animal characters who appear in the tales of Aesop, Uncle Remus and La Fontaine with real wildlife.


But animals do amazing things. Who would expect, for example, that birds would return after long migrations to the same yard or that monarch butterflies would flutter all the way to Mexico to spend the winter. So truth about nature remains a subtle and slippery concept, occasionally still abused by story-tellers, some of whom catch extraordinarily big fish.-- Gerry Rising