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An essay by John Burroughs

Day By Day

Title:     Day By Day
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

We often hear it said of a man that he was born too early, or too late, but is it ever true? If he is behind his times, would he not have been behind at whatever period he had been born? If he is ahead of his times, is not the same thing true? In the vegetable world the early flowers and fruit blossoms are often cut off by the frost, but not so in the world of man. Babies are in order at any time. Is a poet, or a philosopher, ever born too late? or too early? If Emerson had been born a century earlier, his heterodoxy would have stood in his way; but in that case he would not have been a heretic. Whitman would have had to wait for a hearing at whatever period he was born. He said he was willing to wait for the growth of the taste for himself, and it finally came. Emerson's first thin volume called "Nature" did not sell the first edition of five hundred copies in ten years, but would it have been different at any other time? A piece of true literature is not superseded. The fame of man may rise and fall, but it lasts. Was Watt too early with his steam-engine, or Morse too early with his telegraph? Or Bell too early with his telephone? Or Edison with his phonograph or his incandescent light? Or the Wright brothers with their flying-machine? Or Henry Ford with his motor-car? Before gasolene was discovered they would have been too early, but then their inventions would not have materialized.

The world moves, and great men are the springs of progress. But no man is born too soon or too late.

* * * * *

A fadeless flower is no flower at all. How Nature ever came to produce one is a wonder. Would not paper flowers do as well?

* * * * *

The most memorable days in our lives are the days when we meet a great man.

* * * * *

How stealthy and silent a thing is that terrible power which we have under control in our homes, yet which shakes the heavens in thunder! It comes and goes as silently as a spirit. In fact, it is nearer a spirit than anything else known to us. We touch a button and here it is, like an errand-boy who appears with his cap in his hand and meekly asks, "What will you have?"

* * * * *

A few days ago I was writing of meteoric men. But are we not all like meteors that cut across the sky and are quickly swallowed up by the darkness--some of us leaving a trail that lasts a little longer than others, but all gone in a breath?

Our great pulpit orator Beecher, how little he left that cold print does not kill! As a young man I used nearly to run my legs off to get to Plymouth Church before the doors were closed. Under his trumpet-like voice I was like a reed bent by the wind, but now when in a book made up of quotations I see passages from his sermons, they seem thin and flimsy. Beecher's oratory was all for the ear and not for the eye and mind. In truth, is the world indebted to the pulpit for much good literature? Robertson's sermons can be read in the library, and there are others of the great English divines. But oratory is action and passion. "Great volumes of animal heat," Emerson names as one of the qualities of the orator.

The speeches of Wendell Phillips will bear print because his oratory was of the quiet, conversational kind. Webster's, of course, stand the test of print, but do Clay's or Calhoun's? In our time oratory, as such, has about gone out. Rarely now do we hear the eagle scream in Congress or on the platform. Men aim to speak earnestly and convincingly, but not oratorically. President Wilson is a very convincing speaker, but he indulges in no oratory. The one who makes a great effort to be eloquent always fails. Noise and fury and over-emphasis are not eloquent. "True eloquence," says Pascal, "scorns eloquence."

There is no moral law in nature, but there is that out of which the moral law arose. There is no answer to prayer in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, except in so far as the attitude of sincere prayer is a prophecy of the good it pleads for. Prayer for peace of mind, for charity, for gratitude, for light, for courage, is answered in the sincere asking. Prayer for material good is often prayer against wind and tide, but wind and tide obey those who can rule them.

Our ethical standards injected into world-history lead to confusion and contradiction. Introduced into the jungle, they would put an end to life there; introduced into the sea, they would put an end to life there; the rule that it is more blessed to give than to receive would put an end to all competitive business. Our ethical standards are narrow, artificial, and apply only to civilized communities. Nations have rarely observed them till the present day.

* * * * *

If the world is any better for my having lived in it, it is because I have pointed the way to a sane and happy life on terms within reach of all, in my love and joyous acceptance of the works of Nature about me. I have not tried, as the phrase is, to lead my readers from Nature up to Nature's God, because I cannot separate the one from the other. If your heart warms toward the visible creation, and toward your fellow men, you have the root of the matter in you. The power we call God does not sustain a mechanical or secondary relation to the universe, but is vital in it, or one with it. To give this power human lineaments and attributes, as our fathers did, only limits and belittles it. And to talk of leading from Nature up to Nature's God is to miss the God that throbs in every spear of grass and vibrates in the wing of every insect that hums. The Infinite is immanent in this universe.

* * * * *

"The faith that truth exists" is the way that William James begins one of his sentences. Of course truth exists where the mind of man exists. A new man and there is new truth. Truth, in this sense, is a way of looking at things that is agreeable, or that gives satisfaction to the human mind. Truth is not a definite fixed quantity, like the gold or silver of a country. It is no more a fixed quantity than is beauty. It is an experience of the human mind. Beauty and truth are what we make them. We say the world is full of beauty. What we mean is that the world is full of things that give us the pleasure, or awaken in us the sentiment which we call by that name.

The broadest truths are born of the broadest minds. Narrow minds are so named from their narrow views of things.

Pilate's question, "What is Truth?" sets the whole world by the ears. The question of right and wrong is another thing. Such questions refer to action and the conduct of our lives. In religion, in politics, in economics, in sociology, what is truth to one man may be error to another. We may adopt a course of action because it seems the more expedient. Debatable questions have two sides to them. In the moral realm that is true which is agreeable to the largest number of competent judges. A mind that could see further and deeper might reverse all our verdicts. To be right on any question in the moral realm is to be in accord with that which makes for the greatest good to the greatest number. In our Civil War the South believed itself right in seceding from the Union; the North, in fighting to preserve the Union. Both sections now see that the North had the larger right. The South was sectional, the North national. Each of the great political parties thinks it has a monopoly of the truth, but the truth usually lies midway between them. Questions of right and wrong do not necessarily mean questions of true and false. "There is nothing either good or bad," says Hamlet, "but thinking makes it so." This may be good Christian Science doctrine, but it is doubtful philosophy.

* * * * *

Yesterday, as I stood on the hill above Slabsides and looked over the landscape dotted with farms just greening in the April sun, the thought struck me afresh that all this soil, all the fertile fields, all these leagues on leagues of sloping valleys and rolling hills came from the decay of the rocks, and that the chief agent in bringing about this decay and degradation was the gentle rain from heaven--that without the rain through the past geologic ages, the scene I looked upon would have been only one wild welter of broken or crumpled rocky strata, not a green thing, not a living thing, should I have seen.

In the Hawaiian Islands one may have proof of this before his eyes. On one end of the island of Maui, the rainfall is very great, and its deep valleys and high sharp ridges are clothed with tropical verdure, while on the other end, barely ten miles away, rain never falls, and the barren, rocky desolation which the scene presents I can never forget. No rain, no soil; no soil, no life.

We are, therefore, children of the rocks; the rocks are our mother, and the rains our father.

* * * * *

When the stream of life, through some favoring condition, breaks through its natural checks and bounds, and inundates and destroys whole provinces of other forms, as when the locusts, the forest-worms, the boll-weevil, the currant-worm, the potato beetle, unduly multiply and devastate fields and forests and the farmer's crops, what do we witness but Nature's sheer excess and intemperance? Life as we usually see it is the result of a complex system of checks and counter-checks. The carnivorous animals are a check on the herbivorous; the hawks and owls are a check on the birds and fowls; the cats and weasels are a check on the small rodents, which are very prolific. The different species of plants and trees are a check upon one another.

* * * * *

I think the main reason of the abundance of wealth in the country is that every man, equipped as he is with so many modern scientific appliances and tools, is multiplied four or five times. He is equal to that number of men in his capacity to do things as compared with the men of fifty or seventy years ago. The farmer, with his mowing-machine, his horse-rake, his automobile, his tractor engine and gang ploughs or his sulky ploughs, his hay-loader, his corn-planter, and so on, does the work of many men. Machinery takes the place of men. Gasolene and kerosene oil give man a great advantage. Dynamite, too,--what a giant that is in his service! The higher cost of living does not offset this advantage.

The condition in Europe at this time is quite different: there the energies of men have been directed not to the accumulation of wealth, but to the destruction of wealth. Hence, while the war has enriched us, it has impoverished Europe.

* * * * *

Why are women given so much more to ornaments and superfluities in dress and finery than men? In the animal kingdom below man, save in a few instances, it is the male that wears the showy decorations. The male birds have the bright plumes; the male sheep have the big horns; the stag has the antlers; the male lion has the heavy mane; the male firefly has wings and carries the lamp. With the barnyard fowl the male has the long spurs and the showy comb and wattles. In the crow tribe, the male cannot be distinguished from the female, nor among the fly-catchers, nor among the snipes and plovers. But when we come to the human species, and especially among the white races, the female fairly runs riot in ornamentation. If it is not to attract the male, what is it for? It has been pretty clearly shown that what Darwin calls "sexual selection" plays no part. Woman wishes to excite the passion of love. She has an instinct for motherhood; the perpetuity of the species is at the bottom of it all. Woman knows how to make her dress alluring, how to make it provocative, how much to reveal, how much to conceal. A certain voluptuousness is the ambition of all women; anything but to be skinny and raw-boned. She does not want to be muscular and flat-chested, nor, on the other hand, to be over-stout, but she prays for the flowing lines and the plumpness that belong to youth. A lean man does not repel her, nor a rugged, bony frame. Woman's garments are of a different texture and on a different scale than those of man, and much more hampering. Her ruffles and ribbons and laces all play their part. Her stockings even are a vital problem, more important than her religion. We do not care where she worships if her dress is attractive. Emerson reports that a lady said to him that a sense of being well-dressed at church gave a satisfaction which religion could not give.

With man the male defends and safeguards the female. True that among savage tribes he makes a slave of her, but in the white races he will defend her with his life. She does not take up arms, she does not go to sea. She does not work in mines, or as a rule engage in the rough work of the world. In Europe she works in the field, and we have had farmerettes in this country, but I know of no feminine engineers or carpenters or stone masons. There have been a few women explorers and Alpine climbers, and investigators in science, but only a few. The discovery of radium is chiefly accredited to a woman, and women have a few valuable inventions to their credit. I saw a valuable and ingenious machine, in a great automobile factory, that was invented by a woman. Now that woman has won the franchise in this country, we are waiting to see if politics will be purified.

The "weaker sex," surely. How much easier do women cry than men! how much more easily are they scared! And yet, how much more pain they can endure! And how much more devoted are they to their children!

* * * * *

Why does any extended view from a mountain-top over a broad landscape, no matter what the features of that landscape, awaken in us the emotion of the beautiful? Is it because the eye loves a long range, a broad sweep? Or do we have a sense of victory? The book of the landscape is now open before us, and we can read it page after page. All these weary miles where we tramped, and where the distance, as it were, was in ambush, we now command at a glance. Big views expand the mind as deep inhalations of air expand the lungs.

Yesterday I stood on the top of Grossmont,[5] probably a thousand feet above the landscape, and looked out over a wide expanse of what seemed to be parched, barren country; a few artificial lakes or ponds of impounded rains, but not a green thing in sight, and yet I was filled with pleasurable emotion. I lingered and lingered and gazed and gazed. The eye is freed at such times, like a caged bird, and darts far and near without hindrance.

[Footnote 5: In San Diego County, California.]

* * * * *

"The wings of time are black and white,
Pied with morning and with night."

Thus do we objectify that which has no objective existence, but is purely a subjective experience. Do we objectify light and sound in the same way? No. One can conceive of the vibrations in the ether that give us the sensation of light, and in the air that give us sound. These vibrations do not depend upon our organs. Time and tide, we say, wait for no man. Certainly the tide does not, as it has a real objective existence. But time does not wait or hurry. It neither lags nor hastens. Yesterday does not exist, nor to-morrow, nor the Now, for that matter. Before we can say the moment has come, it is gone. The only change there is is in our states of consciousness. How the hours lag when we are waiting for a train, and how they hurry when we are happily employed! Can we draw a line between the past and the present? Can you find a point in the current of the stream that is stationary? We speak of being lavish of time and of husbanding time, of improving time, and so on. We divide it into seconds and minutes, hours and days, weeks, and months, and years. Civilized man is compelled to do this; he lives and works by schedule, but it is his states of consciousness that he divides and measures. "Time is but a stream I go fishing in," says Thoreau. The stream goes by, but the fish stay. The river of Time, the tooth of Time--happy comparisons.

"I wasted time and now time wastes me," says Shakespeare. "I have no time." "You have all there is," replied the old Indian.

If time, like money, could be hoarded up, we could get all our work done. Is there any time outside of man? The animals take no note of time.

* * * * *

That is a good saying of Juvenal's, "He who owns the soil, owns up to the sky." So is this of Virgil's, "Command large fields, but cultivate small ones."

* * * * *

Can there be any theory or doctrine not connected with our practical lives so absurd that it will not be accepted as true by many people? How firmly was a belief in witchcraft held by whole populations for a generation! My grandfather believed in it, and in spooks and hobgoblins.

The belief in alchemy still prevails--that the baser metals, by the aid of the philosopher's stone, can be transmuted into gold and silver. Quite recently there was a school in a large town in California for teaching alchemy. As it was a failure, its professor was involved in litigation with his pupils. I believe the pupils were chiefly women.

There is a sect in Florida that believe that we live on the inside of a hollow sphere, instead of on the outside of a revolving globe. I visited the community with Edison, near Fort Myers, several years ago. Some of the women were fine-looking. One old lady looked like Martha Washington, but the men all looked "as if they had a screw loose somewhere." They believe that the sun and moon and all the starry hosts of heaven revolve on the inside of this hollow sphere. All our astronomy goes by the board. They look upon it as puerile and contemptible. The founder of the sect had said he would rise from the dead to confirm its truth. His disciples kept his body till the Board of Health obliged them to bury it.

If any one were seriously to urge that we really walk on our heads instead of our heels, and cite our baldness as proof, there are persons who would believe him. It has been urged that flight to the moon in an aeroplane is possible--the want of air is no hindrance! The belief in perpetual motion is not yet dead. Many believe that snakes charm birds. But it has been found that a stuffed snake-skin will "charm" birds also--the bird is hypnotized by its own fear.

* * * * *

What has become of the hermits?--men and women who preferred to live alone, holding little or no intercourse with their fellows? In my youth I knew of several such. There was old Ike Keator, who lived in a little unpainted house beside the road near the top of the mountain where we passed over into Batavia Kill. He lived there many years. He had a rich brother, a farmer in the valley below. Then there was Eri Gray, who lived to be over one hundred years. He occupied a little house on the side of a mountain, and lived, it was said, like the pigs in the pen. Then there was Aunt Deborah Bouton, who lived in a little house by a lonely road and took care of her little farm and her four or five cows, winter and summer. Since I have lived here on the Hudson there was a man who lived alone in an old stone house amid great filth on the top of the hill above Esopus village.

In my own line of descent there was a Kelley who lived alone in a hut in the woods, not far from Albany. I myself must have a certain amount of solitude, but I love to hear the hum of life all about me. I like to be secluded in a building warmed by the presence of other persons.

* * * * *

When I was a boy on the old farm, the bright, warm, midsummer days were canopied with the mellow hum of insects. You did not see them or distinguish any one species, but the whole upper air resounded like a great harp. It was a very marked feature of midday. But not for fifty years have I heard that sound. I have pressed younger and sharper ears into my service, but to no purpose: there are certainly fewer bumblebees than of old, but not fewer flies or wasps or hornets or honey bees. What has wrought the change I do not know.

* * * * *

If the movements going on around us in inert matter could be magnified so as to come within range of our unaided vision, how agitated the world would seem! The so-called motionless bodies are all vibrating and shifting their places day and night at all seasons. The rocks are sliding down the hills or creeping out of their beds, the stone walls are reeling and toppling, the houses are settling or leaning. All inert material raised by the hand of man above the earth's surface is slowly being pulled down to a uniform level. The crust of the earth is rising or subsiding. The very stars in the constellations are shifting their places.

If we could see the molecular and chemical changes and transformations that are going on around us, another world of instability would be revealed to us. Here we should see real miracles. We should see the odorless gases unite to form water. We should see the building of crystals, catalysis, and the movements of unstable compounds.

* * * * *

Think of what Nature does with varying degrees of temperature--solids, fluids, gases. From the bottom to the top of the universe means simply more or less heat. It seems like a misuse of words to say that iron freezes at a high temperature, that a bar of red-hot or white-hot iron is frozen. Water freezes at a high temperature, the air freezes at a vastly lower. Carbon dioxide becomes a solid at a very low temperature. Hydrogen becomes a liquid at 252 deg. below zero centigrade, and a solid at 264 deg.. The gas fluorine becomes a liquid at 210 deg. below zero centigrade.

In a world of absolute zero everything would be as solid as the rocks, all life, all chemical reactions would cease. All forms of water are the result of more or less heat. The circuit of the waters from the earth to the clouds and back again, which keeps all the machinery of life a-going, is the work of varying degrees of temperature. The Gulf Stream, which plays such a part in the climate of Europe, is the result of the heat in the Gulf of Mexico. The glacial periods which have so modified the surface of the earth in the past were the result of temperature changes.

* * * * *

How habitually we speak of beauty as a positive thing, just as we do of truth! whereas what we call beauty is only an emotional experience of our own minds, just as light and heat are sensations of our bodies. There is no light where there is no eye, and no sound where there is no ear. One is a vibration in the ether, and the other a vibration in the air. The vibrations are positive. We do not all see beauty in the same things. One man is unmoved where another is thrilled. We say the world is full of beauty, when we mean that it is full of objects that excite this emotion in our minds.

We speak of truth as if it, too, were a positive thing, and as if there were a fixed quantity of it in the world, as there is of gold or silver, or diamonds. Truth, again, is an intellectual emotion of the human mind. One man's truth is another man's falsehood--moral and aesthetic truth, I mean. Objective truth (mathematics and science) must be the same to all men.

A certain mode of motion in the molecules of matter gives us the sensation of heat, but heat is not a thing, an entity in itself, any more than cold is. Yet to our senses one seems just as positive as the other.

New truth means a new man. There are as many kinds of truth as there are human experiences and temperaments.

* * * * *

How adaptive is animal life! It adds a new touch of interest to the forbidding cactus to know that the cactus wren builds her nest between its leaves. The spines probably serve to protect the bird from her enemies. But are they not also a menace to her and to her young? But this "procreant cradle" of a bird in the arms of the fanged desert growth softens its aspect a little.

* * * * *

The tree of forbidden fruit--the Tree of Knowledge--how copiously has mankind eaten of it during these latter generations!--and the chaotic state of the world to-day is the result. We have been forcing Nature's hand on a tremendous scale. We have gained more knowledge and power than we can legitimately use. We are drunk with the sense of power. We challenge the very gods. The rapid increase of inventions and the harnessing of the powers of Nature have set all nations to manufacturing vastly more goods than they can use and they all become competitors for world markets, and rivalries and jealousies spring up, and the seeds of war are planted. The rapid growth of towns and cities is one of the results. The sobering and humanizing influence of the country and the farm are less and less in evidence; the excitement, the excesses, the intoxication of the cities are more and more. The follies and extravagances of wealth lead to the insolence and rebellion of the poor. Material power! Drunk with this power, the world is running amuck to-day. We have got rid of kings and despots and autocratic governments; now if we could only keep sober and make democracy safe and enjoyable! Too much science has brought us to grief. Behold what Chemistry has done to put imperial power in our hands during the last decade!

* * * * *

The grand movements of history and of mankind are like the movements of nature, under the same law, elemental, regardless of waste and ruin and delays--not the result of human will or design, but of forces we wot not of. They are of the same order as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, a release of human forces that have slumbered. The chaos of Europe to-day shows the play of such elemental forces, unorganized, at cross-purposes, antagonistic, fighting it out in the attempt to find an equilibrium. The pain, the suffering, the waste, the delays, do not trouble the gods at all. Since man is a part of nature, why should not masses of men be ruled by natural law? The human will reaches but a little way.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Day By Day