John Burroughs (1837-1921) might be every nature lover's dream companion, whether hiking, fishing, birding, or just sitting still and paying attention to what is right in front of you. As one of the three preeminent nature writers of the 19th century -- the other two: Henry David Thoreau and John Muir -- Burroughs played a critical role in priming the increasingly urbanized American public of the 19th century for a “return to nature” and for a greater sensitivity to environmental concerns. But there’s another side of Burroughs that few people are aware of: his life-long spiritual relationship with nature -- what he called his “natural religion” -- which he balanced with a hard-nosed scientific realism that required “straight seeing.” Or as he put it: “Butterflies are beautiful, but they are really only food for blackbirds.”
His nature gospel, in contra-distinction to the Old School Baptist faith of his childhood, is the focus of Church of the Robin’s Ha-Ha!, presented through a mix of poetic narrative and excerpts from Burroughs’ essays and journals: observations, arguments, and lyrical, sometimes almost mystical flights that arise out of his experiences in the natural world. In the latter part of his long writing career, Burroughs explored the burning religious and scientific issues much in the public’s mind after Darwin’s bombshell publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. He had as many questions as answers, but that likely suited him just fine. What would you expect from a man who practiced “an open-air faith.” No dogmas, no creeds -- just wonder.